Contemporary buildings – the SUV’s of architecture

Contemporary buildings – the SUV’s of architecture

Markus Appenzeller

Recently, Germany has been discussing new standards for the size of parking spaces. The reason: the old ones do not leave enough space for the most popular products of the country’s prime industry – Sports Utility Vehicles – short SUVs. Of course, I could now dedicate an entire 4-minute read to the consequences of the resulting increased space demand for Germany’s love child, the motorcar, but I leave that for later and instead focus on SUVs – but furthermore the entire car industry. Car manufacturers pride themselves with the technological evolution their products have seen over the decades. But if you put today’s Porsche 911 next to its predecessor from the early 1970s, then you think somebody has parked a kid’s toy car next to the real one. The same is true for Range Rovers, Mercedes, Volkswagen Golfs, Formula 1 race cars and pretty much every car with a history of several decades. Cars have become bigger and bigger, heavier and heavier and – my personal take – more and more ugly. This all happened under the heading of progress – more comfort, more safety and the provision of what the market wants. The result not only is much bigger space demand and a much greater use of different materials – thus carbon – but also an increased technical complexity that is extremely helpful at times but also hard to fix when failing.

If we look at today’s architecture, I can only conclude that buildings are developing into the same direction as cars did. Not only do we use more and more space per capita, thus make them bigger, the buildings also become more and more complex due to ever-increasing energy and comfort standards. The result is a bigger and bigger carbon footprint. As car producers do, we try to reduce the embodied carbon for buildings by using more sustainable materials, but as is the case with cars: the increase in size, comfort and technical installations to a large extent undoes the savings or only allows to really save carbon after decades of use.

This is not inevitable. The current paradigm for new buildings is to insulate them more and more and to control the loss of heat or cold as much as possible. To achieve that, high spec airtight windows and thick layers of thermal insulation are needed. To avoid moisture and a lack of oxygen, mechanical ventilation systems, high yield heating and heat recovery systems have to be installed. These installations work with electricity and need complex controls. All these elements – while possibly contributing to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions – create greenhouse gas emissions in the first place. Mineral or foam based insulation is extremely carbon intensive and so are glass, aluminium and other metals that form the base for all these installations. How about building a house like a car from the 1970s? Unsafe and environmentally polluting you might say and that is correct. I am not arguing that we should build like 50 years ago, but if we had a sufficient and carbon-neutral source of energy, then we could make our buildings a lot more simple again. If it does not matter to the environment if the house loses a lot of warmth in winter or not, if leaving the window open for ventilation is not really pushing heating bills, then we could skip all these technical gadgets. For many buildings – certainly outside bigger cities – that could be achievable. If the roof is covered in PV cells and solar water heaters, more energy could be produced than the building needs. The problem of course is that there is no sun at night, and it is also not shining every day. To mitigate these, one could come a long way with batteries and thermal storage tanks. Simply changing the energy supply system could get us a long way, where we must be.

If it is so simple, why does it not happen? There are powerful economic interests that want to avoid simple solutions. A powerful construction materials industry lobby has been very successful in enshrining the idea that only high-tech and a lot of insulation can help the problem in legal regulations and norms. If – instead of defining a way of achieving carbon reduction – just the goal of life cycle carbon reduction would be defined, then the whole process would be open to alternative ways of achieving the goal. This ultimately would invite innovation instead of limiting it, and it would offer the opportunity to explore more and different architectural concepts and create a richness in expression that also characterized the 1970s cars.

by Markus Appenzeller
cover image Erik Mclean

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