Establishing a new educational model for sustainable building design could be a smart idea, but only if the whole industry works on it together, says Chris Wise

chris wise

There is a call out from the Royal Academy of Engineering for centres of excellence in sustainable building design. Prompted by propositional work done by the academy over the past five years, led by Doug King, it hints at the evolution of a new breed of engineer who can integrate complex technological systems into buildings. In a sustainable fashion, whatever that means. The academy is hoping to raise £30m or so to fund four to six of these centres around the country, so it’s serious.

The call is full of words such as “multidisciplinary”. Yet the call has gone to academia, not to industry where most practical multidisciplinary expertise arguably lies. This is because the academy expects a new kind of integrated educational model, leading to graduates with sustainable building design skills instead of, say, purely civil, mechanical, or electrical engineering. Postgraduate study is consigned to a second tier, and professional development, and industry, to a third.

What about structure, energy, fire, facades, acoustics, daylight, wellbeing, future-proofing … all those other sustainable building specialisms?

So, what education is needed to design buildings sustainably? There is much that can be done to raise the game of those that King describes as buildings’ “systems integrators”. But I also believe that the call doesn’t go nearly far enough, coming as it does from the narrow viewpoint of building services engineering. What about structure, energy, fire, facades, acoustics, daylight, wellbeing, future-proofing … all those other sustainable building specialisms? And urbanism, flooding, infrastructure, waste treatment, transport. Don’t they deserve a shout at sustainable design too?

Another question: what sort of career will these shiny new graduates go into? Because if their employers and clients do not get the sustainable building joke, they will have little or no opportunity to practise their art. I ask this question advisably, as I was told this morning in an Oxford coffee house by Patrick Bellew of engineer Atelier 10 that many of the larger, commoditised, service engineering practices in the UK are “throwing in sustainability” to their fee bids for free. Revealingly, Atelier 10 practises as building services engineer (in the UK) and sustainability consultant (in the US). Bellew’s observation begs at least a year of debate, about peanuts, monkeys, cost, value, lip service, and then wasted energy, overdesign, under-thinking, the cost of expediency.

So, an innocent call from the Academy has turned into a melodrama worthy of Hollywood. The “bad” guys look after themselves and everyone else waits for the hero to arrive. While waiting too, I find myself trying to answer the call from my new part-time professorial role at University College London’s civil and environmental faculty, joining up with the Bartlett to form “UCL’s global faculty of the built environment”. Surely we have “system integration” covered?

But hang on, you say, aren’t architects already supposed to be building design’s system integrators? After all, they lead a design team and even get a special fee for doing it - for co-ordination too. To which I would answer, with the normal apologies, that well-coordinated ignorance of sustainable engineering is still ignorance.

An innocent call from the academy has turned into a melodrama worthy of Hollywood. The ‘bad’ guys look after themselves and everyone else waits for the hero to arrive

It has got to be time to defragment the engineering and architectural worlds to bring about a generation of technologists, building physicists, sustainable building designers, call them what you want, who can stand together in the design of buildings. Two, or more likely 22, brains melded into one, with complementary skills and mutual respect, to bring well-integrated, contextually aware technological knowledge into play from the start of every building design with the place it deserves. Too much for one individual, or one existing profession, which makes the academy’s call for an educational rethink seem like an increasingly smart idea.

And no doubt the call has excited many academics as a convenient source of research funding and career progression, but I hope it has also planted the seed in other engineering and architecture combos to do something rather radical and, in the long term, more useful. Paraphrasing Steve Jobs and his “design paradox”, because the academy cannot know what it wants until it knows what it can have, I hope our UCL-Bartlett team of engineers, scientists, technologists and architects, and other teams throughout the country, will eventually design an educational proposition that is much better than even Doug King’s imaginings.

Can industry help? Can it accept an agenda beyond business, beyond the fiefdoms of the 36 engineering institutions and the RIBA, to stop people “throwing sustainability in”? If the academics develop the crew, it’s surely up to industry to build them a vehicle and learn to drive it. Later this spring, the academy’s successful bidders are to join together in an open-source workshop with competitors and industrial partners to rear the little acorn into a delicate but potentially mighty oak, a new educational model for sustainable building design. I hope for fireworks.

Chris Wise is director of Expedition Engineering