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ACAN @ Futurebuild 2023

Do we really need more stuff, never-ending development or mindless economic growth? Perhaps we need to keep consuming to try and fill the gaps in our souls that are left by our disconnection with nature, and with one another. Or maybe there is another way.

What if we said that we have everything we already need, provided by the biosphere, and mined from the anthropocene? What if we could access and harness what we have through a deep connection to the natural world, to people and the community? And what if we did this while putting the health, equity and prosperity of all living things first?

The Architects Climate Action Network were invited to talk, display, curate and provoke at Futurebuild, following the success of our stands, displays and open meeting there in 2022. Futurebuild is a built environment conference, formerly known as Ecobuild, held in London each year since 2005. We took the opportunity to engage with the program, to broaden the discussion, open minds and work in different formats and scales. Here's a little about how this all worked out.

Our Stand & Natural Materials Demonstrations

In the spirit of this manifesto, ACAN’s stand was designed and fabricated by the Natural Materials working group. Utilising reclaimed, repurposed and borrowed material – almost entirely biogenic and with nearly no plastic – the stand demonstrated efficient, low-embodied CO2 material and design simultaneously, in plywood, timber I-joists, wood fibre and Black & Decker Workmates.

The stand incorporated areas for the promotion of the newly published Conservation Area Toolkit, a natural materials samples display of materials and 1:1 construction models, and a live demonstration stage. Throughout the show, members of the Natural Materials group talked visitors through various natural building materials, their manufacture, use and performance in construction. Alongside this, a rolling programme of live demos had representatives from independent companies demonstrating, in a hands-on fashion, how their natural material systems were employed.

Building with straw bales demonstration in progress

At the end of the show, the whole stand was dismantled and decanted into three vans, with all the material sent away to life in new, low-carbon construction or re-use. One bin bag of waste was created.

Materials Stage Curation

Volunteering within ACAN, we meet a lot of incredible people, often working at the fringes of the built environment: innovating, researching and campaigning. We were offered the chance to curate the Materials stage at Futurebuild for a whole day, and wanted to use this opportunity to centre some of these voices. The day was structured around ACAN’s three core aims:

Ecological Regeneration: Mapping the hidden impacts of the materials we specify

We started by talking about the second most consumed material on earth: sand. It plays a role in just about every industry, and is a key component of concrete and glass. Kiran Pereira joined us via video, stressing that sand is a non-renewable resource in human timescales. The ecological and social impacts of sand extraction are often overlooked but it’s influence is far reaching - find out more in Kiran’s video:

Anthony Hudson gave hope that truly regenerative material production can be possible, talking about Hudson Architect’s research into Paludiculture: farming wetland crops for use as building materials, on peat soils. Peatlands form the UK’s largest carbon store, more so than forests, but 80% of our peatlands are degraded and continuing to degrade - releasing CO2 back into the atmosphere. Cultivating cattail on peatlands replenishes the land, preventing erosion: essentially holding the peat in place. This process actually raises the ground level, year by year, and therefore provides critical climate resilience in low-lying areas such as East Anglia, where the research is taking place. Cattails can be used to make insulation, building boards and even decorative veneers.

Jo Sharples of Editional Studio joined us with her students from Sheffield School of Architecture, to explore their research into the topographical, ecological, cultural and extractive past, present and future of the Peak District. One striking element of Jo’s talk explored how land ownership, and the enclosure act of 1841 fundamentally changed the ways that sheep were farmed in the peaks. Shifting from a nomadic to a fenced method of grazing has caused land degradation, as the plant species are not given a chance to recover from the constant consumption by the sheep. We can look to shepardesses in Lithuania to rediscover how traditional stewardship practices can recreate a symbiotic relationship between the grazing sheep and the spaces they inhabit. This was a stark example of how political and economic policies are made physical and spatial

Jo Sharples - Peak District & Enclosure

Cultural Transformation: Material Choices - profit or poison

We are determined that social justice, and the creation of a society where all people can thrive, is a fundamental part of the climate justice conversation. Filipa Oliveria set the scene, making visible the links between mindless profit and the risk we take with human lives. Filipa urged us to think at the systemic level, and grow our consciousness of the materials we specify.

Peter Apps laid bare the Grenfell tower disaster, the error, corruption and incompetence that lead to an unforgivable loss of human life. The atmosphere was tense after Peter's talk, with everyone in the room better understanding the responsibility they face in practice. We would urge you to read Peter's book "Show me the bodies: how we let Grenfell happen".

Tessa Devreese talked about how the EU funded ‘Circular Construction In Regenerative Cities’ (CIRCuIT) project, which aims to find solutions to scale the circular economy in the construction sector. It is often perceived that storage is the barrier to implementing circular economy principles across the built environment, however Tessa explored how, by utilising digital solutions like cataloguing and material passports, we can understand what materials already exist within the built environment, and plan for their use in the future. A well connected network of building information would skip the need for large storage depots, and allow the future use of materials to be planned years in advance.

Decarbonise Now: Solutions outside the capitalist growth machine

In our final session we wanted to face head-on the accepted mindset, that growth is always good and necessary to produce a thriving society, and that ‘green-growth’ is the only solution to tackle the climate and biodiversity crisis. Laura Baron introduced us to the, frankly, mind-blowing ‘Regional Crane Survey’, which is taken as an indicator of a region’s ‘economic health’, a metric that aims to “highlight this link between development and prosperity.” Laura confronted the fact that in reality the number of cranes within a city often has no impact on the average citizen’s health, wellbeing or prosperity.

Julieta Perucca and Sam Freeman of The Shift built on this theme, talking about the current disconnect between the financialised housing market and the deeper understanding we should all have - that a house is a home and a human right.

Chris Bailey of Action on Empty Homes took this one step further, explaining that we are currently building the wrong type of homes: the wrong tenure, wrong energy performance and wrong build quality. Moreover in the UK 20% of homes are owned as personal second homes, and another 10% are owned by businesses. We need to urgently retrofit and bring empty and underused homes back into full use.

Listen to Julieta's introduction to this topic here:

Materials stage activity

Even the most well meaning in the construction industry can see their work through ‘carbon blinkers’, greenhouse gas emissions being the one metric by which we assess whether design is ‘sustainable’. It’s understandable given the climate crisis we face. This focus can, however, leave us blind to the climatic, ecological, social and justice impacts of the places we design, the materials and products we specify.

We are part of the living world. Our decisions are made and make change within complex systems. Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics invites us to consider broad ecological and social factors, and explains that growth and development must be purposeful - meeting the needs of all people within the capacity of the planet. Leonora Grcheva from the Doughnut Economics Acton Lab, joined us to explain the core concepts behind doughnut economics, and describe how DEAL have developed this further, to provide tools that facilitate exploration through four lenses:

So far, this framework has been used to explore global, country, city and masterplan scales. We wondered: how could we use the principles of doughnut economics, to explore materials in much more detail?

In an effort to inspire a new material consciousness we created three linked activities. In the first participants took an Environmental Product Declaration, and mapped the life cycle stages that are associated with the production, use and end-of-life for specific materials. We asked participants to look deeper, asking questions like: where are the raw materials mined, who is impacted by its loss, how does that shape rivers, waterways, the land and ecosystem, who wins and who loses? Next, we tweaked the doughnut, keeping the factors relevant to materials, and expanding on these. We encouraged participants to think about all the ways a material can push us towards ecological tipping points, cause social risk, or pull us towards a socially just, ecologically conscious space. Here’s an example we made, thinking about glass:

Finally we invited the groups to rethink and redraw the processes and systems they had mapped. Asking: where do we need to make change to bring this material under the ecological ceiling, allowing it to meet the requirements of the social foundation? Can we use Portland stone in its mined form, rather than grinding it up to make cement; can we deconstruct this material at the end of its life, and cycle it back into the system; can we cut out transport steps by avoiding special finishes; how can we push manufacturers to use their political voice for climate-just legislation; do we need to put limits on how much we can extract from nature to enable this change….?

Participants engaging in the materials activities

ACANers on other panels

There are over 200 active members within ACAN, and a much wider communications network. Our members also took part in panel discussions across Futurebuild: Sara Edmonds explored what activism means at a systemic level, with Kat Scott, Smith Mordak and Dr Amy McDonnell and debated on how retrofit should be delivered at scale; Joe Giddings uncovered solutions for working with timber; Mina Hasman presented the incredible Climate Framework and Lizzie Westmacott shared valuable information on delivering PassivHaus.

Thoughts and reflections

Vincent MacDonald, co-curator of the materials stage takeover said:

The jam-packed Materials Stage Takeover created a powerful space for thoughts and actions on the interconnected Climate Crisis. Bringing together so many brilliant speakers and with an audience that were passionately engaged in the activities was very inspiring. There were fantastic discussions occurring on the tables around EPDs and their limitations, but also broader questions like whether built environment professionals are skilled enough to make value judgements. Feedback was also given on the activities themselves and the difficulties when working with qualitative data, and we will be taking this forward as the activities are developed.

Laura Baron, reflected on the wider conference:

One big contrast that we saw when considering Futurebuild in the round was between the “innovation will save us all” crowd, largely populating the stands, and the “we need fundamental systemic change” conversations being held on many of the stages, with the ‘build less’ message ringing loud and clear.

Perhaps this was most clearly articulated by Will Arnold, who discussed the many challenges around the decarbonisation of structural materials. Whilst the IPCC says that the world needs to halve emissions by 2030, supply chains (particularly for timber, steel and concrete) are telling us that it's only possible to reduce the emissions associated with their materials by 20% or so in the same period.

Will Arnold, Material Decarbonisation Pathways

So where does that leave us? As Arnold explained, “Reducing our use of new materials is the only way to reduce emissions at the speed required to curb the worst of the ongoing climate breakdown we're experiencing.”

But how do we do this when construction is seen as synonymous with economic growth? How do we build less when all our social, political and economical systems are telling us to do the opposite? And where does that leave those of us working in the built environment sector?

In the words of UN secretary general Antonio Guterres, it has to be “Everything, Everywhere, All At Once”. Yes, innovative, low-carbon products have a role to play, but as designers we also need to question how much is enough, how can we consume less, and shift priorities away from mindless growth, towards social justice for all.

What's next

Our climate literacy thematic group will be developing the doughnut tool and four lenses approach to material and product selection. We will also be making and publishing resources that everyone can use, based on this and the Practice Action series we ran with Architects Declare last year. Listen to the Practice Action conversations here.

How to get involved

Get involved in any or all of our groups, and help shape the action we take by signing up to our newsletter or joining our WhatsApp groups here. Rachael Owens with Tom Graham

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1 Comment

Apr 30, 2023

It gives me great hope to see atleast few people working against all odds to protect this beautiful earth of ours. May you have more and more people joining you to make your work fruitful.

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