The Ethics of Development (part II)

In the last article ‘The ethics of Development Part I’, I set out the framework within which I think the profession can begin to consider the ethical impact of projects that they are involved in.  This has come about because last year 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?. These articles are the result.

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.

The central question of ethics, as I see it, is ‘are we being fair to everyone involved in the process of design and construction?’

A further question we need to ask ourselves is: 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?  A check through the two codes of conduct that architects should follow is revealing insofar as it reveals an inadequate response to today’s environmental crisis.

The RIBA Professional Code of Conducts states:

Members shall respect the relevant rights and interests of others.

The ARB Architects Code states:

12.1 You should treat everyone fairly. You must act in compliance with your legal obligations. You must not discriminate ……

The RIBA Professional Code of Conduct states:

3.2 Members should be aware of the environmental impact of their work.

Note: Aware! But not asked to do anything.

The ARB Architects Code states:

5.1 Where appropriate, you should advise your client how best to conserve and enhance the quality of the environment and its natural resources.

The ‘where appropriate’ has me baffled. Where would it not be appropriate? Given that every project an architect could be involved in must have an impact, how could such advice ever not be appropriate?

In my previous article I set out the four areas within which to consider the ethical implications of any project, here I expand on those with examples of issues to consider, this is not meant to be exhaustive, only indicative.

  1. The stages of the building over time, its design, construction, operation, and demolition. What are the impacts of the building on people over time? How does it change over time? Are we aiming for the greatest good for the greatest number of people?

For example, a question we might ask in regeneration projects, or in any design project where an existing use is being closed or moved to facilitate the new project, ‘Are people being treated fairly to enable the design and construction process to happen?’

This question is particularly relevant to regeneration projects where the lives of people who live within the regeneration zone are going to be disrupted to enable the regeneration project to happen. Care must be taken to ensure that they are treated fairly and end up being beneficiaries of the project. If they are to suffer the disruption of moving and being rehoused, possibly more than once, then surely they should enjoy a share of the benefits of the project that they are enabling to happen.

Historically, many slum clearances happened without the agreement of residents, work was done to them, and not with them, and happily, we no longer behave this way in the UK. Other countries do behave this way, there is plenty of evidence of such clearances happening in China over the last decade. But whenever I hear the word ‘decanting’ (a shorthand term for moving people out of their buildings into other accommodation) I feel that while we may have moved on in terms of how we work, but not all of us have moved on it terms of the way we think. Decanting is something you do to wine. Perhaps we should use the word ‘disrupting’ instead?

At the same time, we must ask ourselves whether people who are on the housing waiting list are being treated fairly.

Across England, there were 1,183,779 households on the social housing waiting lists in 2016. If we take an average household size of 2.3 from the last census, that gives us a figure of 2,722,691 people.

The needs of such people, often housed in substandard accommodation, at high costs to the country, and often overcrowded, should be given sufficient weight when deciding what to do in any situation.  There may be a temptation to give more weight to people who are already living locally in any planning decision, but surely the need of those not present have equal weight, and if their need is dire, greater weight than the incumbents?

  1. The context for the physical building, the immediate location, the wider context and the global context. Do we aim for the greatest good or the least damage to the planet?

In recent years we have seen a huge rise in the amount of legislation, guidance, and advice related to greening the construction sector. Building Regulations, green building standards, and policy have all pushed the sector to make massive improvements in the performance of buildings. But two issues remain, the policy has become patchy as first the Coalition and then the Tory Government pulled back on the scope and level of intent of such policies, and the analysis of completed buildings demonstrates that many are not achieving the environmental targets that were originally set.  

Should the architectural profession have a set of core standards that give guidance and support to professionals working on projects where clients or local policies don’t support or actively work against environmental targets or where national policy vacillates due to political expediency? If we are to have a Government propped up by the DUP who claim that climate change isn’t real, we need protection against potential further backsliding. Particularly at a point in time where we are leaving the EU and will no longer have its substantial support for environmental protection.

Should the profession refuse to work on projects where there is an unwillingness on the part of clients to meet their environmental obligations? Would this strengthen our position as expert and impartial advisors, or weaken it?

  1. 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. Do we aim for the greatest benefit for the greatest number of people? If so, how do we account for this and what do we mean by benefit? Is it financial gain, safety, better services? How do we compare these against each other in terms of the benefits they bring as well as the difficulties they cause…

Some of these effects are covered by the law, Building Regulations or a duty of care, but much of it isn’t.  As we build at higher densities, issues occur which are new in the UK and poorly considered by our regulations, other countries with more tall buildings are further advanced than us in some respects. When more people move into an area, the balance of the community is changed. While some argue that an influx of new people into an area is beneficial as it brings more economic activity, those living in the area previously often feel threatened by new neighbours, rightly or wrongly. Increased levels of traffic is often a bone of contention but is probably used as a stalking horse for the real objection, which is to any new development, regardless of its impact on traffic.

It is important that we are clear about the benefits that new development brings to an area as well as acknowledging the impacts that it causes.

4.The needs of the users, ranging from the most basic ones of shelter to the most sophisticated level of personal development. Maslow’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.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is well worn, but relevant to the built environment. It proposes that our human needs are hierarchical and dependant on each other. Only by fulfilling basic needs of shelter and nourishment can we begin to achieve well-being, good mental health, and fulfillment. An ethical view of this would support a designers ambition to create buildings that help their occupants in achieving as much of the hierarchy as possible. From shelter on the one hand to enabling self-actualisation on the other. This makes the basic point that buildings are for people, not for architects, and it is only by fulfilling the needs of the people living in our buildings are we fulfilling our own needs as professionals.

Do we know how well we are doing? Mostly not. Post-occupancy study happens in a tiny fraction of the built environment, even of the part of it designed by architects. Without a better evidence base, we risk becoming irrelevant as others who lack our design drive are enabled by technology to sample the needs and desires of people and to provide it to them through technology that bypasses us. A connection to our audience is essential for the profession to thrive, and our audience is the user of our buildings, not each other.

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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.

Implementing Zero Carbon in London

Now that we are almost upon the deadline for the introduction of zero-carbon (GLA) in London I thought that it was timely to comment on it. 

Firstly. Brilliant! In a time when politicians appear to have taken leave of their senses permanently, it is reassuring that here (surrounded by the metropolitan elite) some things stay the same. We have a group of politicians willing to lead on principles rather than on the basis of prompting by tabloids or by their lesser selves. Well done London!

Secondly: Brilliant! We have a piece of zero-carbon legislation that has learned from the recent past, from multiple consultations by DCLG and the Zero Carbon Hub and run with it rather than reinventing this particular wheel. More importantly, it sets a precedent for other devolved authorities to follow. London can afford to lead on this one, to get the idea moving, to introduce developers and their design teams to the idea and to pioneer mechanisms for using the funds in a transparent and timely way so that developers can see the benefits to them. 

Thirdly: There is work still to do, as there is little clear understanding about many of the aspects of the new legislation. Can we claim a credit for making improvements above regulation? For example if the team introduce dimming into the building, can they claim some CO2 reductions below the line of the regulatory calculations. If the designers use a timber structure, can they claim some embodied energy reductions? When are the payments to be made? When the building is designed, or when it is built? There are likely to be differences between the two.

I think that it would be useful if the GLA held some workshops about this new legislation and had an open discussion about these questions, to help to introduce the legislation and to hear from design teams and clients how it can work best for them and for the GLA. It is very important that this new effort succeeds, it is practically the only star left in the low-carbon buildings firmament, so let’s make sure that it burns brightly and it isn’t extinguished at the first sign of difficulty.

‘Heart in the Right Street’ a report by Create Streets

I attended the launch of this report last week, at the invitation of its author, Nicholas Boys-Smith, I felt compelled to do so, as he claimed that I had in some small way inspired him to write it. Two years ago he made a presentation at HTA and at one point I challenged him to back up some of his claims for how certain building types were ‘better’ than others, with evidence. He felt then that his answer was unsatisfactory, and when the opportunity arose to produce this report, he used it to provide a better answer. I may not agree with everything in the report, but I wish everyone took my questions as seriously!


Attendees to the event were given a sort of ‘cheat sheet’ with ten guidelines for how to create good cities, and the report presents the evidence culled from numerous studies to back up the ten points. I paraphrase them as follows

1. Provide Greenery

2. Build more houses than apartments and build at higher density than the suburbs, but lower than necessitates high rises.

3. Build at human scale and never house children in high-rises.

4. Created connected walkable environments

5. Mix up land use with many uses

6. Block sizes should be ‘not too big’ and made up of individual buildings, not super sized buildings occupying a single block

7. Minimise internal communal space and corridors

8. Beauty matters, 

9. Create mixed facades at street level, shops, entrances, etc.

10. Make neighbourhoods dense enough to be walkable, 150-220 homes per hectare.

Most housing designers wouldn’t be too frightened by this, in fact most would support most of them, if not all of them, most of the time. But probably wouldn’t support all of them all of the time. The report is well researched and documented and could be recommended for no other reason than its bibliography which provides any interested party with a serious amount of good reading material. He references Charles Montgomeries Happy Cities book a lot, which is a good thing, as well as academic research from around the world on city living in Singapore, Vancouver, Newcastle, Copenhagen, Hong Kong and, of course, London.

About the only area where I find myself violently disagreeing with Nicholas is on the subject of ‘Beauty’. He maintains that beauty is not really in the eye of the beholder and he points to a lot of research to suggest that people do know what they like, and what they like is not liked by architects. He goes on to suggest that if more new development followed his rules and was also liked by people (because it conformed to a more general sense of beauty), then more high density life would  be allowed to happen and we would all be better off. 

I find it optimistic that changing the appearance of some modern development would make its neighbours welcome it any more than they do, motivated as they often are, by concerns over traffic, schools, and a general incoherent fear of change.

The simple reality, as I see it, is that architects don’t exist to provide what people ‘like’ any more than any artist exists to provide what people like. You might say that architecture is not ‘Art’ but you would be wrong. The purpose of Art is not to comfort and reassure, but often to challenge, sometimes startle. I do agree that housing architecture should never terrify or induce fear, that would be going much too far, but trying to create an environment like the Disney Main Street is something housing architects are not supposed to do. That is the job of set designers, a different species entirely. Our job is to create good neighbourhoods where people will want to live, but we must also always deliver good value for our clients. He who pays the piper calls the tune.

This is a good and well-researched project. It’s aims are positive, and well-meant, but sometimes overstepping the bounds of academic research into populist polemic. All housing architects who take their work seriously should read it and be as knowledgeable about the research as the author is. Housing architecture is a serious responsibility and not to be taken lightly, and this work echoes that seriousness by providing pointers to a lot of recent valuable research, as well as pointing to many areas where further research would be useful and welcome.

A point that doesn’t really come across from the work, although it is one of the ten guidelines, is that suburban density is not high enough to create successful living environments. Much much more of modern housing is built at suburban density than any other density, and in terms of numbers, the towers that he dislikes so much will only ever provide a fraction of the new housing in cities, whether they are liked or not. Suburban density causes so many other problems in the form of long commutes, high CO2 emissions, use of agricultural land, than high-rises do, but the idea of suburbia is not disliked by the general population nearly as much as they dislike high-rise living. 

If this book has any impact on policy, I would like it to prompt a review of the density of new suburbs. We are fooling ourselves by thinking that low-rise low-density suburbs are the answer to any of our housing problems.

On the one had Nicholas would have it that the people are right, to seek their idea of beauty and to decry high-rise living, but on the other hand they are wrong to hanker for the suburbs and the inevitable burden on the planet and personal isolation it brings. I think he wants to have his cake and eat it. But, don’t we all?

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.


Image https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bosco_Verticale_from_UniCredit_Tower,_Milan_(17591709258).jpg

A new entrant to the UK Housing Sector

You would need to have been living under a rock to have missed the arrival of Legal & General on the UK Housing scene. From a position of no involvement in housing, L & G are now set to become one of its biggest players. How has this come about? Because of the housing crisis.

L & G (and others) see the current UK housing market as an opportunity. With a backdrop of strong demand, rising prices and an existing set of housebuilders which are unwilling or unable to ramp up production to meet the demand, this looks like a market that is ripe for disruption.

Instead of going down the normal route for a new entrant to the market, and playing the same game as the uincumbents, L & G are going for broke. They have invested in the largest factory in the UK, bought a Cross-Laminated Timber production line, and just in case you missed the point, are setting up a plant to manufacture CLT to guarantee their source of supply. They are doing nothing by halves.

The plan is to produce and supply 5,000 homes per year, or more from the factory, and to supply all of it using CLT. Thereby adding the same output to the industry as ten additional Barratt divisions, or a Redrow to the housing industry.

They don’t intend to compete directly with the housebuilders, because they are not going to be selling a comparable product at a comparable price. Mostly they will be developing to own and rent their own housing stock.

The interesting elements of this is because much it will remain in their ownership, it is open to investment. The U.K. Housing industry has not been open to investment since we decided that we had to own our own properties. Now that we have accepted that this is both unwise at some stages of our lives, and impossible for many people, there is a clear and undeniable need for long term home rental. A pension fund looks at long term home rental and sees something that it can invest in.

The housebuilders have shareholders too, but their focus is on paying out dividends each year rather than owning assets thta appreciate. Although housebuilders do won assets in the form of land, and it does appreciate, it doesn’t have nearly as much value when traded as it does when it has homes built on it. This makes the housebuilders a poor investment risk compared to rental property. Rental property accrues value and brings in an income every year, so there are two opportunities to make a profit, both in the short term and in the long term.

In Germany, a large proportion of housing supply has pension fund backing. In the UK it is almost non-existent due to our historical distaste for renting. This is all going to change and there is a lot of headroom to grow into for investors.

Another impact from the pension fund is that they care about the long term, their business model means that they have to. If you are paying out pensions to thousands of people every year, you have to be confident that the money will be there for them. This means that they care about what homes are built from, how well it will last, and how sustainable they are, because it matters a great deal to them and to the people who are paying into their pension funds. Who would invest in an oil company now? Or a coal mine? But housing in the UK, with strong demand set to continue into the foreseeable future? That looks like a safe bet.

Why we need to stay in the EU

The prospect of the UK Leaving the EU fills me with dismay. I listen to the rhetoric from politicians and wonder about their motivations in proposing an exit. Do any of those proposing to leave have any real understanding of what it would mean? What would a future for the UK be like outside of the EU. Sitting like an unwelcome houseguest at the fringes of the party, furtively stealing beers from the fridge?

When I survey the landscape I am most familiar with, particularly around sustainable buildings, I reflect that much of the impetus for environmental legislation in the UK has come about through pressure from the EU through the Energy Performance in Buildings Directive (EPBD). I suspect that, left to its own devices, due to the UK Housing sector being dominated by a small number of housebuilders, the industry would have fought off all attempts to implement energy efficiency improvements.  Without the gentle but firm push in the small of the back from the EU, our homes would probably be much less efficient. We wouldn’t have an EPC, and whatever it’s faults, at least it is a step in the right direction.

Now that the Govt has scrapped the planned 2016 zero carbon legislation, the next push for improving our buildings will come from Europe, the EPBD requires that all EU states enact legislation leading to Nearly Zero Energy Buildings from 2020. Again, that gentle but firm push. This is something that will be good for consumers who buy homes, good for the businesses that build them and help to push down our CO2 emissions.

I imagine that the same goes for the car industry, and even though the image of the EU industry has been seriously damaged by the recent emissions scandals, at least the intention to reduce emissions is there in legislation. Given that the UK’s default position on improving emissions regulations has been to vote against them, and given that London in particular has been failing to meet EU emission standards for some time, and will continue to do so for some time to come, our record of standing alone on this issue is not a particularly proud one.

On renewable energy we are again struggling to meet EU targets, and thanks to recent Govt cuts, are not even sure how we plan to meet them. There has been no suggestion that these targets are unwelcome, or that we are unable to meet them, in fact the minister stated that the Govt has every intention of meeting its obligations. While the arrival of wind turbines have been unwelcome in some areas, they  enable us to reduce our imports of coal and oil and help us to reduce pollution levels and CO2 emissions. Again, without a push from the EU, would we have adopted these targets? On the evidence of the current Government, probably not. Or if we had, they would be voted out again with every change in the political landscape.

While our politicians vacillate every five years or so, whether they like wind farms or don’t, whether they like nuclear or don’t, and whether they think fracking is a good idea or they don’t, in the background there sits the EU,with a long term plan to reform the energy markets, to reduce emissions, to introduce more renewable energy and to make our buildings more efficient. Politicians come and go, but the EU remains as a stable influence on our policies and standards. This stability helps business to invest, and gives purpose and direction to research and development, as EU strategies tend to remain in place longer than national or local government cycles.

The exitmongers complain that this is interference in our democratically elected system of government, I say it’s a good thing. Without it we would be worse off. The EU acts as a brake on occasional foolishness, a calm voice in times of crisis and a firm guide on environmental matters. It’s a bit like a parent, the interference is unwelcome at times, but it’s reassuring that someone is there for guidance when you need it.

Drones for Deliveries (Part 2)

Following from my first article on drones and how they might be used for making deliveries and how they could be organised I wanted to follow up with a closer look at how they would work when they reached their destination. Google and Amazon are both testing drones for this purpose, so it is a case of when, not if they will be used for this purpose, and I wanted to look at the potential impact on buildings for designers. I am interested in this in the first instance because I see that from their widespread use could lead to the removal of a large percentage of delivery vans off the streets of cities, a reduction in delivery cost, energy saving and lower pollution. This will bring attendant benefits to the attractiveness of urban life, with lower noise from traffic and more convenience for sending and receiving deliveries.

The diagram below shows the path a drone will take to its destination by ‘hopping’ from location signals from each address. While in the ‘circle’ of the signal it picks up delivery codes matching its package, these delivery codes will be time stamped, so to find the destination it has to follow the time stamped codes to their point of origin.

Aerial

Path of Delivery Drone to Destination

Another benefit arising from my ideas about how their distribution system would work is that a recipient of a package could have it delivered to wherever they were, in the office, at home, or in the park. That is covered in more detail in the first article.
I wanted to look at what happens when the drone arrives to your home or building. If you aren’t there, what happens to the delivery? How is it stored, and protected until you arrive to collect it.
I am assuming that there will be a horizontal separation of drone traffic above an urban zone. See Fig 1. Drones would be allowed to circulate freely in this area, with helicopters restricted to fly above them. Landing zones for helicopters would be created by geofenced openings in this layer.

Layers

Fig 1. Stratification of Drone Traffic

To begin with the drone has to be guided down to its destination. Fig 2 shows a diagram of a geofenced area which a drone could follow when it leaves the circulation zone above buildings.

Geofence

Fig 2. Location Beacon cones used to ‘geofence’ drone arrival

Once the drone has followed this guidance down to its landing area and has safely landed, it can deliver the parcel. The parcel needs to be stored until it is collected, and this could be a delivery box that could sit in a garden, or on a balcony if one is available, or on your roof if it is flat and accessible. This is shown in Fig 3.

Balcony

Fig 3. Delivery Box for a single address, plan section and elevations

The delivery box has a lid which opens when a drone arrives with a delivery, and the package is dropped by the drone into the box, which then closes up awaiting the owners to collect the package, or for another delivery. The box would be equipped with a system that recognises the delivery code of the package that the drone uses to match owner and package. The same code is used to open the delivery box by the package owner.

Delivery

Fig 4. Delivery Box for multiple addresses.   I Drone arrives.   II Package is accepted.   III Package shunted to store.   IV Ready for new delivery

For people living in apartment buildings the problem is a bit more complex. If deliveries could be accepted on a balcony, the solution is similar to that for a garden or flat roof. A delivery box with a hatch and a door would work. If this can’t work and deliveries have to be made to the roof, the storage box has to be big enough to anticipate a lot of deliveries and needs an arrival box and a storage box, the sequence of how it could work is shown is Fig4.
This arrangement assumes that a concierge would come and collect the deliveries and take them to their relevant destinations. This is a weak point in the security of the system, and assumes that the concierge is trustworthy. In all cases the delivery is electronically tagged with a unique identifier, enabling the recipient to track its movement from when it leaves the shop to when it arrives at the delivery box.

Ask not what Drones can do for you, but what can you do for a Drone.

Musing over the idea that drones (and by this I mean the little ones, usually small quadcopters, not multi-million pound aerial weapons flown by remote) will have a major role to play in modern urban societies, I concluded that it would be both fun and instructive to work through just what their role might be. 

Both Google and Amazon are experimenting with drone delivery systems and I can see the appeal of this immediately. Instead of having to wait a whole day for gratification, the lengthy gap between ordering online and when our newly purchased parcel arrives, we can have our gratification almost immediately if we can organise a drone to deliver the purchase instead. We see that thing online that will make our lives either complete or a bit less incomplete, we buy the thing, and a drone delivers it to our door a mere hour later. 

Lets just take it as read that this will happen in any case, because if for no other reason, there are a lot of pizzas that need delivering every day, and this would take a lot of maniacs on scooters off our roads, and thats the thin end of the wedge. With the growth of online shopping I have heard a TFL* representative say that 30% of Londons traffic is delivery vehicles. Even if we took 50% of the vans off the road, we would reduce congestion a lot, reduce emissions a lot as most vans are diesel powered, and the streets would be quieter and safer. Apart from the hum of drones that is. Perhaps the pigeons would disappear too, perhaps there would be too much aerial traffic for them to feel comfortable, one can hope.

But there are a lot of problems to be solved and barriers to that future. 

Legality

They’re illegal, and cannot be flown near to people, which is a bit of a problem when you want them to get close to people to deliver goods to them. I think this will go away presently as the software systems running on the drones enables them to be more or less autonomous and able to avoid crashing into things or people. If cars can be considered safe as driverless objects, then drones shouldn’t present much of a challenge, being much smaller and lighter, and posing much less risk to human life. Lets assume that that challenge is surmountable.

Location

Drones don’t currently have much of a range from the signal that controls them, which means that if you are a kilometer away from their controller they aren’t much use. I think that this can be dealt with by allowing the drone to control itself and by having a distributed network of guidance, like cellular telephone masts, that provide locations to the drone as it comes close to the mast. We use these masts to locate ourselves with smartphones, so why not drones too? To get it to deliver to our houses we just need a way to broadcast a signal to it that it can recognise, perhaps like the one created by our WiFi routers?

Distance

Being battery powered the current quadcopter drone designs are limited in terms of the distance they can travel and the loads they can carry. Battery technology is getting better, so distance will grow over time. The location masts or beacons used above to tell them their location could also provide charging points, so a tired worn-out drone could stop off for a quick gulp of electrons on the way home after delivering your pizza, book, fresh coffee,..whatever. To take on heavier loads drones could cooperate. This video by ETH shows a group of drones constructing a rope bridge, and this one shows another team creating a structure using bricks. The relatively straightforward task of delivering a parcel looks rather easy in comparison.

Identity

One of the major problems with drones is privacy. People don’t like the idea of a machine equipped with a powerful camera flying over their heads on a daily basis. This seems a bit Luddish to me, after all, in our cities we are surrounded by cameras in the hands of everyone we pass as well as those on the streets and buildings. But lets address the problem anyway. Imagine a scenario where the drone is autonomous, and not under control by any external agent, as it winds its way from depot to you. It doesn’t even need to go to your house, if you are in the park having a coffee, it could deliver the pizza directly to you. What the drone needs is autonomy, and a way of getting an anonymous set of directions to you. It need never know who you are, or where you live, and even better, it need not know what it has delivered to you. This will help to avoid the problem of Amazon and Google knowing everything you ever bought so that they can try and sell you a duplicate of everything you own. (why don’t they try and sell you something you haven’t bought?)

Delivery

Lets take a scenario where you order a pizza and its awaiting delivery at the ‘restaurant’. A signal is sent out that a delivery needs to be made, and the nearest drone accepts the job in the same way that a Uber car would. The shortest distance to pick up the pizza would offer the cheapest transaction cost. The drone collects the pizza, and is given an electronic token at the same time. This was created by you when you ordered the pizza. Half the token goes to you, and half to the drone. You broadcast the token from your location and the token is passed from one point on the network to the next, every time the token is passed on it gets a bit added by every node on the network. The network propagates the token from one node to the next indiscriminately. This enables the drone to follow the trail back to you by seeking a broadcast token that is shorter than the one it has picked up from the network and which matches the other half of the token it already has. It will find its way to you without knowing who you are, or where you are. 
 

Esch bubble represents a location beacon, such as a wi-fi router., the routers broadcast the destination to the drone, and the drone follows this to you, wherever you are. The box at the top left is the warehouse sending in the message, the box on the right is you waiting for the delivery. Drones already in the network pick up the message signal, follow it to the warehouse, pick up the package and deliver it to you.

 

Security

In the same way that BitCoin has developed a security system that is distributed, and every bitcoin node knows how many bitcoins there are, and who owns them, without being controlled by a central source, drones could carry out the physical transactions managed by a similar system to the electronic transaction. In a nice parallel where BitCoins enable Payer A to use currency B to pay C, the drone can carry the package from C back to A using the network B. Read this article on blockchains and BitCoins and you will see what I mean. This method would prevent anyone knowing which drone was carrying which package, and who it was intended for. The only way someone could steal your pizza would be to follow you home and steal it from the drone as it delivered it to you. Of course there will always be people who will snare a drone for whatever it happens to be carrying, but at least they won’t be able to steal on demand. 

Physical Implications

A drone needs somewhere to land a drop off its parcel. It needs a flat surface to land, and if the person for whom the delivery is intended isn’t there, it needs an electronically linked drop box where it can leave your parcel. It could lock the box with its half of the electronic delivery token, and you can unlock it with your matching half when you get home from work. But the box needs to be big enough to accept your pizza, post, packages and needs to be somewhere that the drone can get at but where other people cannot. For apartment buildings this would ideally be the roof, where a landing platform and a set of drop boxes could be located without too much difficulty in many flat-roofed apartment buildings. 

Perhaps one day drones will be able to post letters through your letterbox, if you still get any, any that you actually want to read that is.
*Transport for London

Is London going to go Zero Carbon?

Business Green reported an interchange last week between the Mayor and Green Assembly Member Darren Johnson  in response to his question about the Mayors position on Zero Carbon homes. Boris’s reported response was

“What we are looking at is making sure that we can continue, through the London Plan, to ensure that Zero Carbon Homes are delivered in London and we will be issuing further guidance in due course to provide industry with the certainty it needs about how to do that.” 

Boris reported that London aims to achieve a 60% reduction in CO2 by 2025 and has achieved 14% to date. This represents a per capita reduction of 20% as London’s population has grown by 600k during the reporting period.

It is heartening to hear these words from the Mayor, and I hope that the candidates for the Mayoralty are listening. If devolution is to mean anything it should promote the ability of cities in the UK to sidestep the damaging and short-sighted environmental policies of central government.

Having recently completed a large zero carbon scheme at Hanham Hall with low-rise construction and learned what it means for most of the UK’s housing development, I thought that it would be useful to share below some analysis that we have done to assess how tall buildings can achieve the zero carbon standard. Given that many of the buildings that are proposed for the capital in future are going to be tall it is interesting to assess how the regulations might affect those building types.

The analysis has been done for a twenty five and a forty storey tower with six units per floor to demonstrate how different systems meet the targets. We tested gas boilers, CHP with gas backup, all-electric heating and hot water and finally Air Source Heat Pumps. Three of the four rely on a communal hot water distribution system, the all electric system being the exception.

Energy Options to meet the London Plan and Zero Carbon

Energy Options for a 25 Storey Tower to meet the London Plan and Zero Carbon

 

40-storey

Energy Options fora 40 Storey Tower to meet the London Plan and Zero Carbon

What the research shows is that for taller towers there is no difficulty in meeting the current definition of zero carbon. In fact it shows that achieving it is technically easier than achieving the London Plan, as the London Plan has a lower emissions target than the Zero Carbon definition. This is assuming that there is no special treatment for electric heating or hot water, unlike the current version of SAP which is based on comparative performance rather than on a definite figure as set out in the Zero Carbon Hub’s definition.

Based on these figures I would say that towers should be forced to meet the lower emissions target of 10kg/CO2/sqm since in both gas-based options this target can be met. Perhaps an all-electric version could be left as it is at the higher 14kg/CO2/sqm.

It also shows that a very efficient 25-storey building can meet the targets irrespective of the energy system used, the top graphs shows that it can achieve the target in all four options, even an all-electric option. The 40-storey is not so easy. My assumption is that only the roof can be used to house renewable energy,  but for the 40-storey version it would be necessary in the electric options to put some pv panels on the facade to reach the target.

But of course the technical success is not the full picture. In addition to the Fabric Energy Efficiency target of 39kwh/sqm/yr that apartments have to hit, and towers have no difficulty doing so, there is the Carbon Compliance which is shown in the graphs above, and again there doesn’t appear to be much of a problem for towers, but finally there is the Allowable Solutions element which says that whatever CO2 emissions remain must be offset. This offset is achieved by multiplying the tonnes of CO2 emitted, by the figure of 30 years, and by an agreed sum for each tonne. Currently the GLA uses £60/tonne. This produces a figure of approximately £1,000 per apartment to offset the emissions elsewhere.

Sadly the all electric system is unwelcome in London as it it not seen as ‘futureproof’ according to the gas-led ideology preferred by the GLA. This is understandable as an all-electric system does not emit the lowest CO2 emissions possible, at current levels of grid CO2 intensity. What will be interesting to see is how long before the grid CO2 intensity drops to a low enough level to change that thinking. The Committee for Climate Change has suggested that we need to stop burning gas by 2035 to meet our carbon budgets. What is the point in investing in gas burning equipment and networks now if they have to be decommissioned in less than twenty years time?

Certainly an all-electric system is the cheapest to install, avoiding the central distribution system, and it could be argued that an all electric system is just as futureproof as a hot water led system as the Grid is inherently flexible. Interestingly our research also suggests that in the majority of cases an all-electric system is cheaper than a communal system for residents as the standing charges are lower, even if the energy bills are higher than gas. The standing charge is used to create a sinking fund to replace the communal system. If there is no communal system the sinking fund is either not needed or is much smaller, thus lowering residents total bill. The cheapest system of all to run is an individual gas boiler, but no-one would consider installing that into a tower, and it has a higher maintenance and replacement cost than an all-electric system.

A major hole in this analysis is that it is carried out using SAP, which is pretty poor at dealing with apartment buildings. The energy for pumping heat around the building is ignored, as is the energy for ventilating corridors, pumping hot water, lifts, communal lighting etc, etc. Since the communal spaces in these buildings are not heated, SBEM isn’t particularly useful either. As buildings get taller these additional energy uses and losses will become more a more significant part of their energy use, we need better tools to assess them, and more regulations to deal with their particular demands.