Get Sust! issue 36


Gather up your persuasive powers

In March (issue no. 35), Get Sust! commented on the growth of the green construction movement, as witnessed at EcoBuild in February. With CIBSE's annual gathering taking the theme "From niche to norm", an invigorated Think08 event just finished, and the rebranded Sustainabilitylive event next month (formerly known as NEMEX), (not to mention Channel 4's Grand Designs Live with its televised building of an ecohouse, and countless repetitive "going green" articles in the national press) I almost decided to cancel this issue of Get Sust, thinking there was nothing left to say...

... When along came Austin Williams - well-known architecture journalist, lecturer, and director of the "Future Cities Project" - telling Radio 4's Today programme (1 May 2008) that sustainability is: "an ethos of low aspiration, sanctimony, parochialism and restraint".

Rather than choking on my (organic) cornflakes, I sat up and listened to Williams' attack of the growth in "green" architecture, and as soon as he'd finished I set about getting a copy of the book that he was promoting - not because I think he's right, but because he does have some very pertinent things to say about the current state we're in.

In his book, "The enemies of progress: the dangers of sustainability" Williams has a go at all aspects of sustainability (including the supposed curriculum-led indoctrination of the next generation), but his comments on architecture most deserve our attention (though not for the reasons he intended).

Architecture, says Williams, should be a creative, imaginative and exciting profession but throwing sustainability into the equation simply caps aspiration:

Sustainability is "an un-mitigated disaster..." with architects now in the business of "damage limitation".

"I'm not a 60s throw-back," he told Radio 4, "but at least then we had a vision, where the future was somewhere positive to go".

[See this month's Feature "Who'd live in a house like this?" ... to see why he's both right... and wrong.]

He's also particularly exercised about the "measurement culture":

"Which is the more sustainable material? Concrete, steel or timber? Discuss... interminably," said Williams.

In some respects, he's got a point. Meeting sustainability criteria poses a whole new set of questions for designers. And uncertainty over benchmarking or eco-footprinting techniques creates confusion and allows the unscupulous (or just plain ignorant) to get away with all kinds of greenwash. But is that an argument to stop measuring things? Wouldn't it be better to perfect the tools and techniques?

Another target for Williams' ire are the "opt outs" [his term] - the people who decide they are willing to "do the green thing" and opt for microgeneration. Until I read his book I might have called these people the "pioneers" but now I'm not so sure:

"Whereas, in the past it was generally assumed that you had to get involved to change things, nowadays it seems, you can change things by doing nothing at all... Instead of standing outside the tent pissing in, or standing inside the tent pissing out, in this scenario, everyone's simply pissing off."

Well, I wouldn't have put it quite like that myself, but it raises a really interesting question about the future of power supply and generation in this country. Are we really destined to end up with a two-tier system, a bit like inner city education, where those who can afford to, opt out, leaving the have-nots stuck with the inadequate and ever-more-expensive grid-based power system?

That's just two issues out of a whole book full of persuasively stated arguments that many Get Sust readers will definitely disagree with! As Williams says in the blurb for his book..."The debate has only just begun".

So, on the good old scouting principle of "be prepared" I suggest you get hold of a copy of "The Enemies of Progress: The dangers of sustainability". And if you feel the urge to join in the debate - to get involved - Get Sust will welcome your comments. Write to editor[at] before 1 June 2008.

Learn more:


The enemies of progress: the dangers of sustainability, by Austin Williams; ISBN 978 1845400989; Imprint Academic, £8.95; see

© Melanie Thompson 2008