This week I was invited by Birmingham City Council to talk at their Sustainability Forum meeting about our experience of environmental design challenges and the 2016 zero carbon goal. Sadly, the idea that the sector might be in a position to deliver zero carbon buildings consistently 3 years from now is laughable, but the drive towards something better than what we currently have must nevertheless continue and work done by groups such as this are crucial in the face of ongoing legislative delays from the top. Rather than present slides about our projects I decided to offer some more strategic ideas that we need to keep talking about.

After a brief introduction in which I (as usual) encouraged the audience to seek out supporting texts such as Dan Hill’s ‘Dark Matter and Trojan Horses’ (see also previous post: Institutionalised), I offered the following 10 ideas over the course of 20 slides in a Pecha Kucha format. It was a refreshingly mixed audience made up of the public, contractors, manufacturers, clients and consultants so the topics were varied and I hope there was a little something for everyone. If you’re in the sector or already engaged in the debate in anyway, much of the topics below will be familiar or even obvious to you but hopefully the members of the group took away a few new ideas for discussion and an enthusiasm for alternative presentation techniques.

Of course the subtext here was simply to highlight the need to talk about the politics of low carbon building and the dark matter that swirls around it, rather than the architecture itself, which seemed even more pertinent for an event held in the heart of the city’s council building.

Strategies for sustainable building:metamatter that matters

1. narrow the performance gap

  • better design assessment tools – BIM, PHPP
  • greater control of construction detailing
  • plain English operating manuals and buildings that just work

2. fabric first trade skills

  • the next generation needs to understand better building techniques
  • teach trades about basic building physics… super insulation, triple glazing, zero thermal bridges
  • air tightness + mechanical ventilation


3. creative tenure mixes

  • mobilize self builders – widen house type options
  • develop cohousing opportunities to reduce resource consumption
  • compare on-site zero carbon autonomy vs. citizenship

4. creative procurement strategies

  • increase long term responsibility – design, build, maintain?
  • tighten performance specification demands
  • find cost savings in process rather than product

5. energy monitoring

  • measure actual performance as standard – test new RIBA Plan of Work ‘In Use’ service?
  • always share results – good or bad
  • demand contractors and consultants offer this service

6. natural materials

  • invest in materials with better health and energy credentials
  • design for ‘breathable’ vapour permeable construction
  • reduce dependency on oil economy based products

7. lifecycle costing

  • measure long term performance of design decisions
  • include associated impacts to living costs – fuel poverty, rent stability
  • test for alternative economic futures, climate change and fuel costsc-zero

8. non energy benefits

  • consider inter-departmental benefits
  • allow for recognised improvements to health and living quality
  • measure cost benefits of reduced health care and sick days

9. integrate low emissions transport

  • decarbonised grid future points to greater electric car usage?
  • charging points installed as standard on all new developments
  • or developments that include short term car loan systems eg. Car 2 Go

10. new build vs. old build?

  • Don’t underestimate importance of existing stock
  • 97% of building emissions are created by existing homes