Living with Beauty

Blog — 13 Feb 2020

The publication of “Living with Beauty” comes at a time when the quality and appearance of our built fabric is once again taking centre stage. The report by the Building Better Building Beautiful commission is a lengthy one with a handful of recommendations including more public participation in the design process, scrapping VAT on retrofit, reconsider the permitted development right to turn office into residential, planting trees, and enigmatically “building beautifully”.

Beauty is subjective, but I think we know where they are coming from, human scale, traditional materials, respect for context, etc. It is a position many would take issue with, but it is one that appeals to the popular vote, too much poor architecture has undermined the publics’ trust in the built environment professions. Few would argue with the intrinsic beauty of a Georgian Terrace, but most find tall buildings difficult to accept.

If we have a vernacular style in the UK it is probably brick or stone, the so called “new London vernacular“ demonstrates this successfully, a limited palette restricts the architects ego, and discourages the urge to turn ordinary building into architectural statements. Brick is a beautiful material that offers designers a range of possibilities, in fact our 40 Beak Street building is clad in glazed brick and features both on the cover and within “Living with Beauty”.

This debate coincides with two other significant developments that will shape the urban environment. Following the Grenfell disaster, Building Regulations restrict the use on elevations of flammable materials, motorised facade elements, even solar panels. This suggests that brick, stone, terra cotta and glass are going to be the materials of choice. However, there is another factor, we absolutely must reduce the carbon footprint of the built environment, and these materials, (with the exception of natural stone) are all carbon intensive.

Low carbon building materials do not lend themselves to our urban environment, timber, straw, rammed earth etc may lead us to a zero carbon future but they are some way off becoming the materials that shape the urban realm. The problem is multiplied when we look at our existing housing stock, how do you insulate a Grade I Georgian townhouse?

The conundrum that we face as designers, is that very few zero carbon buildings are urban and very few tick the generally accepted idea of beauty. The technology to build tall timber buildings is with us, but will insurers buy into it?

The immediate answer lies somewhere in between the extremes, reusing buildings where possible, designing out energy consumption, if we have to build new, use timber where feasible, CLT slabs for example, use materials in a way that means that they can be recycled, minimising waste, the list goes on.

After all beauty is not just about aesthetics or delight, commodity and firmness can also be beautiful. This is so much more that a question of semantics, a lean, flexible low energy structure should be considered beautiful. Our challenge as a profession is to work with engineers and manufacturers to deliver a low carbon future that is contextual and aesthetically pleasing.