Much of what passes for sustainable architecture is nothing of the sort; it’s PR masquerading as environmental engineering. Robert Adam tells us what green building really means
Just about everyone knows we’ve got to change our way of life to save the planet. Isn’t it a bit odd, then, to find architects doing the same stuff they’ve always done and going around making out that they’re the eco-warriors to end all eco-warriors? Why is it that the same old glass-walled boxes and tower blocks that were invented in the energy-rich sixties and seventies can do the business for the energy-challenged noughties? Architects have discovered the magic of greenwash.
The big idea behind contemporary architecture was that the “new century” (meaning the 20th) was all about the latest machines and inventions and not much else. New was good; old was bad. Architects have become so fixated with this idea that they believe that, whenever a new problem comes along, something innovative and scientific will also turn up and solve it. And better still, something innovative and scientific always looks pretty cool. This is the “more gadgets” theory of sustainability. And what a great theory it is. You carry on doing the same old stuff, chuck lots of technology at it (preferably odd-shaped and brightly coloured) and then claim the moral high ground.
Of course, you don’t chuck the technology at it yourself. There’s a whole new greenwash industry to help you. Top of the list are environmental engineers. Pay them enough and they can take pretty much whatever you build, triple glaze it, fill it with argon, add a special finish, mess about with water and waste, do something complicated with figures that nobody will challenge without doing even more complicated figures, say it’s super-sustainable and, lo and behold, non-engineers fall for it. As the engineers get their best jobs from the big-name architects who need to greenwash their expensive buildings, they’re probably not going to tell anyone what they really know – that the whole thing would do much better if you just gave the building thick walls and made holes in them for windows.
Triple glaze it, fill it with argon, add a special finish, mess about with water and waste, do something complicated with figures and nobody will challenge you
There are notable exceptions, such as Patrick Bellew of Atelier 10 and David Strong of Inbuilt (formerly the managing director of BRE Environmental). But ranged against them are not only legions of engineers keeping mum, but a new breed of public relations greenwashers. They’ll write you a sustainability policy that nobody will use, they’ll draw up meaningless pseudo-scientific diagrams that look good on the website and, if you want to push the boat out, they’ll even tell you that glass is sustainable because you can re-use it – really. If you want to make people think you’re sustainable, call in the greenwashers.
Behind all the reports, the gadgets that break down, the jazzy vents that keep the occupants awake at night and the silly little windmills that don’t work is the elephant in the room: building anything uses up a lot of energy and most of it comes from fossil fuel. The conclusion from this is inescapable: keep what you’ve got and improve it if you can and if you have to build anything (and often you do) make sure it lasts a long time.
What makes a building last a long time is really quite simple. It needs to be robust and adaptable. Robust buildings are made of solid, low-maintenance and preferably local materials. Adaptable buildings are daylit, easy to subdivide and service, and don’t depend on machinery such as lifts and air-conditioning. In other words, they’ll be solid, low and narrow. We’re surrounded by buildings like this that have lasted for centuries. Today we can do the same thing and do it better – better insulated and better serviced. Building one of these every couple of hundred years is, by any sensible measure, more sustainable than building a new deep-plan, air-conditioned, high-rise, mastic-sealed monolith on the same site every 30 or 40 years.
If the BRE can come up with the barmy idea that oil-based plastic windows get a maximum sustainability rating, just think what greenwashers can do with tower blocks
The trouble is that the building’s life expectancy isn’t part of the carbon measuring system. In fact, lots of important things aren’t included. The whole zero-carbon game is focused on what new buildings do, not on their lifespan, nor on the life of the people in them. There’s no accepted system to measure the energy locked in building products – embodied energy. And without an agreed measurement system, greenwashers have a field day. If the BRE can come up with the barmy idea that oil-based plastic windows get a maximum sustainability rating, just think what starchitects and their greenwashers can do with tower blocks.
Robert Adam is director of Robert Adam Architects