Great provocation at last week’s environmental “Greengaged” conference at the Design Council. RCA student Thomas Thwaites began by saying “The desire to make life more comfortable for ourselves has thus far led to being able to buy a toaster from Argos for £3.99”. In case that wasn’t possible, Thomas recounted a charming stunt in which he attempted to make a toaster from scratch. Iron, copper, insulation, plastic…all made from nature. His struggle to concoct even a thimbleful of iron was a classic of heroic failure. With his rucksack full of iron ore smashed into dust with a hammer, yet defiantly unchanged in a dustbin furnace, Thomas eventually smelted a tiny drop of iron in a microwave, of all places. Not to mention the potato plastic he tried for the toaster case. It was surprisingly hard to make a toaster, and it cost him £1,200 just in travelling. Despite his valiant striving, you couldn’t help but ask: was it really worth it?
I struggled with the same question earlier this summer when RIBA awarded the Lubetkin Prize to the Birds Nest Stadium in Beijing. What on earth was that about? Beautiful to some, but not to me. That’s because the Birds Nest contains over 100,000 tonnes of steel. Imagine making that lot with a hammer and a microwave. As a reference, the Birds Nest contains nine times more steel, nine times more embodied energy than Stadium Australia, built 8 years earlier for the Sydney Games. There is so much steel in the Birds Nest that the energy used to make the steel skeleton alone would have been enough to make 2 cups of tea for every single man, woman and child on Earth. It’s grotesque. What kind of message does RIBA think that sends out to aspiring architects and engineers…do what you like as long as it looks good, don’t worry about the environment, and the Devil take everyone else? If the Birds Nest was an athlete, it would take 9 times longer to waddle the 100 metres than Usain Bolt. Such is progress.
My contribution to Greengaged was not as witty as Thomas Thwaites: it was just a simple re-take on a steel beam that could carry the same load as a conventional rolled beam but using only 70% of the material. Taken on a beam-by-beam basis, you’d save the odd 250kg of steel here or there. Please don’t go to sleep until you’ve heard the punch line. Taken across the planet, if all beams made were made this way, we’d save 100 million tonnes of steel a year, give or take the odd toaster. These are really big numbers…..the energy saved just by changing to that sort of beam would be enough to boil 2,000 cups of tea for everyone on the planet, or we could use the spare steel to make bridges, buildings, trains, trams, bikes, schools, whatever, for people who need them.
There’s a big clue as to why we don’t do this, and like many of us who criticise, I am indirectly complicit. A couple of years ago I shared a platform at RSA with some nice people from Rio Tinto Zinc and Corus. They went to some considerable effort to show how they had reduced the environmental impact of their mining and processing of each tonne of metal…and so far as it goes that was great. But when I asked why they couldn’t redesign the manufacturing system to give us more beams for less steel, they went very quiet. And of course the reason is simple….they want to sell us as much steel and zinc as they can. It is not in their interests to change to a more efficient beam, as their shareholders demand continual growth, which means selling more metal not less. Who are those shareholders? Well, regrettably, it’s my pension fund, my savings, my bank. I benefit on one hand, and the planet loses on the other. I sometimes wish I didn’t know this stuff as it makes it hard to sleep at night.
So, RIBA made the shareholders of the industrial powerhouses very happy by giving the Lubetkin Prize to the Birds Nest. “More is More”, a new architectural tenet. That’s what the RIBA supported with my tacit support. Even though it speaks so green, RIBA apparently still cares more for style than substance. Of course the argument in favour of the Chinese stadium is far more subtle than a few thousand tonnes of steel. Our £3.99 toaster from Argos is probably made in China. “Left to his own devices he couldn’t build a toaster. He could just about make a sandwich and that was it.” Douglas Adams, 1992.