Concrete that treads lightly

Concrete Quarterly’s Spring issue is out, with a four-page focus on the King’s Cross development, where some of the UK’s most sustainable offices are taking shape. Sustainability is the theme of this edition of CQ (which I edit for the Concrete Centre and UBM). As well as the BREEAM “excellent”-rated buildings of Pancras Square, it features quite a few notable firsts: the UK’s first BREEAM “outstanding” public building (Brent Civic Centre), the first LEED platinum building in the Middle East (Siemens’ Abu Dhabi HQ), and the first building in the world to use cement-free concrete – the Global Change Institute in Brisbane, which is designed to produce more energy than it consumes and has a shading system that tracks the sun like a plant.

What if… The world at US$200 a barrel

During 2012, the UK consumed 1,468,000 barrels of oil every single day, according to BP. So what would happen if the price of those barrels, currently just above the US$100 mark, were to suddenly double, or even triple? It’s not beyond the realms of possibility – oil prices peaked at US$145 in July 2008, and though fracking may appear to have averted an imminent peak in the oil supply, the majority of proven reserves and many supply lines remain located in some of the world’s most volatile regions. Oil plays a role in practically every aspect of modern life, which means that a major price rise would surely have profound consequences. Exactly what those consequences might be is the subject of this October cover feature for Modus, the magazine of the RICS.

Minority reporting

The construction industry used to send skip after skip (after skip after skip…) of surplus building materials, excavated earth, packaging and old fit-out components to landfill sites without a thought. Since 2008, firms have spent a great deal of time trying to reuse or recycle it instead, to meet a government target of halving waste to landfill by 2012. But whatever they do with their waste, they’re still producing it in the first place. The next step is to eliminate it from the process altogether by designing buildings to use materials more efficiently. That’s where quantity surveyors come in – everyone agrees that measuring waste is the first step to managing it, so the experts in brick counting have a very important role to play. But how do you measure something that has never existed? In this piece for Modus, the magazine of the RICS, I investigated how the profession is rising to the challenge.

87 bike spaces, no bikes

The humble cycle rack is becoming the modern day equivalent of the bricked up windows of grand Georgian houses. Both are responses to the fads and fashions of government policy: one a tax on windows; the other the widespread use of environmental ratings systems. Cycle racks’ prevalence across new developments of every kind, often in startling numbers, demonstrates the success of tools such as BREEAM and the Code for Sustainable Homes in focusing attention on the environmental impact of buildings. Unfortunately, their ubiquity is also a sign of the dogmatic application of rigid systems that prioritise inflexible points-scoring mechanisms over features that would be of greater actual benefit. As rating systems come of age in the UK – BREEAM, the world’s first, was established in 1990 – it is clear they have made a great contribution to the sustainability of construction. But there are now signs of a backlash, with design teams complaining that they are more often tick-box exercises that suppress rather than drive innovation, conducted reluctantly and at breakneck speed to meet planning or funding requirements or for marketing purposes. In this piece for Building magazine, I investigated whether rating systems have outlived their usefulness – and discovered cycle racks in some very unlikely places.

“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.

Cover of Design for Climate Change by Bill Gething with Katie Puckett, published by RIBA
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.

Micro economics

How much should we spend to save a tonne of carbon emissions? That’s one question raised in this article for Building magazine, prompted by a report commissioned by the British Council for Offices (BCO), which attempts to attach some cold, hard numbers to the disparate costs and benefits of small-scale installations of technologies such as photovoltaic panels and biomass boilers. Their startling conclusion is that commercial developers are paying an average of £380 per tonne of emissions reduced and, in the most extreme cases, as much as £2,800. The authors argue that the economics of renewables is strikingly similar to any other method of power generation – and that you wouldn’t ask a developer to pay for a mini nuclear power station on the roof of an office block. But does such a narrow focus on costs give the full picture? Others argue that no other property investment is ever subjected to such close analysis, and that if green technologies don’t stack up, perhaps the problem is not the technologies themselves but the way the calculations are done. They pose a different question: given the urgency of cutting our carbon emissions and the cost of replacing our ageing power stations, can we afford not to seize every opportunity to reduce the bill?

Dark side of the cloud

Cloud computing is becoming a corporate no-brainer as a sustainable, energy efficient alternative to buying and managing your own servers and software. But is it actually any greener? Greenpeace says not – it points out that the extraordinary growth in the number of data centres means that even significant improvements in efficiency are dwarfed by the increase in total energy demand, and that if the cloud was a country, it would have the fifth largest electricity consumption in the world. But the crucial detail is the source of that electricity. Because data centre owners seek a cheap, constant power supply and have historically favoured locations – Virginia, North Carolina – where electricity is produced from coal, their carbon emissions can be enormous. The good news is that in a fiercely competitive market where all the main providers are building furiously, some have realised the marketing potential of locations like Iceland where the power grid is almost zero-carbon. By shopping carefully, companies can not only reduce their own carbon footprint, but everyone else’s as well. For this piece for the Sunday Telegraph’s Business Technology supplement, I investigated the hidden environmental cost of cloud computing, and the key questions to ask a potential supplier.

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.

The lighter side of concrete

Carbon-neutral homes in inner city Derby that run on recycled vegetable oil and a German school that barely uses any energy at all were just two of the projects featured in the spring issue of Concrete Quarterly, which my company Wordmule produces for UBM and the Concrete Centre. Though all of the buildings are architecturally very attractive, the real theme this time was sustainability, and it was their environmental performance that earned their place within CQ’s pages.  You can also take a look behind the green glass facade of the Environment Agency’s new headquarters in Bristol, setting a very good example with one of the highest-ever BREEAM ratings – and a wildflower meadow on its roof.

“Life seems more meaningful in a tiny house”

Small may be a relative concept when it comes to homes, but there’s no question that the “micro homes” increasingly popular in crowded cities around the world are very, very small indeed. I investigated the phenomenon of shrinking spaces for Modus, the magazine of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, speaking to residents of tiny houses smaller than most people’s garages, office designers condensing the footprint per employee by a third, and psychologists seeking to find out how our diminishing place in the world is changing the way we think.