Is it Time to Shut up about Sustainability – and Really Take Responsibility?

August 15, 2023

By Dr Martina Pacifici, Sustainability Lead, ADAM Architecture

Virtually nowhere has escaped the label of sustainability, whether that’s farming and food, heating and energy, clothing and travel, and of course buildings and construction. We over use the words sustainable and sustainability. We are all guilty of that. And with over-use comes familiarity, and that in turn prompts complacency. That “it’s OK, we know, we’re talking about it” attitude. Call it virtue signalling, call it tokenism, it’s dangerous and it can dim the urgency and the scale of what we have to do and by when.

With heatwaves and floods, wildfires in Europe and North America, are these words that we’ve grown to use so glibly the right ones? Have we, in our individual commercial bubbles and with our individual interests and targets, lost sight of why this all matters? Do we think the actions we can take are largely insignificant when it comes to the bigger picture, and are we relying on others to make the big moves? In my mind there’s no doubt that the climate change crisis has to be driving how we all think and how we all work no matter how much or how little we can do about it.

So, here are a few close to home facts, although we need to think about all of them in a global context too.

  • The UK has some of the oldest building stock when compared to countries in the EU. Approximately 36% of homes in the UK were built before 1946. Other countries such as Germany and Sweden by comparison rate at 24% built before that date.
  • 80% of UK homes that will be in use in 2050 have already been built, and the new homes that we are building now are generally not achieving net zero. So, we need to enhance the specification for our new build and deploy the required level of retrofit to bring older existing stock into line.
  • UK homes lose heat on average three times faster than homes in other European countries. Consequently, our heating systems need to work harder to maintain a steady 20 degrees C.
  • Our buildings are responsible for approximately 18% of UK greenhouse gas emissions with widespread use still of oil and gas for heating and hot water.
  • The UK has pledged to cut emissions significantly by 2030 to meet climate targets – a demand that requires a reduction of 7% on current emission rates. But we know that during Covid when forced to do a lot of things differently, including reduce our travel, we only managed a reduction of 6%.
  • Some commentators are saying right now that we have reached a global climate change tipping point and that the gulf stream system could collapse as soon as 2025. That collapse would have disastrous consequences.

 

We need to respond to the climate emergency foremost and, framed by that, deliver socio-economic objectives too.  We must influence, lead, and shout even louder.  Those countries, starting with the G20, with economies that can afford to initiate and promote change must do so – the countries with the potential to make the fastest progress and to help others. In a globalised world, our actions resonate far beyond our borders. The "we cannot make much difference" mentality is finished. We must all contribute, no matter how small that contribution might be. Architects should not feel threated but must be sure that what they design will stand the test of time, drawing on all aspects of emerging technology, contextual design, local materials, craftsmanship and skills to deliver it.

 

New build and demolition need to be considered on their individual merits with demolition only as a last resort and all projects should be fully monitored through robust carbon lifecycle analyses. The challenge for new build is to use that opportunity to demonstrate the most sustainable solutions, respecting and responding to the climate emergency, to the environment, and to social needs and wellbeing. We can surely make buildings work better by drawing on what we know – energy efficient systems, smart building technologies, passive strategies, high quality fabrics for example. But we also need support from universities to integrate advanced modelling tools into the daily design practice. 3D city generation, dynamic integration of urban microclimate (CityFFD) and building thermal/energy models (CityBEM) can massively expand our capability to cut down emissions and upgrade the efficiency of the whole built environment.

There are major emerging opportunities across masterplanning and urban design.  Here we can make a real difference by designing at scale, by thinking holistically and beyond individual buildings to improve the way settlements work. We should focus on maximising use and efficiency of new building stock, incorporating resilient green infrastructure and biodiversity; weighing up outdoor and built spaces to prevent local overheating. Our town centres, as much as our rural landscapes, must be reinvigorated by promoting walkability, and introducing mixed use and local commercial development so as to deliver an environment where people want to live, work and play. Much more about this is contained in the ADAM Architecture report Tomorrow’s Homes: pandemic era social trends and their impact on the built environment.

So where does that take us?  Respect for our planet, driving change and understanding and minimising the carbon impact of all our actions. These are important and urgent steps.  But they also leave space for style, for flair, and for creating buildings and places of which we and future generations can be proud, albeit the design boundaries have changed. And we can be proud not just because of how they look, but also how they function for the benefit of those who use them, and for the planet and its future.