Climate Change Denial

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October 17, 2006

Anti environmental architecture

George Marshall @ 3:12 pm

I watched the Stirling Awards for Architecture on Saturday with a deep despondency.

These awards are the Booker of Buildings. Although all manner of croneyism, politics and fashion determines who makes the short list they are as good a reflection as any of what the architecture and arts world see as the cutting edge of new design.

Watching it I can only conclude that architects exhibit a particularly interesting and complex form of denial. Architects are, in my experience, aware people with progressive politics. As a profession they have a huge responsibility for causing climate change (the energy consumed by buildings and their materials are the single largest source of greenhouse gases) and a huge opportunity to develop the forms and structures of a low carbon economy. And, to be fair, they do talk about climate change a fair bit in magazines and conferences and books.

But the people at the top of the profession who get the Stirling and Pritzker prizers and the Gold medals and the gongs and the big fancy projects are not building anything that remotely reflects the realities of climate change.

This is an extremely interesting period for architecture- the most inventive and expressive in thirty years- and that expression is being achieved through technologies and materials that are the antithesis of a low carbon sustainable economy.

Take concrete for example. Cement has horrible CO2 emissions- very high temperatures are needed to slake the lime which produces yet more carbon dioxide as a by product. Cement manufacture accounts for 5% of the worlds greenhouse gas emissions. If we were serious about climate change it would be used very sparingly indeed.

phaeno.jpgAnd yet the bookies favourite to win the Stirling prize was Zaha Hadid’s extraordinary Phaeno Science Centre. It is is a symphony in ‘compacted concrete’ – the concrete floors sweeping up and around the museum to create one organic whole. It creates a thrilling new language for concrete that will be imitated widely. But it pays a high price. It used 27,000 cubic metres of concrete which produced nearly 10,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide. Given that a sustainable level is probably not much more than one tonne of carbon dioxide per person per year, that is a huge footprint.

caruso.jpgArchitects adore reinforced concrete because it combines strength with immense sculptural potential. Another Stirling shortlist was a ‘brick house’ by Caruso St John, the most striking quality of which, despite its name, is the neo-expressionist crumpled lines of its concrete roof slab. There’s an awful lot of concrete in that house. It pays clear homage to Louis Kahn and the formal language he developed 40 years ago, a long time before we knew of the impending collapse of the world’s weather system.

The winner of the Stirling Prize is Richard Rogers’ Barajas Airport. An airport wins the prize! A parking garage for the fastest growing cause of climate change! The top architects probably spend half their lives in airports and are especially subject to the near universal denial about the impacts of flights. Yet, if we are going to deal with climate change this building type needs to become as obselete as the bear pit.

One reason that people don’t see planes as polluting is that it doesn’t feel dirty. There are no smokestacks or piles of coal. Planes feel (and feelings count more than reality when we assess impacts) very smart and white and clean. Rogers and his team have concentrated their creativity on creating an airport that extends that feeling- all open and bright and fresh.

But the openness and brightness of the interiors is made possible by large expanses of plate glass (and a lot of steel to hold it up). What we don’t see in the pictures is the huge cooling and heating plant which keeps it at a tolerable temperature. No doubt Rogers, who speaks often about climate change (his shortlisted Welsh Assembly building appears to have made a serious attempt to be green), has achieved a very high energy design by using lots of clever technology and design to keep the energy load manageable.

This is the nub. Modern energy saving technology is not being used to create buildings with zero emissions but is enabling increased transparency and expressive potential. This is exactly what is happening in the car industry where the main market for LPG and fuel cells is for sports utility vehicles- the heaviest cars ever built.

And one could expand on this point endlessly. All around the world the best and most creative architects are using new technologies to push the expressive potential of their buildings. Gehry faces his buildings with sheets or stainless steel and titanium (the most energy intensive metal of all). Rem Koolhaas has built a new library in Seattle with entirely glass walls and roof. Work was suspended on Herzog and de Meuron ‘s Olympic stadium in Beijing because of the costs of the 80,000 tonnes of steel involved in its construction. That’s 152,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide- an incredible indulgence…and so I could go on. None of these designs are models for a sustainable future. All the architects have won the Pritzer award- the highest award for architecture.

As you can tell, I love architecture but despair of what is being done with it. Modernism arose from an entirely valid critique that traditional building was not able to meet the needs and opportunities of the modern world. In fifty years time, as the seas are rising and the hurricanes are crashing every month into Florida these buildings will appear pathetically dated- the last decadent rococo flourish of the carbon age. So why, when all the scientists agree on the problem, are they still be built and lauded?

[A postscript-an article in the Guardian points out that many of the ‘iconic’ previous Stirling prizewinners have performed very badly. LINK

OK, so we know that when you do creative things to roofs leak, and that some people can never be pleased, but my main worry relates to environmental performance. Many of these buildings have turned out to have awful heating/cooling/lighting-which can only be remedied by increased energy use. This only justified my prejudice that these buildings look good precisely because they defy good building precedence

Thanks to Nick White at Hockerton Housing Project (check their ecobuild out at for telling me about the article]

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12 responses to “Anti environmental architecture”

  1. Mark Ritzenhein says:

    This is an interesting commentary on current society. However, society–and humanity–always lags behind reality. People only respond to a crisis when they are already deeply into it; September 11 and Pearl Harbor are prime examples. The human race will not react to Global Warming and its dire consequences until a similarly devastating even occurs (I imagine it to be the West Antarctic ice fields sliding off into the sea), so it is no surprise that the world of architectural design would pay no attention to the next era’s ethos.
    No, our cultures will not be re-aligned in a wholly new manner until forced to do so by circumstances–as always. Before, Nature drove technological innovation; then with the arrival of the Modern Era humankind felt that it had arrived as God and could set its own agenda; soon, Nature will once again reassert its brutal boundaries, and we will all be forced to comply with them. Architectural philosophy will be the least of worries.

  2. Sue Roaf says:


    Did any of you have the same reaction as I did when I saw what has been designed as the new extension of Tate Modern ? “They have got to be joking!”. A random pile of ten glass boxes that the architect,
    Jacques Herzog, said would be ‘transparent and well……freaky’. £215.000.000 of UK tax payers money for a ‘well….. freaky’ building ? (1)

    What I really cant get my head around is how deeply out of touch the people who are commissioning this building must be. I can understand that they have absolutely no understanding of the deep environmental crisis we are facing. They must know nothing about Climate Change (2) or issues of Peak Oil and energy security (3) but a randomly piled series of glass boxes for an Art Gallery ? Where do they hang the pictures ? Where are the centuries of wisdom on how to perfectly design an art gallery –Kettles Yard in Cambridge with the soft top light showing the pictures to perfection, the Clore Gallery, and all the other wonderful spaces for hanging pictures !

    Or is it just to be big sculptures ? say 3 to a box, times 10 boxes? So the British public has to pay the equivalent of £7.2 million per each piece of sculpture displayed.

    But that madness apart what about the energy implications of the 10 boxes, all in glass with no opening windows in a heat wave month like July 2006. There is no air-conditioning system on earth that could keep those boxes really comfortable however much energy they used because of the radiant gain through the glass, even if it had only say 20-30% transmission.

    But to try and keep the air cool the plant would have to be enormous and use huge amounts of energy and as prices continue on their inexorable trend to the $300 barrel of oil (predicted by 2015) this building will be an albatross around the next of the people of London, and Britain who will have to pay to keep it cool.

    But worse than that, as energy gets shorter this monster will drain so much of the energy supply on the local grid that as the heat waves roll in hotter and harder, year on year, this single building will prove to be such an energy sink that it will cause the schools, the hospitals and the businesses around it to have to endure significantly longer outages than if it had never been built.

    But – and I hope you are following me here – that will be unacceptable and so what will happen is that they will shut the whole new wing of the Tate down in periods of extreme heat or cold to ensure that the local grid can stay up as long a possible to supply the vital services supported in the buildings around it.

    Oh yes and then there is the little fact that the extraordinarily high energy consumption in it will produce huge amounts of the CO2 that is driving the climate change that will cause the heat waves …. Did no one tell Sir Nicholas ? Does the project suffer from the ‘Beautiful’ syndrome? Why did the engineers not say ‘this is a deeply not very clever idea?’.

    My recent plenary talk at the American Solar Energy Society conference was on the subject of ‘Adaptation’ (4). The thesis there was that it is probably too late to concentrate just on mitigation programmes for climate change and we urgently need to address the challenge of how to Adapt our buildings to enable us to survive through the coming difficult decades of the 21st century.

    I was followed by an even more radical speaker, Alex Wilson, Editor of the well respected Environmental Building News (5)), who is currently promoting the idea of designing for ‘Passive Survivability’. In December 2005 he wrote an editorial in EBN introducing the concept that relates to a building’s ability to maintain critical life-support conditions if services such as power, heating fuel, or water are lost.

    He suggested that Passive Survivability should become a standard design criterion for houses, apartment buildings, schools, and certain other building types (6). Since then, as he points out, the term has begun creeping into the lexicon of green building, though we have a long way to go before the mainstream building industry takes notice.’

    Perhaps he is wrong. A recent report by Gensler shows that due to soaring energy prices, according to Chris Johnson, managing principal of Gensler London, “Property fund managers are effectively sitting on an investment timebomb. The introduction of energy performance certificates will shorten the lifespan of commercial buildings constructed before the new regulations, and we expect the capital value of inefficient buildings to fall as a result”. The report also reveals that nearly three quarters (72%) of company property directors believe that business is picking up the bill for badly designed, inefficient buildings and more than a quarter (26%) state that bad office stock is actually damaging UK productivity (7).

    Offices duh – at least company directors are accountable to the companies that have to pay their own energy bills. To whom exactly are people like the Tate Modern Board accountable? Not to the poor tax payers who will pay for the decisions to build this ‘investment timebomb’ until it is pulled down. If, of course it is built at all – and I cant frankly see that happening.

    For a start how will it ever meet the Building Regulations Part L requirements, or doesn’t Beautiful have to meet those ? , Secondly who is going to invest that sort of money in a building that cannot surely get more than an E or F rating under the New European Buildings Directive Rating scheme and thirdly all this ‘transparent building’ yadiyadiyah and architecture as ‘Freak Show’ is soooo 20th century Darling ! Who wants to be landed with half a pickled sheep in perpetuity when you could get a real work of art / building for the same price? We are all grown up now – and in a global battle for survival(8) – get real Tate Modern ! How about an attractive, heavy, well light, passively cooled, brick extension – with opening windows…… please? .

    Dr Sue Roaf

    (1) Google Tate Modern Extension – images and look at the channel 4 film on the building !
    (2) For extensive and authoritative information on climate change and it s impacts see: and
    (3) For excellent discussions on the issues of Peak Oil see: and
    (4) Roaf, S., Crichton, D. and F. Nicol (2005). Adapting Buildings and Cities for Climate Change, Architectural Press, Oxford. This book outlines the development of concern around this issue and includes a chapter on the problems of tall buildings.
    (5) see:
    (6) Environmental Building News Vol. 14, No. 12 :
    (8) See for instance: Lovelock, James (2006). The revenge of Gaia, Penguin Publications.

  3. Jim Scott says:

    I have been despairing over the ethical blindness of my fellow architects for years, especilly the * star * ones.

    There are a very few of us promoting social and environmental responsibility (which is how I met my first wife), and I did a PhD in the area of Community Design in housing. There is an exceptional organisation called Architects and Engineers for Social Responsibility, that actually sent a delegate to the Climate and Energy UNED-UK working group in the run-up to the 2002 UN World Summit.

    But by and large we go unheard and my PhD unread.

    I went to a recent lecture by Zaha Hadid at the AA School of Architecture, and was shocked that all the students around me were totally enraptured over what she was saying about her grossly profligate use of concrete, and no one of any age questioned her about environmental impacts at all (I was in a basement overflow room).

    A welcome but very occasional article appeared in The Guardian on Sat 14 October, on the imminent Stirling Prize, entitled ‘The truth about those iconic buildings ..’ but it was chiefly concerned about their ‘…roofs leak, they’re dingy and too hot’, not their environmental profligacy.

    As a member of the AA, I have just put in a call to the PA for the new Director at the AA School, to request a debate on the environmental profligacy of star architects, and await a reply, with great interest!

  4. John Smith says:

    I`m not a 100% sure on goverments policys on enviromental buildings (if they have any at all) so this might sound crap. If i was in power why not put in higher taxes on concrete, cement and other high Co2 building materials then give grants out to developers and architects pushing foward environmentally friendly building technologies. If they taxed it as much as they do petrol i`m sure you would soon see more environmentally friendly buildings going up.

  5. I can’t comment at length on this, because I know very little about architecture, but I was very interested in what George and the rest of you had to say. So just a question:We are hearing about experiments on design of environmentally friendly homes with more effective insulation (Britain is still worse than other countries with colder winters for seasonal death rates because of poor insulation standards), solar panels on the roofs, and so on – are their designers out on a limb with the establishment who hand out prizes and so forth? Or, if they are being listened to for purposes of ordinary building design, can we regard the prize winners and their judges as simply out of touch?

  6. Yes, it is galling to witness such blinkered creativity of those who are at the pinnacle of creating and shaping the cathedrals of architecture of our time. But I feel sure that with the rapid groundswell of recognition for the need for sustainable living that seems to be marching ahead at such a great pace, so will the cathedrals of our future start to address environmental impact as well as aesthetic considerations.

    But I doubt such a shift will come from those who are already well established and set in their ways – rather I think there will be two major driving forces of change. The first, in the short-term, from a general shaping of informed understanding, and secondly, in the longer-term, sheer necessity by dint of more extreme climate change conditions.

    The sizeable growth of informed practice amongst domestic and smaller scale commercial projects by architects, builders, buyer and sellers will inevitably have a knock-on impact on larger-scale projects. Ultimately it is the uptake by the prospectors/middle classes/the aspirational/educated – class as you will – who have the ability to drive the market to create momentum, sustain interest and ultimately in time influence the higher eschelons.

    I witnessed this in Vienna in the late ’80’s – early ’90’s; of the public and media reaction to the work by the Austrian architect/philosopher/designer Hundertwasser. He designed sustainable housing for a Viennese Housing Association (named, with an eye to posterity, The Hundertwasser Haus), and on the back of the enormously positive public response it received, he then went onto work on various larger public projects. But most interestingly, it created an exceptionally well-informed chattering class who then started driving a market for sustainable domestic architecture and that in turn tipped into larger scale environmentally friendly commissions. (although the word ‘sustainable’ was not used then, that is very much modern terminology, nevertheless his work was hailed as green – grass roofs became immensely popular thereafter)

    Hundertwasser’s work was of course very much of it’s time and place. It can look rather clumsy and naive today, and maybe it’s remarkable that he was so successful. Had he been based in the UK it is probable he would not have been supported and patronised to such an extent. Then again, he was a very driven man with a strong sense of mission to get people to recognise the necessity of respecting and working with rather than against nature. And it is testimony to his groundwork that ten years later in Vienna the first car-free housing complex was successfully completed. Some of your responses above suggest that this kind of spirit is indeed alive for some of our architects.

    Legislation is also a great driver. The implementation of the compulsory Energy Performance Certificates for the forthcoming Home Information Packs due next June (and a timely Defra funded energy efficiency initiative), is a start. It will bring a correlating demand for houses to be more sustainable, and as mentioned by Sue Roaf above, Johnson forecasts falling prices for energy inefficient buildings. Look how people move fast to implement more sustainable solutions if they believe they will lose out financially on property. It can only be that this will in turn influence architects on a wider scale as it becomes common language to ask ‘but how sustainable is this building, and exactly in what way has this been addressed?’

    Home Packs and likewise the 10% Merton Rule /Part L of the Building Regs is but a small step in the right direction. At the end of the day, 10% renewable technology tacked on is never going to be enough. More stringent legislation is necessary – and soon (after all, legislation can take years to be implemented, especially if all those with vested interest to deter enter the fray). I had an interesting conversation (about the need to just get on and legislate, rather than wasting time with voluntary Building codes and yet more consultations on how to change behaviour) with someone from Defra recently who claimed that it would be wrong to take away the ‘basic human right to choice’. That must be a labour spin on the Human Rights Act.

    The door of necessity is closing rapidly on us. Although I doubt WW2 rationing was held back for ‘right to choice’, I can hear the words spoken today …. “The thing is Prime Minister, we think we should give people the right to choose…” Choose what? Polluting and unsustainable practices? Environmental damage? The ability to survive when oil prices go through the roof? The problem with presenting choice is it implies knowledge of the alternatives – and acceptance that the each option proffered is an acceptable choice.

    Hundertwasser wrote about our Duty to (the) Tree. He called for a Peace Treaty with Nature. For him, politics, art and architecture were inextricably intertwined. Too many of our modern-day cathedral builders are too cowardly to stand tall and be political in their creations.

  7. This comment was sent to me by architects…..

    Some further thoughts on George Marshall from around the office.

    Buildings are the single largest source of greenhouse gases. New legislation requires ever higher standards of insulation and energy efficiency in buildings. All UK architects work to these regulations and one of the biggest issues we face, particularly on smaller projects which account for the largest part of the construction industry, is finding skilled contractors who can build to the tolerances required by the new standards.

    Mr Marshall appears to take issue with the use of concrete and steel ( presumably brick and block as well )in construction. I assume he would like to see everything constructed from timber which whilst supposedly available from renewable sources is incredibly difficult to verify and results in buildings of low thermal mass i.e. not temperature stable therefore they require systems to continually regulate their temperature. Timber buildings also have a shorter life span particularly as a lot of poor quality timer is used. Is it more energy efficient to build a house out of brick or concrete that will last 100’s of years requiring relatively little maintenance? I would argue that some of the best buildings we have had are Victorian warehouse’s incredibly adaptable and reusable.

    The Bed Zed development in south London by architect Bill Dunster was heralded as the benchmark for sustainable living. Several years on it is being reported that parts of the scheme overheat to such an extent that they are uninhabitable during the summer months.

    The exemplar low energy and solar housing built at Milton Keynes in the 80’s was actually demonstrated to use more energy than the ordinary housing that surrounded it.

    The whole issue is enormously complex and there is in my view a lot of smoke and mirrors. It is almost impossible to support one argument as there is always a valid counter. In my view sensible low tech site responsive solutions are the answer. People understand how to live in the space and they don’t break as often.

    George’s heart seems to be in the right place and who knows – his arguments may prove to be correct…

  8. David Rees says:

    Georges architects’ comments seem reasonable, if sceptical on green design. There will undoubtedly be problems with innovative green design so it is all the more important to have architects committed to improving designs that are headed in the right direction.

    Good green building design has subtle effects ramifying the community and the landscape. For example timber framed buildings have the potential to stimulate the management of our undermanaged broadleaved woodlands and to improve the outlook for investment in (local) forestry. This would help reverse the decline in populations of plants and birds docuumented in recent English Nature and RSPB publications. The development of a sustainable timber resource would also produce woodfuel as a by-product. It would help stabilise local communities through the provision of employment and help us understand and appreciate our resources better.

    There are undoubtedly down-sides to building in timber but what I want to know is, how can these be minimised by design and the sparing appropriate use of modern materials and treatments?

  9. Ian Hall says:

    Interesting points well made and I would add a few supplemenary comments to append to the above arguments.

    Richard Rogers points out that one of the best ways to make cities more sustainable is to increase their density. To do this you need to go high and there are two materials which allow you to do this; concrete and steel.

    I agree with George’s architects’ comments about lifespan and we must also remember to factor in re-use or recylcling of building materials. Timber may be renewable but steel is recyclable.

    Add those two in the equation for ‘how sustainable is our building’ and it does indeed get enormously complex.

    However I do think that George makes a fair criticism to allege that some architects are guilty of using advances in materials technology to further creative expression before environmentally responsible design. Architecture should aim to delight but I believe that it is possible to achieve this whilst still meeting a sustainability agenda.

  10. Alison Jones says:

    I despair too! I think the bigger prize hungry firms can get away with employing spin doctors to divert queries over their eco firendly ethos! We as a small firm spend huge amounts of time trying to persuade our clients that they DO want and need a sustainbly friendly building and sometimes we succeed in persuading them, but as always money comes into it! If they can get away with doing the bare minimum – they do! All our efforts and (wasted) energy get strewn aside by pound signs. Until the Government swings the pound pendulum the other way, clients will always go for the cheapest option!

    unless of course it is a taxpayers funded building and then it is the design teams ‘moral duty’ to ensure ratings of Excellant and Gold that can be advertised till kingdom come in the local rags, but all of the extra money required for the renewables etc is taken from the money available for a high quality design. So……….the building will never win any beauty pagents!

    I belive the smaller Architectural firms are pushing the sustainability as far as they can, but they do need to earn a living. They will never win the £20,000 prizes to help subsidise the time spent on encouraging energy efficiency. Catch 22 in a nutshell!!!!

  11. Alison Jones says:

    and just a quick respone to David Rees, i agree with pushing the use of sustainable timber in this country but……………we have used up most of our timber from forest this year and are left with importing from other countries. Last year so many wood pellet boilers were installed in new projects that our wood pellet production is in over drive with companies having to import to keep up demand. Im sure in a few years this will settle down but we have to encourage more forestry business. This is a great idea for a small business but have you tried to get planning permission for one of them? One word – impossible! Planners may encourage them but Local members do not!

  12. vi da says:

    Take concrete for example. Cement has horrible CO2 emissions- very high temperatures are needed to slake the lime which produces yet more carbon dioxide as a by product. Cement manufacture accounts for 5% of the worlds greenhouse gas emissions. If we were serious about climate change it would be used very sparingly indeed.

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