By Lynne Blundell

FAVOURITES – 15 April 2010 –Susan Roaf doesn’t have much time for architects. She thinks that most are little more than “building hairdressers” and she accuses the profession of undermining the fight against climate change.

Roaf, a well known architect, author on sustainable buildings, and a professor of architectural engineering, was in Sydney this week as a keynote speaker at the Air conditioning, Refrigeration and Building Services Exhibition, or ARBS. In an interview with The Fifth Estate she said the future for truly sustainable building design lies not with architects but with architectural engineers.

But the real momentum for climate change action is coming from communities – from Transition Town Movements, says Roaf.

Transition Towns is a movement that started in the UK and is based on communities taking action on two key challenges – climate change and peak oil. Climate change is now well understood; the peak oil concept is not so widely known.

Simply put, it is the understanding that the world’s easy-to-obtain oil resources are becoming depleted and, as modern society is highly reliant on oil, there will be major economic and social repercussions as supplies slow down in the near future.

The transition initiative focuses on communities reducing energy consumption and making the transition to a less carbon intensive way of living.

“Change will come about from individuals and people banding together – the transitional movement, eco-village movement and local mayors,” says Roaf.

“Just look at what is happening here. In Leichhardt [inner western Sydney] you have the world’s first example of solar planning. The council has modified its planning requirements so that new developments will not be approved unless the project has optimised the solar potential of the site.”

But this was all too rare. Architecture seemed to be moving in the opposite direction. Most architects coming out of university courses, says Roaf, are encouraged to be artistic egomaniacs, unable to design buildings that work properly for the 21st century. Instead of designing buildings where humans are comfortable and energy consumption is minimised, they create huge monoliths of glass and steel that gobble up energy and alienate the occupants.

By continuing to design such buildings architects are committing “ a climate crime” says Roaf.

“There is a an amorality to the way architects continue to be unconcerned about the impact of these buildings. And they are not castigated for it. It is not only accepted, but seen as aspirational, “ she says.

“Basically, if we want things to change we’ve got to get rid of architects as leaders of  construction teams. Many are nothing more than building hairdressers.”

The problem, says Roaf, is not with individual architects but with the system that educates them. Whereas in the past architects served time working in the industry in a form of apprenticeship, now everything has been removed to universities where the emphasis is on theory and producing graduates with graphic design skills.

Roaf’s disillusionment with the directions of architecture and the education of architects led her in 2005 to shift from teaching architecture at Oxford Brooks University in Oxford to teaching architectural engineering at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, where she is Professor of Architectural Engineering in the School of the Built Environment.

She would like to see architects and designers get back to the basics of what buildings are meant to be – primarily shelter from the elements. Her own thinking about building and sustainable societies was greatly influenced by 10 years in the Middle East living in the desert. For seven of those years, she excavated ancient cities in Iraq and lived with nomads, as a nomad.

Her doctoral thesis on the windcatchers of Yadz in Iran explored the black tents of the nomads – their structure, storage and the material culture within them.

“In summer these tents open right up so that the breeze comes through. They are made from fragile pieces of goathair cloth that is also resilient. In these desert cultures they have evolved their buildings over 5000 years and they have subtle ways of keeping people cool when it is 45 or 50 degrees.

“Airconditioning has meant that people have de-adapted. We are no longer designing buildings for the comfort of humans, but for the convenience of machines. We should be designing for thermal delight – when it is cold a warm breeze will delight you or when it is hot outside deep shade is what people need, not glass walls,” says Roaf.

On returning to Europe with knowledge of how to design for desert conditions she was shocked to find that even in the face of a warming climate, people were still constructing buildings with no regard to natural ventilation, shade, thermal mass and building behaviour and performance.

Oxford Ecohouse

In 1995 Roaf built the Oxford Ecohouse, a house in Oxford designed to maximise energy efficiency and equipped with the first photovoltaic cell roof installed in Britain. A six bedroom family home, it produces only 130 kg CO2   a square metre annually, in contrast to comparable UK houses that produce 5000 kg CO2  a sq m annually. It has 4 kW peak of photovoltaic output, 5 sq m of solar hot water panels and additional heating from a passive solar sun space.

The house was designed using low energy construction techniques, high thermal mass and a wood burning stove to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by over 95 per cent. Fifteen years later it is still used as a research source in sustainable design.

Roaf’s latest crusade is to help people avoid what she calls “the age of dark cities” by building robust, resilient and low risk buildings. Dark cities is the phenomenon that occurs when electricity grids overload, breaking and causing outages. This will become increasingly common, says Roaf, while we continue to build inappropriately with no regard for the capacity of the underlying infrastructure.

“We are building these ‘peaky’ buildings where there is peak demand for things like airconditioning for two to three hours of the day. The power infrastructure is struggling to cope. Right now 10 per cent of the generation of electricity in NSW is required for just one per cent of the year. That is growing rapidly and by 2014 is predicted to be around 20 per cent. If this doesn’t change, the lights are going to go off,” says Roaf.

But Roaf does see hope in the new generation of aspiring architects, many of whom are passionate about sustainability.

“We get young students coming into universities dying to build green buildings but they aren’t given the skills to do it in the current courses. The challenge now is to change direction and for the schools of architecture to allow these brilliant young architects to create buildings that work for the 21st century. That will require professional institutions to be brave and stop ratifying courses that are producing students who are nothing more than glorified graphic designers.”

The Fifth Estate – sustainable property
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