The RIBA was wrong to give the Lubetkin prize to Beijing’s Olympic stadium. A building that contains that much embodied energy is frankly distasteful

Toasters popped up at last week’s environmental Greengaged conference at the Design Council. Royal College of Art student Thomas Thwaites began by saying: “The desire to make life more comfortable for ourselves has thus far led to being able to buy a toaster from Argos for £3.99.” Thwaites recounted a charming stunt in which he attempted to make a toaster from scratch. His struggle to concoct even a thimbleful of iron with a hammer and a microwave was a heroic failure. And he spent £1,200 on travel costs alone. It was surprisingly hard to make a toaster. Despite his valiant striving, you couldn’t help but ask: was it really worth it?

I struggled with the same question earlier this summer when the RIBA awarded the Lubetkin prize to the Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing. What on earth was that about? Beautiful to some, but not to me. That’s because the Bird’s Nest contains over 100,000 tonnes of steel. Imagine making that lot with a hammer and a microwave. As a reference, the Bird’s Nest contains nine times more steel, nine times more embodied energy than Stadium Australia, built eight years earlier for the Sydney Games. There is so much steel in the Bird’s Nest that the energy used to produce the skeleton alone would have been enough to make two cups of tea for every single man, woman and child on Earth.

It’s intrinsically ugly. What kind of message does the RIBA think that sends out to aspiring architects and engineers: “Do what you like as long as it looks good; don’t worry about the environment, and the Devil take everyone else.” Such is progress.

‘More is more’, a new architectural tenet. Even though it speaks so green, the RIBA apparently still cares more for style than substance

My contribution to Greengaged was not as witty as Thomas Thwaites’: it was just a simple re-take on a steel beam that could carry the same load as a conventional rolled beam but using only 70% of the material. Taken on a beam-by-beam basis, you’d save the odd 250kg of steel here or there. Please don’t go to sleep until you’ve heard the punch line. Taken across the planet, if all beams were made this way, we’d save 100 million tonnes of steel a year, give or take the odd toaster. These are really big numbers. The energy saved just by changing to that sort of beam would be enough to boil 2,000 cups of tea for everyone on the planet, or we could use the spare steel to make bridges, buildings, trains, trams, bikes, schools, whatever, for people who need them.

There’s a big clue as to why we don’t do this, and like many of us who criticise, I am indirectly complicit. A couple of years ago I shared a debate with some nice people from Rio Tinto-Zinc and Corus. They went to some considerable effort to show how they had reduced the environmental impact of their mining and processing of each tonne of metal, and as far as it goes, that was great. But when I asked why they couldn’t redesign the manufacturing system to give us more beams for less steel, they went very quiet. And of course, the reason is simple: they want to sell us as much steel and zinc as they can. It is not in their interests to change to a more efficient beam. Their shareholders demand continual growth, which means selling more metal, not less. Who are those shareholders? Well, regrettably, it’s my pension fund, my savings, my bank. I benefit on the one hand, and the planet loses on the other. I sometimes wish I didn’t know this stuff as it makes it hard to sleep at night.

So, the RIBA made the shareholders of the industrial powerhouses very happy by giving the Lubetkin prize to the Bird’s Nest. “More is more”, a new architectural tenet. That’s what the RIBA rewarded with my tacit support. Even though it speaks so green, the RIBA apparently still cares more for style than substance. Of course the argument in favour of the Chinese stadium is far more subtle than a few thousand tonnes of steel. Our £3.99 toaster from Argos is probably made in China. Douglas Adams wrote of Arthur Dent: “Left to his own devices he couldn’t build a toaster. He could just about make a sandwich and that was it.” Mine’s a cheese and pickle.