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How designers are ignoring climate with their concrete, glass and steel

Image: author supplied
Image: author supplied

Opinion, UPDATED 19 December 2019: Beauty still trumps sustainability for many critics of the built environment, despite the looming threat of climate change outlined in the latest IPCC report. Michael Mobbs reminds us that it’s very possible, and preferable, to do both at once. 

You found old photos of your family farm in western New South Wales at Jemalong, downstream from Forbes on the Lachlan river. One shows the first house your parents built there, later to be the chook house. Three rooms.

It amazes you that your own eight roomed Sydney city house is now occupied by a director of an architectural firm who won the Australian Institute of Architects’ 2016 Gold Medal. He, his wife and their three children have taken over giving house tours and love living off grid, including with the chooks, and laugh how others are amazed when they answer, “no, not much needs doing to live off grid”.  

Moving on, you only miss the chooks: Feisty, Pesky and Blanche d’Alpuget.

Three months after moving, on 8 October 2018, the unpronounceable United Nations thing called the “Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change” (IPCC) reported to the billions of humans that within the next 12 years ending 2030 your earth’s energy, water, food, oceans, transport, agriculture and financial systems will collapse. 

Invisible carbon pollution from you and cities and countries is filling skies and oceans. 

Carbon pollution is breaking the earth’s weather. It’s collapsing food production, causing scarcity, drought and flooding in cities and farms. Transport and infrastructure supporting billions of humans is failing more often, more widely. These are not “interruptions” to daily life. They’re causing damage beyond their immediate presence.  

The IPCC kindly let Earth’s humans know carbon pollution of Earth’s atmosphere and oceans needs to be halved within the next 12 years, before 2030.

That’s you, your neighbours, the whole of your street. For every person who does not halve their pollution someone has to more than half theirs.

Can citizens, farmers, architects, designers, builders, planners, engineers, developers, consultants, councils and governments, and the transport and food growing systems halve their pollution in the next 12 years? 

As if.  

Then, more bad news.

On 3 December 2018, Sir David Attenborough said: “Right now, we are facing a man-made disaster of global scale. Our greatest threat in thousands of years. Climate change. If we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon.” 

What do you do about your carbon pollution?  

You’ve written and taken action because you believe we all can change the moral focus of the world.  

For the last 22 years you kept your excreta on the land where you lived. None left your small terrace house just a short walk from Sydney’s Opera House, right in the heart of the city. Two million litres kept in about 2 cubic metres of what once was clay soil, now amended by your excreta and retained rainwater to be friable and productive, something hydraulic “experts” said could not be done.

But, you’re a tenant now in a typical building, and your excreta mixes with another 2 billion litres of excreta pouring daily into the ocean which the whales drink off Sydney’s coast.

Feeling a new shame each time you send your toilet waste into the whales’ tummies you felt the powerlessness of the renter you’ve become. You realise that living off grid in the city has grown new sensibilities in you and you’re diving into new solutions.

So you got an unused brick about the volume of 1 litre of water, put it into the toilet cistern. If the toilet is flushed say, 10 times a day, that’s 10 less litres of water from the dams brought through over 23,000 kilometres of pipes to be sent into the tummies of the whales.  

Still, not enough. With your city “water” provider (really, a sewage dumper) in the top 20 carbon polluters of New South Wales because it takes so much energy to pump water and sewage your brick-saving amount is atom-sized. You now put your diluted urine into the new compost. 

But every day you do have power when you eat, buy or grow food you can do the single biggest thing anyone can do to reduce your environmental impact on the planet by avoiding meat and dairy products.

Last week you got one answer being given by architects, developers, investors and a city mayor to where they’re taking themselves and us in the 12 years ahead.

You stood in front of a new building in Sydney’s Potts Point, named Omnia.

Opened a week before to swooning critics, an effusive Lord Mayor, and enough archispeak to sink a magazine, your eyes focused on the building’s form.

Elegant, playful. For a moment the building delighted your eyes and you warmed to it.

Then, looking more closely at the mass of concrete and steel and glass, you saw it differently and felt a deep and perhaps final despair for city-making.

Floor after floor of Olympic swimming pool sized loads of sand, cement and concrete possibly from the now gone Kurnell sand hills and beyond.

A mass of masonry and steel, the heat absorbing footpath barren of green. That elegant form exists because its authors chose freshly dug up, freshly manufactured, freshly made carbon pollution.

Yes, most of the building was recycled but some materials are new. All concrete needs cement and sustainable cement is something of a contradiction in terms — like vegetarian meatballs. As yet there is no green cement and at best concrete is about 70 per cent recycled.

Yes and yes . . . but nowhere near half the carbon pollution or zero pollution needed for each building between now and 2030.

This count does not count the imported and exported water, sewage, stormwater and all the to and froings of construction, the energy used for these . . .

The task you face, no matter your will, is huge, especially the task of being honest with yourself about it.

[NOTE: David Jaggers, a director of project architects Durbach Block Jaggers said the building is a remodelling of the former Crest hotel that added a part floor to the existing 15 storeys plus two levels of plant. He said the new hourglass shape was created by shaving off some of the existing floor slabs and adding to others. The glazed façade is new as are the balconies off every apartment, but that otherwise the building is “substantially retained”.Some of the new work was to meet more stringent fire codes and earthquake codes. Yes some of the materials were new but the end result is that a 60-year-old building has been given a new lease on life.

“It was the remaking of a building which was a hotel that was there since the late 60s and once it’s an apartment and strata titled, it will be very difficult to knock down and rebuild.”

Mr Jaggers said the biggest environmental impact that could be made is to ban airconditioning. The green star ratings were “all about greenwashing” he said. Most of the environmental energy saving measures in buildings are to reduce energy use and offset its consumption – Ed]

Cement causes 5 per cent of the earth’s carbon pollution and damages rivers, oceans, vegetation, soil.  

Yet architects win awards for using new cement, steel, glass. The cement, steel, and other industries sponsor architecture, engineering, planning associations and their awards, conferences, magazines. This building may win such awards (just don’t mention the IPCC).

The practice and heart of architecture, engineering, civil, structural, electrical and other city-building services depends on money received from industries creating carbon pollution. They’re bought and sold carbon hawkers.

Yet, typically, the city making professions have codes of conduct obliging them to sustain Earth and they’re obliged by laws to achieve sustainable use of materials.  

For example, Engineers Australia’s code of ethics obliges engineers to:

4.1. 

  • engage responsibly with the community and other stakeholders
  • be sensitive to public concerns
  • inform employers or clients of the likely consequences of proposed activities on the community and the environment
  • promote the involvement of all stakeholders and the community in decisions and processes that may impact upon them and the environment

4.2 

  • Practise engineering to foster the health, safety and wellbeing of the community and the environment
  • incorporate social, cultural, health, safety, environmental and economic considerations into the engineering task

4.3 

  • Balance the needs of the present with the needs of future generation
  • in identifying sustainable outcomes consider all options in terms of their economic, environmental and social consequences
  • aim to deliver outcomes that do not compromise the ability of future life to enjoy the same or
    better environment, health, wellbeing and safety as currently enjoyed.

So, too, the code of professional conduct for the Royal Institute of Architects which, given the IPCC’s recent news, and as (like the Engineers Australia Code) it appears to be one of Australia’s least read documents, is also extracted here:

“Principle 1 obligations to the public 

Members have obligations to the public to embrace the spirit and letter of the laws governing their professional affairs, and should thoughtfully consider the social and environmental impact of their professional activities. 

1.1 Standard: Members must respect and help conserve the systems of values and the natural and cultural heritage of the community in which they are creating architecture. They must strive to improve the environment and the quality of life and habitat within it in a sustainable manner, being fully mindful of the effect of their work on the interests of all those who may reasonably be expected to use or enjoy the product of their work.”

You agree with Roger Scruton: “I think that we are losing beauty. And that there is a danger that with it we will lose the meaning of life”. 

And William Wordsworth: “Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers”.

Your argument here is not with beauty but with careless use of materials to achieve it.

You liken some of the buildings and the mass of many buildings to Goya’s paintings of war-torn bodies and to the “terrible beauty” both reveal.

After the IPCC’s report, are most codes, professions, laws about finance, including about sustainable development and carbon, pointing in the wrong direction? Are they expensive investments that offer a false sense of security?

These laws and codes have grown over the last 50 years while carbon pollution has increased.

Are today’s governments, professions and laws like the French generals who built the Maginot Line, the vast array of guns pointing defensively toward where the German armies had come from to attack France in the First World War?  

Only for those French citizens, whom the generals so confidently assured were protected, to be overrun and held down under the conquering thumb of the German armies who invaded by another route.  

But, in that moment you observed the building you thought how rare to find an architect, builder, council or anyone who is not like those French generals now. Most of us believe, you think, that we can make no difference so, really, what does another uncaring, carbon-polluting building matter?

Or, worse still, that this stuff about 12 years remaining is scientific rubbish. Quite different, of course, to the science underpinning the construction of skyscrapers, take-off of planes, or the pixels on this computer screen.

The IPCC’s report is about risk and how to manage it by cutting pollution. (The Australian government assessed financial risk in 2006 but has not updated the assessment since despite the report advising further detailed analysis was needed.)

Who better to reckon the chances of stopping carbon pollution than investors, banks, superannuation fund managers, stockbrokers – those who calculate the future value of development, build or plan cities, invest in food, manufacturing, transport and put their money into the most risk-free or most likely profitable places.  

The stability of the economy you live in depends on how quickly financial institutions adapt to the risks that the breaking climate change is increasing. 

But Earth’s top banking watchdog has just declared the world’s banking system to be unstable and vulnerable to systemic breakdown due to financial practices, and the report ignored the risks defined in the IPCC report.

Deutche Bank said recently 83 per cent of the world’s top 500 companies see climate change as a business risk. 

But your country, Australia, ranks 55th of the 60 countries ranked by the IPCC on taking action to cut carbon – above only Taiwan, Korea, Iran, the US, and Saudi Arabia. And your country’s carbon pollution is increasing.

You know of no council or government in your country asking about the risk to their investments, superannuation obligations to staff, or other financial impacts of a collapse in the financial and other frameworks due to catastrophic climate change before 2030.

Good luck with your new place by the ocean; you look better off for the move, the swimming there, solitude, reading, walking.

Lying on your child’s back on the farm paddock your young eyes swam in the endless sky and you knew in your heart you were not like your mum or dad or anyone else for miles around.

But now you see you’re just like everyone else. Always were.

What happens to everyone also happens to you. Moving house, marriage, divorce, children, the sun rising and setting, loss, hurt, wonder, joy, hope.  

Everybody happens across these.

Buckle up and keep your eyes set on the sky. Do what you can.

 

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Comments

11 Responses to “How designers are ignoring climate with their concrete, glass and steel”

  • Thank you for this excellent piece Michael. All of us in the design industry must take heed.

  • Thanks, Nicholas. I’ll get the book and read it. Thanks for the suggestion. Yes, unsettling times. Tapping this out during the amazing hail storm in Sydney . . . Michael

  • Nicholas Loder says:

    Thank you Michael for your poetic and accurate cry from the heart.
    To build is to consume; concerned adaptive re-use a la Omnia is such a small proportion of new building, and the misuse (or neglect) of the science of building will inevitably lead to buildings near impossible to maintain and headed for an early grave (i’m thinking condensation risk seen in NZ and Tasmania) and an over-reliance on simplistic (green) star ratings that could see heat stress proliferate* as the earth warms dangerously. We love our science but not all the moving parts that contribute to this profession’s contribution to global warming.

    Perhaps to be modern is to believe a white coat will save us. We do indeed need to live more simply, ditch the meat, ditch the air conditioning and consider regenerative buildings.

    (*A read of ‘Heat stress-resistant building design in the Australian context’ by Gertrud Hatvani-Kovacs, Martin Belusko, John Pockett & John Boland 1/10/17 is unsettling reading).

  • Nigel, thank you for taking the time to make this detailed reply. Its interesting and shows the importance of getting the details right. Congratulations on what you’re doing and good luck. We need as many cooks as we can get in this kitchen! Michael

  • Nigel Howard says:

    Good article Michael, but there’s also a problem in simplistic assumptions universally applied, when in reality the right design decisions are VERY specific to location/climate/topography, mix of uses and ground conditions etc.
    Design teams are nothing like as good as they think they are at making these decisions correctly.
    That’s because the full life cycle implications play out over the lifetime of the building or structure with very long lives (100+ years typically). Climate (mean and peak temperature, humidity, insolation, windspeeds/pressures), time of day, areas and orientations of glazing, thermal mass, ground floor coupling, insulation, glazing systems, shading (natural, adjacent structures, designed in/out), superstructure, substructure, heat island, topography, ventilation rates, plant and equipment, controls and their ease of use….etc. all interact. This is devilishly complex so designers adopt simplistic slogans as the basis for their decisions e.g. “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle”, “Low Embodied/Low CO2-e”, “Passive Design”, “Organic Design”, “Energy Efficient Lighting/Appliances” and use these to post-rationalise a decision based on aesthetics.
    These frequently have perverse outcomes. The presumed passive solar design with large windows that needs extensive AC to stop overheating in summer and has excessive heat losses in winter, the energy efficient lighting that causes more impact by increasing winter heating loads, the low mercury lamps (with lower light output and shorter life) that put more mercury into landfill than higher mercury (higher luminance longer lived alternatives), the recycled crushed concrete that has a increases impact because it needs more cement for the same strength than the locally sourced natural aggregates that it replaces…etc.
    ENVEST is a prototype Life Cycle Environmental Assessment and Life Cycle Cost design tool that I have developed intermittently over 30years. It interactively reveals the implications of these interactions as decisions are made right from inception and as the design evolves. I have struggled to get designers to use ENVEST and find the funding to produce commercial quality software in the innovation desert of Australia. I have reached the conclusion that designers are actually threatened by any tool that confronts their preferred simplistic design methodology.

  • Caroline Pidcock says:

    Well said – but soooo depressing… So much to do and quickly. Lets talk soon 🙂

  • Krzystoff, thank you for an informative comment; much appreciated, Michael

  • Bernard Rowley says:

    Well stated NatHERS doesn’t allow for Sustainability just crap poorly built homes with no consideration for the future climate

  • Krzystoff says:

    This article is really spot on today, with soaring climate change and too many clients and architects putting their heads in the sand about the impact their projects have on the environment.

    The title about concrete, glass and steel is really more relevant to high rise and public building than small scale residential buildings, however. The government and corporations need to lead along with with architects in shifting the focus from shortterm greed and the easier overused techniques and materials of last century, to future – thinking, eco – and health – friendly options.

    An ideal example is the recent Terminal 2 at Mactan-Cebu International Airport by Integrated Design Associates.
    Arguably amongst the most beautiful airport interiors anywhere in the world, large spans, and sustainably designed with laminated timber structure and lining, with minimal use of concrete and glass (notably atypical for modern Philippine architecture).

    In contrast could the new Western Sydney Airport have embraced sustainability in the same way as a small airport in a third-world country ?

    Where are we headed with Australian architecture?

  • Dr. Max Deuble says:

    Here here Michael. Truer words have never been written.

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