Embodied Energy

Why can’t the ecological impact of every new construction be considered as carefully as that of Oxford’s Abraham Building?

By George Monbiot. Published in Perspectives April/May 1997.

After ten minutes wandering around Linacre College, I gave up. There was nothing that looked remotely like an ecological revolution. I walked into reception and asked. I was told that I was standing in it. I stepped out again. I had pictured some laudable but hideous construction of earth-stuffed tyres, glazed with old car windscreens. What I saw was a starched and dignified maiden aunt of a mock Queen Anne annex, in red brick and lichen-crusted tiles. How could this possibly be the building which had provoked such terror within the university, and such excitement among environmentalists?

But this seemliness, this unarresting ordariness, is, of course, one of the Abraham Building’s most extraordinary features. It has minimised its impact on the global environment, without blighting its immediate surroundings. As such, it stands as a monumental rebuke to the Jobs and jobsworths who have stifled so many green projects. If you can do it in one of the most sensitive urban landscapes on Earth and enhance rather than spoil the built environment, you can do it anywhere.

The whiff of tokenism haunts many “green” buildings. An “eco-friendly” office block might have astonishing insulation, for example, but its concrete was cast with Malaysian plywood, its aggregate came from a monstrous quarry in the Mendips, and it cost more energy to build than it could consume in 20 years. But just as solid as the architecture of Linacre’s Abraham Building is the thinking informing every stage of conception and construction. There is hardly a feature – all the way from the recycled hardcore in the foundations to the organic paint on the walls – whose impact has not been assessed.

This is one of the first major buildings in Britain whose designers have taken seriously the notion of embodied energy – the amount of fossil fuel required to extract, process and transport the materials it is built from. They found that plastics, polymer foams and ferrous metals are more energy-expensive than local timber and stone. So the floors and windows are made from eco-certified timber, rather than concrete or aluminium. The tiles came from a demolished college building. Recycled newsprint, rather than extruded foam, is used for insulation.

Walking around the Abaraham Building, it became more and more difficult to see why the standards to which it was built have to be so exceptional. The systems enabling it to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by 31 per cent reduction are so simple as to be self-evident. Water recycling should surely now be mandatory in a country so manifestly incapable of either coping with drought or cleaning up its effluent. Far from making the building less habitable, its eco-friendly features have helped to create one of most pleasant institutional environments I’ve ever entered. South-facing windows, while designed to trap heat, also make the students’ rooms light and airy. Its natural materials emit no smells.

Even the conventional architects’ commonest excuse – the expense – turns out scarcely to be an excuse at all. Including the forest the college bought to offset the remainder of its carbon dioxide emissions, the Abraham Building’s green features cost £69,000, or 3.8 per cent of its total price. Energy and water savings mean that these attributes will pay for themselves within six years.

So why can’t every building be like this? Why can’t energy-costly, people-unfriendly, environmentally-destructive architecture be consigned, as it has been in Scandanavia, to the dustbin of history? No one seems to know. But if British architecture persists in its careless disregard of the environment – external or even internal – it will earn before long a well-deserved reputation for bloody-minded indolence and regressive introspection.