Fabric-first is an approach to low-energy design that prioritises making the basic elements of the building - the walls, floors, roof, windows, etc. - perform as well as possible, rather than relying on ‘add-ons’ such as photovoltaic panels and wind turbines. It is an approach to sustainability that focusses on overall energy reduction as a means to reduce the environmental effect of the building, and it is achieved by incorporating high levels of insulation, and painstaking attention to detail to reduce unwanted air leakages.
Thanks to voluntary certification schemes such as Passivhaus and AECB Silver Standard, It is now widely accepted that a fabric-first approach is the most effective strategy for reducing carbon emissions during the use of the building. But for me, most don’t take this idea of reducing resources far enough.
Fabric-first has largely been distilled essentially into two things - insulation and airtightness - yet as an idea, it offers so much more potential. The risk with reducing it to this extent is that architecture becomes an act of ‘designing’ super-insulated boxes (because fewer corners = less opportunity to leak heat). But ultimately, even the most highly efficient building envelope cannot offset unsustainable lifestyle choices. Rather unlikely I know, but imagine an oil tycoon living in a Passivhaus. Does this mean they are living sustainably?
So I would argue there needs to be a slightly more holistic approach, not only to design, but to the lifestyle of the users. Real sustainability requires deep-rooted societal change. Architecture - the profession, the process, the product - can support that change, but it can’t make it happen.
This argument aside, for the purposes of this exercise, we are focussing on the fabric of buildings, and its role in providing the backdrop for sustainability. Let’s assume the users of a given piece of architecture already understand this, then the next logical step is to consider the arrangement of space and the elements creating that space, in such a way that they support the environmental and social goals of the project.
Reduce and re-use
The first question often asked, is how much space is needed. The typical way to answer this is to create a schedule of accommodation - a list of the spaces and their sizes, plus an allowance for circulation, and ancillary spaces - which gives a total floor area. But by and large this is an oversimplification that misses the potential for adopting a more strategic approach. Bigger isn’t always better. And it’s normally very wasteful.
At this point we need to take a leaf out of architect Cedric Price’s book. Price was considered by the profession to be a radical, but he would frequently dismiss it, claiming that it was just that the rest of the profession had failed to keep up. Whilst he was no doubt a pioneer, he also had a point about the profession. One of his chief concerns was that the profession overestimated the importance of buildings and of itself, and that architects should be able to consider ‘not building’ as a viable option.
Now, in the context of impending climate catastrophe, his ideas are more relevant than ever. So when we consider a project, we first need to ask a) whether a new building is even the answer, and b) if it is the answer, how can we create a more intelligent solution than a static lumping together of rooms that only serve one purpose.
Flexible space programming can reduce unnecessary circulation space, and give spaces multiple uses, all of which leads to a smaller footprint, both physically, and in terms of the wider environmental impact of building.
When considering the embodied energy of projects - the energy that goes into making the materials, transporting them, and the actual operations of construction - recent studies have shown that new builds can emit more than four times the amount of carbon emissions than a low-energy retrofit. Furthermore, new builds could take up to 50 years to offset that carbon debt, by which time, they will need to be refurbished anyway (see Cottrell & Vermeulen Architecture, Westborough Primary School).
Financial cost is often cited as the reason to demolish and start again. But that is a short-sighted and frankly narrow-minded way of looking at things if in the long-run we continue to exhaust the planet’s resources and make it inhospitable.
The bigger picture
Finding ways to minimise the amount of new buildings we create, is just as much a part of fabric-first design as insulation and airtightness. If anything it is even more important than we give it credit for. The profession naturally finds this predicament difficult to face up to, as was so aptly demonstrated by the President of the RIBA, Ben Derbyshire recently when he tweeted to say that society must engage with the profession if we are to save the planet. It is a statement that is simultaneously fantastically arrogant, and a desperate attempt to pass the blame and stay relevant.
The profession thinks it needs to build new buildings to survive; to demonstrate it’s worth. To a certain extent that might be right. Without lots of new buildings the profession - at least in its current guise - probably will struggle to retain any relevance. But Mr Derbyshire is quite far off the mark if he thinks architects can save the planet. As much as it pains me to say it, the profession, and the buildings it creates, just might not be as important as he thinks.
So perhaps it’s time for a rethink. Fabric-first has become synonymous with insulation and airtightness. But maybe we need to think much bigger than that. Maybe it should be about reducing the amount of fabric altogether; finding ways to avoid building wherever possible. Just as Cedric Price would have done.