George Clarke’s latest forthright piece on how the construction industry needs to change

The UK housebuilding industry isn’t the most innovative industry in the world unfortunately. Far from it.

In previous blogs I’ve said that the housebuilding industry, particularly here in Britain, is stuck in the dark ages.

I made that point because the way we build homes is quite slow, antiquated and doesn’t embrace fast, clean, precision-engineered and modern methods of manufacturing that other industries use. It is the process that is medieval.

Thankfully, things are beginning to change and factories are springing up around the country to begin an age of off-site, manufactured housing.

Their industry is in its infancy and has a long way to go, but it has definitely started and exciting times lie ahead.

A green revolution is needed in the building and construction industry immediately

George Clarke George Clarke Architect and TV presenter

Building for the future

After thinking about ‘how’ we build, you then need to consider ‘what’ we build homes from and this is where is gets very interesting because the environment and sustainability is now being discussed at higher levels in the building industry.

Again, let’s look at other industries.

The UK renewable energy industry is absolutely flying and is becoming greener year on year. In 2017 new offshore wind power became cheaper than nuclear power for the first time! We are still massively dependent on gas, but that will change because we know we are too dependent!

The beauty and cosmetics industry has ecology and 100% natural skincare products at the very top of their agenda and this innovation has been happening since Anita Rodrick began to make it mainstream with the evolution of The Body Shop.

Fashion is changing too, claiming to be turning the tide on unsustainable fabrics and dyes and inhumane working conditions in overseas territories, but let’s be honest, most of us haven’t really got a clue how ecological or sustainable our pants and t-shirts are from the big high street chains.

A new conversation

The biggest problem is that ‘cost’ is currently the number 1 driver in our global economy.

Of course quality is important too, but balancing cost and quality has always been the priority of the economy well before the environment.

‘Cost’ before ‘ecology’ is a systematic problem in our global world.

That system is only going to change either through society changing and refusing to buy unsustainable products or through government’s legislating for such change, or a healthy combination of both.

But, to do this we desperately need to change the ENTIRE CONVERSATION we are having particularly in building and construction.

Taking the long term view

In fact, where energy, clothes and cosmetics industries buy, consume and dispose of their products, the building and construction industry creates objects that can be around for decades, if not hundreds of years, therefore, we should be having a VERY DIFFERENT CONVERSATION to any other industry on the planet.

The homes we build should exist for 150 to 250 years so it is vital that the home building industry thinks, speaks and acts in a completely different way to an industry that makes and sells disposable products.

Buildings have a long-term, permanence often way beyond the life time of a human being, and require an enormous amount of energy to be built in the first place.

But, in so many cases we know that the amount of energy a building uses over its life time to heat, cool and power itself is often way beyond the amount of energy used in its initial construction.

This treble-whammy of the short-term blast of energy required in building construction combined with the long-term draw on energy use, along with the long-term emissions from buildings being used by humans means that, in my view, a green revolution is needed in the building and construction industry immediately.

Lifespan costs

When we specify a material we shouldn’t be thinking just of the initial capital cost, but the cost over its lifespan. 

The reason this doesn’t happen in the mass house building industry is because very often developers have no long term interest in a house or development. They build, sell and walk away.

They don’t care about those materials or those houses in 50 years’ time.

It is all about short-term, fast profits, pushing up their share price and paying out dividends.

This needs to change, as it is all being done at the expense of the environment.

Circular economy

The mission of Ellen MacArthur’s Foundation (https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org) is to accelerate our transition to a circular economy where products are designed from the outset to be green and used again and again and where global corporations have a corporate responsibility for every product and material throughout its entire lifespan.

So, if you design, make and sell washing machines you have a responsibility at the end of its life to take the product back and recycle every single part.

What a game-changer that is.

If that principle were to apply to every home built in the UK then it would not only change the way we specify materials in housing, but it would change the way we design houses, build homes and change the financial model in how we rent or sell properties.

They would have to set up companies or foundations that would be responsible for those homes way beyond the lifetime of the board of directors who profit from them.

What a different home building industry that would be!

However, that is only going to change if we (the people and governments) force the industry to do it.

R&D

The research and development into construction materials is actually quite amazing.

You may never have heard of a an incredible material called ‘Graphene’ that could transform building construction or products such as ‘Self-Healing Bio Concrete’ or ‘Nano Ceramics’, but they are here and we are only beginning to scratch the surface of material science and how these products will impact on how we build homes.

But, it doesn’t all have to be sci-fi and futuristic, as exciting as all that sounds.

Wood is good

Planet earth gave us one of the most beautiful and sustainable materials known to man and woman kind; WOOD. It is my favourite building material.

I’m looking out of my study window as the woodland around me and the trees are helping recycle CO2, they are also providing a home for insects and small animals, stunning to look at, they add to my sense of happiness and well-being.

To think that trees and forests can and should be sustainably managed across the globe for us to build homes from still amazes me.

Timber is a material that is beautiful in its natural state and when used in construction. There are timber-framed houses in this country that have been around for hundreds of years!

So, we may need to move on from the dark ages when it comes to more efficient building processes and using modern ‘methods’ of construction, but mediaeval architects and builders can still teach us a lot about building homes using green, sustainable materials.

We just need to realise, very quickly, that a long-term, truly green and sustainable home-building economy needs a very different conversation to the one the industry is having now.

George Clarke is an architect, writer, lecturer and TV presenter, a founder of TV production company Amazing Productions, and creative director of George Clarke + Partners