In conversation: Bill Dunster and Clare Murray
This is an edited transcript of a conversation between Bill Dunster and Clare Murray, one of a series of such discussions held to reflect on past and future changes in architectural practice and culture as Architecture Today turns 30
BD It’s good to talk about how the next generation thinks about it, because I don’t regard my career as being particularly successful, and it’s important that the next generation gets a handle on sustainability and goes for it. It’s getting close to handover time for me. How are you going to run with it?
CM You may see what you’ve done as not enough, but I think it was the foundation of what’s to come. There were periods in recent history when sustainability was in vogue, and people jumped on the bandwagon and then jumped off it just as quickly, but now I hope we’re seeing a real shift in the way that we view it. I’ve been in sustainability and architecture for 10 years, but in the last year, in particular, there’s been a real acceleration with Climate Emergencies, Architects Declare, Greta Thunberg. All of those things are bringing it back into vogue but – hopefully – for the long term.
BD That’s music to my ears, and about time. I’m just concerned that there is enough time. I was read these reports that are published – “This is the plan for the Greater London Authority for the next five years” –and they are things we thought were all going to be commonplace by 2005. We were all ready to do energy-positive buildings and net-zero buildings when the Code for Sustainable Homes was going to become mandatory, but it was cancelled under pressure from the volume housebuilders in summer 2016.
CM That was a real low in the recent history of sustainability. We were gearing up to doing more and more and we had a trajectory, something that was set out quite clearly, and it was eroded almost overnight by a Housing Standards Review paper. But despite that, councils haven’t given up, the GLA didn’t give up on its 35 per cent reduction in carbon despite the fact that it could have gone back to 19 per cent. And although policy is a very blunt tool, I think we have now found our footings finally and can begin to build on that. But the rate at which we must do things is many times faster than it would have been in 2005 when, as you say, it should’ve been done.
BD I question whether incremental change is going to deliver a stable, equitable, humane, low-carbon society in time, because events beyond our control are now moving very fast.
The truth is, the UK is importing 70 per cent of its food, we’ve got one of the lowest environmental performance standards of the developed countries, it ain’t going to get better any time soon with the current political leadership. How will the incremental change agenda cope when you have food riots in our major cities because climate change is starting to make imported food more problematic?
There is always this dilemma: you can’t be too radical, otherwise society spits you out, but if you’re too complacent, you get caught by events beyond your control.
Top: BedZED – the Beddington Zero Energy Development – is a mixed-use scheme in Wallington, completed for the Peabody Trust in 2002 (ph: Duan Fu).
Above: Extinction Rebellion protest in Parliament Square, London (ph: Alexander Savin).
CM We have to remain optimistic. Humans don’t have a natural desire to destroy the planet, but we inadvertently do by being here. We have the tools to fix it. It’s whether we have the willpower to do it quick enough. We’re going to have to make a huge shift in the way that we do things if I’m going to see 80.
BD The architectural profession has always viewed these issues as constraints, whereas I believe they’re opportunities. It produces a new architectural language, it produces a fresh mathematical relationship with the natural world, and architecture, urban design, product design, transportation, food production. This is all good stuff, it’s the evolution of the human race in a sensible direction.
But I don’t see this holistic debate. I see trivial jousting over whether passive house is the future or not. I think it’s extremely simple: all of our projects, from this point on, must make no net contribution to accelerating climatic change. If you do anything at all that makes the problem worse, then you are not acting in the general interests of humanity.
“All of our projects, from this point on, must make no net contribution to climate change. If you do anything that makes the problem worse, you are not acting in the general interests of humanity”
CM Yes, that’s a pretty simple way of putting it. It’s an interesting question for architectural practices, and how they want to be perceived: do they want to be a practice that, ultimately, continues to break the planet or one that sets out to fix it? We cannot continue to build as we are. We can’t rely on technology to fix the problem. We have to design our buildings so that they’ll last and not contribute further to climate change.
You’ve got a real advantage in that you began this journey very early. Those who didn’t have got a lot of catching up to do.
BD Everyone makes it seem like it’s very complex, and it’s too difficult to start. I think it’s extraordinarily simple. You can write out the problem in four lines: minimise embodied carbon, maximise durability, maximise energy efficiency, and maximise building-integrated renewable energy systems. That simple.
The only thing that’s complicated is that it goes against everything that’s taught, reported on, and commissioned. But it’s not difficult.
CM You’re right, it’s not hard, but the language that gets used and the definitions that are generated over the years can cause unnecessary confusion. Zero carbon, for example, what does that mean? There’s more than one definition.
BD I see endless debates about the definition of zero carbon, and they get a roomful of the people that caused the problem, and say, “Let’s have a consensus, and that defines zero carbon.” It doesn’t. We should start a new subject called ‘carbon philosophy’, and explore what that means. It isn’t a consensus of industry professionals or, indeed, people with their snouts in the trough.
CM You just set out the fundamental problem – we do try to define zero carbon so that others who aren’t experts can understand it, and, in doing so, we trap ourselves into a never-ending discussion of what it actually is. What’s in, what’s out, is it embodied, is it operational? We end up in this endless spiral.
BD I get that, but I’m saying it is simple: “Are you or are you not, in the life of your proposed physical intervention on this planet, increasing the net amount of global atmospheric carbon dioxide levels?”
CM That requires people who understand the problem in the first place, and the difficult thing is we’re working with architects who aren’t trained in environmental design, and are struggling to come to terms with what constitutes a zero-carbon building or place.
BD All of the technical tools are given to pretty well every architect. Whether they choose to embrace them and look at the architectural implications, I doubt, and that’s probably an imagination failure.
CM I was lucky at university in that during our Part Two, we were able to specialise and I did a masters in sustainable building and we were taught building physics. Those who didn’t go through that – or get taught it elsewhere – are missing fundamental pieces of the jigsaw puzzle, pieces that make things look obvious to us. We can look at a building and say, “The windows are too big, or too small,” Or that the building faces the right way or the wrong way. But others have never been taught that; they may have been taught to orient their building based on urban design principles. Every person that goes through education, develops a different take and or feel for what interests them, and we were lucky enough to be interested in sustainable design.
BD The question that should be asked is how do you reconcile all these agendas, and this is just not taught in universities. The question is not whether you understand building physics, it’s the integration of all the conflicting or competing parameters which make a new architectural movement. It’s the new zeitgeist, isn’t it? It’s what’s happening after conventional modernism or post-modernism, or whatever it is we do these days. That’s where the judgement comes in, and that’s where talent, skill and self-expression can emerge. The problem is you can’t do any of it if you don’t understand the tools. You can’t write a poem if you don’t understand the language. I don’t see any universities really getting to grips with this agenda.
CM There are specialist universities out there that focus on these issues, and then there are others that focus on other architectural parts of the process. That’s fine to some extent, but there needs to be more focus on sustainable design from the early days and throughout architects’ education. It can’t be something that’s just left to be learned in practice.
BD This stuff probably can’t be taught anyway. You have to believe in a future that works, and you have to modify most of your values, and then you stand a chance of creating this new architectural methodology in a beautiful and meaningful way. The truth of the matter is most architecture students don’t much care; they just dream of being Zaha.
Levitt Bernstein Architects’ Loudoun Road housing scheme in north London was designed to Passivhaus standards, with performance in reality proved by post-occupancy evaluation.
CM Well, I don’t know about that. When I started at university in 2003, my first year saw BedZED up for the Stirling Prize. I wanted to be a Bill Dunster, I didn’t want to be a Foster; that was part of my agenda.
We’ve just seen that happen again in Mikhail Riches’ Goldsmith Street scheme that has come through. Yes, a very different scheme to yours, attempting to achieve different things, but they both have a similar background agenda in that they’re attempting to be highly sustainable places. And I don’t think that architectural students will look at the new Stirling-award-winning building and not want to be Mikhail Riches right now, just like I felt in 2003. It’s demonstrated that it’s possible to achieve many of the things that we set out to achieve without your buildings looking any different.
BD I’m going to be provocative because it’s important in these matters. Mikhail Riches’ scheme is very well-mannered, and it does all the passive house things, fine. But it doesn’t push any boundaries in renewable energy integration. I don’t think it’s ground-breaking, and I really do not see what the industry’s been doing in 20 years after BedZED was started. We can do so much better today.
CM People start their journey somewhere. The buildings that I built in my Part One year out were warehouses. They had no desire to be sustainable. They were grey boxes in an open landscape with tarmac surrounding them, and there was not much aspiration for them other than to make the grey cladding as shiny as you could. I didn’t learn anything about sustainability on those buildings, but it didn’t stop my desire to change.
BD We’ve just had a scheme win the Stirling Prize that has no building-integrated renewable energy in it at all. And it’s praised as being exemplary.
CM As far as I understand, the city council’s policy is to apply renewables, but on this project, they said, “We’ll pay for Passivhaus instead and we’ll forfeit the renewables on the basis that they can be applied later.”
BD That’s why I started our work on the supply chain [through low-cost bulk buying and developing industry partnerships]. If you develop tools and spend a lot of time trying to make them more efficient and trying to get economies of scale, you can probably put up a building-integrated photovoltaic-type roof for nearly the same price as a conventional one.
That’s where architects can collaborate, and that’s where we can change the industry by developing our own tools. What we can’t do is just wait for instruction from councils or apply what the Barbour Index or Spon’s tells us is economic. We have to develop our own future, and that is where this imagination failure or lack of aspiration is causing us tremendous problems. If you took building-integrated photovoltaics seriously, it completely changes urban design.
CM I disagree to a certain extent just in that if a building is fundamentally sustainable and has driven down its loads, then applying renewables at any point will then improve what it’s able to achieve and contribute to a greater portion of that energy in that building. For me, it’s not about sticking renewables on a roof, it’s about changing the way we design our buildings so that they reduce energy demand to a point at which we barely need renewables.
BD We’re already doing that; that’s a given. But if we actually all got our acts together, then a dumb, aluminium roof could be an energy-positive feature. And I’m at the point where it doesn’t cost any more money; in fact, it may even save money. We’re having serious debates in the office now about whether to even bother connecting to the grid on projects. You can spend £80,000 on upgrading a substation or you can simply not bother. Does anybody even install a landline for a telephone system today? We’re very close to that with electrical storage, with enhanced energy efficiency measures, and with building-integrated renewable energy systems. We’re going to find all this stuff just overtaking business as usual.
CM Although we can lead a debate in the architectural world, it’s not us who are ultimately building or paying for the building. So, in some instances, we need to not just convince ourselves, but convince our clients too. And we know that the industry moves notoriously slowly on these issues, whether it’s our clients or whether it’s the readiness of contractors to integrate some of those things and do it well enough that it works.
BD My bicycle has two kilowatt hours of battery storage on it. It can plug straight into PV. I could pretty much run an African school on it. Why would you need to put in centralised generating infrastructure when you have that kind of technology?
CM I think it works better for suburban than urban in terms of the individual plug-and-play home. In terms of high-density housing in, say, central London, we are looking at more of a sharing model, a whole building model.
Mountain Park Resident, a mixed-use scheme in Nanjing, China, designed by ZEDfactory, incorporates photovoltaics in the facades and roof gardens.
BD We’ve designed apartment blocks in Nanjing, where the plot ratios are beyond-comprehension high, and we designed photovoltaics into the vertical cladding system, which powers air conditioning and lighting and runs the apartments for much of the year. All horizontal surfaces become roof gardens. If you design around these principles, you get totally different urban priorities. A lot of the rules set by New Urbanists or the government are completely irrelevant in this new age.
Take electric scooters: major cities all over the world are overrun by them but I don’t think there’s a single urban designer that’s even taken this on board.
This is happening in other places; it’s not future-gazing, it’s just being aware about the direction of travel of technology and where new possibilities come, and then embracing that with this new architectural language.
Drivers of change
CM The things that have been effective are, to a certain extent, policy changes. They get everyone on a level playing field and bring people forward together. That’s why I have given up quite a lot of my time to the London Energy Transformation Initiative – LETI – which is a voluntary group who set about looking deeper into things like zero carbon and how we achieve it, so that everyone can understand where we are currently, where we need to be and why we need to be there.
BD I think the work you’re doing looks very positive, but the mainstream needs a radical jolt. I’ve done 20 years of campaigning, and nobody listens. You just get fatigued. How many housing ministers have I lobbied? The last one agreed with everything I said in front of all of her different policy wonks and officials. Will any of it happen? Not a chance, because there’s a whole raft of people put there to make sure nothing radical gets through the current political system.
The energy I have left will go into my work in the supply chain – basically getting economies of scale by standardising components and making things like building-integrated photovoltaics affordable. It works, it’s helpful, and other architects can use it.
The government has promised to run the UK as a carbon-neutral country by 2050. Well, runaway climate change will be really quite severe by then. I don’t believe that we can wait for leadership from politicians. On a positive note, change is coming about through developments in other fields, whether it’s electrical energy storage or mass production of photovoltaics. We’ll find that most of the existing ways of going about things will be automatically superseded by very pragmatic interventions from all over the place, but not generated by the UK, which has contributed almost nothing to this debate.
Above left: Emblem of Architects Declare, a proclamation of the role of buildings in climate change, and commitment to take action, which has been signed by hundreds of architects.
Above right: Workshop held by the London Energy Transformation Initiative (LETI), a network of volunteers which produces research on the route to zero carbon building to inform consultants and developers as well as policymakers.
CM I think we have to remain optimistic; we can’t afford not to be. There might be fatigue saying the same thing endlessly, but 682 practices have signed Architects Declare and we have seen movement from politicians. Yes, it is small and the targets are a movable feast and we need to be going faster, but it’s only by doing this work and showing consensus that we can make the shift we need. There are answers out there – demonstrations of how to build better – but it’s not mainstream yet.
It might be a miracle if we hit our 2030 zero-carbon target, but that is what we need to do, and that is why over 500 of us support LETI and work in our own time to understand what it takes to get there. If you can get consensus on what needs to be done and how it can be done, then there is very little excuse for not doing it anymore.
Work is ongoing but it’s clear that, as you said earlier, everything we build now must be 2030-ready because we can’t afford to be retrofitting that, as well.
We should see people who really care about designing a future that works getting on and doing it; we can’t wait for politicians and existing power structures to adapt”
BD I’d like to think we are already building those buildings; the difficulty is funding them. When I was a student, if someone hadn’t got somewhere to live, they’d squat somewhere. I’m not saying that we should do that, but we need to set up a parallel society which is run around the concepts promoted by Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion. I want to see radical young people embracing that vision. We should see people who really care about designing a future that works getting on and doing it; we can’t wait for existing power structures to adapt, or for consensus from all the people who caused the problem in the first place.
This alternative way of existing will develop, and the tools that will enable a larger number of people to get on board are developing fast. There will be a gradual assimilation between these radicals and everybody else: that’s the story of how western democratic societies adopt change. You need the extremities to make the tanker change course, and I’m seeing progress: ideas and technologies are going to be launched into the market, no matter what politicians decide.