chris wise engineer

Saving a trillion miles-worth of CO2

Now that the Chief Construction Adviser’s wittily-named Innovation and Growth Team has published 50 ways to change construction for a low carbon world, what can designers do to help its author? Paul Morrell’s report is welcome for its long view, but it is essentially a “big stick”….. it’s good for you, or else. There’s common sense about the wise use of building modelling tools, and lots about regulation. But there’s little on behaviour change (because we’ll legislate), and very little on design. Why is this…well government ministers like control, whereas the very thing that makes intelligent design challenging, is its unpredictability. So while the private conversations among Morrell’s group surely hit much harder, his published recommendations exemplify political pragmatism.

Sample txt BIS to Morrell: “I sA m8, jst leaV doze pesky Dziners outa yr cRbon rprt, A?

What is design’s response? At least in its finer moments, design reads its environment to invent something entirely new.  A generation ago, Jacob Bronowski proposed that uniquely among animals, and flying in the face of Darwinism, humans don’t adapt themselves to fit their environment but adapt the environment to fit themselves, through design.

So when I recently received a designerly award, the Milne Medal, from the Structures, I used their platform to softly launch “Enough is Enough”. Everything in moderation, challenge willfulness, but let’s stop adapting ourselves to fit a wonky context, and instead design a better one. Enough is Enough wants essentially the same as Morrell’s report….use less resources, make better lives for more people. But don’t just choke off resources, redesign the problem.

Beginning by showing how “carbon” and “energy” are real, powerful things. For example, I once had to dig a deep hole for a sarcophagus, by hand. Hauling up baskets of sand became harder and harder. In 40C Egyptian heat, every 50kg basket was an epic. Perhaps Mr Morrell would have asked the Pharaoh if his sarcophagus really needed such a deep hole…yes, yes, your wonderfulness, just a bit shallower. On the contrary, as a designer I would have sold him cremation as this year’s fashionable choice, freeing the slaves’ energy for something else. Anything to avoid lifting another bl*ody basket.

But “energy” is really useful. If you’ve tried pushing a car, it’s heavy. Imagine pushing one a whole mile, yet that takes only 1/5 pint of petrol. Quite staggering really. Move a car five miles with a pint of petrol. Yet burn the carbon in that petrol with the atmosphere and as architect Peter Clegg says rather blackly, you produce enough CO2 to fill a coffin.

So, in Enough is Enough we will try to leave the glory projects and go for the middle ground…traditional steel and concrete buildingd.  To do that, we have to redesign their “environment”.  It’s simple stuff but long overdue: real loads rather than those from a letting agent’s PR brochure; allow competent people to reduce safety margins originally imposed to stop charlatans; work with manufacturers to make beams and floors with lighter, adaptable profiles; reward good materials and workmanship with reduced workmanship safety margins; take a hard look at performance, and design buildings to do what only we need.  With a few simple changes like these, in a month we redesigned out nearly 20 billion car miles of energy every year. Just in the UK. Not millions, but billions of miles. With more work we might save 50 billion miles a year. To achieve those savings designers need to show what can be done, and then to push through the changes to make it possible.

The approach to the structural Enough is Enough agenda leads to one even more powerful. So, beginning with a “brains” trust this month, we are bringing together designers, researchers, and thinkers from many disciplines. If structural engineers save 50 billion car miles a year, how much more can we get from environmental engineers (say Patrick Bellew et al); from architecture (Peter Clegg, Mike Davies et al); from aviation (perhaps Geoff Kirk ex Rolls Royce); from ceramics, dishes, basins and bogs (Robin Levien);  from web design (Simon Waterfall and Malcolm Garrett); by better design education (Jeremy Myerson at RCA)…on into products, hotels (Joe Ferry), fashion, film and tv, food, medicine, schools, all the staples of life. We are also talking with Cambridge University to underpin the emerging ideas with sound facts, and with behavioural thinkers at the Royal Society of Arts to engender real social change.

So here’s the Big Idea: a challenge to 20 design sectors…..please each save 50 billion car miles of energy…..altogether saving the energy to drive a Trillion Miles. And mindful of the terminology, the architect Mike Davies suggested that a trillion car-miles should henceforth be known as a “Clarkson”. He went on to suggest that of course, a hundred Clarkson’s would be a “Trump”, the ultimate measure of profligacy in the universe.  If we can save a Trump, anything’s possible.

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