We must build less.
As the built environment takes centre stage at COP26, the scale and urgency of the climate crisis and of the industry’s responsibility to address it comes into focus. A recent report from the UN’s Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction shows that the buildings and construction sector is responsible for 38% of global CO2 emissions.
Increasing attention has been paid, in recent years, to emissions resulting from how our buildings are operated: how they are heated, cooled and lit. Those due to the production and supply of building materials and the construction itself have received less attention. And yet, they alone account for 10% of global emmissions.
Much of the sector thrives on a wasteful cycle of demolition and new builds. In the UK alone, an estimated 50,000 buildings are torn down each year. Which begs the question: is building greener really the solution?
Whole-life carbon approach
Despite efforts by the likes of sustainable architecture pioneer William McDonough and organisations including World Green Building Council, breaking this demolition and new-build cycle has proven difficult.
Reusing existing building stock is a complex issue. If not done sustainably, it can also cause a hike in emissions. But there are several other reasons why reuse has not become more of a default option.
Many architects have found that it was easier to make a name for themselves with glitzy new buildings than with sustainable design methods and retrofits and, frequently, more – and quicker – money could be made by tearing down existing buildings and replacing them. Perverse financial incentives play a role alongside other factors: in the UK, for example, VAT rates still encourage new builds and penalise renovations.
Further, there are economic incentives for those who profit from the current system – who sell construction materials, carry out demolitions or whose business model exclusively focuses on new builds, instead of reckoning with existing buildings, refurbishing them and integrating them into new schemes – to not do things differently.
Lastly, in architecture education and professional accreditation, as elsewhere, there has been a lack of climate literacy. This has left architects ill-prepared to effectively tackle the climate crisis.