Let’s do a thought experiment. Close your eyes and picture a NIMBY: a local resident adamant that an offshore wind farm should not be built in their backyard – a wind farm that could generate many thousands of megawatts of clean, green energy, and stop an equivalent amount of climate-changing carbon dioxide being emitted into the atmosphere. Now imagine that the same person is protesting against a new nuclear power station or fracking underneath their home. How does that change your feelings about them, and the validity of their arguments?
Weighing local interests against national ones is a fundamental dilemma for decision-makers, and it’s one of the themes of a research project by University College London’s Bartlett faculty, which I wrote about for the Bartlett Review 2017. The research team explored how the concerns of the public are handled in the fast-track, centralised process for approving Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIPs). NSIPs include transport routes, power stations, offshore wind farms and, more recently, associated housing, and there have even been proposals to extend the definition to major commercial developments. But the research team chose to focus on renewable energy – an area where national policy sets a strong presumption in favour and where local people often find themselves cast as refuseniks in the face of an overwhelming public good.
We’ve just published the second issue of The Possible, the thought leadership magazine that my company, Wordmule, produces for global engineering firm WSP.
The Possible is about the future of buildings and cities and the ideas and innovations that can help them function better. In this issue we explore the limits on city density, the future of education, next-generation construction materials and whether we’ll ever be able to design a totally recyclable building. Chicago architect Gordon Gill, designer of the 1km-tall Kingdom Tower, talks about his responsibilities and regrets, and psychologist Naomi Shragai investigates what’s really happening when project teams collaborate. In our Connected Thinking section, contributors contemplate how drones will shape development in Africa, the seismic threat to Asia’s megacities, hospital design in a post-antibiotic world, how architects can ensure the wellbeing of site workers thousands of miles away, and why engineers should read more philosophy. It was designed by Supermassive and the cover illustration is by Noma Bar.
At the first-ever UN “Buildings Day”, held at the Paris climate talks in December, there was unprecedented scrutiny of the carbon dioxide emissions associated with property and construction, and the sector’s role in averting catastrophic climate change. By 2050, emissions from the built environment must be reduced by an estimated 84 gigatonnes – the equivalent of taking 22,000 coal-fired power stations offline – if global warming is to be limited to less than 2°C.
That will take a radical rethink of the way we build and refurbish, but also of how properties are funded, valued, procured and managed: the World Green Building Council is calling for nothing short of a “global market transformation”. In this cover feature for Modus, the magazine of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, I investigated what that’s going to look like.
This is the property sector’s “tobacco moment”, one expert told me – the equivalent of the government reports that made an incontrovertible link between smoking and ill-health in the early 1960s: “The fundamental difference between the Kyoto Protocol [in 1997] and the Paris Agreement is that today no one can say they didn’t know there was risk.”
Even if – a very big if – global warming is held to the 1.5°C limit set by nearly 200 world leaders at the UN climate talks in Paris, this will represent a radical change in the global climate. The other big news from the Paris conference was an unprecedented emphasis on adapting to the change that is already happening, and which will continue for centuries to come, no matter what. Humankind faces an uncertain future in which extreme weather events are more frequent and more intense, and there is an escalating threat from storms, hail, flooding, droughts, tropical cyclones and landslides.
The Paris talks stopped short of setting targets or funding mechanisms, but the World Bank estimates that to adapt to a 2°C rise we would have to spend US$70-100bn each year between 2010 and 2050. The cost of not doing anything is pretty high too: over the last decade, annual damages to global real estate and infrastructure from severe weather events have tripled to US$150bn, reaching 8% of GDP in the worst hit regions, not including indirect losses to sectors such as tourism.
In this article for the RICS magazine, Modus, I investigated the far-reaching implications for property, from protecting individual homeowners against heatwaves and flooding, to future-proofing real-estate funds worth billions of dollars.
And for much, much more detail on climate change adaptation, there’s this book I co-wrote for RIBA Publishing.
In October, my regular client WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff sponsored a host room at the annual conference of the Council for Tall Buildings and Urban Habitats in New York. I went along, listened in on two days of presentations and then turned it into a 72-page magazine, to be distributed to the company’s clients and partners worldwide. The overall theme of Skylines is the renaissance of tall buildings. There’s an unprecedented high-rise boom, but the new generation of towers will be very different from those that preceded them – not only in their giant scale but in the kind of spaces they offer, both in the sky and on the ground. Skylines explores what this looks like, from the perspective of designers, developers and city planners around the world.
In good times or bad, wherever there is a building site, there is almost certain to be an argument about payment. Very low margins, long payment chains and “risk dumping” on subcontractors are common causes, but the complexity inherent in even the simplest building projects can lead to conflict. So perhaps it’s no surprise to hear of the rise of the “mega-dispute” where the sum contested is in excess of US$1bn– the natural consequence of the rise of the global mega-project, with firms from many countries working together to deliver massive infrastructure schemes. Whether conflicts are resolved swiftly or escalate into protracted court battles is down to specialists in dispute resolution, a dynamic and evolving field – and probably the most stable job in construction. In this article for Modus, the magazine of the RICS, I investigated why construction remains such a contentious industry and whether alternative approaches to dispute resolution could help.
Last year marked an important milestone for Crossrail: its 40th birthday. London’s new east-west link was first proposed in the 1974 London Rail Study, even if it only broke ground 35 years later, after decades of reports, failed legislation and repeated balking at the high costs of the scheme. This is a tediously familiar tale in the recent history of the UK’s transport infrastructure. There has been a consistent lack of political will to push through major projects, leaving strategically important schemes mired in the planning system or dropped abruptly with a change of government. As a result, the UK lags behind other developed nations – ranked ninth overall in the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index, but only 27th for the quality of its transport network.
Transport is essential to the UK economy, and there is an urgent need for investment in roads, rail and airport capacity to ease congestion, support growth and accommodate 10m additional citizens by 2035. It is a critical juncture for key projects including HS2, Crossrail 2, much-needed rail improvements in the North and airport expansion in the South-East, and if the UK is not to grind to a halt in 20 years’ time, we have to start now. Political consensus and stability will be essential to delivering these aims – but unfortunately, we are a month away from the least predictable general election in decades. In this article on the next government’s transport policy for Estates Gazette, I assessed the prospects for a very uncertain future.