Practical Sustainability – A guide for the confused

The world around us is in flux with climate change, environmental damage, and habitat reduction.  Growing up, I remember experiencing snow and ice most winters, however my six-year-old has seen it but once at our home in the south of England. We are in the middle of a mass extinction event brought on directly by humanity’s ingenuity and success in expanding successfully into many different habitats.

We are continually presented with short-term solutions to these problems: recycle more, consume less, produce less carbon, buy organic.  Whilst many of these initiatives are well-intended and often help, some entrepreneurs are profiteering from our good nature, leading to confusion, claims and counter-claims.  Meanwhile, the planet continues to heat up, human population increases, and our well-intended recycling ends up in landfill, or rivers flowing into seas; low-yield organic crops add to the expansion of intensive farming on land that was once forested.  We are not winning, yet.

As an experienced structural engineer, I often ponder how to work through this.  Here, I give a personal view on how best we could navigate our way through, and outline decisions one can make for the good of the planet, and our children’s future.

Carbon is important, but is not everything.

Let’s start with the basics; carbon accounting is important and brings into sharp focus what we are doing.  It is particularly important for power consumption – with more efficient green power generation and MEP systems available for buildings, attention rightly turns to embodied carbon.

But carbon is not everything.  Counting initial carbon from construction alone does not truly reflect a building’s environmental footprint.  For example, making a building less able to be flexibly adapted in future can reduce initial carbon, only for the building to require demolition and replacement in say 20 years.  In comparison, a building designed to be adapted in the future will generate more carbon initially, but potentially will last fifty or even one hundred years – resulting in a significantly-improved carbon-emission-per-year outcome.

In the 19th century, when Victorian warehouses and factories were being designed to let in natural light in order to increase worker efficiency, it is highly unlikely that anyone was considering if those great high ceilings would make for wonderful design studios and loft apartments, one hundred years later.  We often pay little attention to the future potential of buildings when designing them for their current brief; this is perhaps a practice we should challenge, for the benefit of future generations.

Technology moves on, but the fundamental needs of humanity remain in our physiological makeup, our tastes, and our needs for comfort and aesthetic pleasures.  We should put ourselves in those “future shoes” and think about all the ways we would like to use a building.  Get it right, and the building constructed today will still be in use in one hundred, or two hundred years – treasured by generations to come.  Get it wrong, and well-intended buildings will become cheap, outdated junk to be demolished and forgotten.

There are many carbon solutions we can apply – concrete made from waste material instead of carbon-intensive cement, or steelwork made via recycling.  The problem is that these are short-term fixes, only.  As a rule, we should be designing to use less material in combination with identifying the lowest-carbon sources for materials.  Do we really need sixteen-metre clear-span office buildings?  Will twelve or ten metres perform just as well?  This lean design approach – in my view – has a simple but lasting impact on the planet as a whole, whilst encouraging the supply chain to try and invest in less carbon-intensive materials development.

Perhaps timber is the answer, but it hasn’t yet answered all the questions being asked of it, including insurability, fire resistance, and supply chain reliability. It also does not span very far and can’t be built very high on its own.  It is certainly a stepping-stone especially if mixed with other stronger materials in hybrid structural systems.

Material providence is also critical.  Here in the UK and Europe, we are leaders in labour, human rights, and environmental legislation.  Sourcing materials from foreign markets without these controls and standards may well lead to unintended support for environmental damage occurring far, far afield.  My answer – know your material’s providence, and encourage the use of certified materials – or ensure they are sourced from markets known to be environmentally and socially progressive.

One unfortunate fact that strikes me about human behaviour throughout the ages is – humans can be vain.  (There, I said it.)  I was struck by recent pre-history discoveries of our distant ancestors’ apparent obsessions with personal grooming – ancient combs, mirrors, and clips excavated en masse, rather than the stereotypical swords and shields.  Perhaps in the dark ages, attention to personal grooming was a strategy for survival, but in today’s globally-connected and competitive world, it can be a source of encouragement for consumerism.  We can see this rampant in the fashion industry, where clothes are bought as shiny new toys, worn once if ever, before being replaced by even newer shiner toys the next season.  We must not let our built environment fall into the “short-term trend trap” – we must build on the merit of design, not trend.

When it comes to the re-use of building stock, “old but not obsolete” should be our first thought. With a little imagination, old building stock can be re-purposed, expanded, and made less energy-hungry, all for a fraction of the carbon needed to replace them. At the very least we should see intrinsic value in existing buildings; a “recycling business case” should occur at the start of design, to identify valuable materials to be re-used on the site, or even sold to an ever-expanding re-use marketplace.  This might force designers, engineers and developers to think harder to find solutions, but it is the right thing to do. These days we regularly re-use foundations, basements, and often entire structural frames.

Finally, I want to focus on habitat, and where we choose to build. Building in a brownfield site is more challenging (and more carbon-hungry) than a greenfield site, but brownfield sites with connected infrastructure and potential for urban regeneration are infinitely better for the planet than greenfield land set aside for agriculture or re-wilding. Brownfield sites are not always obvious.  They could be an old industrial wasteland, but they can also be a part of the city that is “too difficult to build on”; have a good look at your city, they are all around us and we often do not notice them.  Our imagination needs to lead us – we should be creating spaces over railway lines and bus interchanges, over waste transfer facilities and noisy distribution depots.  We should be developing below, over and around unattractive supermarkets and warehouses.

At Robert Bird Group, we see value in these places where others often just see problems. We have delivered a portfolio of over-site developments where we build directly through – or over – live assets.  The trick here is not to first ask what to build, but to ask how to build it.  Once this question is answered, only then is the potential of these urban brownfield sites released.  We can then avoid urban sprawl and enrich our cities.  I see long-span structures as opportunities for urban parks and public spaces across valuable inner-city sites.

When it comes to our environmental strategy, avoiding urban sprawl in an increasingly populous world is key. I am reminded of a line by Richard Attenborough’s character John Hammond in the first Jurassic Park movie: These creatures require our absence to survive, not our help”.   Perhaps we can learn from fiction when it comes to habitat and biodiversity; we need sustainable urban environments to be the human legacy, not eco-lodges in otherwise untouched forests.

Mark Boyle
Global Design Director, RBG