Meeting the needs of the environment

The built environment throughout the UK boasts many iconic buildings. These impressive, sophisticated and often seemly impossible structures dominant our urban landscapes, win coveted design and architectural awards and proudly fly the flag of progress. But what do these buildings stand for? They say we are bold, sophisticated, daring and adventurous. Could they also underline a mindless approval of architectural designs of a few inflated egos?
To design a building or to have a building designed is to suggest: “This is the world as I want it. This is the perfect building to run a state, a business, a city, a family.”  However I have to agree somewhat with sentiments expressed by Prince Charles a few years ago at a Building for the 21st Century conference, when he said: “…modern skyscrapers were usually built to make a statement rather than for the benefit of the community.”
It is not just our iconic structures, every newly built office or residential block strives to be more adventurous, offering intriguing layouts, awesome open spaces and more elaborate ways of heating, powering and lighting. But let’s consider this with the environment in mind – is this progress or poison?
Whilst modern constructions may satisfy the egos of some architects, fulfil the agendas of urban regeneration programmes and inspire our imaginations, they often fail to meet the needs of our fragile environment. 
Indeed the likes of Quinlan Terry have often warned that these ‘modern’ public buildings – “the glass and steel ‘oil refineries’, the hideous gherkins” – will fall down, he believes, in 40 years.
It is estimated that buildings in the UK account for more than 45% of carbon emissions and consume 40% of electrical load. Although energy is used in buildings for the running of appliances, equipment and lighting, it is heating and cooling that are significant both in terms of cost and environmental effect. For the building designer and specifier, there is therefore not only a social obligation to make a building as energy efficient and environmentally friendly as possible, but a strong economic one too.
To a certain extent the inventions to achieve this already exist. There has been a move towards green buildings with natural ventilation and lighting, or at least ones where the amount of air-conditioning and artificial lighting has been significantly reduced. Techniques such as solar shading, ventilated facades, day-lighting and solar power are being employed, yet Britain is still lagging badly behind other countries such as Germany, which has 200 times the installed solar capacity of Britain.
In addition, whilst our buildings become increasingly sophisticated and hi-tech so too must our skills requirement to construct, implement and manage them. The question is; in the years to come, will we have the trained skills-set needed to design and install these systems?
The plumbing trade, in particular, has developed at a speed unseen since Victorian times. This has a huge impact on what is required from our skill base. Yet the standard industry qualifications tend to be somewhat outdated.
To modernise the installations and designs we also need to modernise the training to reflect the fast moving pace of technology developments. I believe we need to have underfloor heating, solar energy, and all other alternative energy sources as part of basic industry plumbing qualifications.
For a secure future that protects our environment a balance is needed between what can be achieved and what, in light of environmental concerns, is true progress. For the future we need to build with enduring permanence, quality and efficiency in mind. We need to consider the merits of a building’s performance with vigilance rather than simply approving the latest mind-boggling architectural indulgence. More importantly, to achieve this, we need to encourage skill development and nurture engineering talent.
Britain has come up with a bold policy, that all new homes must be carbon neutral by 2016 onwards. This should drive the take-up of renewable energies still further but for now there remains a big gap between what will be needed and the skills available to implement what is already available. So, whilst as a sector we are making in-roads into protecting the environment, there is still room for improvement and we need to up-skill our workforce to achieve this. Whatever the future holds, it will be exciting to watch the developments that emerge to help us build and live more productive, healthier and greener lives.

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