How Design Decisions on Materials Are "Disproportionately Damning the World to Further Climate Change"

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CC BY 2.0. Unite d'habitation/ Lloyd Alter

Steve Webb thinks we should tax upfront carbon like cigarettes, and we should build in wood and stone.

Thanks to the climate crisis, many are saying that we have to change the way we design buildings, what we build them out of, and where we put them. Because of the Upfront Carbon emissions from building, groups like the World Green Building Council have suggested that we have to "question the need to use materials at all, considering alternative strategies for delivering the desired function, such as increasing utilisation of existing assets through renovation or reuse." They also noted that we have to "prioritize materials which are low or zero carbon, responsibly sourced, and which have low lifecycle impact in other areas."

Steve Webb, co-founder of Webb Yates Engineers in the UK, is much blunter, writing in the RIBA Journal. He blames the building professionals for being part of the problem, which has been known for decades. "The construction industry has been incredibly slow to adapt and, as a result, climate change is quite squarely our fault."

He comes out strongly in favour of natural materials, to avoid what I call upfront carbon emissions, but is traditionally called Embodied Carbon. Much to my surprise, he puts stone in there along with wood; I always have complained about it because it is heavy and costly to ship.

We’ve known for a long time that aluminium, steel, concrete and ceramics have very high embodied energy. On the other side the negative embodied carbon of timber is well known. What is less well known is that stone is low embodied carbon too, being very strong and hardly processed: a good strength to carbon ratio. For the most part the suggestion of building in timber is greeted with indifference or hostility. Building in stone is considered totally crazy. With a few exceptions we builders have been churning out massive lumps of steel and concrete with complete climate indifference.

He blames architects more concerned with style than substance.

Architects frequently disdain timber options offered to them because it is too chunky and steel sections will be finer, slimmer. Concrete is admired for its modernist zeitgeist. These reasons are stylistic. The number of times environmental considerations are eschewed for style is startling.

In the end, Webb calls for a big honking carbon tax on building materials.

If we really care, let’s call on the government to require us to submit lifetime carbon figures for all buildings and benchmark them. High carbon frames should be taxed like cigarettes. There should be a presumption in favour of timber and stone. Take the decision out of our hands... And most importantly, I suspect, save us the embarrassment of pushing timber ourselves and looking like a bunch of hippies in front of our suited clients.

Webb Yates engineers are not a bunch of hippie treehuggers, but "an award winning architectural, structural, civil and building services engineering design practice with offices in London, Birmingham, Bristol and Dubai." Steve Webb has written an important and radical post here. Architects and engineers should wake up and listen.