A new and highly swanky hotel lands in Edinburgh, a mass of shimmering bronze-coloured coils, and all anyone can think to say is: doesn’t that look like a giant poo emoji? Londoners are confronted with plans for a giant burning-red orb, which will supposedly serve as a concert venue, and it brings on the shudders.
New buildings can amuse or repulse us, induce awe or yawns, but there is a case for thinking of them less as objects to walk around and more as processes to worry about – because the process of building is one of the most wasteful and carbon-hungry engaged in by humanity. We tear down old houses or shops, and to create new ones, we cover the Earth with materials that have gobbled up fossil fuels: Concrete, of which the world pours enough each year to patio over every park and mountain and back garden, every square inch, in England; steel, of which every tonne produced emits nearly two tonnes of carbon dioxide; plastics. While Conservative MPs argue over who is going to foot the bill for green energy for our homes, hardly anyone in Westminster discusses the upfront carbon costs of building houses and office blocks and shopping malls. Yet construction directly accounts for about 10% of our carbon emissions. Turning approximately 50,000 buildings to rubble every year creates two-thirds of all the waste produced in this country. If the UK is ever to translate its net zero ambitions into reality it will need to change the entire building industry.
Never one to decline a hard hat or an ersatz bridge, Boris Johnson would doubtless enthuse about the new construction materials that scientists are working on. Technological fixes may have their place, but while waiting for them one obvious approach we can pursue right now is to stop indiscriminately tearing down buildings. That is the ethos of the most recent winners of architecture’s top prize, the Pritzker. Anne Lacaton and Jean-Phillippe Vassal have condensed their philosophy into a slogan: “Never demolish, never remove or replace.” Meanwhile in the UK, the trade journal Architects’ Journal have pursued a RetroFirst campaign, urging architecture practices to reuse, refurbish and retrofit buildings rather than simply throwing up new ones.
Architects can advise their clients, but the big obstacle is that new is cheaper than old. First, the state encourages the use of the wrecking ball by putting 0% VAT on new buildings; even refurb and repair incurs the full 20%. Given that one advantage of Brexit is that it allows the UK to set its own VAT rates, there is no reason that system should not be reversed. Second, since so much building in this country happens under the aegis of the public sector, it should be easier to enshrine a minimum threshold for demolition.
This is not to say that no new hospitals or houses will ever be built, but such measures would make clients, architects and builders more mindful about the materials they have in front of them. They would bring construction within the circular economy. And impose constraints on architects that may spur them into greater creativity. Out with the new, and in with the old!