Heritage and the Climate Crisis: September and October 2022 News

A bumper edition of the news and publication highlights relating to Heritage and the Climate Crisis from across the months of September and October. This newsletter takes a slightly different approach to usual, focusing on long form content from both Chris Whitman and James Verner.

News from Heritage Declares

Heritage Declares speaks out at the opening of the M&S Oxford Street Public Inquiry

Photo of M&S store, taken from SAVE

Tuesday 25th October saw the opening of the public inquiry into the proposed demolition and replacement by Marks and Spencer of the non-designated heritage asset Orchard House, which is adjacent to grade II* Selfridges and is bordered by two conservation areas. The project was called in by the Secretary of State following SAVE Britain’s Heritage’s campaign which has focused on the embodied carbon that will be lost and the large carbon emissions that will be released from the demolition and new build.

Heritage Declares, represented by Dr Chris Whitman, were there alongside colleagues from ACAN and Architects Declare to speak against the demolition and support SAVE. In total, eight third party attendees spoke out in support of SAVE, including a developer, a retail specialist, architects, and a Westminster councillor. No third parties spoke in favour of M&S’s proposed scheme. Both sides will call witnesses over the coming days, with the inquiry due to finish Friday 4th November.

There follows the statement given by Dr Whitman on behalf of Heritage Declares.

“I am here today in my role as a signatory and a coordinator of Heritage Declares Climate and Ecological Emergency.

We are a non-affiliated group of heritage practitioners who have come together to urge the sector to react more quickly and effectively to the climate and ecological emergency.

We are a counterpart to groups such as Architects Declare and Engineers Declare, of which the architects and engineers of the proposal are signatories, and work together with these organisations to achieve common goals.

Since the launch of our 10-point declaration in 2019, 55 heritage organizations and 311 individuals have signed.

Whilst there is not time to cover all 10 points of our declaration, I wish to highlight the first 4 which are most relevant to this inquiry:

1. Be a platform for change

by using our prominent position to tell the truth about the climate and ecological emergency, promote environmental awareness and action, and foster the cultural changes that are required in light of the immense challenges ahead.

2. Shift conservation priorities

by actively seeking out opportunities to adapt heritage sites so as to reduce their carbon footprint and promote biodiversity, without harming their cultural significance.

3. Build and share the evidence

by seeking a fuller understanding of the intersection between cultural heritage and the environment, promoting rigorous open-source research into carbon reduction, climate adaptation, and biodiversity in heritage contexts.

4. Conserve embodied resources

by bringing whole-life carbon and energy efficiency analyses to bear on the choices we make and the causes we support; for instance, by advocating an evidence-based policy of retaining, maintaining, repairing and adapting existing buildings – whatever their formal heritage values – as an alternative to wasteful cycles of demolition.

In July of this year we organised a webinar in support of retention of the buildings in question. 211 people registered to attend, predominantly from the UK but with representation across Europe.

We concur with the report prepared by Sturgis that the proposed demolition and rebuild are contrary to National Planning Policy, the London Plan, and Westminster City Council’s Planning Policy. They do not address the current climate emergency and result in the loss of a prominent non-designated heritage asset. We agree with Historic England that the proposed redevelopment would result in harm to the setting of the grade II* Selfridges and to the heritage of the UK’s primary retail street.

Moreover, I wish to draw attention to the RIBA 2030 Climate Challenge Checklist which calls for the prioritisation of the refurbishment and retrofit of existing buildings where possible

Historic England research has demonstrated that substantial savings in operational carbon emissions can be made through well-considered retrofit and that the speed at which carbon savings are made has a significant impact on addressing the climate emergency. This speed is vitally important, as the International Panel on Climate Change’s latest report states that carbon emissions must peak by 2025.

We have studied the proof of evidence provided by the architects and whilst we agree further information has been provided on the retrofit options explored in section 4, we are still of the opinion that the exploration was biased in favour of new build and there has not been sufficient investigation of how the existing buildings might be reconfigured to provide the desired public benefits and commercial requirements. Rather the work undertaken consistently sets out to prove they cannot. Given the experience of the architects in extensive remodelling, as demonstrated in Kensington, the options for refurbishment appear tentative. On a positive note, their report concludes that selective demolition could provide the same servicing solution as the proposed new build, and that new services and upgrades to the facades could yield better operational carbon characteristics. We would add to this that public realm improvements in the creation of the Granville Place garden, widening of Orchard Street pavements and east-west permeability are all feasible. That ceiling heights could be addressed through the introduction of double-height spaces or atrium. That the claimed limited lifespan of the existing buildings can be addressed through retrofit. That selective demolition could provide an improved setting to Hesketh House and that the creative remodelling or replacement of the Neale House and 23 Orchard Street facades could create a harmonious composition achieving the desired identity for Marks and Spencer’s, one that is more consistent with their Plan A sustainability policy. In short, we believe that the site offers an excellent opportunity for the retailer to commission a high quality, world leading retrofit, thereby demonstrating its commitment to tackling the climate emergency.

Commitments to a transition to a circular economy and prioritising the reuse of our built environment has been made in writing by Westminster, London, the UK and the UN, however we have yet to see much in the way of practical application of these policies. Climate change cannot be addressed through words alone, these must be put into action.”

Orchard House left facing Selfridges, with Hesketh House behind. ©Whitman 2022
Opening of the Public Inquiry, with M&S team to the left and SAVE to the right ©Whitman 2022
Other news from Heritage Declares

Our next meeting is being held Thursday 10th November at 5pm-6pm, join through the link here. We’d love to see more people!

Historic England, Sector to Net Zero survey

Historic England is consulting Heritage Organisations to find out their plans for achieving Net Zero, the types of barriers they are facing and the type of support they would like.

They are looking for responses from heritage organisations in England that:
– Manage or run heritage sites (e.g. industrial heritage, historic houses, maritime heritage etc…)
– Provide heritage services (e.g. archaeology, architectural heritage or conservation companies, consultancies, professional associations, heritage preservation trusts  etc…).

Please find the survey here.

Hebridean Blackhouse vs Volume Housebuilder Home – energy profiles compared.

LHS – Hebridean Blackhouse. RHS – Winstone Detached House (images www.architectsjournal.co.uk).

Barnabas Calder and Florian Urban, writing in the Architects’ Journal  compare the energy profiles of a pre-modern Hebridean Blackhouse – a vernacular typology common in the highlands of Scotland and in use until the 1970s – with an example of a new two storey house such as the Winstone designed by David Wilson Homes in 2010.

Seeking to find architectural traditions relevant to construction in a climate emergency they feel it is instructive to look at building typologies favoured before the carbon economy roared into life.

The Arnol Blackhouse (Isle of Lewis), illustrates the evolution of a building type for a low energy society centred on a subsistence lifestyle. 20m2 of living space is arranged around a central, peat burning hearth, used by more than six people and flanked by sleeping alcoves as well as a byre for animals. As little energy as possible was expended in the collection and modification of local construction materials which were used ‘as found’. Thick, insulating walls were constructed of fieldstones and timber roof structures thatched with reed or straw, the ridge beam sloping to ensure animals’ body heat migrated from the byre to the living space. The lack of a chimney retained the heat from the hearth in the building, the peat smoke permeating through the thatch inhibiting infestation by rodents and insects as well as repelling midges.

As Calder and Urban point out these buildings acquired the name blackhouse (Gaelic: taigh dubh) in the mid 19th Century to distinguish them from the more modern whitehouses (Gaelic: taigh geal) that were appearing which were characterised by their (high embodied energy) render as well as their pristine interior enabled by the use of a chimney (which also removed 90% of the fire’s heat).

Whereas blackhouses could be continually repaired by their inhabitants and the surrounding community, contemporary buildings incorporate proprietary components requiring specialist installation and maintenance.

Importantly, they illuminate the way in which modern housing estates shore up dependency on car travel and its associated emissions whereas the inhabitants of the blackhouses tended to walk short distances in their day to day lives.

They point out that the embodied carbon emissions of today’s volume housing is ‘in another league’ when compared to the embodied emissions of pre industrial vernacular housing asserting that “if zero carbon housing was possible to achieve with the simple technologies and constrained resources of the pre-modern Hebrides, it’s certainly possible today.” Furthermore the circularity of materials in blackhouse construction was almost complete – the Arnol residents, for example, had to move their village three times between 1795 and 1853.

Whilst few would advocate returning to the localism of pre-industrial rural life and living in a one room dwelling with livestock, the authors feel that the adoption of low or zero carbon materials must replace high embodied carbon cement and steel. This, combined with cutting car travel, eschewing the polluting insulation systems required by current volume housing and focusing on keeping the body warm rather than its surrounding environment will all contribute to a net zero future. Therefore blackhouses can offer inspiration for lower tech solutions, as well as allowing us to celebrate repair and the signs of use, as an alternative to aspiring to a new detached house built on a greenfield site.

Costing Carbon in Construction

LHS – Demolition of RBS building, Edinburgh (Alan Wilson). RHS – Residential area, Baluchistan province, Pakistan (Fida Hussain – Getty Images).

Will Ing, writing in The Architects’ Journal, gives an encouraging account of the Government’s response to the Environmental Audit Committee’s (EAC) report, Building to Net Zero: costing Carbon in Construction. However, viewed from the perspective of a world facing a climate and ecological emergency, the Government’s responses appear evasive and inconclusive.

The Government responds to the 48 conclusions and recommendations of the EAC’s report which are arranged over 5 topics: whole-life carbon (WLC) assessments, building materials, government procurement, retrofit and reuse of existing buildings and skills and training. Throughout their recommendations, the EAC repeatedly make the case for mandatory WLC assessments.

They report that, though a broad cross section of the construction industry, and some local authorities, recognise the importance of assessing and controlling embodied carbon emissions from buildings, there is no Government policy to do so. The EAC recommends an urgent, clear timeframe for introducing mandatory whole-life carbon (WLC) assessments, using the RICS Professional Statement as the established methodology. This timeframe, to include ratcheting targets for embodied carbon reductions, should be set by the government by the end of this year to enable the UK to meet its commitment to reduce carbon emissions by 68% by 2030 (in eight years time). The government’s response is far from urgent, looking to “explore the potential of a maximum embodied carbon level for new buildings in the future.” It will consult on its approach to embodied carbon in 2023 and remains ambivalent regarding ratcheted carbon targets, believing that current targets proposed by the construction industry lack robustness due to small sample sizes across limited building typologies.

Mandating WLC assessments for buildings, the EAC believes, will also assist in the transition to a circular economy, (encouraging the reuse – rather than recycling – of steel components, for example) as well as  ensuring timber use can be verified as the most appropriate WLC solution to a particular construction project in comparison with other alternatives. Not wishing to commit to mandating WLC assessments for buildings, the Government prefers to “encourage the industry to use the most appropriate low carbon materials and to produce efficient low-carbon designs.”

The EAC highlights that the Government expects all public procurement projects to be subject to WLC assessments. It requests that they publish the number of public works for which WLC assessments have been undertaken and make public the justification for cases where they have not. The Government, in its response, makes clear that they do not plan to collect and publish this information.

The EAC considers that the reuse and retrofitting of existing buildings would be incentivised by mandating WLC assessments throughout the planning process. Planning applications for the demolition of an existing building and its replacement with a new structure should also be accompanied by a circular economy statement detailing why retrofit is not possible. This requirement should, the EAC requests, be introduced as soon as possible, perhaps alongside the Government’s proposed planning reforms. The Government, in its response, will not commit to mandating WLC assessments or circular economy statements though will consider their role in the review of the National Planning Policy Framework.

Throughout the document, the Government’s responses often do not seem to fully engage with the EAC’s conclusions and recommendations. Their final recommendation, for example, requests that the Government sets out how the Department for Education will make training in undertaking WLC assessments “accessible across all levels of education and the entire supply chain.” At no point in the Government’s response is it clear that the recommendation has been understood. Rather, the Government are keen to point out that “qualifications and skills offers are being designed in a way that is responsive to the needs of the market.” It is clear from the Government’s responses to the EAC’s conclusions and recommendations that they feel it is unlikely that the needs of the market will be served by mandating whole-life carbon assessments. However, as the climate emergency deepens, it is already clear to millions of the earth’s inhabitants that the needs of humanity are not being served by the market.

TERRA – Trienal de Arquitectura de Lisboa

Video installation exploring geopolitics of extraction at Cycles (James Verner, photograph).

Terra is the Lisbon Architecture Triennale 2022. The programme consists of four exhibitions (entitled: Multiplicity, Retroactive, Cycles, and Visionaries), four books, three awards, three days of conferences and a selection of independent projects. Chief-curated by Cristina Veríssimo and Diogo Burnay, Terra proposes the evolution from the current fragmented and linear system model, characterised by an excessive use of resources, towards a circular and holistic system model, motivated by a greater and deeper balance between communities, resources and processes.

Heritage has an intrinsic role to play within this system change as it becomes clear how climate cha(lle)nges, pressure on resources, and socioeconomic and environmental inequities are profoundly intertwined. Understanding these complex situations, the curators believe, requires a paradigm shift from a linear growth model (“cities as machines”) to a circular evolutionary model (“cities as organisms”).

Multiplicity at MNAC bcp runs until 8.1.23 and is curated by Tau Tevengwa and Vyjayanthi Rao. The exhibition shows how the majority of building has necessarily been vernacular and demands that, as cities expand, design and architecture needs to respond to inequality, climate change and conflict. Processes from the Global South illustrate methods to adapt to these challenges. Climate change and conflict are causing displacement as dwindling resources are competed for and extreme environmental events become more frequent. This will force us to rethink our notions of borders and the  built environment.

Inequality and urbanisation are at their highest levels. 68% of the world’s population will be urban by 2050, Delhi is growing by 118 new arrivals an hour. Planning cannot keep pace with the demands this places upon infrastructure. Citizens therefore create their own housing and economic opportunities outside the inadequate formal systems offered by government and create parallel infrastructures forcing a reassessment of the western-centric architectural canon.

Rectroactive at MAAT Central Tejo runs until  5.12.22 and is curated by Loreta Castro Reguera and José Pablo Ambrosi. The exhibition looks at interventions in derelict urban voids, deteriorated landscapes or abandoned areas and features  projects from an open competition. It “explores the suturing tools of communities in urgent need of architectural solutions that may reconcile their sense of belonging and spatial dignity”. 1/3 humanity lives in vulnerable places characterised by  overcrowding, lack of resources and service infrastructure; the projects look at the potential for intervention in these ‘broken and marginalised territories’ showcasing seven public initiatives and ten practices.

Cycles at CCB Garagem Sul runs until  12.2.23 and is curated by  Pamela Prado and Pedro Ignacio Alons. The curators show that before completion and after demolition, buildings are amorphous conglomerates of different materials. Architecture must engage with these cycles over time as much as with the design of the building itself to position its role within the processes of transformation and distribution encountering sustainability, heritage and memory along the way. The exhibition explores how to design for a circular economy, past and present methods of construction as well as the geopolitics of extraction – extractive neoliberalism.

Visionaries at Culturgest runs until  4.12.22 and is curated by Anastassia Smirnova with SVESMI. The exhibition promises to showcase “Radical Prototypes to Change the World.” The curator believes that among our visionaries are those who try to impose an alternative order of things and design, not just physical structures or objects, but ambitious, and, at times, controversial prescriptions for future action. They are interested in new models and prototypes that are not supposed to be simply replicated, but can be interpreted in multiple productive ways. All works are seen in the context of the current debate about planetary strategies.

Any thoughts?

Have you got any thoughts on the September/ October News on Heritage and the Climate Crisis? Or suggestions for the November post? Leave them in the comments below or tweet us @HeritageDecl