Zoologists, scientists and chemists could provide construction with a fresh perspective on cutting carbon emissions from buildings

Richard Hyams

As a practicing architect, the extent of the challenge our industry faces in terms of meeting our commitment to carbon reduction is becoming more and more obvious to me.

We are committed to a reduction in carbon of 80% by 2050. In real terms this means that all buildings whether new or existing need to be carbon positive by around 2040 (the remaining challenges being in relation to infrastructure and non-regulated uses).

The construction industry is a slow moving, litigious and risk averse beast. It moves forward but looks backwards. For answers to new questions being raised, which demand a new set of solutions, it simply relies on the repetition of Victorian methods. The effect is to stifle innovation.

The construction industry is a slow moving, litigious and risk averse beast. It moves forward but looks backwards

We need to look further afield to meet complex challenges and involve disciplines from far outside the construction industry to help drive change and develop new solutions to enrich the environment. For too long the industry has accepted the measure of counting a building’s cost rather than its benefit to its context. We should all be striving for an industry that is seen to be positive in its impact rather than continually being the ones taking resources and questioning whether the global issues are real or not. 

My view is that, whether our impact on the world is a scientifically proven fact or not, the numbers speak for themselves. I recently had a meeting on this very topic in our studio and ran the worldometer (www.worldometers.info) in the background. When the two hour meeting was adjourned the population had risen by 45,000. In our role as creators of habitable spaces, we must have a view on how we will all need to change our behaviour to co-exist with a population that is doubling its size in our cities.

So what is the answer? I think it lies in learning from influences far outside our discipline. Behavioural scientists, zoologists, chemists as well as pioneers in new technologies from fields such as biomedical science offer interesting perspectives. There is a vast array of innovative industries, set up on the back on European funding, to investigate solutions to problems that they may not know are directly relevant for us. This cross-discipline thinking is no different to an extension of the principles of the Bauhaus but does not currently have a place as a way of thinking in many architectural practices or construction firms.

I recently challenged a few scientists to try to solve issues around dynamic building skins using their knowledge of light, heat and absorption. The results were fascinating; from fields of expertise in chemistry we arrived at a potential light emitting cladding panel. Just imagine if this approach existed across our whole industry, enabling us to deliver a significant step-change on the scale of the industrial revolution.

Our challenge is that with all the communication technologies that exist, it is still incredibly difficult to find the expertise that exists somewhere in the world to solve the question that we might be thinking about today. Maybe social media is the answer? I am currently ambivalent towards the need to express your thoughts on an hourly basis, but maybe instead of describing what happened to you on the way to work this morning, we use it to source individuals, maybe working in their garages on the next big thing. I think it is time to drive a new way of gathering intelligence, through leaders in practices such as ours. Maybe I will have a go… Watch this space.

Richard Hyams is the founding director of Astudio