Green Memes 1: AECB’s successful formula? Sufficiency + Efficiency = Sustainability

One of 2018’s most striking viral images was a side-by-side of two heat maps comparing this summer’s heatwave with that of the famously scorching British summer of 1976.

On the 1976 map, Britain stands out as a red-hot island against continents coloured in cool shades of blue. Outside the UK, most of the planet experienced a cooler than average summer that year.

On this year’s map, however, Britain is just one blob of red among continents ranging in tone from yellow and orange through to deep crimson.

“The world’s on fire,” read the front page headline of The Sun, hardly a bastion of environmental campaigning, over an image of a scorching red globe.

1976 vs 2018 summer heatwaves

For many people, this year’s heatwave brought the reality of climate change — or climate breakdown as more and more observers are calling it — into the here and now. It also seems to have refocused the minds of green campaigners on the need for immediate and radical action.

For those campaigning for a more sustainable built environment, climate change presents a twin challenge: how to design sustainable buildings while also ensuring those buildings will function well in a rapidly changing world?

Ahead of its 2018 convention, in Garway, Herefordshire on 14-15 September, Lenny Antonelli spoke with AECB CEO Andy Simmonds about designing climate-resilient buildings, the future of the construction industry, and remaining hopeful in the face of despair.

Lenny Antonelli
Lenny Antonelli, journalist, writer, deputy editor Passive House Plus

The Association for Environment Conscious Building (AECB) is a network of green-minded businesses and individuals in the construction sector, with over 1,000 members and 20 local groups across England and Wales.

Founded in 1989, it has been at the forefront of green building for three decades, and its very existence is driven by the question: how should we design and build for the future? But with the global climate changing rapidly, that has never been a tougher question to answer.

Like many environmental activists, the AECB is now asking itself hard questions about how to remain hopeful and act with informed optimism against the backdrop of a rapidly changing planet — and in the face of political and economic systems that seem unable, or unwilling, to do anything about our environmental crises.

Andy, the global heatwave this summer seems to have focused environmentalists and non-environmentalists alike on the immediacy of the climate crisis. But it also seems to have forced many green campaigners to sit up and analyse what they’re doing, whether it’s enough, and where they go from here?

Andy Simmonds

Andy Simmonds, AECB CEO

Yes, like many other environmentalists who have been warning of the dangers to the biosphere and human society for decades, I and others in the AECB have become profoundly disturbed at the rapid, and largely unchecked, progress of climate change and the developing biodiversity catastrophe.

Combined with the political instability developing in the UK and around the world, this has required us to think — as activist-practitioners heading up the oldest and largest UK green building network — how can we remain optimistic whilst continuing our efforts to trial and promote more sustainable design and building practices? Are we doing enough? How can we be more effective? How can we continue to inspire and lead others?

We also needed to understand the ‘essence’ of the AECB in order to collaborate better with others. One thing that came out of our recent strategic review is the reminder that what the AECB was set up to do was to support pioneers in sustainable building. We represent them, we give them a home because without this they can feel lonely and marginalised.

We also needed reminding of that famous quote from Margaret Mead — to never underestimate that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world, because it’s the only thing that ever has. This can help us to maintain hope. Being hopeful in the face of climate breakdown requires more action, more activism, than ever before.

As an organisation in the building sector, don’t you face a doubly tricky challenge, because climate change is now here, so your work is not just to get the building industry to drastically cut its carbon emissions, but also to design buildings that can adapt to a rapidly changing climate?

We have said for the last decade that we need to mitigate for a 1.5C warmer world, but design for 4C warmer world. Of course in a 4C world, we won’t be too bothered about sustainable design because civilisation as we know it would likely not survive such a scenario. This is the dispiriting balance of hope versus panic that has been the context for our professional lives for a long time now.

But ultimately, yes, we need to design healthy buildings that are responsible for as few carbon emissions as possible, but that will also remain robust (and healthy) as the climate changes. We need to recognise that in 100 years from now, our descendants will be living in a very different world, and we will have built their infrastructure. This is why it is so important to allow young people to be a major part of decision making about creating and renewing the built environment – to avoid a huge inter-generational injustice. In fact, there is a need for an official body to champion the rights of young people in this context.

While we’ve always focused on how buildings can mitigate climate change, we have now started to look at how we create buildings that can adapt to it — for example buildings that don’t overheat, and that maintain good indoor (and outdoor) air quality, perhaps even as external air quality is compromised. Climate adaptation for the built environment will increasingly become a major focus for us, as we know some climate change is inevitable now.

So how should the building sector start thinking about designing buildings that adapt to climate change?

Our country needs a much more structured approach to dealing with climate change adaption. We need policy making that is based on evidence and robust-modelling, and that changes as the evidence indicates it should through robust feeback and review of progress.

First, we need to develop clear climate adaptation strategies for the crucial elements of a building: the building structure, its thermal fabric, mechanical and electrical services, and then lifetime consumables, maintenance and repair.

Second, we need clear targets or a standard for adaptation. We need buildings that perform as the climate changes — not just thermally and structurally, but in terms of the health and wellbeing of their occupants, and managing the life-cycle impacts of repair, maintenance and renewal of materials, consumables and components. So we may need new or adapted building standards that measure and verify not just carbon emissions or energy efficiency, but also climate-adaptability. These need not be complex or onerous!

Third, and this is really important, we need to ensure that it’s practical and economical for people to meet those standards, by applying principles like value engineering and radical simplicity [more of which below] to ensure we minimise resource use and cost.

Finally — and this will take a lot more work —we need to start exploring opportunities to create genuinely circular economies for building components and materials, so our industry creates close-to-zero waste. For example, should buildings – or at least parts of them — be completely demountable, so all of their components can be taken apart and reused or reconfigured?

This four step approach could form the basis of the AECB’s work going forward. But we are eager to hear from our members at our upcoming convention, or via local group discussions and debates.

It feels like this summer’s heatwaves gave environmentalists a kick up the backside and focused minds on the immediacy of the climate challenge. The AECB too recently worked with organisational change consultants Caplor Horizons to undertake a deep review of its own purpose and activities. What do you think you need to do better in the coming years?

Knowledge and understanding of buildings — particularly building design and building physics and performance — remains extremely poor across the general population. Most people know a lot more about their cars than the buildings they live and work in. This is something we all really need to work on.

And whilst we have helped inspire, support and educate many people over the years, we still feel we are not working at sufficient scale. So now, we need to redouble our efforts to work alongside and collaborate with others much more effectively.

But conventional collaboration within the fairly small, and often inward-looking, construction sector may not be the best or only approach. One of the things that came out of our strategic review is the need for us to collaborate nationally and internationally with individuals and groups who share our values, in order to help build the global movement necessary to change our current unsustainable culture. We need to be thinking on a much bigger scale.

At the same time, our membership numbers have remained fairly static, which limits our income – we have historically avoided chasing core funding from other sources in order to guard our intellectual independence and focus, but maybe that is something we need to rethink if we want to increase our reach – developing the 2008 AECB CarbonLite Programme, which ultimately led to the creation of the Passivhaus Trust being an exception to this rule.

So bringing more people into your network, and reaching out and collaborating with more people outside it, is a big part of your task now?

Absolutely. We need to grow our community while at the same time inoculating it against both complacency and despondency. And we need to develop better platforms, both face-to face and virtual ones, for our members to network, discuss and learn.

We are starting to plan a much more comprehensive interactive online platform, which we hope will enable our local group network to grow and thrive more consistently. We also want to explore more collaborations with training and education providers.

Recently we have set up an AECB expert advisor team to support AECB patron members, helping to provide insight and support to these organisations and companies, also their staff and customers, to transition to a greener way of operating. Only time, and perhaps some effective marketing, will tell whether we have correctly identified a useful service and whether the time is right for it to flourish.

You mentioned education. Young people today will be the designers, builders and building occupants of a future heavily impacted by climate change. Isn’t reaching out to them key?

Yes, and we are aiming to do just that through our training initiatives and partnerships, to reach more students and young professionals.

But the paradox is that young people increasingly cannot afford property, struggle to afford rents and have a decreasing ability to influence decisions about their built environment — even though they will be its inhabitants for decades to come.

I suspect in the future that new patterns of communal, co-operative and low impact living may be potential growth areas — or de-growth areas, I should say — that can offer young people hope for the future. Could the AECB have something usefully contribute to a communal or low impact living movement?

Climate change and other environmental issues are inherently political too. Given the immediacy of the challenge, do you think a group like the AECB needs to get more political? More radical?

We have to remain a cross party organisation in principle, of course. But we do already critique party policies, and network with MPs and policymakers. Brexit has swallowed the entire political process in the UK, but if it were to be derailed – and thereby derail the govenment – by people power or legal challenges, one potentially promising outcome could be an early general election and likely a Labour government, many of whose policies the AECB would welcome.

Failing an early election, we will have to wait till 2022, during which time the political balances in both main parties may have shifted yet again, either for better or worse – and Brexit may or may not have manifested itself. Meanwhile all we can do is support civil servants who are trying to push progressive policies behind the scenes, work hard with others to build a real progressive environmental movement based on informed activism, and keep developing the knowledge, tools and exemplars to promote sustainable building. An important parallel approach should also be legal challenges to destructive environmental practices, such as by Client Earth.

However, at a broader level, our entire political and economic system seems unable or unwilling to get to grips with the climate and biodiversity crises, and a much deeper transformation to more radically inclusive and sustainable political and economic models will probably be needed in the coming decades if our societies are to respond to these threats in a positive and hopeful manner.

How do you imagine the construction industry looking different, both in 2030 and further into the future?

If political instability remains and peaks in, say, the 2020s, will the industry even look much different to now? I welcome radical change to our current system, but fear system failure if change is either too slow or too superficial.

I think there may be some interesting developments in building materials science over the next decade, and greater adoption — particularly by ambitious city mayors and local authorities — of low energy, low emission buildings. But I don’t foresee any major regulatory change. Of course, what happens with Brexit will be a major influence, so the future is even more unpredictable than usual.

But looking at the much longer picture, our industry needs to undergo a deep cultural transformation based on values more aligned to planetary health. This is likely to be at least a 100 year endeavour, but it’s our job in groups like the AECB to be drivers of that change.

Given how volatile our changing climate is, we are going to need our industry — like our political systems — to be much more flexible and capable of responding to changing needs, changing supply chains, and a changing environment. We can’t become wedded to certain ways of doing things, but need be able to move swiftly as the evidence for what works and what doesn’t, and as the world around us, changes.

You mentioned the idea of radical simplicity earlier as an important design principle for the built environment. And indeed, one of the AECB’s stated values is radical, imaginative, science-based simplicity. Could you elaborate on that a bit and what it means?

Radical simplicity is similar to the idea of voluntary simplicity, but adds technical rigour and tools, potentially providing a smart and systematic framework for us to minimise the ‘stuff’ we need to provide for our life and work environments.

Until it becomes a habit, we have to think more responsibly concerning every decision, about the difference between ‘want’ and ‘need’ – as it relates to our patterns of behaviour and consumption.

Turning this into an unconscious habit through repeated conscious practice really could make a huge difference if achieved at scale. Simplicity however will probably come sooner or later, and in less voluntary forms, the longer we delude ourselves as to what we can take from the earth without consequence.

Focusing on sufficiency through applying a radical simplicity approach also requires us to redefine luxury, but in a good way. For example, thermally comfortable, beautiful homes with great indoor air quality need not be ostentatious and can embody progressive, community minded values such as equality — so not polluting your neighbours’ air, and being modest in the use of land and space.

Old Holloway interior

Architect Juraj Mikurcik’s Herefordshire home – a radical simplicity approach delivers a comfortable and healthy sufficiency.

These are ecological, philosophical and class questions, and political and educational ones. If radical simplicity is a sophisticated attempt to achieve more with less, how do we make this an aspiration for all those working on buildings, many of whom struggle to manage their design and building work holistically?

I think that in the next 18 months we can see if we can identify what ‘sustainable sufficiency’ might look like and whether a ‘radical simplicity’ concept might gain traction, and if so developing it into a framework for wider promotion and adoption. AECB are most likely the ones pioneering this, and catalysing the development of the tools to implement it.