We have to look back to the future
20 May 2011
As the world's supply of fossil fuels grows scarce we have to make more efficient choices about how we construct our built environment, says Hank Dittmar
The Prince's Foundation for the Built Environment believes in the power of buildings and places to profoundly affect the lives of those who use them daily. Any architect would agree, but the foundation has faced controversy for arguing that some of the best-loved environments are those that follow traditional and well-understood patterns.
These traditional methods, among other things, focus on natural and traditional materials; on proportioning systems that don't jar on the eye, creating attractive and functional public and private spaces; building harmonious and well-proportioned streetscapes, and considering the pedestrian experience at street level.
Many of these tenets have led the Prince's Foundation to be branded reactionary and backward looking.
Certainly, few of the criteria embraced by the foundation fit with the conventional 20th and 21st century architectural bravura of skyscrapers, windswept city plazas and iconic buildings in novel, eye-catching forms. But the foundation's position is actually founded on concerns for the future, rather than, as many would claim, a rose-tinted image of the past.
The foundation advocates and engages in an Enquiry by Design process – as such, the design work produced is always the result of community engagement and in response to community concerns, something that always seems to drive towards traditional urbanism and architecture.
The approach championed by the foundation appears self-evident for a multitude of reasons – not least energy conservation. Within our lifetime, our dependency on energy resources, developed through the past century, will be severely tested by oil and gas depletion.
We depend on the abundance of fossil fuels not only for heating and cooling our environments, our ease of mobility, but also for many of the construction materials that gave the 20th century its architectural vocabulary. The components of architectural styles espoused by Corbusier and Mies Van Der Rohe – the steel or concrete frame and the glass wall – are products of high-energy production processes hard to replicate when resources become scarce.
Equally, designs such as the tall skyscraper, or the deep-plan office block represent buildings highly dependent on energy in their use, their maintenance and repair. In the face of this, what are needed instead are 21st century solutions that use the best of contemporary technology but are rooted in a sense of place and community, drawn from tradition.
It is unlikely that, faced with a difficult spectrum of choices, building commissioners will continue to endorse high-energy modes of construction and building management as energy costs are seen to rise steeply. Already, commercial clients are requiring extensive shading measures in the design of new office buildings and considering natural daylight in their plans. Soon, the economics of simply building tall, still the preferred mode in the City of London, will start to look like a poor bet for all but the highest value locations around the world. Skyscrapers of the future will be status symbols indeed.
Domestic buildings that provide energy savings will become highly prized, and measurement of energy use will influence the homebuyer in a way that is not prevalent today. This will be equally true of carbon footprint considerations as people think about the travel that they have to do on a daily basis and the cost implications associated with living near or far away from public transport.
What emerges is a picture very similar to the communities of the past, where the car was not king, and citizens both needed and demanded many facilities close by. It may save our failing town centres.
Much damage has already been done, and we are several generations into a suburban experience that has left us all denied the skills and facilities to live in cohesive, dense proximity to one another.
Homes that resemble the Prince's Foundation's Natural House, currently being completed at the Building Research Establishment, Watford, will be sought after for their responsive thermal qualities. Its single-skin walls and well-insulated roof, floor and windows mean it will be easily warmed in winter and remain cool in summer.
By making the right choices now, we can reaffirm the human qualities of our urban environments so that an energy-depleted future is not a bleak one for the majority of people.Hank Dittmar is chief executive of the Prince's Foundation for the Built Environment