Time for a Change

2 April 2006 (Last Updated April 2nd, 2006 18:30)

Stephen Andrews, Principal at Gensler London, looks at the environmental issues facing us and the lack of urgency in response.

As I write this, the news is full of stories about energy: there is political uncertainty in the Middle East and the former Soviet Bloc that is affecting energy supplies, the Kyoto Protocol is clearly failing to deliver any significant improvement in emissions among developed countries, the Greenland ice cap is melting at twice the rate it was five years ago and the Tindall Centre for Climate Change Research is projecting a rise in sea levels of up to 11m.

Many of us are looking to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and our environmental footprints through a combination of energy efficiency and diversification of supply. However, it no longer seems logical for each country in Europe and North America to go it alone.

In Europe, we have a political and legislative framework in place that could drive change on a large scale. Brenda Boardman in Oxford is already at the forefront of a move to produce the 40% house - a unit that uses just 40% of the usual power with a comparative reduction in emissions. This is likely to be followed by a commitment to similar targets for commercial buildings, though not existing stock.

SUSTAINED ACTION

Looking at the issues facing us and the lack of urgency in response, I cannot help feeling that the drive for efficiency in manufacturing has exacerbated the tendency to change only when there is no other alternative. Similarly, with the data overload created by the increased power and speed of computers, there is a tendency to only learn at the last minute - just because we can.

Given that construction is responsible for such a huge proportion of energy use, general emissions and the depletion of natural resources, it seems to me we have a duty to try to develop a strategy that will ensure our society has a sustainable future at the end of the century. Retrospective analysis is no way to change, or to forge a new direction that is both secure and sustainable.

PAN-EUROPEAN AGENDA

"We need to fight this battle on as many fronts as possible to educate the wider population and drive change."

Given the possibilities offered by the EU, we should perhaps be looking at a pan-European agenda that will ensure we are proactive in design terms rather than reactive to local legislation. We need to fight this battle on as many fronts as possible to educate the wider population and drive change.

All avenues are valid; raising awareness in the popular media, education in schools, legislation at a European level, punitive taxation at national and local levels and incentives through tax allowances are all possible options.

Different rules could apply to both new and old buildings, but the common theme would be to make husbandry of resources a natural way of thinking. Power generation would also have to be addressed at a micro level, whether making fuel cells, bio fuels, hydro, wind or electric power economically viable, or developing a newer, safer form of nuclear generation, maybe even clean ways of using coal.

We should also consider creating a facility management strategy for all new and existing buildings requiring them to be carbon-neutral, whether through design, technology or the planting of trees to offset carbon emissions.

It is surely not beyond the wit of all those involved in construction to create a groundswell of opinion that will make a real difference to the way our society develops in the future. Let us all strive to energise a radical centre, before it is too late to make a difference.