Cutting out the layers can make buildings more sustainable, argues Steve Webb
George Orwell said: “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out”. This is one approach to prose. Why stick all kinds of fancy adjectives between the reader and the core of what you are trying to say? Not all beautiful prose is succinct but there is something elegant in succinctness. Perhaps it is the deftness of the writer to convey an idea with the minimum of words.
Buildings are not prose, but as an essay or a story might be intended to deliver some core message or atmosphere, so a building is intended to create an atmosphere and serve a purpose. The debate about ornamentation, honesty to materials goes around and around. Why not decorate or embellish? If those embellishments are core to delivering an atmosphere then they have a function. But it is not the addition of embellishment that has made today’s buildings so layered and complex.
While there has to be room for any style or kind of building, an important question to ask is how are the most normal buildings built, as these are the ones that condition the vast drain on natural resources.
Let’s look at a recently built sports centre in west London. Stand inside the reception and imagine yourself passing though the layers of wall. Plaster board, top hat battens, vapour barrier, block work, jumbo studs, insulation, more top hats, breather membrane, cross battens, brick ties, bricks. Imagine yourself drifting up through the ceiling and passing through the strata of services beams and floors. Each layer is built by a different subcontractor and each subcontractor designed one part or another in a whirlwind of performance specifications composed by architects, façade engineers, acousticians, structural engineers, environmental engineers after being twisted and contorted in innumerable value engineering meetings.
In his recent book Subtract, Leidy Klotz discusses the tendency of humans to add complexity and to overlook solutions involving subtraction. This is certainly true in building. The layering of components and dividing of expertise has added cost, waste and confusion and created almost a century’s worth of very fake-looking buildings. The illegibility of the meaningful components and the divorcing of internal and external appearance makes them deeply unsatisfying.
Is it time to clear the decks?
Deftness in design would mean solving several problems with one simple solution. A single design move that would simultaneously act as structure, water proofing, insulation, damp control, durable finish and look beautiful is really hard to find. One person would need to understand all of those issues simultaneously.
The 2226 building in Austria by Baumschlage Eberle and engineers Mader & Flatz Ziviltechniker GmbH and Elmar Graf GmbH uses a lot of very unsustainable bricks, but at the heart of the building is a desire to simplify: no insulation, no membranes, no heating and no air conditioning. These are considerable achievements.
Russian timber architecture has some useful lessons. Timber is waterproof, it’s an insulator, it’s structural and it’s a good finish. Stone can act as cladding structure and weathering.
Architecture 00’s recent building at the Greenwich Peninsula design district is far from sustainable, but is a clear attempt to find a solution for both inside and out.
Let’s amalgamate all of the layers. Let’s design our bog-standard buildings as structures that can be exposed in and out. Let’s understand enough individually to have fewer authors of design. Let’s lay off the plasterboard and the cheesy cladding.