Recycle to build a sustainable world

Twenty years ago last month, my practice partner Ian McKay and I completed and opened the Royal Institute of British Architect’s House of the Future, a late-20th century attempt to prove a four-bedroomed contemporary dwelling could be “a sustainable design”, which in the mid-1990s meant extremely energy-efficient in use.

“FutureHouse”, as we called it, employed “passive” devices such as a two-storey south-facing conservatory and an earth plenum below the ground floor, to pre-cool or pre-warm air entering the building; hot water from solar thermal panels was dumped in a super-insulated basement. These devices, together with lots of insulation and exposed thermal mass, ensured that FutureHouse satisfied the RIBA brief for a very low-energy building. At the time it scored an implausible eleven out of ten on the National Home Energy Rating checklist.

Despite all of the above, a number of informed individuals noted it was the incorporation of a home office that would have the biggest positive effect on planet Earth, as it implied that people living in FutureHouse would commute to work far less than most. Then as now, energy consumption at home and in the workplace was stable, while energy consumption on our roads and in our skies was increasing almost exponentially.

So, despite our careful selection of materials, married with building fabric airtightness and passive solar technology, it was human behaviour that really made the difference, as far as reduction of energy and resource consumption were concerned.

Fast forward 20 years – via my own new-build home SparrowHouse in 2004, designed to prove eco-architecture can be cost effective to build as well as to run and maintain; the House that Kevin Built in 2008, for Kevin McCloud’s Grand Designs Live, theUK’s first EPC (Energy Performance Certificate) A-star-rated dwelling and first prefabricated house made from organic compostable material; and the just-opened Brighton Waste House, the first permanent building in the UK made from more than 85 per cent waste material – and issues relating to how to develop human settlements, while existing in harmony with the planet, are still largely unanswered.

We cannot afford the cost, financially and environmentally, of continuing with the old ‘slash-and-burn’ mentality that still prevails in many national governments

I believe there are a couple of main drivers that will inform current and future construction projects: the issues of resource and land scarcity or security. Whether you want to build in Pimlico, Porto or Mumbai, materials are scarce and expensive, and land prices pretty much universally sky high.

If we focus on the UK construction industry, the clever money is investing in realising the true value in material and products that we throw away every day. Apple has just started to appreciate this. Their latest must-have-today-obsolete-tomorrow gadgets will be recycled by Apple at the end of their useful lives.

This has involved a huge investment in gadget reclamation infrastructure on Apple’s part because they at last realise, as many other large companies do, that they are wasting a huge amount of money and potential profit by allowing their products to be thrown away by others. So it’s not only poor communities around the world that are re-using and re-appropriating stuff, it’s big business.

The issue is also affecting the UK construction industry. Buying block work or timber has never been more difficult. That may partly be because our building suppliers have been virtually dormant for five years and need time to start up production again. However, it is also because the cost of the raw materials required to manufacture stuff is rising rapidly.

If we look back in time a couple of hundred years, you will see the wonderful Georgian and Victorian infrastructure – buildings, roads, sewers and so on – which we still rely on and admire, was built with materials which cost virtually nothing as we plundered our empire for natural resources. Today, we have to go to the market for new materials like everybody else and pay proper money.

At the other end of this linear process is the reality that we all get penalised hugely for throwing stuff away – the cost of skips has risen about threefold over the last 18 months. So, we live in a world where raw materials are scarce, which in turn affects the cost of new stuff, much of which is wasted – 20 per cent on building sites – which in turn raises the cost of new buildings. If you can avoid buying raw material and throwing stuff away so much, then today you will make more money, and this will become more prevalent in the future as populations rise.

The other issue is the rising cost, financial and environmental, of acquiring land for development. We need to recognise the stuff that currently fills our amazing cities and towns for what it is – valuable infrastructure to build upon, literally and metaphorically. The retrofitting or design tweaking of our existing buildings, amenities, landscapes and services could, in my opinion, allow our cities to develop sustainably, to support a growing population while providing green energy, low-energy buildings, water reclamation and clean air.

As a society we must realise that we cannot go on demolishing our previous generations “heroic”, but perhaps failing, developments. We have to be cleverer than that and learn how to adapt without flattening them and the communities they support. Our future eco-cities are already around us. It is up to the design and construction industries to respond to the challenge of realising there is no such thing as waste, just stuff in the wrong place.

There are enormous challenges that present themselves. The good news is that our designers and contractors are already working on ways to deal with issues of material and land scarcity. They have to do this now as we cannot afford the cost, financially and environmentally, of continuing with the old “slash-and-burn” mentality that still prevails in many national governments.

Make do and mend? It’s where the money is to be made and it will help us live in harmony with planet Earth. Good news then. Not a new idea, but a good one.