To secure a liveable future we need to develop our understanding of materials and identify more opportunities for their reuse, writes Andrew Mellor of PRP
Last week, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a “final warning” on the climate crisis: act now, or it will be too late.
To secure a liveable and sustainable future for all, it is imperative that we, as architects, mitigate the impact of our design proposals through adopting the principles of regenerative design. Achieving net zero is not enough; we need to actively restore and enhance communities and natural ecosystems, including removing carbon from the atmosphere.
Regenerative design creates built environments that are carbon negative, provide a net gain in terms of water and biodiversity, and actively contribute to the health and wellbeing of the communities that occupy them. While some aspects have been widely adopted, such as green roofs and their associated drainage, water retention, cooling and biodiversity benefits, there are not many examples of true regenerative design.
Canada Gardens, an award-winning BTR scheme in Wembley by PRP for Quintain, utilised regenerative design principles by transforming an existing car park into a podium garden, bringing the “park” back into Wembley Park and providing facilities for residents to grow their own food, raingardens to accommodate stormwater run-off and an on-site energy centre. Going forward, PRP is developing our approach to adopting regenerative design principles to achieve positive gain from all aspects of a project.
It is only a matter of years until we run out of some virgin materials, so the industry will have to reuse and reclaim existing resources
In 10 years from now, we will not be talking about carbon emissions in relation to new buildings; if the construction industry successfully transitions to all-electric manufacturing, construction activities and heat systems, there won’t be carbon emissions associated with new buildings due to the rapid decarbonisation of grid electricity.
The focus will be on an emerging materials shortage. It is only a matter of years until we run out of some virgin materials, so the construction industry will have to reuse and reclaim existing resources – the market for reclaimed materials will in turn grow substantially.
As an industry, we need to develop our understanding of materials and identify more opportunities for reuse. We also need to design buildings to last longer.
Residential buildings are currently designed to have an expected lifespan of 60 years – it should be at least 100 years; I do question why that is not the case already.
Within those buildings, components such as windows are often designed to only last 20-25 years. This might save on capital costs but the benefits are completely negated by the negative environmental impact and cost of replacement at a later date.
Going forward, client organisations will need to think differently about the cost of buildings; lifetime costs will become more important than capital costs. A building’s residual value will grow as supplies of the materials they are comprised of diminish.
We need to recognise the value of existing buildings and explore all options for adaptive reuse and retrofit
By working closely with industry experts, client asset teams will be able to better understand the implications and value of each element in a building. Investing in durable components is necessary to create developments that are climate-resilient, preserve natural resources and require minimal maintenance.
The role of architects will evolve in tandem with this. Historically, regeneration was largely about demolition – this focus has already started to shift to the preservation and reuse of buildings and their components; we need to recognise the value of existing buildings and explore all options for adaptive reuse and retrofit.
Understanding how these structures fit into the wider urban environment and local communities is important; the focus should not just be on the built form and what it will be used for, but on how we create amenity space and landscape interventions in the current streetscape and surrounding land as well as on the roofs of buildings.
To avoid the impending climate catastrophe, the industry must respond; we need to make changes quickly. Time is running out.
Andrew Mellor is a partner at PRP, a government advisor on building safety and a Building the Future commissioner