Last edited 15 Apr 2024

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Institute of Historic Building Conservation Institute / association Website

A short history of good ideas

Important ideas that have emerged in one designer’s lifetime raise questions about our current resilience, and the legacy of buildings and practices we pass on to the future.

Blencow hall.png
Still showing the scars of the Civil War, the 16th-century Blencow Hall, Cumbria, has been imaginatively restored. (Photo: Blackett-Ord Conservation).

When working with heritage there is value in considering how our professional experience has engaged, impacted, informed and perhaps disrupted our thinking. Here I consider the impact of ideas that have emerged in my lifetime on my approach to design.

I start with the Club of Rome. This was a gathering of 30 influential people who first met in 1968 to discuss contemporary concerns. The issues included resource depletion, pollution, waste, disaffection, urban sprawl, wealth inequality, loss of soil fertility and biodiversity. The common theme was problems relevant to all nations, but too enormous for individual nations to respond to adequately. They required a global response. We can recognise all of the issues as more relevant today.

This global assembly occurred at an interesting and optimistic time. It was at the end of the ‘green revolution’. The world had experienced a period of unparalleled growth in agriculture. Globally food production had expanded by 30 per cent in 10 years. The Club of Rome identified that the growth had unintended consequences – a 300 per cent increase in the use of pesticides, and a huge surge in use and cost of nitrates and mechanical equipment. Its first report, Limits to Growth, speculated that this was unsustainable. They contrasted this kind of growth with how systems behave in nature. They tend to oscillate. A population can expand when food is abundant, but the increased population puts pressure on the environment and must then contract. The food supply can then recover. In a bad winter, mice live under the snow, owls go hungry and their population falls. In the following summer the abundant mouse population will provide for an expanding owl population. Even the universe expands and contracts.

The Club of Rome identified the risk of what they called ‘overshoot’: exploiting a resource such that it could not recover. A system becomes permanently distorted and can not go back to where it was before. Failure is inevitable. The system is broken. The Club of Rome recognised that there is only one Planet Earth and it proposed risk avoidance as the only sensible option. It called for stewardship to seek to stay within the limits of the earth’s ability to cope with the pressures, and avoid overshoot. This gives rise to my Good Idea No 1: ‘Infinite growth on a finite planet is an impossibility’ (EF Schumacher) – unless you are an economist.

The implication in design terms is profound. The building industry needs to move away from demolishing perfectly good buildings and instead promote a culture of care, repair, management and refurbishment to maintain our heritage. Care for material things is ecological. We must move away from a development model that is linear, taking virgin and clean resources and creating pollution and waste. We need a cyclic development model in which we extend the life of our goods by treating waste from one process as input to another: design for deconstruction, re-use and recycling of our buildings, and our technology, clothing and cars. We have not heeded Schumacher’s 50-year-old wisdom. Consumption has increased exponentially and it is generally agreed that we are already beyond the limits, in overshoot.

Rachel Carson is a significant influence on my intellectual heritage. She was a marine biologist and author of numerous books about the natural world, including Silent Spring. Carson engaged industry in addressing the food chain. She drew attention to the harmful impact of DDT. The pesticide industry marginalised her but ultimately DDT was banned after it was identified in breast milk. Importantly Carson did not have a cuddly back-to-nature agenda. She was examining, not pandas and elephants, but the very underpinning of how organic systems worked. She left a huge body of thought that revolutionised the lives of many and started a real discussion about human environmental impacts. She is the source of my Good Idea No 2: ‘Humankind is part of nature, and war against nature is inevitably a war against ourselves.’

Did we respond to this warning? Sadly not. In the intervening 60 years our use of toxic chemicals has increased dramatically. We use abundant chemicals in building products and manufactured goods that are designed to kill species on which we ultimately depend. Ubiquitous volatile organic compounds from paints go into the lungs of building occupants, causing particular damage to the young and the vulnerable. My approach is to design so that chemicals are not required. There are alternative non-toxic treatments and good design guidance.

In 1980 Barry Commoner, an academic, stood for president of the USA on four unbending laws of ecology. One of them is my Good Idea No 3: ‘Everything must go somewhere.’ Commoner predicted many of our contemporary environmental problems, including so much waste lasting in perpetuity. Products and materials that can be thrown away but they can never be disposed of, including the oceanic soup of plastic waste. Commoner’s design influence means that we must select building materials that can return to earth after a useful life, such as earth, untreated timber, straw and hemp.

At the first global conference on the environment, held in Stockholm in 1972, there was intense discussion about the risks of replication of western development patterns. For example, what if China started burning lots of coal? Attendees from the poorer countries were initially unimpressed, angry and dismissive of moralising attempts by western nations that had grown rich on exploitation of the earth’s resources and were now calling for restraint on development. However, common sense, at least in principle, prevailed. There was ultimately universal agreement that in the common interest these threats should be taken seriously. It resulted in the publication of my Good Idea No 4: ‘There is only one earth.’ Sadly we now use the equivalent of more than three planets.

In design terms for survival and climate justice we must commit to one-planet living, the 2000-watt society of 48 kWhr/day/person for everything: travel, heating and food. We must use low-impact materials and transport, and satisfy more of our needs locally. There are excellent models of low-impact living, including cities of small distances.

Current predictions of climate change are similar to those in the textbooks that I read in 1971. As an aspiring physicist, the dangers of burning fossil fuels made complete sense to me. I did not go on climate strike (I would now) because I thought the intention was to solve the problem. Instead I trained to become an engineer and have watched as for 50 years the risks have largely been denied and the consequences – storms, floods, drought and fires – permeate our world. My Good Idea No 5, Negawatts not megawatts, recognises that energy conservation is the cheapest form of energy. Our design challenge is not to generate more but to decide how much energy we need. Using building physics and limiting mechanical services to support natural systems will help. I find it increasingly difficult to argue with that wonderful Scottish landscape architect Ian McHarg, who concluded that ‘man is a blind, witless, low-brow anthropocentric clod who inflicts lesions upon the earth’.

My final good idea emerges as a consequence of the Limits to Growth report, which made clear that the number of cars or babies is not the limiting factor in a system. It is the resources that each uses and the pollution (lead, carbon dioxide, cadmium, formaldehyde) that each generates. My Good Idea No 6: ‘There are limits to growth but no limits to development.’ That designers dream provides us with real hope that we have the potential to create benign, long-lasting solutions.

My short history of good ideas is actually, of course, a long history of missed opportunities. I have recounted 60 years of A-class thinkers with A-class facts being ignored. Apart from a few rare examples, it is the bad and least resilient ideas that get replicated. It is unclear if our system is broken or what if anything we can rescue but it is not too late to choose the intelligent path. Thankfully there are some designers and examples that point the way toward a legacy of resilience that we can be proud of. We should give them our support. To fail now is to fail forever.

This article originally appeared in the Institute of Historic Building Conservation’s (IHBC’s) Context 174, published in December 2022. It was written by Sandy Halliday, the author of Sustainable Construction, director of Gaia Group and a director of the Scottish Ecological Design Association. This article is based on her talk at the IHBC Aberdeen 2022 Day School.

--Institute of Historic Building Conservation

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