Tag - Sustainability

Piers Taylor reviews Jonathan Porritt’s Hope in Hell

Hope In Hell

Jonathan Porritt’s new book is written from the perspective of one working at the forefront of climate activism in the UK for the last 50 years. From Friends of the Earth, the Green Party, the UK Sustainable Development Commission to Forum for the Future, Porritt has always been there, championing environmental causes.

Porritt’s message here is one of hope – hope that we can do over the next decade what is needed to reverse runaway climate change. Porritt considers the next ten years is THE key decade to cap global warming to a maximum of 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial kevels. In the first part of Hope In Hell, Porritt reminds us of where emissions come from – 75% global emissions come from power generation, transportation and the built environment – with its concrete and steel hungry industry norms.

The hope Porritt feels is expressed via articulating that we have the means, the knowledge and the solutions already at hand to make the changes necessary to address climate change in such a manner that total global emissions peak in 2020 and are halved by 2030 which is what is needed (at the very least) to limit further destructive global warming.

Typically, the changes that Porritt suggest we need to make are technical fixes. The big change as far as Porritt concerned is in terms of renewables. At present only 25% of power (within the UK) is generated from renewables and yet we have the technology and investment necessary to double that in 5 years, and get to 100% of power needed by the UK by 2035.

The big question, of course in the UK, is having declared a climate emergency, why don’t we follow through and make these changes as a matter of urgency? The simple answer is politics, which is in thrall to the oil industry (which has served so well the dominant politics of the right) and conventional business systems and infrastructures that are resistant to change.

And…  that’s it. Porritt spends so much time telling us how we can solve things without really unpicking how politics can change – which, given we have the knowledge, technical solutions increasingly collective social will – is the critical thing that needs to change for climate change to be limited. This, more than technical fixes, is the central issue of our time, particularly now when politics seems stuck in the old ways of old leaders who are resistant to change.

If the Coronavirus crisis has taught us anything, it is that we can change overnight, if there is the political and social will. UK carbon emissions dropped almost overnight by 36% at the beginning of lockdown, although this has now halved and will quickly get back to near pre-Covid levels. Nothing else has made such an instant reduction to emissions so quickly and yet as Porritt reminds us, the climate emergency is a far bigger one than the Coronavirus emergency. As Porritt also reminds us, the needs of today always win over those of tomorrow.

My central frustration with Porritt’s arguments which focus on how technically we can reduce emissions is not that they’re not interesting, relevant or accurate. It is more that they are well known and well argued by others too. Understanding socially and politically how we can make change is the key issue of our time, particularly in the face of self-serving structures that are so resistant to change and politicians who label those who care about the environment ‘activists’. Dealing with climate change, of course, isn’t about one thing alone – the technical solutions, or the political will – but of entire connected systems of change. Focussing on one without the other is useless, as Stewart Brand has argued so thoroughly – so where, here, is the chapter on the politics of change?

In The Whole Earth Discipline, Brand describes how change can occur on a huge level. Brand’s book is much more convincing than Porritt’s in describing how social and political change is key, and how social change in terms of urbanisation has reshaped everything in relating the manner in which we live in cities can make enormous environmental change. For example,  Brand describes at length how living densely in urban centres is the most important thing we can do – we consume less, travel less, have fewer children, share resources efficiently and free up land for more environmentally sustainable uses than intensive agriculture or low density living. These changes are far more interesting – and useful – than Porritt’s technical fixes alone. Indeed, Brand goes as far as suggesting that the city is the greatest contribution to sustainability we have ever known, regardless of how we heat, produce power or build, but this doesn’t fit with Porritt’s view of simply investing in renewables and green transport.

Irrespective – what (else) can we do as architects, other than moving to the city, having fewer children and not building anything new at all? As Porritt describes, our (architects’) big problem is the carbon intensive industries that produce steel and concrete on the scales we demand. As a profession, we have never really tackled the issue of embodied energy – focusing for too long on energy use. Given that embodied energy over the whole life of a building can be as much as 80% of the total carbon emissions over the lifecycle of a building, we are miles away from any significant building that is anything approaching zero carbon. It is carbon, rather than mere energy, where we architects need to focus. The big challenge for architects is how we build with low carbon materials in an industry where there are few, and within a political and planning systems and a post-Covid landscape that are not necessarily conducive to models of developments and settlements that are the most sustainable – super dense ones.

My other frustration with Porritt’s book – particularly when Porritt has spent his entire adult life effectively using similar rhetoric – is that this rhetoric is so similar to so many others. Porritt tells us that we need to act now, and so did Al Gore 15 years ago, and so did Lovelock, who now phlegmatically suggests that it is far too late, and anything we do is akin to trying to row a boat against the flow up the Niagara falls.  We have seen that ‘disaster speak’ doesn’t make change, and ultimately, suggestions on how to achieve real change is missing from Hope in Hell. The real question has to be – in a global climate dominated by reactionary buffoons hell bent on propping up the status quo, how on earth (literally) can we legislate to make change happen quickly? If there is some hope in hell it is perhaps in younger people who don’t have the same attitudes to existing financial structures. Maybe (hopefully) they will overthrow the status quo, challenge the existing models, and re-value societies’ assets.


Piers Taylor 2020




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AJ Sustainability

Piers Taylor’s article on sustainability in the Architects’s Journal 28 Feb 2013 – Article as published in the AJ HERE, or full text below:

I’m not anti technology – it’s just that engineered solutions are often unnecessary to reduce the environmental impact of buildings.  I am an advocate of appropriate technology, but I don’t think we can engineer ourselves out of the pickle we’re in.  And it pains me that bolt-on baubles such as solar thermal and photovoltaics are often the starting point for discussions about the environmental performance of buildings – as if adding a few high energy trinkets will automatically solve the problem.

This does not mean that sustainable buildings must suffer from worrying wooliness, with a boringly predictable syntax of friendly materials. Yet frequently they do, particularly in this country.  With our Room 13, an art space for a Bristol primary school in a gritty inner city context, we tried to debunk this theory. Using reclaimed concrete blocks and bright blue EPDM, Room 13 (which won an RIBA sustainability award in 2007) is a robust building made of durable self-finishing materials which was cheap to construct and is cheap and simple to operate.

Debates about building performance often centre on heating, power and cooling strategies to the neglect of gains which can be achieved by creating durable, flexible buildings made from materials that have low embodied energy. The loose fit model– where buildings are not overtailored to function and are flexible enough to be reconfigured in the future as needs change – presents a more sustainable model than one that continuously sweeps away and rebuilds.

AHMM’s Tea Building demonstrates how future-proofing can be achieved by designing in flexibility. No PVs are bolted onto the project because far bigger and more cost-effective gains have been made in less overt ways. Their recently completed University of Amsterdam (AJ 24.01.12), where a series of 1960s buildings were stripped back to the frame and the potential for future re-adaption  was designed in, is a compelling argument for buildings that are less specific in their response to programmatic function.

As a nation, it constantly surprises me how little we make use of timber – let alone home grown. Typically, where we use timber, we import and process it.  The Code for Sustainable Homes does not even take into account local sourcing of timber in its ratings.  Using timber and other materials sourced as close as possible to site make enormous reductions in C02 compared to distribution from remote processing plants.

Our Caretaker’s House, completed last year at the Architectural Association’s Hooke Park estate in Dorset, was an exercise in making a low impact building without any engineered environmental solutions.  Constructed entirely from untreated timber grown on the site, the house contains no concrete, not much that isn’t timber (including the insulation), and very little that has travelled any significant distance.  Waste wood from the site fuels both heating and cooking.

As to what using timber means in terms of empirical data, FeildenCleggBradleyStudios calculated that by changing the roof structure of The Hive, their Worcester library (2012), from steel to cross -laminated timber, the equivalent of 20 years of operational C02 emissions were saved. Waugh Thistleton showed us similar at Murray Grove, a residential tower constructed from cross-laminated timber, saving 21 years operation C02 emissions when with concrete construction. According to the BRE, in a typical London commercial building, 60 per cent of the embodied energy is in the substructure, the superstructure and the floors. Reduce this, and the carbon savings are enormous.

Interestingly though, some of the greatest gains are to be made in the most (literally) superficial areas – floor finishes. The Green Guide to Specification points out that 40 per cent of the environmental impact of typical urban office building when measured over its lifespan is in floor finishes – which are replaced every five years.  The lesson here is that enormous opportunities for reducing environmental impact can be achieved through material specification, not just through mechanical kit.

Looking abroad, work by Australians Glenn Murcutt and Peter Stutchbury,  as well as Francis Kere work in Burkino Faso, exudes intelligent passive design. I’ve been fascinated by Murcutt’s work since my undergraduate days in Sydney more than 20 years ago.  Recently I’ve made pilgrimages to Australia to meet Murcutt and visit his buildings. Each project is a case study in an extraordinarily accurate environmental response, achieved in the most delicate ways.

In the Northern Territory, where hurricanes are common, the conventional response is to build a concrete bunker to withstand the extreme wind. Murcutt’s solution at the Marika-Alderton house was to make a seemingly fragile lightweight pavilion that opens up in its entirety to let the wind pass through, negating the need for large amounts of energy hungry concrete.

Currently on site with estimated completion in 2014, Murcutt’s Australian Opal Centre, a museum of opal mining and opalised dinosaur fossils located some 500 miles northwest of Sydney, shows that even in the extreme climate of the outback, it is possible to design out air conditioning. Instead, gradients of air temperature and pressure will drive passive ventilation across stack towers that catch the wind and pass it through the museum, which is built deep into the ground to benefit from  thermal mass.

In the UK, we often hear that traffic noise prevents us from naturally ventilating  building in cities. In the centre of Bath, we had exactly this challenge with our Dojo Space, a martial arts workshop. The brief called for a space where up to 30 people could take part in noisy martial arts activities in a dense residential environment, and conversely, carry out activities that require near silence at peak rush hour.  With a series of low tech baffled louvres which draw air across the space and stop noise coming in or leaking out, we were able to passively condition the space.

In addition to reducing the environmental impact in the way we construct our buildings, we also need to radically change the we operate them. Data from Jones Lang Lasalle’s Tale of Two Buildings (2012) report shows an inverse relationship between buildings with the best EPC ratings (which focus on design intent) and the worst measured building in use figures (DECs). In short, the best designed buildings often perform the worst, showing that there are many factors  that impact the actual energy use of a building which are beyond the control of designers. Often this is because of high (and lazy) use of heating and lighting, but the biggest issue is the vast and exponential increase in the use of IT.

This shows how important individual and corporate responsibility is when it comes to lifestyles that affect our buildings. Designing a sustainable exemplar is of little use if we feel absolved from the responsibility to ensure that it operates correctly. It’s like buying a Toyota Prius and driving everywhere with your pedal to the metaland thinking that you’ve done your bit.

Murcutt continuously reminds us that buildings are like yachts – they need active engagement to get the best out of them. Behavioral change, as Jones Lang Lasalle have shown, is key. We’re never going to solve the environmental crisis if we continue to see it as someone else’s problem.

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