I live in a house that was built in 1890. I’m sure the Victorians who commissioned it never imagined putting a bedroom in the attic (except perhaps to squash in an extra servant) or that anyone might take out the chimney breasts, or that a family might want quite so many bathrooms. Or any bathrooms at all, for that matter.
Times change, but buildings endure. Or at least, some do.
Earlier this month I visited the site of the former New Scotland Yard. The towering façade of glass and stainless steel, so familiar from countless TV news reports, is long gone – transformed into a gigantic hole in the ground, three storeys deep. From the depths, new towers are fast emerging.
When the old police building was new and pristine in 1967, I doubt very much its architects or contractors considered that it might be entirely erased just 50 years later.
Those responsible for the foundations didn’t care two hoots for the future, given that they installed a forest of bell-shaped concrete piles 20 m down that made life exceedingly difficult for the next generation of engineers to work around.
A few days ago I heard Greta Thunberg address the United Nations, with her trembling accusation that my generation has failed to consider hers utterly. I can’t help but agree she has a point. I see little evidence that businesses are thinking about the future with much more foresight than they did in 1967 or 1890.
Within the built environment, we still tend to make structures that place huge value on the considerations of today and discount likely costs in the future down to zero.
Today, do we create buildings to ease foreseeable future tasks like refurbishment and repurposing? Do we build in a way that foresees the future job of disassembly? Are we thinking about the second life of the materials we choose to build from? Do we consider what kind of site will be left behind when the current building is demolished?
In most cases, I might suggest, the answers are likely to be no.
There are exceptions, such as the modular sports venues in Rio, designed to be taken apart like Meccano and rebuilt into smaller structures after the Olympics, creating schools and community centres. But in most cases, there are good reasons we don’t consider the full life-cycle implications of new buildings, not least because it’s hard enough to turn a profit while thinking only about the needs of the next few years.
And that, of course, is exactly the accusation an angry Greta Thunberg has levelled at us all.
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