Paul Morrell’s ideas for getting construction to help deliver a low carbon future are light on design, says Chris Wise. Odd, because in fact we can design out much of our carbon footprint

Now that the chief construction adviser’s wittily named Innovation and Growth Team has published 50 Ways to Change Construction for a Low Carbon World, what can designers do to help its author? Paul Morrell’s report is welcome for its long view, but it is essentially a “big stick” - it’s good for you, or else.

There’s common sense about the wise use of building modelling tools, and lots about regulation. But there’s little on behaviour change (because we’ll legislate), and very little on design. Why? Well, government ministers like control, whereas the very thing that makes intelligent design challenging is its unpredictability. So while the private conversations among Morrell’s group surely hit much harder, his published recommendations exemplify political pragmatism.

Government ministers like control, whereas the very thing that makes intelligent design challenging is its unpredictability

A sample Department for Business, Innovation and Skills txt to Morrell: “I sA m8, jst leaV doze pesky Dziners outa yr cRbon rprt, A?”

What is design’s response? In its finer moments, at least, design reads its environment to invent something entirely new. A generation ago, Jacob Bronowski proposed - flying in the face of Darwinism - that, uniquely among animals, humans don’t adapt themselves to fit their environment but adapt the environment to fit themselves, through design.

So when I recently received a designerly award, the Milne Medal, I used the platform to softly launch “Enough is Enough”. Everything in moderation, challenge wilfulness, but let’s stop adapting ourselves to fit a wonky context, and instead design a better one. Enough is Enough wants essentially the same as Morrell’s report: use fewer resources, make better lives for more people. But don’t just choke off resources, redesign the problem.

Begin by showing how “carbon” and “energy” are real, powerful things. For example, I once had to dig a deep hole for a sarcophagus, by hand. Hauling up baskets of sand became harder and harder. In 40ºC Egyptian heat, every 50kg basket was an epic. Perhaps Mr Morrell would have asked the pharaoh if his sarcophagus really needed such a deep hole … yes, yes, your wonderfulness, just a bit shallower. On the contrary, as a designer, I would have sold him cremation as this year’s fashionable choice, freeing the slaves’ energy for something else.

So, in Enough is Enough, we will try to leave the glory projects and go for the middle ground - traditional steel and concrete buildings. To do that, we have to redesign their “environment”. It’s simple stuff but long overdue: allow competent people to reduce safety margins originally imposed to stop charlatans; work with manufacturers to make beams and floors with lighter, adaptable profiles; reward good materials and workmanship with reduced workmanship safety margins; take a hard look at performance and design buildings to do only what we need. 

With a few simple changes like these, in a month we redesigned out nearly 20 billion car miles of energy every year. Just in the UK. Not millions, but billions of miles. With more work we might save 50 billion miles a year.

To achieve those savings designers need to show what can be done, and then to push through the changes to make it possible.

As a designer, I would have sold the Pharaoh cremation as this year’s fashionable choice, freeing the slaves’ energy for something else

The approach to the structural Enough is Enough agenda has led to a “brains” trust starting this month, bringing together designers, researchers and thinkers from many disciplines. If structural engineers save 50 billion car miles a year, how much more can we get from environmental engineers (say, Patrick Bellew et al); architecture (Peter Clegg, Mike Davies et al); aviation (perhaps Geoff Kirk, ex Rolls-Royce); ceramics (Robin Levien); web design (Simon Waterfall and Malcolm Garrett) and better design education (Jeremy Myerson at RCA) … on into products, hotels (Joe Ferry), fashion, film and TV, food, medicine, schools: all the staples of life. We are also talking with behavioural thinkers at the Royal Society of Arts to engender real social change.

So here’s the Big Idea, a challenge to 20 design sectors: please each save 50 billion car miles of energy - altogether saving the energy to drive a trillion miles. Mindful of the terminology, the architect Mike Davies suggested that a trillion car-miles should henceforth be known as a “Clarkson”. He went on to suggest that, of course, a hundred Clarksons would be a “Trump”, the ultimate measure of profligacy in the universe. If we can save a Trump, anything’s possible.

Chris Wise is director of Expedition Engineering