AfH Annual Debate 17 February 2011

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 Annual debate at the Reform Club

17 February 2011


The Motion:   “This house believes that architects know more about sustainability than engineers”

Proposer of the motion

Robin Nicholson Architect and Director of Edward Cullinan Architects;

Seconded by

            Benedict Zucchi Architect and Project Director BDP

Opposer of the motion

Greg Markham Chartered Engineer at G4S Integrated Services

Seconded by

Phil Nedin Chartered Engineer and Past President of IHEEM


Robin Nicholson began by setting the wider scene: he asked if we are sufficiently aware of the issue

  • 2 buildings that are currently in the news for the Olympics use 5 tonnes of steel: by 2050 we will only have 20% carbon allowance : what matters most?
  • Only one person in the audience admitted they knew their carbon footprint
  • The NHS contributes 30% of public sector emissions- and hospitals are the most greedy building type. So it is crucial to address the issue

He suggested that the NHS had been good at solving the wrong problem for too long: health prevention gets only 4% of the NHS budget according to Marmott; NHS SDU has published a Route Map for Sustainable Health; and the CABE study for DH Sustainable design policy had called for ‘Halving the demand, doubling the efficiency and reducing the CO2’- using Bill Bordass work that was referred to in the Zero Carbon Schools Task Force. But was lost in the mist of government change.

A step change in thinking is required. Who is best placed to lead? He suggested that engineers know how to get from A to B; but architects can do better by going via C. Architects are best placed to challenge the status quo. They should lead an Integrated design process.


Greg Markham made the case for engineers to bring low carbon energies to the NHS; at least 15% of the NHS Estate is not fit for purpose; engineers can help to reduce the energy intensivness through technology- wind, solar ,PVs etc. He made the point that in an era of austerity there will be no investment without saving.

He suggested that engineers have a deep understanding and can bring about innovation, such as the windup radio. There are 35 professional institutions for engineers in the UK that have embedded a sustainability manual into their principles- and its not the same for architecture.

Benedict Zucchi seconded the motion taking a broad view of sustainability- that it is about creating places. He sited a 500 year old Hospital in Milan that is still being used- it is an integral part of the neighbourhood and much loved by the city. What could be more sustainable?

Successful enduring places that are local and specific are key to sustainable architecture.

He told a fairytale in which a spell of enlightenment had been cast at the end of the18th century: it heralded progress at any cost with the development of technology and mass production. As a result we now endure pollution, dehumanisation and a mechanistic world view. Engineers brought this about!

This thinking influenced architecture profoundly: Le Corbusier said we should behave like engineers and made the city, house and hospitals as machines; cities all look the same as road engineers show contempt for place and people. The Frankfurt kitchen reduced all variables of cooking to the making of an omlette: an approach that has been adopted in guidance.

We inhabit a mechanistic world as Einstein said:

 Logic can get you from A to B but imagination can take you anywhere.


Phil Nedin admitted that some architects know more than some engineers about sustainability but that architects are late to the table on this one.

In terms of education architects do space but not numbers. Engineers have plenty of opportunities for CPD with 4 major national magazines dedicating lots of space to sustainability; and numerous seminars etc to transfer knowledge.

The task is too big for architects and too much to expect one institute to lead. Architects have had more success in the housing sector but little impact in sectors that are more difficult. There is plenty of greenwash and eco-bling but more serious design issues have not been fully addressed: for health these include eg avoiding deep plan spaces, maintaining adequate ceiling heights, using solar shading, making comfort analyses, reducing the use of misplaced glass, dealing with exposed soffits and improving window design. There has been insufficient information in guidance with too slow adoption of single rooms.

However, the most significant failure of architects has been the lack of adoption of Post Occupancy Evaluation and the acceptance of re-inventing the wheel for each new project is not good enough.

Discussion from the floor pointed to the polarised positions.

Engineers have committed original professional sin by being inventors of the industrial revolution that has caused the environmental disaster: Architects are the Jonny-come –latelies that have designed cities that do not support healthy lifestyles and buildings that pollute.

This discussion became an arts versus sciences issue: quantification over creativity. Is sustainability an issue of place or technology? Who holds the ring?

Does any one profession know enough let alone know more than the other?

Peter Scher, in customary manner, urged us all to abstain on the grounds that survival was the most important issue and must take preference over professional warmongering.

Someone else offered to redesign the motion- it happens every year!

In summary, Robin urged us to think radical: the scale of change that is required is huge. Buildings account for 40% of the problem. Long life, loose fit and low energy is where we need to be and architects are better placed than engineers to get us there.

Greg acknowledged that survival is a common goal but engineers have essential knowledge that architects do not yet have.

The motion was defeated 17 to 12 with some abstentions! Well done engineers!

The debate was chaired by John Cooper and thanks given by Ann Noble.


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