Is it a new era, where architects should be held to account for the environmental impact of their work?

270 Park Avenue being demolished, July 25, 2019
CC BY 4.0 270 Park Avenue being demolished, July 25, 2019/ AEMoreira042281 on Wikipedia

Sustainability matters, but so does hypocrisy.

270 Park Avenue is being demolished as you read this. It’s the tallest building ever demolished on purpose, the tallest building ever designed by a woman architect, and was completely rebuilt to LEED Platinum standards in 2011, where just about everything but the frame was replaced, so it is essentially 8 years old. Much of it probably isn’t out of warranty. According to a basic carbon calculator, its embodied carbon in the building amounts to 64,070 metric tonnes, equivalent to driving 13,900 cars for a year.

union carbide buildingFortune Magazine/via
That’s roughly the amount of carbon dioxide that will be emitted in the next few years building the first 2,400,352 square feet of the new building replacing 270 Park Avenue, the upfront carbon emissions released making the steel, glass, concrete and other materials sitting there right now.

The new building replacing Natalie de Blois's tower is designed by Foster+Partners, a signatory to Architects Declare, which includes two goals related to this project:

  • Upgrade existing buildings for extended use as a more carbon efficient alternative to demolition and new build whenever there is a viable choice.
  • Include life cycle costing, whole life carbon modelling and post occupancy evaluation as part of our basic scope of work, to reduce both embodied and operational resource use.

(Embodied resources are what I prefer to call Upfront Carbon Emissions.)

Writing in the Guardian, Rowan Moore asks, Where are the architects who will put the environment first? The subhead is, “Should we stop building airports? Return to mud and thatch? The climate crisis is an opportunity for creative thinking, but the values of architecture need a radical overhaul.” He asks:

The profession tends to attract people who want to change the world for the better. And what could matter more than the prevention of environmental and societal collapse? It makes squabbles about architectural style or form seem trivial by comparison. So what would architecture look like – more importantly, what would it be – if all involved really and truly put climate at the centre of their concerns?

Moore wonders how architects who have signed up for Architects Declare can keep building things like airports. I wonder how architects who have signed up for Architects Declare can be part of projects like 270 Park Avenue.

It is not enough to reduce what are called the “in-use” costs – heating, ventilation, lighting, water, waste, maintenance – but also the “embodied energy” that goes into construction and demolition: quarrying cement, smelting steel, firing bricks, shipping materials to site, putting them in place, taking them down again and disposing of them.

Moore quotes Jeremy Till of Central Saint Martins School of Art and Design, who says that architects like Norman Foster who are building airports and spaceports are participating in a farce. “You can’t have a carbon-neutral airport,” he says. Architects have to do more than be well-intentioned instruments of what he calls “an extractive industry.”

I quoted Lord Foster when the spaceport, which will fire wealthy tourists into space on rockets literally burning rubber and nitrous oxide, was announced: “This technically complex building will not only provide a dramatic experience for the astronauts and visitors, but will set an ecologically sound model for future Spaceport facilities.”

But building ecologically sound airports and spaceports doesn’t cut it anymore; the use matters. Building giant green office towers while knocking down slightly less giant green office towers doesn’t cut it.

Enterprise Centre, made of thatch/ Architype architects/ Photo DennisGilbert/VIEW© Enterprise Centre, made of thatch/ Architype architects/ Photo DennisGilbert/VIEW

Some architects, like Waugh Thistleton, have decided not to take any more work that they can’t build out of sustainable materials like wood. My favourite architects these days, Architype, use thatch, straw and wood and cork to build schools, not airports.

I have admired Lord Foster since his Sainsbury Centre in 1978. But the world has changed. The definition of sustainability has changed.

Is this the start of a new era where people actually care about sustainability?

Penn StationNew York Historical Society/Public Domain

In 1963, the destruction of Pennsylvania Station in New York City drew massive protests. Ada Louise Huxtable wrote that it was the end of an era:

It went not with a bang, or a whimper, but to the rustle of real estate stock shares.  The passing of Penn Station is more than the end of a landmark.  It makes the priority of real estate values over preservation conclusively clear.

But it was the start of a new era for historic preservation. Laws were passed, heritage organizations founded, and people finally became concerned enough about the loss of our heritage to do something about it.

270 Park Avenue is no Penn Station, but it is an important building that also marks the end of an era where architects can pretend that what they are doing is “sustainable” and “green” while vomiting out the carbon of fourteen thousand cars. Rowan Moore's article gives me hope, that it is perhaps the start of an era where architects who sign statements like Architects Declare are actually held to them.

Is it a new era, where architects should be held to account for the environmental impact of their work?
Sustainability matters, but so does hypocrisy.

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