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Monday28 July 2014

Throwing stones at those in glass houses

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Wake up all you architectural glass junkies, it’s time for a change.

The high-energy, gas-guzzling fully glazed office block is totally dead, a thing from a previous time when we all had a more naive, cavalier attitude towards the environment. It’s the end of an era and we should all rethink what we are doing to the planet. And facade design is on the frontline of a change.

At Make we have woken up already, seen the light on the road to Damascus and, rather like reformed smokers, feel like kicking all those non-believers.

“Don’t worry Ken, we’ll find a way round it,” is the response I got from an environmental engineer when we discussed the impact of the new part L on a large office project. He was totally surprised when I said that we didn’t want to just “get round it” but fully comply and in fact beat it by at least 25%. From his point of view, architects always want loads of glass, and his job has been to make it work come what may, because the architect is king.

As architects we have all gone through a phase of fully glazing buildings, following in the footsteps of Mies, but then making the facade really, really complicated, with all sorts of intricate shading devices, ventilated cavities and opening slots. We then add an extra layer of glass to avoid the shading getting dirty and call the whole thing “low energy” when an insulated brick wall with punched windows would have beaten it hands down in the energy-saving stakes, let alone wiped the floor with it on cost.

I interviewed an architect only last week who showed the elevations of a large London office project about to start on site with 100% glazing, which he presented with the footnote “we managed to squeeze it in before the deadline to avoid part L”. It struck me as an amazingly arrogant attitude to a huge problem. If we used as much creativity solving the issue as we do trying to circumvent regulations then we might make some headway.

When there is a huge reduction in the specification of glazing, the glass industry must respond by giving us a massive improvement in performance.

But the fact is that new buildings need to be much more solid with liberal amounts of insulation. The starting point for most projects is 50% solid, and it could easily be higher depending on the way the building is designed.

It’s time to wake up, and use our creativity, curiosity and passion to help save the planet

It is time as architects we faced up to our responsibilities; climate change is the biggest thing to affect the planet for generations and with half the world’s CO2 coming from buildings, we are directly in the firing line and in the best position to effect a change. We have to go super-green; we have to be more responsible and convince our clients and the property family as a whole that this is important.

At the moment, we are miles off hitting the government targets for energy reduction. We need to improve on energy efficiency dramatically to hit the 60% target reduction by 2050.

At Make we are exploring new ways to incorporate windows in facades and undertaking, with our consultants, scientific research to examine new ways to respond to climate change in order to better the regulations and future-proof our projects for the next level of part L, which promises to be absolutely savage.

New materials such as Nanogel and vacuum-sealed insulation that give presently unheard-of performance are one avenue we are exploring; as are alternative solutions for generating power —wind, photovoltaic, biomass and hydrogen fuel cells.

Architects and environmental engineers have never had such an important role and we should take the initiative, seize the opportunity before it’s too late. Now is the time to wake up, stop burying our head in the sand with our glass boxes and use our creativity, our curiosity and our passion for exploration to provoke a quantum leap and do our bit to help save the planet.

Ken Shuttleworth is founder of Make.

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