The Ethics of Development (Part I)

The more eagle-eyed among you will have noted a gap in my posts.  For various reasons, I have been occupied with other things and I haven’t felt that blogs were what was needed. Among the ‘other things’ is Brexit, which I think is an utter disaster, an unbelievable backward step for us all in the UK, one which we will regret for a generation.

Other ‘other things’ such as the US administrations unconscionable behaviour in relation to climate change makes me put my head in my hands on a regular basis, but the optimist in me thinks(hopes fervently) that it is a short-term problem and that the next administration will reverse the direction of US policy to be more sensible and ethical.

This brings me neatly to where I wanted to get to, as one of the things I have been thinking about, reading about and writing about over the last year is the question of ethics and how we relate ethics to climate change in the world of the built environment. I firmly believe that one of the reasons why the US has back-tracked on the Paris Agreement is that there is no widely agreed ethical position on climate change outside the environmental movement. It is being discussed as a matter of science, and facts, both of which are open to misinterpretation or denial by those who have much to gain by delaying action. If there was a strong ethical position that was commonly agreed in the West, then the discussion about science could continue but against a backdrop of general agreement about what is the ‘right thing to do’ or ‘the right direction’ to take. As Brexit and the US elections have shown, there is a large group in both populations unwilling to listen to reasoned arguments, and unconvinced that action on climate change is the ‘right thing to do’.  Perhaps we can use ethics to look at the problem from another direction?

My aim is to look into the idea of sustainable development in the built environment from an ethical standpoint and help to demonstrate why this is the ‘right thing to do’.

My thoughts on this were partially prompted last year when I was asked to speak about ethics and architecture at the APRES 2016 conference. I accepted the invitation because I thought that it would force me to confront the question: what does ethics mean in a professional context?   I also thought that I could develop an understanding of the relevance of ethics to the architectural profession in particular. I was half-right, insofar as I am far from achieving a full understanding of the topic, but closer to a view of what the relevance of ethics is to the profession.

Since ethics are primarily about how we deal with each other, architects might be forgiven for wondering what it has to do with buildings built with, hopefully, inert materials. But since the purpose of building is to serve the needs of people, clients, users, occupants and society, there are ethical implications to every act related to design and construction, some of which are covered in part by legislation, and many which aren’t.

In order to discuss the issue of ethics, I think that we need a framework to describe how it relates to development, even if its only temporary, a scaffold within which to erect our ideas, and then we can remove it if we are satisfied with the result.

There are a number of dimensions to the problem and each has its ethical implications. In the following paragraphs, I try and set out such a framework and to highlight just a few of the ethical issues that arise in each area. In a second blog, I will try and flesh out these four areas of ethical consideration.

1.The stages of the building over time, its design, construction, operation and demolition.

Much of the early stages of the building’s life is covered by the stages of the Plan of Work and therefore the RIBA code of conduct. But even early-stage design raises ethical issues. If people need to be moved and rehoused to enable a regeneration project, are their needs being balanced by the needs of those who will be housed in the new development? What measure can we use to balance such needs? Do we aim for the greatest good for the greatest number of people? Or do those living on a site deserve special treatment? Are their needs more deserving than people who haven’t arrived yet? If so, why?

Are we designing buildings that will minimise the harm to those who are going to build them? CDM legislation has helped enormously to raise awareness of safety in construction and in the use of buildings, but our traditional construction methods and procurement behaviour impose risks which look less reasonable with every accident.

2.The context for the physical building, the immediate location, the wider context and the global context.

Some of the context is covered by planning law and national legislation, other parts, particularly the impact on the global context of material extraction, is not. For example, there has been some recent discussion on the impact of tall buildings on their neighbours, near and far away. How much weight should designers give to such considerations where there is no legislation and little guidance relating to this impact? In the wider context we are faced with the danger of climate change, and while we have some legislation to deal with it in both Building Regulations and planning law, the implementation of it is patchy and the final building would often fail a detailed post-occupancy test of performance. The RIBA Code of Professional Conduct is weak on the subject, do we need a strong Code of Ethics to support us to do the right thing? If local or national Government is going to be weak, can the profession be strong?

3.Those affected by the purpose and use of the building, the client, the funders, owners, operators, those nearby, the neighbouring region and the rest of the planet. Some of these are covered by Building Regulations or the legal duty of care but many of them are not.   The impact of building low-rise homes on agricultural land is a case in point. Building low-density homes in suburbs that are far removed from services and amenities is already an obviously poor strategy in social and environmental terms, but the majority of new homes in the UK fit into this category. What can the profession do to represent the people who are only being offered a car-dominated environment to live in?

4.The needs of the users, ranging from the most basic ones of shelter to the most sophisticated level of personal development. Maslov’s Hierarchy of Needs provides us with a ready-made structure to use here so we may only need to assess how this structure relates to our work as designers and whether we are giving due attention to the different needs of building users. A fundamental issue is whether we know how well or badly we are currently doing before we even start to think about improving matters.

Currently, in practice, the clear priority is to satisfy the needs of the client and provided that this is done within the boundaries of all available legislation, most architects, if questioned, would feel that this would be an adequate result. But is it? Do we have a stronger responsibility to society than this would suggest, given that unlike most other professions our work continues to exist and have an impact long after our expertise has been applied?

Satisfying the needs of the client whilst acting within the boundaries of available legislation is a level of effort expected by everyone, from hairdressers to CEOs. There isn’t anything special about fulfilling that requirement. The question we need to ask ourselves is this: does our professional ability and knowledge mean that we should take an extra level of care for everyone and everything affected by our work, even when legislation and guidance are absent?

My feeling is that we do need this. building a building is not like making spoons or shoes, we help to bring a building or a project to fruition that lasts for generations and often has an impact after we are retired or dead. Our thinking has to be rooted in the long term, even if the thinking of the client and funders is rooted in the short-term. By taking a long-term view particularly an ethical view we ought to be able to determine the ‘right thing to do’ and even if we don’t do it, we will have educated ourselves, our colleagues and our clients in the process.

Some of this article was first published in Architects Datafile Magazine.


Building your Sustainable Library

You wait a while for a good book and then two come along at once. 

I attended the UK launch of two different books relevant to you this week, the first was ‘Sustainable Cities – Assessing the Performance and Practice of Urban Envrionments’ edited by Pierre Laconte and Chris Glossop and published by I.B.Tauris ISBN 978-1-78453-232-1.

This is a portmanteau publication, containing a number of chapters written by other authors, some of which will have been published elsewhere in some form, but not all together as in this case, and not carefully considered for their relevant to this important topic. 

The question of sustainable cities, what defines them, what standards allies to them, how do we choose indicators to assess the, and when we build them how do we know we have succeeded, are all questions tackled by authors in this publication. Given that we have now passed the point at which 50% of the worlds population lives in cities, there is hardly a bigger question for sustainability specialists to work on. If we can crack this, we can avoid runaway climate change.

Authors include Dr. Kerry Mashford, the late Sir Peter Hall, Chris Glossop and Dr Ian Douglas.

I also attended a lecture given by architect Stefano Boeri on his recent project in Milan, Bosco Verticale. The event was hosted by the Engineering Club at the Congress Centre. (A few architects turned up)

Bosco Verticale translates to Vertical Forest, and his two buildings in Milan, evenly constructed for Hines, and then sold on to Qatari Diar, demonstrate what he means by this. Each apartment has a tree on the balcony, several metres tall, together wth a quantity of shrubs and smaller plants. The publication ‘un Bosco Verticale, a vertical Forest- instructions booklet for the prototype forest city’ published by Corraini,  ISBN 9-788875-705411 was available on the night and furnishes a lot of background information to the project including the following numbers. 

The project provides two hectares of forest and 8900 Sqm of balcony area.

This includes 711 trees, 5,000 shrubs, 15,000 perennials, absorbing 19,825kg of CO2 per annum.

There are approximately 1600 birds and insects (although how they could know this is not explained!) This includes a box of ladybirds imported from Germany to eat aphids and other pests. (I don’t know why they needed Germany ladybirds)

The design uses 94 species of plants, giving it a very high level of biodiversity.

The trees are planted in steel-lined planters to prevent the roots cracking the structure, and they are loosely tied back to the structure in case they could be blown off iin hurricane level winds. The steel-linings will also constrain the growth of the trees so that they cannot get too big for the space available or too heavy for the structure. They are a bit like enormous  bonsai trees. They are maintained partially from the balconies, but the outer sides are pruned by gardeners that abseil down the outside of the buildings twice a year. While this might sound outlandish, consider that many glass buildings are routinely maintained by abseilers. 

The result is extraordinary, a pair of buildings that look like no others, and a second project is underway in France. Stefano was quite straightforward in admitting that it took some time and a lot of effort to convince his clients that this could work. There are elements of what was built that he will change the second time, and he has plans to continue to develop  the idea on a larger scale.

He was asked many times by the audience about squirrels, which he was not in favour of, but which he expected to arrive anyway, and also about fruit trees, as none of the species used are fruiting trees. He cited concerns about the dangers of falling fruit as the reasons why they weren’t used. This sounds to me like a problem that could be solved, and would add a further beneficial dimension to what is already a beautiful and convincing idea. 

This is an inspiring idea and one that merits your attention.


Where is the backbench opposition to Green cuts?

When the Tories won the election, I asked myself, and some colleagues, ‘who will keep them in check’? The answer from one particularly wise colleague was: ‘they will, they will keep themselves in check’. So it has proved to be. The response to the tax credit cuts from backbenchers and from Tories in the Lords has been decisive. (I was particularly surprised by the appearance of Lord Lawson voting against the Govt, I had long since dismissed him as a climate-change denying basket case, but it appears I might have been wrong about him, climate-change denier apart, he isn’t a basket case). Why then has there not been a similar response to the Tory dismantling of environmental legislation? In case you need a reminder of the damage, Here is a handy list, I suggest that you cut it out and keep it. Has there been any response from the Lords or the backbenches? No there hasn’t. Labour have been too busy deciding whether to elect Corbyn, and having elected him, whether they have consigned themselves to the opposition for a decade. [It is notable that the time when an opposition is most needed in modern politics is in the first year of a new term, so the policy of losing party leaders throwing themselves on their swords is exactly the wrong approach for an electorate that needs a strong opposition at the beginning of the new term. We don’t need a strong opposition leader to turn up when most of the policy changes have been made].

In the end, politicians across the spectrum don’t see these cuts to environmental legislation as a vote loser. The damage this is going to do to the renewables industry or to the climate is perceived to be either too small or too distant for them to worry about it. Whatever negative impact these cuts will have are too distant for politicians to worry about. What is startling about this is that the outcome is more similar to the impact of tax credits than they think. But since most of the people affected don’t have a vote in the UK they are not being considered in quite the same way.

The outcome of climate change on those affected will be much, much worse than any tax credit cuts. Instead of being a bit worse off, millions of people will be displaced. This article mentions some of the countries where a lot of people are likely to be displaced by sea level rises, picture the problems in East Africa if Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia are strongly affected by climate change, as is predicted, and how an influx of refugees from those countries would affect Sudan, Uganda and the Congo? Given how much impact a mere two million refugees from Syria is having on the EU, how do we think the worlds politics, industries and economies would be affected by the movement of 150 million people?

Somehow we haven’t managed to couch the message about the dangers of runaway climate change in the right way. It is too much about energy, and too much about what needs to happen in the UK. We need to reinforce the message that the position of the UK on the world stage is at stake here, not as a Trident wielding superpower, but as a compassionate nation full of sympathy for those victimised by circumstances, through no fault of their own, impoverished by their history and at risk from our thoughtlessness.

Building on the Green Belt

Paul Cheshire of the London School of Economics came to HTA last month and presented his thoughts on Building on the Green Belt. It was at once appalling and fascinating. I think it is worthwhile to explore ideas that are superficially appalling to analyse why they affect us in this way and whether our sensitivity to them is real or something we have learned without really absorbing the rationale behind it. The history of civilisation is full of bad ideas that were once held to be good ideas but which we now find appalling. By we, I largely mean Western civilisation. By bad ideas I mean racism, fascism, UKIP, factory farming…those sorts of ideas. What seems obvious to one generation can often appal the next one. Think about 70’s fashion!

Building on the Green Belt(BoGB) has come to attract the same strong reactions as some of those ideas above, whether one is for or against, there is no real middle ground. The cause against BoGB is is largely emotional and visceral, its ‘green’ land, the reasoning goes, so it must be nice, its surely full of woodland and trees, it harbours the last vestige of medieval connectivity with the ‘land’ that feeds us. We will all choke to death on the fumes of cars and buildings if we allow this to continue, etc., etc.,We are carpeting over England’s green and pleasant land and we mustn’t allow it to continue, or even think about allowing it to continue. Is any of this true?

The problem with all of this is that there is enough truth in it to make it believable to the average voter, and therefore completely toxic to our current crop of rather spineless politicians. Were BoGB to happen it will inevitably destroy some areas of land that have some ecological value, and will inevitably carpet over some of the ‘green and pleasant’ land. But the argument is more complex than this. By not BoGB we are curtailing the supply of land for housing in a way that was not envisaged when the legislation was enacted. We are in a period of chronic under-supply of homes and young people have little chance of getting an affordable home to live in unless we act to increase supply. London in particular is being constrained to the point where housing ownership is becoming impossible for young people on a normal wage.

To change the housing market we need to be building many more homes that we are currently building, this appears to be generally accepted. Some of these can be delivered in dense new apartment developments close to jobs in city centres. But high density development is slow to bring through the planning system and often controversial. On its own it won’t be enough.

I dislike the idea of BoGB as much, and possibly more than most, I prefer to design dense environments for people to live in, as I believe that high density living brings with it high-quality services. If I had my way we would all live in terraces or apartments and the suburban semi would be banned. Fortunately there are a lot of people who disagree with me and who want to live in the suburbs in a semi and they should have what they want. Shouldn’t they? Is owning an environmentally damaging house with four cars and garden in the suburbs an ‘inalienable human right’ or should it be classified as something that previous generations longed for and could afford, but which we cannot? Do we recognise that the costs of allowing everyone to own their own patch of grass two hours commute from where they work is neither good for them nor good for society as a whole?

To look at the figures dispassionately, 13% of land in the UK is Green Belt land. have produced a nice map illustrating the many designations of land used in England to prevent development. Their research demonstrates that we have built on approximately 10% of our land, leaving the remaining 90%, much of which is unavailable for development. The illustration of Green Belts around the main population centres demonstrates that they are doing their job of curtailing the growth of those centres, and putting pressure on nearby smaller towns to grow instead.

Unfortunately this land use planning strategy is not matched by an economic strategy that is helping to create jobs in those smaller towns. The result is a working population in the cities that must commute long distances to work and puts increasing pressure on the transport system. See here for statistics showing that a decade ago about one third of London’s working population commuted into London. One of the results of this has been the construction of more roads through the Green Belt, which has further degraded it, on top of the highly industrialised agriculture practised in most of the Green Belt which has denuded it of trees and wildlife. It may be green in colour, but much of it is grey in environmental terms, ecologically poor, with sparse areas of ecology poisoned by pesticides and curtailed by the machinery of the supermarket supply chain. Is it really worth protecting? Are we being realistic by calling it the Green Belt? Are we using the right yardstick to measure it against? Should we call it an Environmental Zone or Green Zone instead.

The decades-old principle of home ownership will soon be at an end unless these conflicting strategies are resolved. Land use designations including the Green Belt have become an inconvenient sacred cow that is preventing our cities from expanding. Growth is being pushed out to smaller dormitory towns, and pushing up the price of land outside the Green Belts to levels where starter homes require subsidy to be affordable. The policies discussed in the recent round of conferences include subsidies for first time buyers is a direct result of a set of planning policies that limit the opportunities for development.

I suspect that the Green Belt could be made smaller, more environmentally beneficial, and much more meaningful in real terms by being ‘masterplanned’ and ‘activated’ more thoroughly. The reality is that most Green Belt land currently performs little useful function other than to curtail development. Given that our wildlife population continues to plummet, we cannot argue that Green Belts have fulfilled a function of protecting wildlife. To live up to its designation Green Belts need to be transformed into places where nature can thrive and also be enjoyed by the urban population they are intended to support. A series of Environmental Zones surrounding our cities which contain leisure activities as well as a proportion of responsible farming, new woodlands, wind turbines, biodiverse places rich in ecology and protected by future generations and bounded by dense high quality homes seems to me to engender the best of both worlds. The costs of these changes would be borne by the sale of a proportion of the land for new housing.

Since many of these areas are already well-served by public transport little new infrastructure would be needed. The existing infrastructure is currently under-used as these outlying areas have not been able to expand since the transport network was installed decades ago. By creating jobs in these locations we would also reduce the need for expansion in the transport network and balance the current concentration of jobs in the centres of our cities with a new set of suburban desirable locations for people to live and work. The Green Belt was a good idea and it has left us a legacy of potential that we can use, but on its own it is not enough to guarantee a positive future for our major cities.

Biodiversity Offsetting Proposals – a Hedge Too Far

The UK Govt has signalled its intention to introduce the idea of ‘biodiversity offsetting‘ in the planning system. In simple terms this will allow developers of land that has some ecology value to remove the area that has value by replacing it with another area of similar or better ecology value elsewhere. Protected species legislation, SSI’s etc., are unlikely to be affected by this. It is designed to deal with areas where there is ecological value, where the ecology is not unusually valuable or a habitat for protected species.

There are some sensible sounding elements to the consultation:

-the areas in question must be independently assessed, and will probably be done using a system of accredited assessors, Suitably Qualified Ecologists?

-the new areas can be provided by a third party, e.g. RSPB, the National Trust, enabling existing areas of ecological value to be extended and improved

-the new areas could be considered nationally, e.g. a loss in London could be compensated for by an addition in Portsmouth, although there are a number of details to this that may limit the distance from the development site to the replacement site. In todays Times, the Environment Secretary suggests that ‘an hour away by car’ could be a suitable distance. Thus neatly displaying his lack of credentials to hold this position.

-hedgerows are excluded and must be replaced onsite

-SUDS may be considered as a ‘local’ offset, if a SUDS system that involves habitat creation is used, then this may compensate for other habitat loss on the same site

Equally, there are many aspects to this that sets my teeth on edge:

-the language of the document is almost unbelievably crass, the idea that ecology can be treated like pieces on a chessboard and moved about, almost at will, is treated as though this were normal practice. Quoting examples of best practice from Australia isn’t helpful. Looking to Australia, under its current Government, for examples of environmental protection is a bit like asking a mugger for advice on security.

-local people surrounding a development parcel may not appreciate the nicety that a part of their local well-loved area was not unusual or home to valuable species. Replacing this elsewhere, ‘within an hours drive by car’ hardly represents a reasonable ‘replacement’ in human terms, even of the replacement is much better in environmental terms. The consultation considers the ‘environment’ as a set of numbers to be maintained and ‘grown’. While this may be realised in national terms using this offsetting process, the result for individual places where development happens is that they will be poorer, with lower levels of environmental quality, and with less consideration given to ecology than is currently likely to happen.

-there is no discussion about the economic loss of arable land

-there is a bizarre, and even more crass, suggestion that developers might consider ‘ecology banking’ where they buy in advance, or enter into agreements in advance with ecology providers, to create areas of ecological enhancement before they need them. The principle of applying a monetary value to ecology can be helpful, up to a point, this is going beyond that point. The banking system is years away from re-establishing its credibility with the average person, and using this type of language is simply poor judgement by Defra that will do a lot of damage to otherwise potentially helpful proposals.

Cities 2.0 RE:WORK

I attended an event at the Tobacco dock last week on the subject of Future Cities/Smart Cities/Cities 2.0. You wait years for this type of thing and then two of them turn up at once. The event format was dominated by speaker sessions with little time for questions. I think that with hindsight the organisers could have left some speakers out and extended the time for discussion. Tobacco dock is also a questionable venue in the middle of winter, it was very cold. It would have been better to put everyone into an auditorium where conversation would have been easier between sessions.


If you are in a real hurry… this event looked at many of the issues that future cities will need to address and what design ideas and technologies are available that may help them to do that.

If you are in less of a hurry… this event selected a number of interesting people from around the world with ideas relevant to future cities and asked them to present them to an audience of data analysists, transport specialists, infrastructure designers and masterplanners. The sessions were split into Urban Mobility, Cities of Tomorrow, Prototyping and Smart Citizens, Sustainable Cities, the Internet of Things & the Socially Driven City, synthetic Biology and the Living City, and Digital Fabrication.

If you are in no hurry, here is a synopsis.

Urban Mobility

  • Frauke Behrendt from the University of Brighton showed some results of a study where she gave e-bikes to a number of people who didn’t currently cycle and studied what happened. A great piece of work that demonstrates how cycling can transform urban mobility quickly and relatively painlessly without needing new and expensive infrastructure.
  • Erik Schlangen, from Delft University showed off a system for repairing concrete and one for repairing roads, the concrete system uses bacteria which are put into the concrete mix but stay ‘asleep’ and then activate when the concrete leaks to plug the crack. Then they go back to sleep again! The road system uses steel wool embedded in tarmac, when the tarmac loses its grip on the aggregate a machine goes over the road surface and using induction heats the wire wool, melts the ashphalt and it regains its grip on the aggregate. They think it needs to be done every three years or so to keep roads in good condition.
  • Fahim Kawsar from Bell labs, showed some research on urban mobility using TFL anonymised data to track movement in and out of intersections, transport nodes and major routes in London. This research showed that there are distinct patterns of use of London’s infrastructure, and I suggested to him that this could be used to identify places where there was good infrastructure but low levels of use, hinting at opportunities for development.
  • Nick Bromley from iCity Smart Cities showed that using mobile phone usage data a similar level of detail can be achieved but which continues to actual destinations and doesn’t stop at transport nodes. This is done using the MAC address of phones, so no-one is tracking actual people, just the hardware, and there is no link between the hardware address and the person. (unless the NSA/MI6 are involved, in which case all bets are off).

Cities of Tomorrow

  • Andrew Hudson Smith talked about the work of CASA at the Bartlett, UCL. He talked about developing a new science of cities to help us to understand how urban mobility, health, transport and economics works and how to help it to work better. He suggested that we are going to see a new transport layer made up of drones delivering goods and services for us in the next decade. See this article about a certain well-known company testing their use for deliveries.
  • Paul Hirst of Disruptive Urbanism wondered what we were trying to achieve in cities. Are these efforts aimed at helping people to be happier or more productive, using less energy or being more comfortable?
  • Manu Fernandez of Human Scale City was clear that technology on its own is not enough. He wondered what cities would be like if we changed pedestrian crossings to always be on, and cars had to press the button to cross? He suggested that a use of technology to control infrastructure would fail, but one which hands control to citizens would succeed.
  • Lean Doody of ARUP suggested that technical integration is the easy part, its more difficult for us to cooperate in an urban environment than technological integration would suggest. The fact that we can talk to anyone in the world easily doesn’t mean that we talk to our neighbours more than we used to.
  • Scott Cain of Future Cities Catapult described the job of the Catapult in joining together expertise in future cities. There is an investment programme of 10 Trillion dollars planned in global cities over the next decade to meet rising levels of urbanisation. The job of the Catapult is to bring expertise together to help meet this global demand.

Prototyping and Smart Citizens

  • Alicia Asin of Libelium showed the use of sensors in urban areas to allow people better control over their lives. She showed examples of sensors being used to hlep people find a parking space, or to show people what the local air quality is like, data is there for a purpose, to remove uncertainty. She suggested that the use of open-source technology like Raspberry Pi and Arduino boards may allow future citizens to access open data themselves and to relay it back to others for the common good. See this open source Geiger counter as an example.
  • Joel Gethin Lewis of Hellicar & Lewis showed some of their work creating interactive installations that bring some joy and happiness to the urban experience.
  • Priya Prakash of Design for Social change talked about setting up, a platform for enabling change in urban environments by bringing together interested parties. This team are working with Southwark to develop the Elephant & Castle Neighbourhood Plan.
  • Sam Hill of PAN Studio talked mainly about their work with Bristol City Council to provide text addresses for inanimate objects in the city. These could then accept text messages from people and respond with some helpful and sometimes less helpful information. A charming and witty project that shows that successful engagement need not always be about purpose and outcomes, sometimes fun and humour is enough.

Creating the Sustainable City

  • Phillip Rode of LSE Cities talked about research into what control cities have over some of the critical elements of being good cities. He oberved that many cities have no food policy, the one thing that every one in a city needs every day! There is a great variety of approaches to energy policy, in some countries the energy system is owned by the city and in others the city has no control.
  • Alsion Dring of elegant embellishments talked about their development of pollution eating facade treatments and their work to turn biochar into a useful production material. Her ambition is to turn consumption into a sustainable activity rather than trying to stop it. This is an interesting approach and it turns the usual environmental message on its head. Turn biochar into a material that can be used to make furniture out of, for example, and then encourage people to buy it and then send it to landfill. The biochar will lock up carbon for centuries and stimulate a renewable materials industry.

The Internet of Things & The Socially Driven City

  • Carlo Ratti of MIT showed some work from the Senseable City Lab. He showed a brilliant project where he tagged several hundred pieces of rubbish and then tracked their progress to waste disposal sites. The result was a bewildering pattern of networks some of them criss-crossing the US as these unwanted items were delivered to their final recycling or waste disposal site. He then showed another drone related piece of work where a drone showed a Harvard student how to get around MIT.  I was left thinking that the Harvard student would have been much better left to ask MIT students how to get around MIT, since his/her purpose in coming there was to meet MIT students and learn from them, rather than following a drone around campus. Drones seem to me to be a technology in search of a solution, rather than the other way around.
  • Marc Pous, from theThings.IO talked about the use of open source software and hardware to enable citizens to do their own thing to control their destinies rather than cities thinking that they need to use control systems to make citizens lives easier.
  • Mischa Dohler talked about how difficult it is to engage with citizens in their busy lives and how you need to develop empathy before you can enable engagement.

Synthetic Biology & the Living City

This section was frankly disappointing.

  • David Benjamin of The Living demonstrated how sensor data can be tied to visual signs to quickly illustrate to urban dwellers what air or water quality is immediately without needing to go through further data processing and relay to apps.

Digital Fabrication & 3D Printing

  • Enrico Dini of D-Shape showed his technique for printing buildings using sand, and then suggested that since there was lots of sand in deserts we should build cities there. This is a leap of imagination I din’t follow as we have been moving our construction materials to where we want to live for centuries, not the other way around. His illustrations of the types of buildings that could be built from sand were attractive, and interesting, but ultimately unconvincing.
  • Gilles Retsin of SoftKill Design showed a design for a house constructed from the smallest possible amount of material made into very intricate components. The problem was that it wasn’t a house that anyone could recognise as a house or live in. It was more an exhibition of itself than a realistic architectural proposition.
  • Fabio Gramazio from ETH showed examples of robots being used at ETH to build interesting shapes that human bricklayers would have difficulty with. For example, a winery facade made from bricks that rotate a few millimeters to create a ventilated facade that is still structurally sound. He then made an intellectual leap from small structures of brick made from drones to large structures made from larger drones where the construction elements are not bricks but individual homes.

All the projects in this session made a similar intellectual leap from a fascination about the use of a particular type of manufacturing to an idea about cities. The manufacturing ideas are strng, but the ideas for scaling it up were all weak. The idea of designing places around the technology that makes them is similar to the intellectual leap that led us to Brutalism, and Plan Voisin. Places should be about the lives of people that live in them, and not about the technology that makes the places. I think that 3D printing and new construction techniques have an important role to play in future cities, but I didn’t see it here.

End Ecocide in Europe

This is a message from the End Ecocide in Europe team. If pleading with people doesn’t work, or educating them takes too long, and when your own Government gives a tax rebate to fracking companies, perhaps its time to look at the legal process for help.

“End Ecocide in Europe is a grass-roots initiative aimed at protecting ecosystems on which we all depend for life. We can achieve that by making severe cases of environmental destruction a crime for which those responsible can be held accountable. This crime has a name: Ecocide.

Vote to end ecocide today at

Ecocide is defined as the “extensive damage to, destruction of or loss of ecosystems of a given territory”. We want ecocide to become a crime for which those responsible can be held accountable. To learn more watch this animation.

Today, we live in a world where the “widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment” (Art 8.2 Rome Statute) is a war crime but during peace time corporates destroy the earth in a severe way without facing any consequences. We believe it’s time to update the law.

That’s why we have proposed a law to the European Union – when at least 1 million EU citizens support it, the European Commission will have to consider our proposal. The European Citizens’ Initiative is a direct democratic tool which politicians can’t ignore. Vote now at

The initiative is entirely run by volunteers. It’s a true citizens’ initiative and therefore YOU can also do your part. Just take it on and speak about it wherever you can, encourage all your friends and family to sign and spread it in your unique network. Share our video and follow us on Facebook or Twitter. If you want to do more, please have a look at our Get Involved section and contact Lucia, our volunteers coordinator (

More information can be found at: and (on the European Citizens’ Initiative in general).

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead.

YOU can become part of that change!”

The Future of Construction

Construction RobotThose in the industry who know me well will be familiar with my frustration at the pace of change in the construction of housing in the UK. I would call it glacial, but the current speed of ice melt rather undermines that adjective, so I’ll just call it slow. But the pace of change of everything that goes IN to our housing continues to accelerate. Our appliances would be unfamiliar to our grandparents, who neither had mobile phones nor realised how essential to our happiness they would become. But our houses would not be unfamiliar, although they would probably seem small to a generation brought up in Victorian and Edwardian houses.

Our TV’s are now flat and our toasters are now curved, instead of the other way around. Our radios fit into our pockets and ‘talk’ to speakers in the neighbouring room, while we talk to friends on the other side of the world more often than we talk to our neighbours. Our appliances are made by robots, as are our cars, and all of them come in a bewildering array of choices, specifications and colours. Our houses meanwhile, still come in brick, or brick, or there is always brick. It usually comes in either a muddy red, or a muddy brown, or even, excitingly, a mixture of the two.

Meanwhile there are interesting things afoot  in the manufacturing of housing. WikiHouse is a project by 00:/ architects (no, that’s not a typo) that offers a kit of parts to anyone who can get their hands on a Computer Numerically Controlled (CNC) cutting machine and a stack of 18mm ply. The idea is that anyone in any country around the world ought to be able to put up their own home in a few days by using this simple construction system that requires no fixings other than pieces of plywood joined together in an elegant 3 dimensional house shaped puzzle. Imagine that geeks took over IKEA for a day, and that’s close enough.

Other work being done in Switzerland and Singapore is working around the idea of using robots to participate in construction. Not to do the boring bits, but to do things that humans cannot do easily, or at all, like build curved structures with no mistakes, walls that curve in three dimensions. Have a look at this video of small flying drones building a complex brick structure. Bricklayers would find this difficult, but for robotic agents, its just as easy as building in a straight line. This use of open-source construction templates and robotics thinking is very fresh and new, but hints at a future that is much more exciting in terms of widely accessible manufacturing that the present. As Alistair Parvin says in his TED talk about WikiHouse, the past was about the control of manufacturing and supply, the future is about the democratisation of it.

This has huge potential for the future of design as a discipline as well as for the future of housing. Design may well become the art of making things possible, and not the art of making or the art of the possible. Our role in the future may not be making lots of small decisions about details, but instead making a small number of big decisions and letting the people who are going to inhabit or use the design make the rest of them. Instead of taking control of decisions, our role may become working out how best to give control over to those who will actually use the things that we design. Instead of making things for people, we may be giving them the tools and guidance to make them themselves.

There is a nice circularity to this. a few hundred years ago we all made things for ourselves, we built our own houses, made our own clothes, grew our own food, and traded where we had a surplus. After a period where we have been giving over the manufacture and design of everything to others, and being less and less satisfied with the results, perhaps in the future we will be more involved in making what we own and use and consequently may need less of them, and make better use of them.

Impact Assessment of Design

I have been considering the meaning of the word ‘Impact’ lately, in relation to how we design. I have been wondering if, when we design, do we know the impact of our design decisions? We are always asked to maximise the profit or benefit for our clients, so fitting the largest amount of development on the site that can reasonably be constructed and occupied is a given. This may or may not be the best thing for society in the long term, but we have no real methodology for appraising whether it is or not, and it isn’t clear where a designers responsibility to society begins and ends. The short term impact for the immediate project team may be positive, and planning policy may approve it, but have the impacts been considered in the longer term, over 20-40-60-100 years? Where the impacts have been considered, have they been considered in terms of social, economic and environmental benefits/damage.

It is interesting to note that the Governments ‘Better Regulation Framework‘ guidance on Impact Assessment states:

For each option, an assessment should be made of the likely impacts that are likely to result, monetised where possible and proportionate. The impact assessment should consider the full range of possible impacts, including economic, social and environmental impacts, not just impacts to business. Risks and assumptions should be clearly stated.

Naturally, even Government Consultations don’t always follow these rules, so what chance would a design team have, while under pressure from a client to submit an application? It must become part of everyday practice that designers ask themselves that question at every turn. Is this design idea/change likely to lead to environmental, social and economic benefits? If the answer is no to all three, then it must be a bad idea to begin with. If only designers knew the answers to these questions. Designers know very little about the social or economic impact of their designs, as they get little feedback from their end users, and rarely visit their buildings after completing them, so how could they know?

The difference between long-term and short term impacts are even more difficult to assess and predict. How can we predict the future, and assess how our buildings will function one or two generations from now? What we can do is take an approach that considers the future in social, economic and environmental terms.

For example we can design ‘in’ sufficient flexibility so that a number of possible future outcomes are possible, such as a building capable of supporting a variety of uses. We can design very efficient fabric so that the environmental performance is ‘locked in’ to the building and not dependant on mechanical systems. We can design economic buildings that are cheap to build but which are made of robust materials that will last a long time, thus passing on an economic benefit to the next generations.

Again, when we build on green field land, do we consider anywhere in the process that the loss of arable land represents a cost to future generations? That land will never be able to produce food for us again, and since we already import a large proportion of our food, this kind of action condemns us to increase that activity in perpetuity. With rising oil prices, this may be a cost that our descendants are not grateful for.

When we build new homes do we consider the impact of future energy price rises on their inhabitants? Designing in greater energy efficiency is cheap and cost effective, but we don’t see any benefit in doing so, despite the fact that there are positive social and economic benefits, just not the short term benefits to the developer. Future generations will be condemned to higher fuel bills than could otherwise be the case, resulting in a lower economic benefit over the lifetime of the building to set off against the short term economic benefit to the developer of building more cheaply.

We need to continue the process of educating ourselves about the impacts of the buildings and places that we create, and how to maximise them. The market is helpful in the short term but is useless in the long term. By considering these impacts over the lifetime of our work we can take those steps in the right direction.

IPCC 5th Assessment Report

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 5th Assessment report was released this week. I have read the summary for policymakers, and it doesn’t make for comforting reading. Here are some of the main issues that stood out for me. These are simplified results, for the full content, read the report.

The digested read, digested.

Its going to get hotter and dryer where its already hot and dry, and wetter where it is already wet. The ice is going to melt more quickly and raise the sea levels. The air and ocean temperatures will rise and expand, rising sea levels even further. Coastal areas will experience more flooding and tidal surges. The climate will change in unpredictable ways, but it will change. Even if we stopped burning fossil fuels today some of this will happen anyway, if we don’t stop soon then our great grand-children will inherit a very different world to the one we grew up in.

Our buildings will need to resist overheating, protect from flooding, deal with increasing precipitation, provide more shade, and cause fewer greenhouse gases to be emitted in their production, construction, operation and demolition.

The Main Issues (for me)

-‘Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950’s many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished,sea level has risen and the concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased’

-‘The globally averaged combined land and ocean surface temperature…show a warming of 0.85 deg C over the period 1880-2012’

-‘The rate of warming since 1951 is 0.12 deg C per decade.’

-‘The average rate of ice loss from glaciers around the world, separate from ice sheets, was very likely 226 gigatonnes per year 1971-2009 and 275 gigatonnes per year over the period 1993-2009.’ In other words the rate of ice loss from glaciers is accelerating.

-‘The average rate of ice loss from the Greenland ice sheet has very likely substantially increased from 34 gigatonnes per year over the period 1992-2001 to 215 gigatonnes per year over the period 2002-2011.’ This is an increase of over 6 times within the period.

-‘The average rate of ice loss from the antartic ice sheet has likely increased from 30 to 147 gigatonnes per year over the period 2002-2011.’

-‘There is high confidence that permafrost temperatures have increased in most regions since the early 1980s. Observed warming was up to 3 deg c in parts of Northern Alaska(early 19880s to mid 200s) and up to 2 deg c in parts of the Russian European North(1971-2010).’

-‘The rate of sea level rise since the mid 19th Century has been larger than the mean rate during the previous two millenia (high confidence). Over the period 1901-2010, global mean sea level rose by 0.19m.’

-‘It is very likely that the mean rate of global averaged sea level rise was 1.7mm/year between 1901-2010, 2.0mm/year between 1971 and 2010 and 3.2mm/year between 1993 and 2010.’ In other words the rate of rise is rising.

‘The atmospheric concentrations of CO2, methane and nitrous oxides have increased to levels unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years.’

-The atmospheric concentrations of the greenhouse gases CO2, CH4 and N2O have all increased since 1750 due to human activity. In 2011 the concentrations of these greenhouse gases …exceeded the pre-industrial levels by about 40%, 150% and 20% respectively.

-‘Annual CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion and cement production were 8.3 gigatonnes of CO2/year averaged over 2002-2011(high confidence) and were 9.5 gigatonnes/year in 2011, 54% over the 1990 level.’ It is interesting that cement production gets mentioned in the same sentence as fossil fuel production. Yet we never hear of any policy measures aimed at reducing cement production or use, why is that?

‘Continued emission of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and changes in all components of the climate system. Limiting climate change will require substantial and sustained reductions of greenhouse gas emissions.’

Global surface temperature change for the end of the 21st century is likely to exceed 1.5 deg C relative to the period 1850-1900…’ for most future scenarios. It is likely to exceed 2 deg C for some scenarios.

‘It is virtually certain that there will be more frequent hot and fewer cold temperature extremes over land areas on daily and seasonal time-scales as global mean temperatures increase. It is very likely that heat waves will occur with a higher frequency and duration. Occasional cold winter extremes will continue to occur.’

‘It is very likely that the Atlantic Meriodonal Overturning Circulation (AMOC) will weaken over the 21st Century. Best estimates and range are… 11%…- 34%… It is likely that there will be some decline in it by about 2050.’ The AMOC is a long name for the Gulf Stream. Any likelihood of it weakening or changing ought to worry us very much.

‘Changes in the global water cycle in response to the warming over the 21st Century will not be uniform. the contrast in precipitation between wet and dry regions and between wet and dry seasons will increase, although there may be regional exceptions.’ So mostly dry and hot regions will get mostly dryer and hotter and mostly wet regions will get wetter, mostly.