Steve Tomlin, MASCo MD, attended EcoBuild at Earl’s Court on 2nd March. Here is a blog version of his speech:
Sustainability, like the use of the word recycling, has come to mean all things to all people.
The danger of buzz words and their proliferation is that everybody comes to believe that prolific use and repetition are the same as meaningful change and real progress.
Sometimes it helps to reduce things to fundamentals. Our planet and its resources are becoming exhausted – and even if not yet imminent – it is useful to understand what our society in my lifetime has, effectively, been responsible for.
Look what we’ve done in 50mm of time
On a time line continuum of some several hundred metres representing the length of time some form of life has existed on planet Earth: The Roman Invasion, the Renaissance, Tudors, Stuarts, the Industrial Revolution, the advent of the car and the latest micro computers. We, identified as the ‘written history of man’; our time line representation, would be less than 50mm of the overall length.
During that ‘tiny’ window of influence we have contaminated and exhausted our planet disproportionately by any measure.
Now, driven by the need to address our excessive carbon footprint, we are championing sustainability as we did recycling to solve matters
Upcycling, not recycling
Recycling has for twenty years enabled a comfort zone of activity which changes nothing as we continue to crush and incinerate vulnerable materials that could be recovered or upcycled, thus making a significant improvement to our attempts to address embodied carbon values.
Let me just illustrate what I mean. if you crash to the ground a steel frame building and send the metals ‘recovered’ to the metal recyclers you will save 5-7% of the embodied carbon value. However, if you save and reuse the same RSJ’s, the embodied carbon recovered is above 95%.
Olympics 2012: the politics of sustainability
The relevance to my topic is that we should ensure that sustainability is not just more jargon like supplying “goods in green packets” to borrow associated benefit. Many of the problems are political and my work with Hyder Consultancy on the sustainability and pre-demo auditing is a good illustration of the problems.
To get the site developed and the Olympic Games actually built, ‘pragmatic’, you might argue ‘compromised’, decisions were made.
The Games at Stratford are, in the end, justified as designed for sustainability on the basis of Legacy; that afterwards the improved infrastructure and facilities will allow the East End to go forward and prosper. The jury is out and, to the ODA: we are watching and monitoring to ensure promises are fulfilled.
Sustainable design will build value
Again, I use the Olympics as an example – albeit a grand one – of designing with sustainability in mind. When talking to the planning authority and demolition industry, much material cannot be saved for reasons of time/cost and, more rationally, because the materials involved have little intrinsic value.
Confronted by the incredulous demolition contractor who honestly cannot see how you apply the ideas of reuse and reclamation to the average 1960/1970’s building, it is hard to mount a defence.
In this situation we have the very essence of both the problem and solution: we need to build with intrinsically valuable materials and stop creating architecture that is intended only to satisfy the need for a 15 year investment return lifecycle.
We need to forward-build durable architecture that considers end of lifecycle deconstruction and recovery
It is an indictment of our age that we are demolishing buildings constructed in my lifetime whilst we renovate and celebrate buildings constructed by the Georgians & Victorians that are still going strong.
We need to start introducing some caveats & qualify arguments. We need to understand what our political masters cannot grasp and why we have generally such appalling modern housing.
Local authority bureaucracy: no imagination, no creativity
We have charged legislators, who have struggled in the first place to comprehend the issues and delegated responsibility to local authority planning officials, with a challenge that is failing on all fronts. Instead of addressing imaginatively and creatively the problem, we regulate and administer a lowest common denominator approach swathed in bureaucracy and stifling mediocrity.
Local authority personnel recourse to a ‘by the book approach’ for fear of punitive litigation and will not countenance risk, whilst conforming to long bankrupt ideas that are safe and predictable.
We need to break out of these structures.
Creating a fully sustainable supermarket across the UK
I know that some of you may be sceptical or feel a lack of realism. Let me address this possible criticism by saying that, for and on behalf of Britain’s leading retailer, I carry out sustainability policy development. The Chief Executive of that major chain has charged his colleagues with the creation of a fully sustainable supermarket within 20 years – across the board.
I say across the board for SUSTAINABILITY needs to address not just material recovery and architecture but an integrated system that applies to human resources and buildings alike, from procurement to deconstruction and reuse.
Commercial success through sustainability
That process is begun and is driven by, arguably, the most enlightened management team in the UK who have identified commercial success as interdependent with sustainability. Some of you may be familiar with Cheetham Manchester or more recently the new supermarket in Cambridgeshire; both represent first steps in a direction that is cutting edge design.
Every steel and timber element in these buildings is being bar coded with specification details, structural values and information that will allow end of life cycle recovery.
Local authorities: watch and learn…then act!
Of course, aesthetics and design can always be improved and it would be folly to boast the end result is a total and resolved solution, BUT it is happening and domestic housing and town planning need to catch up.
We need to insist that paramount consideration is given to how materials are deployed and how they can be modified in the lifecycle, as well as deconstructed at any end point. The more durable the buildings are, in terms of quality, the longer the lifecycle.
Construct, plan, develop sustainably
The salient and most important themes remain that we cannot continue to disregard the wanton waste of materials and we need to design sustainability into all elements of the construction, planning and development process.
There is no time for despondency; we must address these matters with both urgency and creativity.