Opinion

In Praise of Slow Building

September 16, 2009

In light of recent government-funded building schemes, Tone Wheeler asks whether the rush to build is at the expense of quality, long-lasting architecture.

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Typing ‘green building’ in a browser will get you a 100 million hits on a search engine, but what it means exactly is not agreed, with a raft of confusing and contradictory definitions. One way of understanding the diverse aspects of sustainable design is to use the four-way elemental subdivision that Aristotle argued made up the world: fire, earth, water and air.

Fire, the energy of the building, covers the areas of heating and cooling for thermal comfort (air conditioning), water heating, lighting, mechanical and electrical services. The water cycle encompasses all the waters: fresh, rain, grey, black and storm. Earth represents the use of resources for materials and construction and air may be said to stand for the space, or footprint, of a building.

The first two, fire and water, are mostly technological issues, in many cases using ‘bolt-on’ technology, that are not essential to architectural design, except in forming the envelope to respond to the climate for better thermal comfort. Much of this information has been well ventilated in the past, and there is considerable agreement on the key issues and appropriate designs.¹

While the latter two, earth and air, are arguably more fundamental to architecture, there is far less agreement on the appropriate design response to these issues. They ask questions about the making of buildings and the nature of the brief – questions that go to the very heart of architectural practice.

Long before climate change was fashionable environmentalists were arguing for curbs to the damage wrought on the ecology from mining (for metals of all kinds, clays for bricks, and sands and gravels for concrete), the felling of forests, and the pollution to the water and air caused by these activities. This argument has now been extended to address embedded energy and energy use over the life of the building: Life Cycle Analysis (LCA).

However for many, particularly the more extreme eco-fanatics, it is the space, or air, that is taken up by buildings that is the biggest worry. They argue that to build is to pollute and to consume and that is where the greatest reductions in demand are possible. For them a sustainable McMansion is an oxymoron, and the rallying cry is the British economist Ernst Friedrich Schumacher’s ‘Small is Beautiful’ motto from the 1970s. Naturally this ‘footprint’ argument is viewed with suspicion by many in the design community, which brings us back to one of the most vexed, but interesting, issues around sustainability: what is the best way to build? What is a green building material, or is that too an oxymoron? And is one way of construction inherently better than another? These questions lie at the very heart of architectural design.

Just as the bottom up revolution of waste recycling was based on the three R’s taught in schools (repair, reuse, recycle) so we may say that green buildings rely on the three L’s: long life, loose fit and low impact.

Long life suggests that the building envelope, or at the very least its armature and structure, should be built to last; 100 years is a minimum that is achievable for most building types. When well resourced and constructed, this is the enduring legacy of a building. By contrast, the fit-out of interiors and services will have a much shorter shelf life: it changes with occupancy and use on the one hand and is superseded by technology on the other. Retail fit-outs last an average of eight years, the churn in office fit-outs is hardly longer. Lifts and AC in buildings rarely go more than 25 years before they are ripped out and replaced. And at home the kitchens and bathrooms have a similar lifespan, victims of fashion or poor construction (think delaminating sheathing on the vanity unit, or wonky doors in the kitchen).

If we have this obsolescence, why don’t we plan for it? Why are the services chiselled into the structure and the fit-outs made so hard to remove, even though they fall apart? The mentality common to much building seems predicated on a belief in an endless tomorrow. While the structure can be long lasting, and built to be so, the parts that we can expect to have a limited lifespan would suggest the opposite approach: loosely fitting those elements that will be replaced, and actively planning for it. Hence ‘loose fit’ as a green strategy.

The third L is for low impact. Not a day passes in any architectural office that some new product brochure arrives (soft or hard) touting its greenness. Nothing is brown any more (except a revival of the 70s ‘Mission Brown’ in paint charts). But how do we know what is emerald and what is pale greenwash? There are so many issues that make up a green product: its resource sourcing, manufacturing process, transport, installation, maintenance and durability, recyclability and waste. Hence the desire for LCA, but it is costly, the factors are diverse and have differing benchmarks (is energy more important that resource depletion, for instance?) and as yet there are no agreed world or local standards. Some websites, such as the excellent ecospecifier.org, overcome these issues by reference to expansive subjective criteria while we wait for an accepted ‘ISO’ to arrive.

All of this culminates in a movement we could call ‘slow building’, which, much like the ‘slow food’ movement, argues that there is value in taking time over important matters. Which begs the question: with the current flurry of government-funded building activity, why is the program for new school buildings being so rushed? Are we getting buildings to last? In the past, much of our school design served as a benchmark of both innovative architecture and good building, with many architecture awards in the 60s, 70s and 80s going to school buildings. Will that be the case now?

Canberra (the city not the government) was a veritable laboratory for these ideas, from the early ‘pod formed’, open planned schools by the Department of Works (when there was one to do the government’s bidding), to schools-come-community centres (the unsung but nevertheless wonderfully structuralist Erindale Centre by Jackson Teece Chesterman and Willis) to mini-villages a la the Kriers (the still crisp Caroline Chisholm schools by Lawrence Nield and Ken Maher) and not least the most experimental and spatially challenging of them all, Giralang Primary by Enrico Taglietti. All were schools with loads of thought and hence long lead times. Slow building.

Now Canberra (the government not the city) has embarked on a crash course in quick building: daily reports of procedural waste, inappropriate briefs and programs, rushed designs, simplistic templates and botched buildings fill the press. Through it all is the fear that a ‘standard product’ is being imposed on varying school situations and sites. And this feeds the fear of every parent, that their child’s school will be getting a 21st century version of the ‘portable’, the hideous elevated uninsulated boxes that generations of students suffered in, setting back the cause of prefab building by 50 years.

Two responses seem necessary: to take much more time to craft the buildings to their particular sites, ensuring that long life is built in; and secondly, if we are to have a standard solution, to ensure some time is given to developing a thorough prefab system, because in many ways this is one of the great hopes for sustainable building.² When buildings are built in factories many advantages accrue: there are controlled and safer conditions, higher fabrication standards are possible with better opportunities for maximum use of all materials, minimising waste and encouraging recycling. While it might spell the end of utes and white vans, with all the tools and equipment in the factory, it will make site work shorter, safer and ultimately much greener. The downside is the possibility of a one-size-fits-all outcome, but prefab can also mean designing with a variety of parts that can be intermixed, as well as whole pre-assembly.

Given the basis of the schools program, this may well be a perfect fit: develop some green, durable parts, and then combine them to suit the particular site and brief. What if part of the ‘education revolution’ effort was expended on a variable design prefab schoolroom, with great thermal qualities, better built than anything that can be achieved on muddy sites? Ah, you say, they would have to build the factories first, and green ones at that. Well, with Australia losing its manufacturing base, it just so happens we have a surplus of them at present.

Prefab could also mean the best-built buildings, with levels of finish comparable to a fine automobile, rather than just another depressing ‘donga’ destined for a mining town. That would be a revolution that many architects would sign up for.

Footnotes
1. I was recently involved in the development of a website, together with Think Brick Australia, that provides an easy to use guide to many of these principles and strategies – see www.designingforclimate.com.au
2. For more information on the topic, see the excellent fabprefab.com, built by Australian Michael Sylvester in LA.

  • anna September 16th, 2009 7:59 am

    I wholeheartedly agree with everything you’re saying about the new buildings being built in schools. Unfortunately it is utterly negated by the fact that the principal aim of the BER is to “Provide economic stimulus through the rapid construction and refurbishment of school infrastructure”.

    That is a direct quote from the BER Guidelines, available from the Federal Department of Education website.


  • Ross Maher September 17th, 2009 12:14 am

    I agree with you Tone, but would add a 4th L: Location

    http://blog.thinkbrick.com.au/the+4th+L


  • barbara September 17th, 2009 5:59 am

    In EU all public buildings commissions are arrived at via a Europe wide competition system. This insures: excellence, suitability for the particular user base, innovation with new talents getting a chance at testing their mettle. Schools are built to last for the coming generations. IN Australia , it’s the quick fix that is given the go. With this rushed “stimulus activity” the Australian schools get buildings they often don’t need. They don’t even get a say as to what their needs are. I am sure the degree of dereliction in some of our public schools would have ensured ample scope for economic stimulus, had the schools all been given appropriate funding for repairs in a first round. Whilst these repairs were carried out, a second planning phase could have allowed each needy school to develop its master plan. Then, a third round could have dealt with providing schools with the facilities they actually sorely need. So yes I totally agree with Mr Wheeler: do things slowly but properly!


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