Playing to our strengths

13 Oct 2020

Published in: Concrete Quarterly, Winter 2020

Like many of you, I’ve been thinking a lot about how we can build back better after COVID. We’ve had a chance to stop and reflect, to reconnect with what’s important to us, and to our communities and to nature. 

We have seen that when something major happens, we can do things differently. So what should we be doing differently? Something that stood out to me in this issue of CQ was Cullinan Studio’s hybrid design for the National Automotive Innovation Centre at Warwick University. Here, in the words of practice leader Roddy Langmuir, each material is doing what it’s best at.

It struck me that this is the kind of thinking that we need on every project if our solutions are to be appropriate and fit for purpose. What is often missed in the immediate response to a crisis is that we still need to take a long-term view. This is especially true in the case of the built environment, which will be around for many decades to come.

To address the urgent issue of climate change, we need to save as much carbon as we can now, but we also need to think about what the future holds – how well will a building perform under future climate conditions and how easily will it adapt?

The danger of rushing to knee-jerk solutions is that they don’t last, that we just postpone tackling the real issues, or worse, that we will be managing unintended consequences further down the line. Overheating in schools is a key example – read the article for a detailed exploration of how thermal mass can be used for low-energy cooling.

The other side of the coin is the embodied carbon of a material itself, something the industry continues to work hard to reduce. The European Commission will this week call for a new emissions reduction target of “at least 55%” by 2030 compared to 1990 levels, according to a leaked draft seen by The Guardian.

The concrete industry is already close to meeting this, having delivered a 53% reduction in carbon emissions since 1990, and reporting annually on performance since 2008 as part of the industry’s sustainability strategy.

There is no silver bullet for climate change. Mitigating it will take hard work, collaboration and diligent application, as will adapting to the change that is already occurring.

As designers, our role is to carefully consider every decision we make on every project, to fully utilise each material’s properties and strengths, and to look beyond the headlines to understand both the bigger picture and the details.

Written by - Elaine Toogood, head of architecture at The Concrete Centre