Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Affects of Peak Oil on Architecture

The following is part of a talk given to Western Branch NZIA which met at Whanganui River Institute, 27 June 2008.

First Point - Architecture pre-existed the use of cheap fossil fuels, but it was a little different then.

Secondly – There are many definitions of an Architect, but one that is useful to the discussion about Peak Oil and resource scarcity is Architects as “concretisers of culture”. Just as bacteria are instrumental in turning carbon rich algal deposits into fossil fuels, Architects are instrumental in fossilising the agendas of those with resources at their disposal.

On the face of it, the advent of PO and reduced flows of energy unfortunately means that there will be fewer resources play with and to plan with. It is almost certain that the communities that Architects recently served will be going through a certain amount of upheaval, and as resources become more expensive new needs will emerge and old ones will disappear. It is highly probable that resources will be refocused on basic needs and agendas will be recast in the light of new and very pressing needs.

Not all of this will be a bad thing. Post-modern deconstruction will be seen as the last gasp of bankrupt ideologues who had no idea what times they were living in. Their architecture is destined to moulder and become an enigma for post-oil generations to marvel at. Decadent lifestyle pornography which architects have been totally complicit with over the past decade is likely to be greatly resented by those who cannot afford basic housing and for their owners will be expensive to maintain and heat. Many examples of what is currently called sustainable design will be seen to be sustainable in name only.

I suspect that there will be a re-evaluation of what architecture is actually about and that the future will have both opportunities and threats. To get a handle on this I have done some armchair analysis to examine the kinds of issues that are likely to raise their heads. I think there will be food for thought for councillors as well as architects.

So how will the advent of Peak Oil work through our world?

It will not be “Business as Usual”

The first obvious affect of reduced volumes/increased demands will be expensive energy. This has started happening. The second affect will be patchy supplies of fuel, which will be equivalent to a chronic heart failure. See below a chart of some of the trends that seem fairly predictable from this side of the decline, but there are sure to be many more:In addition to their knowledge of building design and procurement Architects have some significant skill-sets that are likely to prove valuable:

The ability to see/imagine a project at many different levels of scale consequtively over both space and time.

The ability to generate multiple solutions and to evaluate them for the best fit to the circumstances and situation.

The ability to act as a communication hub in which there are many different players all with interests at stake.

The ability to marry analytical and aesthetic judgements in the best interests of the project – The Art of Compromise.

The ability to think through and resolve complex staging issues arising from the implementation of implementing change on existing situations.

The ability to make decisions under conditions of stress and make fair-ish judgement calls in real time. – Also the ability to reverse those decisions when they are found to be wrong.

The ability to generally maintain the appearance of calm in the face of unbelievable bureaucratic frustration.

These skills are not acquired quickly or easily and are the intangible values upon which our reputation and utility rests. These skills are likely to be in demand during any period of significant change, and it will be interesting to see how well we are able to market our skills and perhaps diversify the role of Architect.

So what should Architects do? Some suggestions to start a discussion:

- design with the future in mind

- understand the times we are living in

- observe the forces in play

- re-think people’s actual needs

- re-think level’s of Architectural services

- advocate long term planning and declaim dubious projects including past ones

- acquire tools to demonstrate value for money

- re-think material use

- re-think design – Keep It Simple Sustainable & Sensible

- passive solutions better/cheaper than fallible active systems.

The great project over the next decades will be to help bring our lumbering hubristic civilization down to a survivable landing. This will involve different mindsets and value-sets from the ones that have held sway and become accustomed to working with. It will not be business as usual but business for the shrewdest, and all business involving resources will be carried out under the greatest scrutiny. The new frugality will focus on basic needs and will view as contemptible profligate waste the kind we currently experience as normal. The future is a mixed. There will be opportunities for both Chaos and Community. If we don’t lead or assist those who do lead by providing workable solutions, the forces of chaos will establish themselves by default, and the opportunities for community will dwindle.

1 comment:

Dave Lankshear said...

"Keep It Simple Sustainable & Sensible"

I like it... KISSS.

After we build the trams, trains, and trolley bus transport systems we need to keep some people, goods and services moving, I wonder how much energy will be left over for construction? If I ran the world right now I'd already be introducing the Oil Depletion Protocol and the average "Joe Bloggs" citizen would have maybe a decreasing fuel allowance and about 5 years to 'get their affairs in order' before their allowance was CUT!

Then fuel would be allocated by service sector need. Construction of rail and renewables, emergency services, post, etc would all have priority as we rezoned our cities over the next generation to do without oil.

The question of architectural styles is very, very interesting given that this will all have to occur on a low energy budget. Will it be New Urbanism because we cannot deploy high-rise construction cranes? Will it be high-rise ecocities ala Richard Register, because we can run cranes on electricity but can't deliver the construction goods to anywhere except the major rail stations?

Personally, I prefer the Richard Register model because it is so radical, can fit so many more people in per acre, and cuts energy consumption so radically that renewable energy becomes not just adequate, but AMPLE.

But this requires bold changes to our town planning systems and maybe even an overhaul in democratic process and powers.

My biggest personal issue is — why haven't I been elected Greenie Nazi overlord yet? ;-) I'd be a relatively benevolent dictator. I wouldn't let the power go to my head... I promise! ;-)