To give architecture political clout we must engage with ordinary people
The architecture and built environment sector has a poor track record in communicating with the general public, something those in power are all too aware of, writes new chair of The London Society Leanne Tritton
My business is communication. I love working alongside built environment professionals, and in my day job I am fortunate to see at first hand how architects and developers are working hard to positively design and build better places.
But, sadly, few members of the general public see our sector in the same light. It is not surprising, given that the media generally focuses on the negative and the sensational. That’s just a fact of life. But we haven’t gone out of our way to help ourselves and present the other side of the story or co-ordinate campaigns that inform opinion.
For obvious reasons, central and local government is preoccupied by the feelings of the nation. It seems the built environment’s only meaningful connection with the population of this country is via a series of consultations that accompany proposed development. As these make their way through the planning process, such efforts often descend into almost hand-to-hand combat.
Put simply, we’ve not had strong enough links with either the general public or government to promote effectively what we do.
It also does our industry no credit that we have such a poor track record when it comes to engaging with the country’s political leadership and working to influence policies that will not only benefit our sector, but the greater good.
Politicians know that we have limited ‘clout’ and so have been able to dictate the pace and degree of change that takes place, and do so on their terms.
This needs to be put right, although it’s not to say there aren’t those who seek to engage with ordinary people about the buildings all around them. I have long admired the work undertaken by Open City, which, as well as running a series of events highlighting the architectural wonders of the capital, also organises the annual Open House festival. This event, which lasts for just a few days every year, gives people unparalleled access to some of London’s finest buildings.
It is also hugely encouraging to see Simon Allford, co-founding partner of AHMM, elected as president of the RIBA. Allford will not only be able to offer the institute effective leadership, he is the type of person who can walk into a room full of government ministers and have an immediate and positive impact.
Then there is The London Society (TLS). Established in 1912 by a group of Londoners concerned about the lack of planning in the capital, its theme 110 years on will focus on the connections among communities and those organisations that sit beyond those of built environment professionals and which have the potential to make the city stronger.
Having recently joined TLS as chair, I believe the organisation has a unique opportunity to present the built environment’s case outside the industry bubble.
Members of TLS come from all walks of life, not just the professions. All share a passion for the city and want to engage with the debates about its future, while also recognising – and indeed cherishing – its past. It is an organisation for all those who love London, forging links with underrepresented communities across the capital and, usefully, having the ear of MPs, sponsoring as it does the All-Party Parliamentary Group on London Planning and Built Environment.
The time for engagement is upon us and we need to fund those organisations that give us critical mass and help the public understand that we are on their side.
This QUARTZ‘s article about Rethinking cities, could be yet another way of demonstrating that nothing could affect nor alter the development of a town’s built environment. It has, on the contrary, ended up in teaching us the hard lessons of Sept. 11 led to the boom in supertall skyscrapers. It is by Anne Quito, Design and architecture reporter. But despite that Is it Time to Stop Building Skyscrapers? Let us see in any case what it all boils down to.
The hard lessons of Sept. 11 led to the boom in supertall skyscrapers
After the Sept. 11 attacks, former New York’s mayor Rudy Giuliani encouraged developers to build low. Like many, he feared Manhattan’s tall buildings would become targets for terrorists, after seeing how swiftly the twin towers crumbled.
Twenty years later, quite the opposite has happened. For better or worse, New York City’s skyline is populated with ever taller and taller skyscrapers, with the highest among them in the heart of the original World Trade Center complex. Nearly all of the city’s supertalls—the term for a structure that rises above 300 meters (984 ft)—were built after 2001. Many of them are luxury condos clustered along 57th Street, two blocks south of Central Park.
Outside New York City, supertalls built after 2001 include the Trump International Hotel and Tower and the St.Regis in Chicago, the Comcast Technology Center in Philadelphia, the Wilshire Grand Center in Los Angeles, and Salesforce Tower in San Francisco. Before Sept 11, there were 20 supertalls in the world. Today, there are more than 200 and several more are in various stages of construction.
How did Americans go from a mistrust of tall buildings to an unprecedented growth in skyscrapers in the US? In a word, science.
It stems from a steely belief in engineering innovation after the attacks, says Carl Galioto, president of the global design and architecture firm HOK. “I think it has to do with confidence,” he says.
Galioto would know. Prior to HOK, he was a partner at the firm Skidmore, Owings & Merril (SOM) and was an architect-of-record for two of the towers that were rebuilt at the World Trade Center complex. Galioto also worked with the US National Institute of Standards and Technology to translate its forensic reports to improving the international building code.
Changes in building safety regulations after 9/11
Innovations in building safety led to the current boom in supertall buildings, Galioto says. “There is a direct relationship between the developments in building science related to high-rise construction and the perception of improved safety that allowed supertall towers in New York to be commercially viable,” he says.
About 30 safety and security recommendations were added to the building code as a result of the twin tower collapse. They included widening staircases, using thicker glass on the lower levels, using reinforced concrete for a building’s core, installing back-up power systems, and reserving a dedicated elevator for firefighters. There was a greater understanding of “progressive collapse,” when a succession of structures falls like a stack of cards. There was also a renewed appreciation for bollards and the variety of creative forms they could take.
Some of that work included changing the fundamental understanding of safety. Before Sept. 11, building occupants were considered safe when they reached a fire-proof staircase. After learning that more than 200 people perished in the World Trade Center’s elevators, regulations were updated so people were only counted safe only when they reached the ground.
Galioto and his colleagues at SOM used the two towers they designed—One World Trade Center and 7 World Trade—as a kind of showcase for innovations in building safety. Galioto says he has immense trust in skyscrapers. “Not only do I feel confident about working at One World Trade Center, I felt confident enough that my daughters can work there,” he says. “I think it’s the safest building in New York.”
How much did Sept 11 change architecture?
Galioto remembers how the public came up with zany burning-tower escape plans during that time, such as giving parachutes to top floor occupants or designing chains and outriggers to trap wayward plans. “They were somewhere between Jules Verne and Rube Goldberg,” he says. Galioto recalls one proposal that involved installing escape chutes on the side of buildings. “As if people could just slide down 50 stories and pop out of the air like party favors,” he says. “We very quickly realized that people are safer if they don’t jump out of buildings.”
As to whether the Sept. 11 terrorist attack changed the building industry, Galioto says its impact is proportionate. He questions the notion that terrorism is the foremost fear in the mind of architects. “There’s only as much paranoia as there’s a concern for designing for earthquakes or hurricanes,” he says. “If you look at it objectively, it [anti-terrorism concerns] is just another set of design criteria.”
Santiago Calatrava, the widely admired Spanish architect says what happened in New York 20 years ago reverberates through his practice. “The tragic events of September 11th have undoubtedly made an impact on my practice as both an architect and engineer,” says Calatrava, who designed the Oculus transport hub and the soon-to-be-completed St. Nicholas National Shrine at the World Trade Center, in an email to Quartz. “There became new elements to consider in our designs such as building reinforcements, the use of resistant materials, and simply reimagining the flow of a space.”
Calatrava explains that he had to modify his original scheme for the Oculus—the bird-shaped building adjacent to the 9/11 Memorial—after the sequence of terrorist events after Sept 11. “Following the terrorist attacks in Madrid in 2004 and London in 2007, the structural design of the Oculus was modified per instructions from the New York Police Department and other responsible authorities to suit newly established security requirements,” he says. “One key change included reinforcing the support structure for the Oculus’ planned ‘wings’ to improve blast resistance. The Oculus had to have twice the number of steel ribs and a column free space was recommended.”
A different line of defense
If engineers have figured out the structure, urban planners say that New York still needs to reckon with the spirit behind building so many gleaming skyscrapers. Vishaan Chakrabarti was the director of the Manhattan office for the New York planning department during the decisive years of the World Trade Center’s reconstruction. In an email, he says engineering sturdy buildings is just half the battle.
Investing in welcoming public spaces is a better plan than creating exclusive “bubbles of security,” as Chakrabarti puts it. He echoes urbanist Jane Jacobs’s theory that a vibrant streetscape is the best form of security. “I wrote back then that using architecture and urbanism as a last line of defense when our national security fails is a mistake, and it continues to be so,” argues Chakrabarti, now the dean of the UC Berkeley College of Environmental Design. “Security was obviously critical after the attacks, but unfortunately we are always fighting the last war.”
Construction Week of September 8, 2021, shows us how the “new normal” brings digital transformation in the built environment in an article by Mina Vucic. It is no more than a step however small but lucrative and most importantly in the right direction. Here is how it is.
How the “new normal” brings digital transformation in the built environmentan article
Asite speaks on changing the ways in which cities operate by “using technology to enhance collaboration through data sharing”.
Middle East cities have been leading the way in smart city development, acting as pioneers in implementing innovative, sustainable, and integrated solutions to become greener, more efficient, and better places to live.
Disruption and innovation have changed the way specialists think and operate across sectors, particularly in the past year as the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed most industries out of their comfort zone and into digitally-enabled environments.
Doughty said that in order to effectively drive the digital transformation of cities, the industry should focus on enhancing the precision of structural data.
He added: “The number one method we should be prioritising in order to achieve our goals at corporate, governmental, and global levels is using technology to enhance collaboration through data sharing.”
Some of the examples Doughty shared in the real world include COVID-19 track and trace systems, satellite-based navigation, social media in smart cities, artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and most importantly off-site construction and BIM.
Placing his focus on the modern construction methods Doughty emphasised: “In order to retrofit and repurpose the assets we must focus on creating energy-efficient buildings, decarbonise the built environment, and improve digital infrastructure’s operational efficiency.”
According to Asite’s CEO, one of the key methods to achieve those goals is to drive the circular economy, designing out pollution, keeping materials in use, and regenerating natural systems.
Doughty added: “We must emphasise the use of digital technologies on smart buildings, embedding sensors, gathering data, and analysing the information received to make informed decisions.”
Although the pandemic has challenged the traditional methods of construction, many organisations are now adopting BIM in the industry, providing a platform of know-how that can be built on for future technologies and more sustainable cities.
A Bankers without Boundaries made a proposed mechanism to address the challenge of scaling energy efficiency measures in the urban built environment. It is suggested in this article as a Green Neighbourhoods as a Service for all concerned a welcome step in the right direction.
The above image is for illustration and is of Climate-KIC.
Reducing net energy consumption in the built environment is one of the most significant and hardest problems for cities to solve to meet net zero carbon timelines. In our experience, typically, these emissions contribute 30-40% to a city’s total CO2 emissions. In this article we look at why it is so challenging and propose a mechanism to kickstart retrofit at scale.
A Challenging Problem
Reducing emissions in the built environment is an extremely complex problem with multiple components. Many of these complexities arise from an underlying assumption, in nearly all jurisdictions, that solving the problem is the responsibility of individual property owners. Multiple individual actors must make independent decisions leading to a fragmented response to the challenge.
Even ignoring this fragmentation, targeting individual property owners with economic incentives alone is failing anyway due to two interlinked problems
The value of returns (energy savings) is not connected to the capital spend. Returns occur over many decades and a building owner must be confident that they will enjoy those benefits for at least 30 years to have a hope of creating a positive economic case. Most building owners cannot commit to owning the property over that period; therefore, the net present value of energy savings is undervalued by the capital spender relative to its true worth.
Even assuming the building owner can commit to 30 years of ownership, the economics of delivering deep decarbonisation in a way that is attractive to citizens (Deep, Community Retrofit) has poor economic returns (negative IRR) even assuming a 30-year investment period.
Figure 1: Not all retrofit is created equal
If economic rationale alone is not enough, decision making and financing must balance competing goals – economics, decarbonisation, community benefits and social & health impact, which requires a broader viewpoint than an individual building owner.
As a result, current solutions, which are frequently designed to be adopted by property owners, are failing. This has led to the paralysis we see in the market with negligible levels of building level improvements which improve energy efficiency (“retrofit”) occurring, despite various subsidy schemes being offered and financing costs being at historically low levels for some time.
Most existing solutions start with a premise that since it is down to individual property owners to commission work on their own properties, it is also therefore assumed that the energy and maintenance savings benefit accrues to them too and that this should form the economic rationale to carry out the project.
Even after discounting other barriers to entry (complexity of deciding what work to commission, project managing multiple trades, applying for subsidies, the misalignment of landlord and tenant incentives in the rental sector) the economic returns are not high for ambitious retrofit and require the property owner to remain in the property for decades to realise them. Therefore, the net present value of these savings is not being leveraged to solve the problem in the most effective way.
The sheer scale of retrofit that is required to improve inefficient buildings is also often touted as a problem. The costs of an ambitious retrofit programme are huge and go well beyond the public purse. To compound the problem the energy savings that can be achieved are not high enough for traditional financing on its own. To achieve this scale public finance will need to be blended with private capital in some way to provide the level of finance needed to achieve the scale required. In addition, retail investment and citizen engagement need to play their part in the equation to increase visibility and feasibility.
An interlinking issue for many countries is that of regional inequalities. Governments, such as the UK, have made levelling up regional differences a key policy initiative. Existing retrofit plans stand to exacerbate this issue. In the UK for example average house prices in London are £661k, but only £200k in the North East and North West. Average loan to value ratio is 82%. Retrofit costs are broadly uniform across the country, so a deep retrofit at £40k would equate to 6% of property value or one third of average equity in London, but 20% of property value or 110% of equity in the North. Clearly a policy led strategy that forces retrofit debt onto house owners would be deeply regressive for the North.
Any scalable solution must address the fragmentation of the problem which arises from individual decision making, allowing more systemic decision making to happen, economies of scale to materialise and progress to finally be made. This requires a fundamentally different approach.
There is also real opportunity in this space.
Figure 2: Opportunities
Green Neighbourhoods as a Service – A Proposed Solution
To address the mismatch between ownership of the capital spend and of the value of benefits, tackle the fragmentation issue, overcome barriers to entry, allow aggregation of projects and matching of different types of finance that will be needed, we propose a new more centralised model which we call Green Neighbourhoods as a Service (GNaaS).
GNaaS envisages the establishment of a central entity in a city or region which designs, commissions, manages and funds deep energy retrofit on a street-by-street scale with incremental community investments at no cost to the property owners, regardless of ownership and usage typology.
By centralising the design process, more systemic energy decisions are made, for example around local energy systems and integration with district heating.
By centralising procurement, greater economies of scale are realised, improving economics and providing a lead market to the supply chain creating an environment for investment.
By operating at a community scale, additional projects such as resilience building, co-working spaces and green infrastructure in the shared spaces can be implemented at lower marginal cost. This drives greater impact and citizen engagement, changing the process from a “retrofit programme” to a “neighbourhood greening and investment programme”.
By centralising funding, projects can be aggregated on a neighbourhood scale allowing access to completely different types of funding and crucially removing the requirement of indebtedness for individual property owners, which is a key barrier.
To fund the work, a mechanism is needed to attach the long-term energy and maintenance savings to the centralised funding source. The proposal is that this takes the form of a long term (30 year+) comfort and maintenance contract with the resident. The contract would be embedded into the property deeds so that it automatically novates to whoever lives in the property and does not follow the individual when they move away. Alternatively, the resident would be offered the option to contribute the funding for their property directly in which case they would receive the full benefits of reduced energy requirement going forward without any need to engage in the design, procurement and delivery process.
Figure 3: Operating Mechanism
This is not an ESCO model (1). The resident would retain their relationship with existing utility providers for any grid power that they require post retrofit. The significant reduction of energy use achieved through demand mitigation measures and maximising localised heat and electricity generation would create the financial space for the payment of the comfort and maintenance fee at no aggregate increase in cost to the resident.
Contracting all the energy and maintenance savings to the GNaaS organisation would maximise the potential for return-based finance in the funding model. Implementing governance structures that align the decision-making processes with the overall goals of the city could create a mechanism for social outcome goals to be included in contractual terms.
This mechanism could provide a theoretical lever to the public authority to leave part of the savings with the resident enabling the mechanism to become a powerful tool in tackling fuel poverty.
Figure 4: Funding Flow Through the OpCo / FinCo model
The Capital Stack That Will Be Needed
From the modelling work we have done with several cities, the internal rate of return (IRR) provided by the energy savings from this blended set of neighbourhood interventions is consistently negative, even assuming a 30-year payback period. But by considering a large enough layer of various non-repayable funding sources, or impact finance, we can move the IRR for the remaining funding requirement into positive territory. Furthermore, adding returns from other sources, e.g. health improvement, can further improve the pay-out profile.
The resulting model creates a potentially multi-billion, stable and low returning financial investment opportunity for sources of patient capital that also value a robust set of impact metrics such as decarbonisation, healthcare improvement, fuel poverty abatement, educational outcomes, air quality improvements or biodiversity gains. We would argue this could be a good fit for sources of capital such as pension funds and insurance companies, which are increasingly demanding products which offer impact related benefits in addition to a financial return, under pressure from underlying asset owners and regulators.
Further, it is a structure that can take in repayable, but zero or ultra-low coupon, finance from multilateral or development finance institutions seeking climate change impact and/or post-COVID recovery funding.
In addition, there is an opportunity to offer participation for local communities to invest through a community bond type structure allowing direct participation in the returns.
For the non-repayable layer of finance, various components will need to be combined.
Funnelling existing municipal budgets earmarked for improving energy efficiency of public owned properties into the mechanism
Repurposing existing subsidy schemes into the mechanism
Additional national/supranational grant funding schemes aimed at decarbonisation and/or post-covid recovery; the work is labour-intensive and community wealth building activities relating to asset maintenance and green infrastructure can be incorporated.
The potential to incorporate other outcome seeking pools of funding, for example allocation of healthcare budgets into what would become a preventative programme reducing future burden on the health care system, biodiversity improvement funding etc.
An option for building owners to fund the work themselves and have the occupant benefit from the energy savings. They still benefit from the centralised orchestration, better economics and broader impact.
Exploration of the potential to accredit such centralised and scaled retrofit programmes as sources of carbon credits for voluntary carbon offset schemes allowing corporates to achieve their own net zero targets by buying credits that directly improve the communities they operate in and their employees live in.
Figure 5: The proposed Capital Stack with illustrative figures
There are significant governance issues to solve in designing how this entity would operate and to align its actions with those of the public sector. We propose it would be a not-for-profit organisation using a standard return-based fund management fee structure to cover its own operating costs, with involvement from public sector officials in supervisory committees etc to ensure alignment.
We are not claiming that this proposal is yet a finalised solution; there are many complexities to work through (several which are being tackled in pilot projects planned in Milan and Zagreb). However, we are convinced that this concept has the potential to unlock the scaling of improved energy efficiency in the built environment in a meaningful way.
Integration with a mechanism to help scale beyond pilot phase, taking learnings from models like LABEEF in Latvia to enable an ecosystem of private sector contracting firms to take over the heavy lifting work of much of the OpCo envisaged above, thereby creating competition leaving the OpCo part of the retrofit company as a commissioning and refinancing engine for implementation firms.
Technical assistance funding is required to further develop this work, on the finance side, but also to develop the engagement process with citizens, scope out the legal challenges around contracting as well as integration with the supply chain
Pilots will need to be run in multiple cities to prove out the concept. We would envisage these covering 2-300 residential units at a total funding cost of €10-15m each. Pilots are in advanced stage of design in Milan and Zagreb) though engagement has begun in multiple cities across Europe including Copenhagen, Leuven, Vienna, Krakow and Edinburgh.
Funding providers, including private sector impact finance firms, development finance institutions and philanthropic outcome purchasers will need to engage who are willing to partner with cities to develop these structures so that they can grow to commercial scale.
1 ESCO – Energy Service Company – is a company that provides energy to customers and services to improve efficiency. An ESCO typically sits between the consumer and the utility providers.
This article by Tech Times written by Isaiah Richard is about how Heimdal: a Startup for the Environment aiming at a high level of sustainability, is proposing to help in the carbon-free industrial materials like cement, concrete, limestone, and more. from extraction to production. Here it is.
Steam and exhaust rise from the steel mill HKM Huettenwerke Krupp Mannesmann GmbH on a cold winter day on January 6, 2017 in Duisburg, Germany. According to a report released by the European Copernicus Climate Change Service, 2016 is likely to have been the hottest year since global temperatures were recorded in the 19th century.
Heimdal describes themselves as “decarbonizing industries and the world,” and the main goal of the company is to create materials that people can use without guilt or worries. Why is that? Because its industrial products would be carbon-negative or carbon-free.
This is something that has been achieved before, but what Heimdal aims to debut is the novel.
Heimdal’s focus is to extract different raw materials from the Earth using their renewable energy source and creating what people need without leaving any carbon footprint. Cement and concrete production are known to be major contributors of greenhouse gases in the world, something which startups try to change.
There is a lot of focus which the company aims to venture on, and according to Tech Crunch, it would potentially help in preserving the environment with its efforts. Heimdal demonstrates a high level of sustainability from its extraction to production, something which is not widely that practised in the industry.
Heimdal Carbon-Free Industrial Materials
Erik Millar and Marcus Lima founded Heimdal, and this is something that the duo has brought with them upon completing their studies at Oxford University, United Kingdom. Heimdal aims to bring carbon-free industrial materials like cement, concrete, limestone, and more.
Its main focus of using seawater and CO2 can help in bringing these said industrial materials, which aims to remove the dangerous greenhouse gas from the equation. The company engineers are working on ways to do this, particularly with a design from the founders to extract energy from seawater.
Heimdal Renewable Energy
One of Heimdal’s main focuses as well is to extract energy from seawater, and it would alter the components to several stages such as making it alkalinized. After which, several gases are extracted, and here, they return seawater to its source.
From this process, Heimdal can collect the raw materials it needs to start on its limestone making while using clean and renewable sources of energy to do so. The venture of the company hits two birds with one stone, and can potentially reduce significant uses of raw materials in the environment.
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