Renting for eternity

Imagine a world where a manufacturer is happy to exchange a product after 10 years, and not because there’s anything wrong with it, simply because a better version has come on to the market. It may sound far-fetched but this is a serious idea proposed by some of construction’s soberest minds. It’s part of a concept known as the “circular economy”, which severs the link between economic prosperity and resource consumption and transforms the traditional linear process of “take-make-dispose” into a closed loop where no resource is wasted and everything is reused or recycled. As one of the world’s most resource-intensive industries, construction is an obvious place to start. Buildings would be designed to be more adaptable and durable, and eventually to be disassembled into components and used again. Rather than selling products, manufacturers might undertake to provide a guaranteed level of service, upgrading components as more efficient ones become available and taking back the old materials.

It’s a million miles away from today’s consumer society, but something about the circular economy seems to have captured the popular imagination and there are signs that it is making the leap from deep-green niche to the mainstream. But can construction products – and buildings – really be recycled as easily as cans of coke or cars? In this piece for Construction Manager, I found that it demands a radical shift in not only the way buildings are designed and constructed, but also how they are financed, insured and even owned. As Jane Thornback at the Construction Products Association pointed out, “If somebody’s designing something with a brick, who owns it? The people who made the brick, the people who made the brick into something else, or the people who demolish the bricks 300 years later?” How could a manufacturer guarantee they’d be around in 10 years to honour that service contract? And what happens if they go bust – would the receivers want to demolish your house to recover the assets…?

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…

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.

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.