Just make sure you put the lid down first

When it comes to sustainable building, the march of progress is less a straight line than a meandering path with many forks, frequent hairpins and quite a few dead ends. The result is that 2015’s product landscape is an unlikely combination of the very new and the very old. High-tech solutions such as LED lighting and 3D scanning will reduce the energy use of buildings, whereas low-tech materials such as clay and wood are set to enjoy a renaissance as people search for natural, renewable materials with low embodied carbon. In this article for Construction Manager’s Agenda section, I reviewed sustainable building trends and picked out 10 products we’re likely to see more of this year. Look out for carbon-negative bricks, passive ventilation systems concealed in chimney stacks, clay boards with embedded phase-change materials and high-pressure toilets that only use 1.5L of water for each flush.

Time in loo

How many times do school children go to the loo each day? A lot less than everyone thinks they do, it turns out. It may sound like a trivial preoccupation, but it’s crucial when it comes to working out how much water schools can save by installing efficiency measures in toilets, and whether it’s worth their while to do it. The standard assumption is three trips a day, but one survey found that it’s closer to once, if at all – which means that the possible savings are massively overestimated, by a factor of up to six. This is just one of eight “sustainability myths” I discovered in this feature for Construction Manager – accepted practices in green building that don’t necessarily do what they promise. Also revealed: why low-carbon houses can cost more to heat than gas-guzzling ones, why domestic rainwater harvesting systems aren’t worth the hassle, and what to look out for if you’re buying a super-insulated modern flat…

“Design for Climate Change” by Bill Gething with Katie Puckett

If this blog was updated rather sporadically last year, it’s because I spent a lot of it working on this book for RIBA Publishing with architect and climate change expert Bill Gething. It’s about adapting our buildings to cope with climate change – change that’s already happening and which will continue until well into the next century, even if we were to stop all carbon-emitting activity tomorrow. Higher temperatures threaten to make many of our homes, offices, schools and hospitals uninhabitable or prohibitively expensive to cool; the impact of increased rainfall and more frequent storms is less well understood. The book explores what changes we might experience in the UK, the consequences for our buildings and the ways that we use them, and the challenge that climate change presents to some of the most fundamental principles of modern architecture.

Design for Climate Change by Bill Gething with Katie Puckett, published February 2013 by RIBA Publishing
Design for Climate Change by Bill Gething with Katie Puckett, published February 2013 by RIBA Publishing

And if you don’t fancy slogging through all 200 pages, I wrote this (very much shorter) feature for Building magazine too.

“One-in-100-year events happen all the time”

As recently as 2010, Bristol came tenth in the list of cities in England and Wales most at risk of flooding. Now it’s fifth, and the number of homes at risk has shot up from 12,800 to 29,000. But this has got nothing to do with any physical changes in the city itself – it’s solely down to how the risk is measured. The council has invested in an extremely detailed model of flood risk across the city, the first of its kind in the world. The results have not only challenged perceptions of Bristol’s own flood risk, but scientists’ understanding of flooding itself. Flood modelling is a highly specialised discipline combining environmental science, applied mathematics, hydrology, surveying and advanced IT, not a combination that usually captures the public imagination. But 2013 is likely to see a great deal more demand for accurate models, when a gentlemen’s agreement between insurers and the government expires – and the owners of 200,000 high-risk properties find their cover rockets in price or is withdrawn completely, rendering their homes worthless. For this article for Modus magazine, I spoke to the world’s leading flood risk engineers to find out how they do it, and what their latest discoveries could mean for us all.

That sinking feeling

That the climate is changing is now “unequivocal” according to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and even if we stopped emitting greenhouse gases tomorrow, the changes caused by our past emissions will continue for centuries. That means we have no choice but to adapt, and it is the world’s coasts that will be on the frontline of that adaptation, under threat from rising sea levels and more frequent storms and flooding. Coasts are also the most densely populated places on earth – most of the world’s major cities are on floodplains and, by 2050, they will be home to 70% of an estimated population of 9bn people. In this piece for Modus magazine, I investigated how engineers worldwide are preparing to fight the tides. I found that the response very much depends on how valuable coastal land is, and that the most valuable land is not necessarily where you’d expect. In the declining cities of the developed world, a managed retreat seems to be the only option; in Jakarta, meanwhile, demand for land is so high that the authorities are planning to build a completely new city several miles into the bay.