Gus Alexander The construction industry, like the arms industry, is more concerned with doing the work than with what the work does. So how are we going to persuade it to stop following orders and think?
Professor Stern, the latest Jeremiah on the government’s payroll, reckons that our climate really is changing, and if we don’t do something about it, we are, in the words of Private Fraser of Dad’s Army, “all doomed”.
I’m not sure how this is different from what Jonathan Porritt was saying 10 years ago, or Alex Gordon, as president of the RIBA, 15 years before that. What’s scary is that the problem grows exponentially, like a lily leaf in a pond that doubles in size every day. On the day before the water is covered, there’s still half of it left.
It was bad enough 10 years ago when it was only the industrialised west behaving badly but if we become carbon neutral tomorrow, it would take 11 months for China to redress the balance by increasing its rate of production of toxic shite.
People are sitting up and taking notice of Stern because he has put a cash value on the cost of putting right the damage: 1% of GDP. This, to me, seems pitifully small. I’ll believe it when someone actually does something serious, like tripling the price of fossil fuels – aviation fuel in particular.
I suppose the question we have to ask is: “Is the construction industry predicated on growth?” From where I sit, it seems to be. The industry wants a small number of huge architectural practices – whereas most architects want to work in small firms.
Construction reflects the western economic mindset, which can’t cope with the idea of no growth. “It’s not my fault, guv – I just do what I’m told.” As long as we’re busy, we don’t mind whether we’re building airports or wind turbines.
The current air expansion scheme, which is to treble the number of flights in the next 25 years, was set out in a 2003 white paper. That’s only three years ago, when people were still allowed to smoke. Already it seems absolutely laughable, if not downright suicidal. I mean, for one thing, where the hell is everybody going?
All sectors say solving the problem of climate change is nothing to do with them. Construction can put its own house in order to a certain extent and, sooner or later, a builder is going to realise that people will buy serious eco-houses that don’t look like scaled down Victorian semis surrounded by tarmac. But the necessary changes to our patterns of work will not come about without regulation and commercial imperatives. Until then, it will just be business as usual.
Something happened to me quite recently that illustrates my point. A few years ago I found myself doing two refurbishment projects in west London. Both were worth about £200k, and involved refurbishing not very well-built, late Victorian four-storey terraced houses. Both had been badly subdivided.
Client A wanted to strip out all vestiges of the tacky subdividing job she had inherited, and put all the Victorian detailing: big cornices, folding shutters, four-panel doors, polished handrails, claw feet on the baths.
I’m not one of those architects who feels they have to wrap
the world in galvanized steel mesh
Client B, on the other hand, had spent some time in a John Pawson shop and wanted to strip every trace of Victorian flummery and install 3m high flush doors, trench heating, invisible light sources, and so on. Wherever you turned, it had to be “look no hands”.
I’m not one of those architects who feels they have a mission to wrap the world in galvanized steel mesh nor dot it with luminescent plastic globules. I work on the theory that the more you give the client what they want, the more likely they are to pay you. My job is just to explain what is required to the builder.
I found myself back in the area recently. The door to client A’s house was propped open and two chaps in those grey stonewashed Eastern European jeans were carrying out lengths of fibrous plaster cornice while behind them others were manhandling bits of dismantled shutter assemblies.
Two days later, outside client B’s house, there was a skip full of broken sheet of granite, 3m high flush doors and sections of stainless steel handrail. The new occupier had obviously decided to put their own stamp on the property.
I spoke to the original builders shortly after. “I saw them chucking all your beautiful panelled shutters on a skip outside number 33 the other day,” I said to to the one who’d lovingly restored the Victoriana.
“Crying shame,” he said. “All that waste.”
It was what I’d felt. But when I met the other builder and broke the bad news that his carefully mitred pieces of limestone bath surround had been broken up, all he could say was: “Terrific.”
“Terrific? After all that effort?”
“Well it’s all more business for us people like us, isn’t it?”