HOW TO SAVE THE WORLD
Alan Short, Cambridge professor, architect and the man charged with saving the NHS from terminal overheating, rails at the absence of a common corpus of architectural knowledge. But he’s tackling that with his symbiosis of research and practice, where one feeds into the other
Words Jan Carlos Kucharek
What possessed a major UK strategic research funding organisation, looking to investigate how the environmental performance of the whole existing NHS estate might be improved, to entrust £1m to an architectural practice that hasn’t even built a hospital? Perhaps they realised that the huge scale of the problem means a hospital here or there is a drop in the environmental ocean. No. This challenge is about getting results on an unparalleled scale – it’s not about buildings, but blue sky thinking, and Professor Alan Short, Cambridge University professor and founding partner at architectural practice Short and Associates, is the man charged with the job. As part of his academic research drive, which saved the University’s School of Architecture from closure just weeks into his tenure as head in 2001, Short received the research funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) to conduct an environmental energy strategy for the whole of England’s NHS estate. Under the Climate Change Act 2008, it will have to cut its carbon emissions significantly across nearly 20 million m2 of acute hospital accommodation spread over 330 sites. The organisation’s own figures state that, at 21 million tonnes a year – a quarter of which can be attributed to building energy – it is responsible for 30% of the total UK public sector CO2 emissions. That’s 3% of its emissions attributable to just one user.
Nearly half the energy used in a typical UK hospital goes on heating and conditioning, a figure that will only grow on current climate change projections. The NHS is also required by law to provide a safe, comfortable environment for its 700,000 patients and their visitors, and 1.4 million staff (5% of the UK workforce). This is despite the fact that a short heatwave in 2006 increased baseline mortality by 4%, and another lasting four days in 2009 saw 300 more deaths registered over the week’s average.
Short understands the desperate inclination the NHS Estate might have to retrofit air conditioning in aging, poorly performing buildings which, under the government’s latest austerity measures, have no chance of replacement in the foreseeable future. But he is here to challenge this short-term and energy profligate measure with a sustainable, longer-term approach. Short’s latest research paper, Design and Delivery of Robust Hospital Environments in a Changing Climate, might sound like it’s just been dusted off the shelves at Trinity College Library, and in his similarly dusted green tweed suit, Short might not look like a superhero; but make no mistake – Professor Alan Short is here to save the world.
His appointment to this research seems strange given the apparent polarity of the scenario he faces. For while the NHS broadly supports a natural ventilation strategy, recent MRSA and other superbug outbreaks, as well as safety and security concerns, incline it to use a conditioned air strategy. Short, in the meantime, has staked his whole professional and academic reputation on the promotion of natural ventilation methodologies. Since 1992 his buildings have been pushing the envelope in sustainable design, bizarrely occupying the formal territory of Arts and Crafts meets early Dutch modernism meets Arabic badgir. Short is responsible for the 1999 Orthodox crucifix-like ventilation shafts of Manchester’s Contact Theatre, the citadel-like Queen’s Building for de Montfort University (1993), and Coventry University’s 2000 Lanchester library – the first naturally ventilated deep-plan building in the world – and, most recently, the 2006 London University’s School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies (SSEES), the first major passive downdraught-cooled building. His ‘Future House’, a commercial building devoted to the exhibition of sustainable construction and hybrid environmental strategies, opens this month in Beijing in China.
To each he has brought a unique approach of integrating applied physics and environmental science with aesthetics. In a world dominated by intellectual property rights and ‘commercial sensitivities’, his firm is exceptional in mining the rich seam of how practice can be informed by theoretical and empirical academic research, and ensuring full transparency throughout the process. He might not mention freemasonry, but Short still calls architecture ‘the most secretive profession.’ He goes on: ‘Medicine and law have accumulated a corpus of knowledge, precedents to draw on. But with the environmental science of buildings, there’s no library of rigorous, objective reflection. It’s difficult to get real accounts of buildings and how they perform.’ Short thinks corporate confidentiality, on both specific design approaches and performance, means architectural practices end up wasting their own pools of intellect and resources to keep reinventing the wheel.
Instead, his practice turns all these ideas on their heads. Every building it has worked on has had not only its design but its post-occupancy performance thoroughly documented by his academic team. Sustainability evaluations, complete with empirical data, conclusions and lessons learned are subsequently written up and published in specialist journals such as Building Research and Information – all readily available to the whole profession. The profit from fees charged by university staff is then fed back into Cambridge’s departmental research programmes. He thinks this is how it worked with research-based architect and engineering offices before intellectual property rights, maintaining cost margins and a legal claims culture ended it all.
Short calls his office a ‘plastic organisation’. It has only a few core members, whose number expand with every building or research commission. Researching the NHS project has seen him appoint fluid flow physicists and mathematicians from the university’s BP Institute for Multiphase Flow, to analyse heat movements and airflows through both existing and theoretical hospitals. This research is mixed with a study of the building physics by Loughborough University’s Engineering Design Centre. Leeds University’s Pathogen Control Engineering Institute has been brought in to analyse the mechanics of infection spread, along with the Open University’s acclaimed design research facility. Four foundation trusts are engaged as active research partners, with 12 hospitals the subject of detailed empirical performance studies. And it all seems to be leading to some sobering conclusions, with Short saying that while the estate might be able to deal with heat waves now, it won’t by the mid 2030s when our hospitals will be ‘progressively more dangerous places to be in summer – with no money to do anything about it’.
It makes Short’s call for an academic raising of the game within the profession all the more urgent. He complains that ‘the profession has no top end – with plenty of famous architects but no famous professors’ to act as the cross-over between a profession representing the vested interests of both architect and client, and important, objectified academic research that is beholden to neither.’ But he goes further, arguing that this is merely a symptom of the ‘general practitioner’ nature of the profession as a whole – a ‘jack of all trades’ perception of the industry held since the 1958 Oxford Conference set in stone the two stage architectural education we have lived with ever since. A serious reappraisal of this would be a start, he feels, with education moving towards the American model. He envisages a liberal arts degree in architecture, leading to a postgraduate MSc/MPhil, allowing students to study built environment subjects in more detail, preparing them better for the sector specialisations the profession now calls for – a fully functioning acute hospital is not, after all, a private home. Postgraduate specialisations would then lead to greater levels of practical doctorate research which would in turn feed back into the profession. Short’s ultimate aspiration is a national centre of architectural research examining the function, performance and aesthetics of architecture – block-funded by central government to ensure ongoing projects and the build-up of a central bank of learning and data. In reality, although the government claims to be pushing the ‘service industry’ value of the UK economy, he’s frustrated at ‘constantly having to be Machiavellian when applying for funding and dressing up what’s effectively design research.’
On a more positive note, Short sees great potential for the profession if architects are prepared to skill themselves up for future challenges. Certainly, George Osborn’s retreat from financially underwriting the UK’s sustainable future, coupled with the recent publication of the Climate Change Risk Assessment which actively pushes building adaptation, means there is an enormous untapped market if the profession is prepared to grasp the nettle in this period of austerity. His take is that ‘modest interventions on structures can yield huge dividends going through the data’. When Short says ‘dividends’, he means carbon savings, although architects may want to read this as ‘profits’.
Meanwhile charity begins at home, and if there’s a criticism it would be to suggest Professor Short put some of those research funding profits into his own website. If he is to promulgate his theories beyond the quads at Cambridge, it needs Minority Report-like levels of functionality, and if free flows of research data are its life blood, this must be evidenced. Slick and annotated images, replete with fly-throughs and 4-D data, and research properly linked to other websites and information, would create a virtual national building resource. There would be no better way of alerting future funders to the work of arguably one of the world’s most cutting-edge practices – a mobilised army of mathematicians, physicists and environmental experts, all co-ordinated by architects to integrate them under one holistic aesthetic.
It could be Short’s opening salvo in the fight for a world where the style wars have been won, and where populations bathe in the cool breeze of hospitals and live/work complexes, their towered profiles like a thousand Carcassonnes set against the heat haze of the cityscape.