chris wise engineer

Locking horns over Sustainability….

Can engineers and architects learn to share sustainability?

There is a call out from the Royal Academy of Engineering for Centres of Excellence in Sustainable Building Design. Prompted by propositional work done by the Academy over the past 5 years, led by Doug King, it hints at the evolution of a new breed of engineer who can integrate complex technological systems into buildings. In a sustainable fashion, whatever that means. The Academy is hoping to raise £30m or so to fund 4 to 6 of these Centres around the country, so, it’s serious.

The call is full of words like “multi-disciplinary”. Yet the call has gone to academia, not to industry where most practical multi-disciplinary expertise arguably lies. This is because the Academy expects a new kind of integrated educational model, leading to graduates with sustainable building design skills, instead of say, purely civil, mechanical, or electrical engineering. Post-graduate study is consigned into a second tier, and professional development, and industry, to a third.

Sustainability codswallop NCE 2003 2

So, what education is needed to design buildings sustainably? There is much that can be done to raise the game of those Doug King describes as building’s “systems integrators”. But I also believe that the call doesn’t go nearly far enough, coming as it does from the narrow viewpoint of building services engineering. What about structure, energy, fire, facades, acoustics, daylight, well-being, future-proofing…all those other sustainable building specialisms. And urbanism, flooding, infrastructure, waste treatment, transport. Don’t they deserve a shout at sustainable design too?

Another question: “What sort of career will these shiny new graduates go into?”, because if their employers and clients do not get the sustainable building joke, they will have little or no opportunity to practice their art. I ask this question advisably, as I was told this morning in an Oxford coffee house by Patrick Bellew of engineers Atelier 10, that many of the larger, commoditised, service engineering practices in the UK are “throwing in sustainability” to their fee bids for free. Revealingly, Atelier 10 practice as building services engineers (in the UK) and sustainability consultants (in the US). Patrick’s observation begs at least a year of debate, in the short term about peanuts, monkeys, cost, value, lip-service, and then wasted energy, over-design, under-thinking, the cost of expediency. So, an innocent call from the Academy has turned into a melodrama worthy of Hollywood. The “bad” guys look after themselves and everyone else waits for the hero to arrive. While waiting too, I find myself trying to answer the call from my new part-time professorial role at UCL’s Civil and Environmental faculty, joining up with the Bartlett, “UCL’s global faculty of the built environment”.  Surely we have it covered?

But hang on, you say, aren’t architects already supposed to be building design’s “system integrators”…after all, they lead a design team and even get a special fee for doing it, for co-ordination too.  To which I would answer, with the normal apologies, that well-coordinated ignorance of sustainable engineering is still ignorance. It’s got to be time to defragment the engineering and architectural worlds to bring about a generation of technologists, building physicists, sustainable building designers, call them what you want, who can stand together in the design of buildings.  Two, or more likely twenty-two, brains melded into one, with complementary skills and mutual respect, to bring well-integrated, contextually-aware technological knowledge into play from the start of every building design with the place it deserves. Too much for one individual, or one existing profession, so, the Academy’s prompt for an educational re-think looks an increasingly smart idea.

And no doubt the call has excited many academics as a convenient source of research funding and career progression…(“as scientists we abstain from questions of purpose”)….but I hope has also planted the seed in other engineering:architecture combos to do something rather radical and, in the long term, more useful. Paraphrasing Steve Jobs and his “design paradox”, because the Academy cannot know what it wants until it knows what it can have, I sincerely hope our UCL:Bartlett team of engineers, scientists, technologists and architects, and other teams throughout the country, will eventually design them an educational proposition that is much better than even Doug’s imaginings.

Can industry help? Can it accept an agenda beyond business, beyond the fiefdoms of the 36 separate engineering institutions and the RIBA, to stop people “throwing sustainability in”. Prompted by the Royal Academy of Engineering, commissioned by society, if the academics develop the crew, it’s surely up to industry to build them a vehicle and learn to drive it. The successful bidders, later this spring, are to join together in an open-source workshop with their competitors and industrial partners to flesh out the little acorn into a delicate but potentially mighty oakling, a new educational model for sustainable building design.

I hope for fireworks.

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