Architects, Green buildings and Climate Change

(This Article first appeared in The (Easter Cape) Herald on 22 November 2011)
Climate change is a serious threat to our continued success as a species on this planet.
Thankfully though, we have now developed the global consensus that continuously growing human consumption and destruction are a cause for urgent concern.
Much of this continuous growth and destruction expresses itself in what we call the “built environment” The UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) tells us that buildings through their life time consume 48% of all the energy consumed on this planet in any given year. That’s a lot!
This energy is consumed during the manufacture of construction materials, the transport of these materials, the construction process, lighting the building, heating the building, cooling the building, cleaning the building, ventilating and eventually demolishing the building and carting away the rubble.
But the UNEP also tells us that good news is that buildings (compared to manufacturing, transport and others) require the least amount of cost to release the greatest impact on limiting green house gasses.
More good news is that in South Africa, Architects and other built environment designers are very well informed of the strategies that are to be employed to transform the built environment. The strategies involve creatively and innovatively addressing aspects including the following:
  • Passive heating
  • Orientation
  • Passive cooling
  • Rainwater harvesting
  • Grey water harvesting
  • Water saving
  • Promoting biodiversity
  • Local building materials
  • Public transport
  • Embodied energy in Building materials
These strategies are not new. We just now, for the first time since the industrial revolution seem to have the collective will to do something about it and to change the way we build.
Clearly, changing the way we build and employing the strategies that we know need to be employed will require innovation, design leadership and creativity.
We are therefore very fortunate that we do not live in Somalia or Southern Sudan, because in South Africa we have access to the professionals able to provide top quality innovation, design leadership and creativity.
So, what are we saying?
  • Climate Change is a big Problem
  • Buildings are the biggest culprit in this problem
  • Building Industry urgently requires increased levels of innovation, leadership, design and creativity
  • The skill set is in fact already available and ready to be mobilised.
So, what then is the problem?
The problem is that we have adopted public and corporate institutional arrangements that are unable to effectively mobilise that skill to address the challenge. In fact, at a time when we are to rely even more heavily than ever before on our Architects, innovators and designers, we have been caught up in the systematic “commoditisation” of this critical form of leadership.
In both the private and public sector, we have become increasingly obsessed with standardising procurement and “supply chain management” issues. We insist that we procure the services of an Architect to innovate new solutions for the built environment in the same way as we procure toilet paper, grass cutting services or a fleet of refuse trucks. It’s crazy! What results from this standardised procurement practice where “cost is king”, is that the services of the Architect become progressively cheaper and cheaper. The cheaper the product, the poorer the service. Simple!
We are currently doing some work in a city called Chengdu in Central West china.
From our Port Elizabeth office, Architects trained at NMMU and nurtured on the Port Elizabeth design community are doing excellent work designing innovative green buildings in a country where we hear that they plan to build 800 new cities in the next twenty years!
But why are our company’s skills and the skills of hundreds or American and European firms in such demand in China? Not because we are cheaper, not because we are faster, not because we are more compliant than the thousands of Chinese architects. No. It is because we offer innovation, creativity and design leadership. The qualities that could have been abundant among Chinese Architects, if not for the wave of aggressive cost cutting, and “industrial efficiency” that became so widespread during the years of China’s construction boom.
China’s Architects and designers are now very cheap, very fast and completely compliant, but unable to live up to the expectations of the increasingly discerning Chinese private or public sector property developer. So, the developer turns to the “West” .Very sad.
But, it’s not too late for us. We can learn from these errors South Africa still has a very strong community of Architects and other designers focussed on excellence and committed to a better built environment.
So what must we do? What action must we take?
Can I suggest the following?
  • Architects: Can we please snap out of our silly obsession with fashion, Top Billing and playing to the whims of the super-rich and corporate gluttons. There is serious work to be done. We need to save the planet!
  • Public and Corporate developers: Can you please make peace with the fact that most of the innovation, thinking and leadership you require to “green” you property portfolio will actually come from outside your institutions from private firms of Architects and other designers. (And yes you have to set up a process more sophisticated than the ones designed to buy pencils and toilet paper to get the best out of these firms)
If we build green buildings we can save the planet. It’s as simple and as dramatic as that . Failure is not an option. We must succeed!

Author: Tim Hewitt-Coleman

The World can be a better place.... But how? Taking the debate beyond the political, beyond the theoretical into the real economy, into the physical and spatial dimension where cities, landscapes and livelihoods take form.

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