11 February 2013

Re-Imagining Design and Embedding Sustainability

Sustainable design is something that all architects do now; right?  It’s on every practices website, included in all their presentations and has been totally integrated into the way all buildings are designed.  Even the RIBA is now belatedly “on message”, promoting the idea that buildings should be designed to be sustainable.
Mies van der Rohe glass skyscraper
 concept designed in 1919
 So, how come the buildings that we are constructing now have not changed significantly since the birth of modernism almost one hundred years ago?  Mies van der Rohe published his revolutionary concept for a glass clad skyscraper back in 1921 and you could argue that we have been repeating this typology, with only minor amendments, ever since.  Is the Shard not just a less efficient more compromised variant of this underlying philosophical position?

What has changed is the rhetoric that accompanies each of these increasingly contorted iconic projects; all of which claim to be exemplars of sustainable development.  Clearly, it is not only architects who are guilty of not walking the talk when it comes to sustainability; developers, funding institutions, governments and local authorities are all rebranding their particular form of “business as usual” in a new recycled paper wrapper!

Renzo Piano all glass
 Shard nearing completion 2013
 It is my strongly held belief that this incremental improvement approach is no longer sufficient and what is required is a fundamental reappraisal of why, what and how we build.  In short, I believe that we are about to enter a period of rapid and revolutionary change that will result in re-imagining design and the development of an entirely new Sustainable Architecture, shaped by an understanding of the challenges that we face and therefore directly relevant to the concerns of our age.

To achieve the necessary paradigm shift we must challenge some deeply ingrained behaviours and beliefs and fundamentally re-evaluate the reasons why we build at all. This process must start by placing social sustainability and needs of building users at the heart of the design process.  It is no surprise that the best examples of sustainable design are conceived when the building’s users are known before design commences.  Also the greatest value that a building design can create is not in energy savings but in helping to improve the productivity of the people who work in them.  To achieve this added value it is essential that buildings are designed from the inside and the needs of the user out.  This philosophical approach creates massive opportunities for creativity and innovation, once the dead hand of style is rejected, in favour of a new sustainable building aesthetic where each design decision is directly informed by its social, economic and environmental issues.

Our CAFOD project, that I will be presenting at the UKGBC’s Re-Imagining Design course on the 27th February, is a good example of this approach.  The key aspect of the project’s evolution was that we did not win the commission with an image of a completed building, but instead explained how we would assist them, as a non-expert client, to develop a bespoke; user centred sustainable solution, shaped to fit their immediate needs and facilitate organisational change.

Black Bio Climatic office
 tower concept 2005
This approach is in stark contrast to the vast majority of speculative commercial buildings, which are conceived primarily as investment assets and whose appearance and architectural style are determined at inception.  This procurement process, I would argue, results in the current fashion for more and more contorted building forms, as design teams strive to make the most remarkable, arresting images, rather than the most sustainable designs, to secure commissions.

If we are to make the UK’s building stock more sustainable I believe it is essential that funding institutions only agree to invest our pension contributions into demonstrably sustainable buildings.  This will change overnight what gets commissioned, since developers want to be able to sell their completed developments so that they can reinvest profits into the next development opportunity.  It will also result in less risk and more predictable returns for the funds, since sustainable buildings will either command a “green premium” because they are more desirable or at worst will not experience a “brown discount” due to their increased occupation costs.

In re-imagining design I believe that we need to place social sustainability at the heart of the design process, with the explicit intention of delivering buildings that create value by demonstrably improving the performance of the people who occupy them. This philosophical shift will finally close the cost benefit gap that makes investing in higher performance difficult to justify.  Over time the quality and value of the UK’s building stock will increase, creating value and safe guarding the investments that ultimately fund our retirement.  A paradigm shift of this magnitude will create a New Sustainable Architecture that is relevant and valuable.  As Mies van der Rohe put so succinctly;

“Architecture is the will of an epoch translated into space”

Surely the will of our epoch calls for urgent, radical change; re-imagining design to deliver buildings that create enduring value for the people who use them, the organisations that own them and the society that they are part of.

Don’t delay, the future starts today!


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