Photo by Ben Allan

Not built to last

Ugly buildings are an environmental catastrophe

Artillery Row

Last week the Conservative Party Conference opened with incoming party chairman, Oliver Dowden, promising to reform planning laws to prevent more ugly buildings. Ostensibly, this is to head off more grass-roots rebellions by voters increasingly fed up with their neighbourhoods being blighted by soulless housing estates and glass boxes. 

But that is merely to scratch the surface of the benefits of beautiful architecture. Well-constructed buildings are humanity’s greatest recycling industry, the most generous legacy we can bequeath our children and our one real shot at environmental redemption.

In the run up to COP26, you can be sure we won’t be spared the preaching about windmills, electric cars and heat pumps, along with pious admonishments against any form of human pleasure, from taking holidays to eating a steak.  As always, those in charge will ignore the elephant in the room. The world’s biggest polluter by far is the construction industry. According to the UN, it produces 38 per cent of global emissions. By comparison, airlines produce just 2 per cent. If Extinction Rebellion had brains, they’d be blockading building sites rather than airports. 

Politicians seem equally blind. They fetishise house-building, but fail to notice that building even a two-bed house creates 80 tonnes of carbon and uses 150 tonnes of materials – the same amount of landfill as an average household creates over 300 years! By comparison, powering your house produces about 2 tonnes of CO2 per year. Even if you could build a truly net zero home tomorrow (which you can’t), it would take forty years to break even.  

Some buildings give us the same gut reactions as they did our ancestors

A big part of the problem is modern construction materials. Producing concrete (180kg of CO2/tonne) and steel (1.85tonnes of CO2/tonne!) are two of the most ubiquitous and environmentally destructive industries on the planet. By contrast, sandstone has a carbon footprint of just 77kg/tonne, and wood can be CO2 negative as it locks in carbon. Those old materials last longer as well. There are stone buildings that have been knocking around for more than a millennium Rome’s Pantheon is 1900 years old. If treated properly, wooden buildings can last almost as long. The world’s oldest inhabited house in the Faroe Islands is 900 years old and built from wood. China’s ornately carved Nanchang Temple has been welcoming Buddhists since the 8th century.

Pre-stressed concrete meanwhile has a lifespan of 50-100 years, meaning many of the first concrete structures have already crumbled into carcinogenic dust.  

It’s not just the materials. For buildings to last, we must love them enough to preserve them.

In a little-known study, “Sustainable Build Heritage”, a group of Danish academics looked at why some buildings stand for centuries while others are demolished in as little as a generation. Their conclusion was that buildings that last are made of good materials, are functional and, above all, are beautiful. They acknowledged the timelessness of traditional notions of beauty: how some buildings give us the same gut reactions as they did our ancestors. Copenhagen is of course full of examples not least her colourful townhouses that have been standing for over two centuries. They have had to be adapted, but they have always been popular places to live. 

Closer to home, badly built eyesores are being torn down barely a generation after their construction: tower blocks from the 60s, council offices from the 70s and shopping centres from the 90s. That’s billions of tonnes of fossil fuels and mining degradation ending up as landfill. 

Has anything been learnt? The Prime minister’s “Build Back Better” plan is in no way green. Construction can never be green. Is it possible to conceive of a crueller thing to do to future generations than a debt-fuelled frenzy of brutalist carbuncles that will be theirs to demolish? When Greta Thunberg described Build Back Better as “blah-blah-blah”, she was being generous. It’s an environmental catastrophe. 

Isn’t it odd? Our ancestors built stunning buildings that were environmentally sustainable, have lasted for centuries and are admired and cherished. Almost all of them managed it Greeks and Romans, Ottomans and Venetians, Tudors and Georgians. Yet they had none of the technology or machinery we have today. In every other sphere of life, we are thrashing our forebears. Why is construction the odd one out? And why have we accepted it for so long? None of us would accept medieval healthcare.

Of course beautiful, well constructed buildings don’t just help the environment. Not least of the other benefits is the fact that people want to live in them, work in them and visit them. As myriad social experiments have shown, residents of beautiful places are more likely to look after them and less prone to antisocial behaviour.

It is of no surprise that beautiful spaces are good for your mental health. Studies have even found they can speed up recovery from illnesses. There’s a reason UNESCO world heritage sites are mobbed, and house prices in conservation villages have gone stratospheric. This is the world we actually want to live in. 

Construction is ranked as the most corrupt industry in the world

Conversely, there is growing evidence of the psychological damage caused by what is now dubbed “Inhumane Architecture”. And it is inhumane. Walk through many inner city estates and it is hard to imagine how you could be anything but clinically depressed. The mental health pandemic has become an unaffordable human tragedy. It is time planners and builders owed residents a duty of care. 

Something else beautiful buildings can do for society is levelling up. If a building requires more skilled labour to construct and maintain, that transfers a greater share of the property wealth from asset rich landowners and speculative developers to the skilled labourers and designers who actually do the work.

It won’t be easy to persuade developers to build well. There is so much money at stake.  Construction is ranked as the most corrupt industry in the world. Half of British building professionals believe that corruption is common. Transparency International looked at the UK planning system and found signs of it everywhere. The sums involved are enormous. They were unable to identify a single local authority with even adequate standards of transparency and anti-corruption procedures. Last year, property developers donated over £11m to the Conservative party. 

We will also need to completely reboot how we teach architecture and planning. As James Stevens Curl and Nikos Salingaros have passionately argued, the cult of inhumane architecture has become the only thing students are taught. Dubbed “Modernism”, this is architecture “devoid of ornament (‘a crime’), beauty, or even fun”. 

Just to make sure no creative soul gets any other ideas, Modernism’s place is cemented by “the arrogant ditching of history and disregard of architectural precedents; the devaluation of craftsmanship through the adoption of factory-made components; and the desensitisation of architectural students terrorised and bullied into acceptance of nonsense by means of design ‘juries’ and by the compulsory study of false ‘grand narratives’”.

Is it worth the fight? In 2016, I looked round an enchanting 400 year old tower house on the edge of Edinburgh. I was smitten and made an offer after just 45 minutes. It required extensive restoration. As we peeled back the render, we noticed oyster shells in between the stonework. The original stonemasons would eat oysters because they were cheap (the 17th century equivalent of Greggs) and used the shells to set the stones in place. People have been born here and died here. A woman even came back to life here (the Edinburgh tale of Half-Hangit Maggie)! Boswell & Johnson stayed the night on their way back from the Hebrides. And Walter Scott used it for a romantic scene in one of his novels. A lot happens in an old house. 

To deny future generations the delight of living and breathing history, craftsmanship and beauty, while trashing the environment is unconscionable. If you really want to leave the planet and humanity in a better place, buy a historic building and cherish it. Or even better, build one.

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