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What environmental design means to me
Chris Grey
15th November 2021

It is often said that the story of architecture is the story of humanity - and with 40% of today's greenhouse gas emissions coming from the construction and use of buildings, those of us in the industry are well placed to shape the future content of that story.

Environmental design for me is about combining the technological know-how of today, with the rich vein of knowledge that exists within the history of architecture – to re-examine the wisdom in the story that we are now a part of writing.

Construction has not always been like this. Before oil (and coal), the history of architecture was written by energy sources much less abundant and much more uneconomical; the result was buildings that were almost always re-used in some form or another – the initial energy that had gone into material collection and assembly was garnered back wherever possible.

Just how different is the energy context now compared to the past? A somewhat extreme point of reference is the Pyramid of Khufu, which is estimated to have taken 78 million days of manual labour to construct with a workforce of tens of thousands for more than a decade.

This workforce and all the manual energy that went with it, such as the mining and moving of materials, the crop production to feed the workforce - managed to construct what was at the time the world’s tallest building (147m) -a record it held for 3,800 years. This iconic piece of architecture is so solid it might even outlast humanity. In stark modern-day terms, it was built with the same amount of energy used by seven average US citizens over their lifetimes.

Viewing the world through the lens of energy consumption and embodied energy in this way starts to reveal what we might have forgotten on the path of progression – the real value of materials and the real cost of building. Equally, just how easy it has been to construct in industrialised societies.

If we look back at the story of architecture before industrialisation, we see that building vernaculars emerged from empirical knowledge of the local environmental context. What is often now seen as maintaining or recreating the characterful built heritage of a place was once born out of necessity, whether influenced by the climate or simply the building materials available. With no central heating systems or air conditioning units, these vernaculars often had ways of maximising their own somewhat primitive energy requirements by simple design decisions – many of which are now design prompts for early-stage environmental design.

Broken down in energy terms, today’s ambitions for the re-use of buildings, re-use of materials and the need to reduce the whole life embodied carbon/ operational costs of a building are bizarrely the same as past Architects and builders, but from a time when the value of construction was much in tune with reality.

Chapters of the story of architecture are built all around us - material banks and embodied carbon from a different era. On the longevity of buildings, Stewart Brand once wrote that architecture is allergic to time and buildings that last do so by being loved and refined. If we reflect on this statement in the context of the historic buildings around us, we might agree that they are either loved, had inherent flexibility or perhaps both. We might reflect upon how recent built additions fair when held up against the same criteria and scrutiny. Will they stand the test of time? Will they even still be standing for nostalgia to take hold?

Now more than ever, as contributing authors to the story of architecture and for the sake of the environment, we must be adapting or constructing buildings that future generations will cherish and make their own.

Chris Grey, Architectural Assistant
Manchester Studio