Past Delusional

I am currently preparing my talk for the annual Lignacite Lecture which I will be giving next month entitled ‘Building on Evolution’. I have taken as my theme the tacit knowledge of historic builders and what we could learn from them. However this has also got me thinking about our tendency to allow nostalgia to blind us to reality.

How often do we hear that it was ‘better in the old days’, that Georgian or some other architectural period was the ‘pinnacle of achievement’, that pop music these days is not as good as the 70s, that the modern world is poor by comparison.

By comparison with what?

All aspects of our culture suffer from the same delusion. People of my generation often lament the decline of popular music. It was so much better in the 70s they say. Well that’s probably because they are judging the past by their own collection of music. They bought a small selection of what was available because it appealed to them, and it probably still does. However, they have long since forgotten all the rubbish that was also played on the radio. This creates a distorted impression of the past. Lets face it there was just as much rubbish recorded in the 70s as there is today, we have just forgotten about it!

Well, the buildings that we use to judge the past are also the few, finest examples of their genre. Lets face it, the majority of Georgian buildings no longer exist. They were not fit for purpose and have gone, they failed to endure. Many buildings of the Georgian period were cheaply built by speculators, just like today, and sometimes they even fell down.The Georgian buildings that remain are the ones which were well enough built to endure and functional enough to still be useful to future generations.

The same goes for Gothic cathedrals. The ones that we are familiar with are the ones that were well enough built as to not fall down already (although the reformation had a little to do with it too). But even enduring cathedrals show the signs of constant alteration and repair. The history of British cathedrals is replete with collapses and reconstructions; Hereford, Chichester and Lincoln all suffered major collapses amongst many others. However, the Gothic style developed through expression of the structural imperatives of construction and so such buildings can be easily repaired and altered.

So we could reasonably expect that buildings from any period in history varied in quality and only the best still survive. It is wrong therefore to assume that any period was a golden age based on only the surviving evidence. The buildings that survive are either the product of enduring institutions such as the church and government or they are buildings that managed to appeal to successive generations.

This appeal in surviving historic buildings must be tangible. The buildings had to survive long enough on their own merits to become historic and therefore worthy of legislative protection. So we should be able to learn an awful lot about how to make buildings for the future by trying to understand why historic buildings survived, physically, functionally and culturally. After all enduring is synonymous with sustainable.

What is Sustainability Anyway?

I think that I must be getting past it, it seems that I simply don’t understand “Sustainability” anymore.

I recently found it necessary to argue in the Architect’s Journal that teaching “sustainability” as subject matter is nonsense. Sustainable designs arise from a deep understanding of the issues not by adding a separate layer of activity on top.

I’ve recently been told that I am wrong to suggest that sustainability is an inherent characteristic of a construct or system rather than an additional feature. Presumably I must be wrong because that kind of thinking jeopardises the lucrative new industry of Sustainability Consultancy.

I have also come across many discussions about what it takes to be a ‘sustainable business leader” or how to “leverage sustainability” in business. Apparently there was even a Sustainable Leadership Conversation on Twitter, which fortunately I missed completely.

Now this is what I don’t understand:

The Oxford English Dictionary defines sustainability simply as “the property of being sustainable”. It also defines sustainable as “to be capable of enduring”. Now we should all want to be sustainable shouldn’t we. Consider the antonym: unsustainable. This is where we start to expose some of the nonsense in the current jargon.

If a business is not sustainable it clearly will cease to function. Definition. A business leader who fails to lead a business sustainably will bring about the death of the business pretty quickly. Therefore the leaders of any viable businesses are sustainable business leaders. Any business that is providing a service, making a profit and investing in its future must by definition also be sustainable. That’s a lot of people and businesses, much more than the self-proclaimed.

The Oxford English Dictionary also defines the term environmental sustainability as “the degree to which a process or enterprise is able to be maintained or continued while avoiding the long-term depletion of natural resources”. So environmental sustainability is a property of a system or rate of activity, such as constructing buildings or consuming fuel. Clearly such a property can only be designed into the system or activity as it surely cannot be added as a feature afterwards.

A hero of mine, Ted Happold, once said that an engineer is someone who can do for a penny what any fool could do for a pound. To me that is the definition of sustainability pure and simple. The ingenuity of engineers delivers financial, resource and fuel efficiency as a routine part of their work. In order to continue to do what we want to do as a society we need to be able to do it whilst consuming less. Less money, less resource and less fuel.

Gordon E Moore observed that the number of transistors that engineers could pack into an integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years. This ability to do more operations with less silicon has revolutionised computing and communications. Further, by increasing the capability of individual chips you reduce the overall power demand for computers and equipment. So Moore’s law predicts the increase in computing and communications capability as well as the reduced demand for electricity to run these devices.

Indeed we are now seeing the situation where electricity demands for IT are falling as obsolete equipment is replaced with new more efficient equipment. This is clearly a sustainable state of affairs, social development is accelerating whilst the cost of devices, both financial and energy are falling. This is clearly a property of the system. We simply need to balance the demand for products, to address needs not wants, with the rate at which we can safely extract raw materials.

I find myself in agreement with former CIBSE President, Prof David Fisk when he called for the word “sustainability” to be banned from technical discourse. It has become so corrupted as to not only be meaningless, but actually to obscure the real issues that we need to deal with. Lets talk knowledgeably about resources and energy consumption and social development and the economy and protecting our vital biosphere. If we are still talking about these things in 2050 then surely we will have sustained.

Lets Talk Business

In sustainable construction it has become commonplace to focus on carbon footprint. We cleave to the metric of kg CO2e / m2 for both operational or embodied carbon. This has clearly grown out of the practice of valuing buildings by floor area. Yet this measure of sustainability is largely meaningless to the leaders of businesses that will occupy our buildings.

Businesses have their own measures of performance and success. In commercial enterprises these are likely to involve profitability and productivity ratios. Schools will measure their performance in terms of learning outcomes, hospitals by recovery rates. None of these measures relates to floor area.

A business leader choosing premises needs to evaluate many criteria. It is well known that location is a primary consideration. Design, as in the overt appearance, may also play a role. However, since assessing performance against building carbon footprint quickly becomes complex, it is rare that sustainable design gets sufficient consideration.

By sustainable design, I of course mean design that addresses the social and economic performance of business, not just the carbon footprint of buildings. There is plenty of evidence that well designed workplace leads to happier and more productive staff. This should be of immediate interest to a business leader, as the cost of staff dissatisfaction and absenteeism is likely to far exceed the cost of energy in offices.

On the other hand, less tangible design features should also feature in property decisions. Workplace designs with higher carbon footprints, such as air-conditioning, may actually permit higher occupation densities, in other words more staff in the same space. These considerations should also be critical in the choice of premises if only the benefits could be made explicit.

The simple metrics of construction cost and carbon emission by floor area do not reveal any useful information about the true benefits of a building’s design. Imagine instead metrics for office buildings of construction cost and carbon emission per workstation at design occupancy. These give direct measures of the efficiency of the design in terms that are meaningful to the occupier.

These metrics allow true comparison between naturally ventilated out of town offices with low occupation and a densely occupied, air-conditioned, city-centre offices. These metrics would allow a business leader to immediately relate productivity to resource consumption via the vector of staff. This is a compelling tool for property related decision-making.

It doesn’t end with commercial offices. If we understand the end user businesses a little better we can develop metrics for cost and carbon efficiency appropriate to any business sector. We would measure the efficiency of a hotel by bed space and a distribution warehouse by the number of pallets of goods accommodated. It will require some work to establish suitable measures at the outset, but this will lead to better business outcomes for us as well as our customers.

The recent RIBA survey of chartered practices revealed that the majority do not have a business plan nor set themselves business performance targets. We would probably also find this to be true of consulting engineers and other related professionals. This lack of familiarity with business issues could be limiting our ability to communicate with our customers in language familiar to them.

If we want to see substantial change in sustainable construction we may need to start by changing ourselves a little. A bit more business savvy would not go amiss. Not only would we be more successful in the business of making buildings, but we could learn the language of business to better communicate our skills and ideas to our customers. Measuring the cost and impacts of buildings in terms that are evident and compelling to business leaders has to be a good start in the transition to a new paradigm.

Measure Progress Not Just Carbon

I have been thinking for a little while about the suitability or otherwise of the metrics we use to measure sustainability. Given peoples’ reactions at a few meetings recently, including the Edge Debate on the Politics of Carbon Measurement and a conversation with the UK Consul for Climate Change in Chongqing, I think that the time has come to look seriously at this issue.

Presently we attempt to measure the impacts of what we build, but we rarely measure the beneficial outcomes. Therefore we risk focussing attention on all that is bad and forgetting the good. Taken to extremes we could end up going backwards socially and economically in order to address the political imperative to deliver zero (or at least very low) carbon buildings. For example, many sub-saharan africans live in housing that would easily satisfy the Zero Carbon Hub’s definition. However if we were to adopt housing of this standard in the UK it would not be considered social progress. This rather exaggerated example highlights the need to find some form of metric that acknowledges the benefits of expending some carbon in certain circumstances in order to deliver social and economic progress.


I was involved a few years ago in a new headquarters building for CAFOD in Lambeth. The building followed closely on the heels of two other charity headquarters, Heelis, the National Trust HQ and the Woodland Trust HQ, and it received comparatively little attention. Perhaps this was because the CAFOD building was mechanically ventilated and cooled, whereas the others were natural ventilation exemplars. CAFOD had to be mechanically cooled as the tight urban site available required a very high occupancy density to accommodate the entire organisation, whereas the other buildings were on suburban or extra-urban sites with plenty of space for low occupancy density and natural ventilation. On the face of it this means that the CAFOD building was both more expensive and had higher carbon emissions. However these standard metrics of cost and carbon per square metre of space do not account for how the buildings can subsequently be used. I decided to look again at the buildings in terms of the occupancy. Occupancy rates are after all what office tenants will be most interested in. The results completely reversed the ranking of the three buildings as shown below.

CAFOD Comparison Graphs

Whilst the metric of carbon per desk or carbon per worker is certainly much more useful than carbon per square metre in linking impact to business targets, an even better metric would link carbon to a measure of business success, such as productive hours or added value. Thus at a stroke we would be able to distinguish between well designed environmental buildings that reduce carbon and promote productivity and those that pay scant attention to the design and bolt on EcoBling to achieve the carbon reduction.

Take hospitals as another example. Lots of good work has been done in the past on identifying the quality design factors that influence patient outcomes, by providing a better working environment or recovery environment. The NHS metric for energy efficiency is presently kWh/m3 per year. Using such measures as targets can create perverse incentives. A hospital could economise on carbon by reducing ventilation rates, but this would increase recovery times and cross infection rates. A better metric for the NHS would surely be kWh per bed, to account for spatial efficiency, but in order to measure the real success of hospitals we should link energy efficiency to patient outcomes. Perhaps a metric of kWh per patient discharged. The shorter the stay in hospital the better the outcome for both the patient and the NHS and the less energy expended in achieving the outcome.

Designing these new metrics will be complicated to get right. As soon as any measure is adopted as a target it creates an incentive and we must ensure that the perverse incentives in the system are as few and as little impact as possible. However any work in this area has got to be better than simply sticking with metrics that incentivise unrealistic outcomes for the businesses that have to occupy the buildings. If those of us who work in sustainability want to see positive outcomes from our efforts then we must find means to set the importance of carbon reduction within social and economic context that will deliver better business outcomes too.

China’s Conservation Culture

Having spent the last 2 weeks in Chongqing, China’s fastest growing industrial city, I realise on returning to the UK last week just how cosy and indolent our western economies have become. China is a powerhouse of making and doing, whilst we luxuriate in our undemanding jobs, manipulating imaginary paper wealth whilst ignorantly squandering natural resources in our disposable consumer society.

It is forecast that some 300 million Chinese will join the middle classes this decade. This is in addition to China having the fastest growing urban population in the world. The pressure on Chinese cities and their economy is phenomenal, but they are preparing for it. Our guidebook to Chongqing, published in 2011, lists only one metro line. We arrived to find that they already have four, with seven anticipated by 2015! Compare this with the 20 plus years it has taken to get London’s Crossrail underway.

But it is not just the phenomenal rate of development that I believe will set China apart, it is their culture of conservation and re-use.

Walk down a street in any Chinese city and you can find people who can repair, re-purpose or recycle just about everything you can imagine, from building materials to mobile phones. Demolition sites are immediately picked over for re-usable materials and you can find plenty of trade in recovered reinforcement and plywood shuttering from concrete. Cardboard packaging is collected from high street shops and carried off in huge bundles by little old ladies.

All the litter bins in public places, not just on the street, but out of town too, are all segregated for recyclable and non-recyclable, as you would find in Germany or other more enlightened Euro countries. On corners throughout the cities you will find the street cleaners sorting and packaging up the waste from the litter bins for re-use or recycling.

With a street food culture such as China’s you would expect to find large quantities of disposable food containers in the litter bins. However, you will also find people collecting the containers, clearly for re-use. One might question the hygiene implications of such a trade, but it is unquestionably avoiding substantial quantities of plastic going to landfill, reducing the costs of packaging for the food businesses and providing a subsistence income for the recyclers.

This culture of avoiding waste has clearly grown out of necessity. However, if this culture can be retained and nurtured, particularly in relation to Chinese manufacturing industry and the emerging middle class then there is no question that it will result in a fully developed economy that is far more resource efficient than we can boast in the West.

Whilst we in the West merely debate the principles of a circular economy, the Chinese live and breath it. The disposable consumer culture of the West is simply not for them, and long may it remain so.