Building urban landscapes that are designed to last could be key to reducing the environmental damage caused by construction.
The built environment is responsible for 37% of global carbon emissions. 16% of this figure is embodied carbon, consisting of the CO2 emitted from the production of materials, logistics, construction activities and demolition. The remainder is from operational carbon — emissions produced in the day-to-day running of buildings.
While many efficiency savings have been made to reduce the operational carbon of buildings through increased energy efficiency standards, construction remains among the hardest-to-abate sectors. This is mainly because of the extreme industrial temperatures required to forge steel and concrete.
However, with the global population expected to increase by a further 2 billion people over the next 30 years, we are going to need more homes, more infrastructure and more workplaces. In short, we have to keep building.
More than half of this expected population growth is expected to occur in Africa. The UN estimates that 70% of the African building stock expected for 2040 has not yet been built.
So, how can we keep building while simultaneously protecting the planet?
Most obviously, transitioning away from materials that require fossil fuels to produce the industrial heat required in their manufacturing, such as steel and concrete, would help reduce the embodied carbon associated with construction.
As a building material, wood stores carbon from the air, rather than emitting it and is seen as a more sustainable option. Large-scale wooden structures are now offering genuine alternatives to steel and concrete, with the tallest timber buildings surpassing 85 metres in height.
Similarly, Dale-Vince-owned, Stroud-based football club Forest Green Rovers are planning on building Eco Park, a football stadium made almost entirely from wood, in the near future.
(Forest Green Rovers/ Zaha Hadid Architects)
Sustainable building materials may have a particularly crucial role to play in Africa due to its abundant natural resources. However, creating fully-wooden structures is clearly not going to be a silver bullet and is not appropriate in every circumstance. So what next?
Concrete and steel do have exceptional functionality and robustness, making them the best-suited materials for the largest buildings. Due to the carbon emissions of these materials, when they are deployed, the bare minimum is that they should be used in buildings that are built to last.
All buildings, but particularly public infrastructure, should be built to last for centuries, not for a single generation. Take the Royal Liverpool University Hospital, opened in 1978. Less than 50 years later, in 2022, the hospital was decommissioned and replaced with a new Royal Liverpool University Hospital.
Alongside being an egregious waste of public money, creating such transient public infrastructure is an egregious waste of the remaining carbon budget.
The same story is true elsewhere; take London Euston station, for example. Rebuilt in the 1960s, the station is devoid of any architectural merit beyond its pure functionality. It is not somewhere that offers a warm welcome to wearied travellers, as its earlier iteration did. It is simply an unpleasant step of a journey that has to be endured.
Despite being one of the most important stations in the country, it could hardly inspire one to take the train less. This unwelcoming aura is typical of Britain’s railways today.
Referencing the similar transformation of New York’s Penn Station, American art historian Vincent Scully memorably wrote “one enters the city like a god. One scuttles in now like a rat”.
Substantial redesign and rebuilding at Euston is on pause as the HS2 comedy continues, but appears to be inevitable, eventually. Whether a piece of enduring architecture will take its place remains to be seen.
Public infrastructure need not be so fickle. The Victorians, by all accounts, were pretty good at building stuff. From sewers to railways to hospitals, they built things to last.
In a similar vein, many British cities find some of their most coveted properties within their Georgian quarters. London, Edinburgh, Bath, York, Bristol and many more.
The original Georgian Royal Liverpool Infirmary building, opened in 1824 to replace the first Liverpool Infirmary, which had just 30 beds, is still in use today as a university building. It has survived, in part, because of its architectural merit including well-proportioned windows, gothic style, red brick and terracotta details.
Contrast this with the unsightly grey brutalist lump opened in 1978 to replace it, it is easy to see why one has endured and the other hasn’t.
What is it about modernity that stops us from building things to last?
Whether because of the need to rapidly repair cities destroyed by the Luftwaffe or the subsequent state of public finances, post-war construction has not been built to last. But it need not be this way.
Perhaps it is value engineering that is to blame, but as the case of the Royal Liverpool University Hospital shows, getting things right the first time round will be far cheaper in the long run.
There are new Georgian-style housing developments being built in this country, but not enough. Nicholas Boys Smith, founder of Create Streets, thinks we should be building more:
“We should build them because we are four million homes short and that is desperately, savagely undermining the quality of life of a less prosperous and above all the young. We should build them because they are more popular with the public and require less land. We should build them because they support more sociable and communal interaction than the extremes of outer suburbia or elephantine towers. And we should build them because they allow their residents to tread more lightly upon the planet.”
Certain countries, such as Hungary, are doing a better job at building things that will endure than others.
With both the climate crisis and the housing crisis at the top of the political agenda in the UK, this is more important now than ever. Keir Starmer has pledged to get Britain building again if he wins this year’s election. It is imperative that this is done in a way that prioritises people over vehicles, encourages gentle density and creates long-lasting infrastructure that lasts multiple lifetimes.