Better Buildings Summit: Joining the Dots

Last month’s Better Buildings Summit was an impressive demonstration by three ministries to show joined up thinking about sustainable construction.

Three ministers, John Prescott, Patricia Hewitt (DTI) and Margaret Beckett (DEFRA) presented and responded to questions about the challenge of building far better houses and communities.

I was strongly reminded of the Indian fable about the blind men and the elephant. Six blind men try to make sense of a huge beast by feeling the nearest bit to each: one finds the trunk and declares it to be a snake; the next feels the tusk, surely a spear; the third thinks the ear a fan; the fourth declares from the leg that this must be a tree; the solid flank feels like a wall to number five; the last pulls the tail and declares the object to be a rope.

Our divided government sees the elephant of the built environment in many disconnected ways, as planning policy, an energy problem, a financial burden or asset, a transport issue, a design quality matter, an environmental challenge, a safety crisis and an industry to be fostered.

The main conclusion for those three ministries was that we are technically capable of reducing Britain’s envrionmental impact on the planet to a sustainable level. However, problems of atttitude and insistutional resistance remain. We know what could be done but we also know why few will make the moves needed to make a difference.

At government level there are issues rising from some of the “blind men” not even joining in the exploration of the elephant. The Treasury did not attend either; Gordon Brown being on paternity leave. The challenge for the Treasury is to use buying power to make sustainability happen. So far the criteria for PFI and government tenancy do not push hard enough. The Department of Transport did not attend either. I asked how we could plan for non-car dependent communities when we could not agree to invest in new transport systems before demand exists. The answer was that this was a conference about buildings. The Department of Culture, Media & Sport, sponsors of Cabe and the Arts Council Architecture unit did not attend either. The three attending ministers were quite clear that they wanted good design, but that was a slippery concept, tending towards functionality and life-cycle costing unless firmly pulled into focus by attention to impact on people.

The three wise ministers were all for tighter regulation to overcome the weakness of customers, consultants and constructors in investing in long-term performance while it wasn’t strictly economic. But then where was the will and resource to enforce more complex regulation?

There are already signs that Part L2 is not fully enforced and neither are the CDM regulations. One solution could be to follow Singapore in making applications for approval by cad object model. The regulations are checked by artificial intelligence and approval or feedback comes within the day.

Joined up government would not just be seeing the elephant, it would be up on its back riding it.

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