This summer, the Girona architects Ramon Bosch and Bet Capdeferro received the Commitment Award from the Spanish Higher Council of Architects’ Associations (CSCAE). The prize recognised the social, inclusive and ethical values represented in their wooden building, Bloc 6x6.
Why did you make this building?
Bet Capdeferro (BC): We come from a time when a lot was being built but the relationship between homes and the environment was not taken into account. Rather, a type of architecture had emerged that sought a certain airtightness and a false sense of contact with the environment, with huge windows to make you feel you are in a very intense relationship with the climate and the outside world but that in reality was false. Buildings operate in a highly mechanised manner and create artificial climates, in contrast to where they are located. It makes little sense for people in temperate climates to make these kinds of glass bunkers cut off from the environment. Also, when you isolate yourself from a climatic point of view, you are also divorced from the geography of the place, the historical context, the traditions, and so on. This break between architecture and place is dramatic in many ways because it means we are losing a culture of dwelling.
BC: There’s a lot of intelligence deposited in popular architecture that tells us about very simple and passive systems, which need no machinery, such as building a porch facing the right direction, shutters, or leaving vegetation to grow in the right place. They are passive systems that popular architecture used wisely in the 20th century and that we had been losing in favour of hyper-mechanisation. Now a whole generation is starting to wonder how we lost that relationship with place and is starting to look for ways to do things differently. It’s an attitude that’s old and new at the same time.
And this coincides with the current context of climate crisis.
Ramon Bosch (RB): It’s a progressive awareness that with the current context takes on a certain urgency. We were born in the midst of the oil crisis. It was a global shock that aroused some awareness but that, by thinking we could buy our way out of anything, has set us back. But now we are in an emergency situation from the mismanagement of our resources on a global scale. We studied architecture at a time when this had been swept under the carpet, and then you begin to realise that the situation is different and that our commitment and our work must take a different direction. So what this climate emergency does is reinforce our responsibility and the urgency of our role as architects. We now have access to lots of data and some are unquestionable and objective. We know, for example, that the construction industry we are part of is responsible for at least 40% of greenhouse gas emissions. If we’re responsible for 40% of the problem, we can be responsible for 40% of the solution.
What should architecture’s role be?
RB: Architecture is starting to take steps forward, but what it does is add pieces to the urban fabric, buildings that can be more or less sustainable, more or less well made. Yet we also have an obligation to take a step back and look at town planning; that’s to say, the big picture of how cities and towns are laid out. We are still too much the heirs of the modern model and of what architects call zoning, which is to divide an area into zones that correspond to buildings that are linked to a use when in reality life in a city is more complex. We must begin to think much more about thermodynamics from the urban point of view, that is, energy exchange, temperatures, kilowatts, hourly uses, etc, instead of distributing the cake of usable square metres according to market value. For me, urban planning is a very serious and urgent issue that needs to change. BC: For example, focusing on use based on energy consumption. Imagine there’s a building that generates a lot of heat and another that needs heating. Put them next to each other and you’ll be able to take advantage of the energy from one for the other. RB: There is a decompensation of invisible things, such as temperatures, that cannot be touched but that exist and that cost us money, not only users but society at large, and if we combine them more intelligently, we can find a symbiosis. And that, taken on an urban scale, means energy communities, energy exchange... We have to start thinking differently.
And that requires planning.
RB: Exactly, and that’s the issue. Urban planning is not working as well as it should because it has not yet taken the necessary steps forward, which is the most complex thing because it has to reconcile diverse interests. But it’s the scale that will allow us to change a little the way we live and how we manage cities in terms of energy. BC: I think it was the ecologist Ramon Folch who said that we cannot only take into account the anatomy of things, but we must begin to take into account the physiology, the way they work. Architecture spent years worrying about form, which is not unimportant, but we can’t think of form in isolation, it has to be intrinsically connected to how that organism works because, in the end, a building is like an organism in the sense that it interacts with its environment.
What should cities look like?
RB: There are a lot of factors to consider and energy is one of them. I believe that the cities of the future will have to take into account synergies with the place understood as a resource and with respect for what you affect and what you don’t affect, and at the same time to recover the origins of what made humans first settle in that place. All this has invisible consequences relating to climate and resources. A river is not just a place for tourists to take pictures, there’s also an essential energy issue. This geographical vision, the natural resources and the attention to the management of the invisible, of energy, of what things mean beyond their appearance... Cities will have to start working like this in terms of cooperation as well, beyond just municipal terms.
And the relationship between industry and building?
RB: We have to look at how we’re losing our trades: the blacksmith, the carpenter, the plumber, the bricklayer... And this has to do with professional training, which is a related but parallel political issue. Due to the abandonment of the cultural richness of trades, we architects have tended to underestimate industry as an important agent within building. It’s true some industries have killed some trades and we need to reverse that, but at the same time industry can also be the solution to the current situation.
How can industry be a solution?
RB: The ways we produce wood today can be the solution, for example. We know that making a tonne of concrete means emitting lots of CO2 into the atmosphere. Instead, trees release the oxygen we need to live and convert the CO2 they absorb into wood. A cubic metre of wood stores a tonne of CO2. What we call a carbon sink. So, the difference between building with a tonne of concrete or a cubic metre of wood is clear. This building, for instance, is made of glued laminated wood. We didn’t need thick logs to provide the wood because there is a technology that allows us to produce wood like this. Every place has its own trees so we could say that we can start planting buildings everywhere.
How can we get these messages across to the whole of society?
BC: I guess there is a lack of familiarity with this material, in the case of wood, and also with this kind of thinking, but it’s how our grandparents thought. That was not so long ago! If we think of our grandparents, they lived in villages and had a much more direct contact with the materials from nature. Their homes were made of terracotta, stone, wood... We have to familiarise ourselves with that and to think more circularly, but also consider certain solutions from a global point of view.
New housing or rehabilitating existing buildings?
RB: Always rehabilitation. Apart from the fact that old constructions are mostly a collection of forgotten techniques. Today we are unable to build with stone walls for many reasons, but those that already exist have amazing thermal inertia. They are constructions that if well managed can become a very interesting resource, and even more so on an urban level. So, always reuse. Doing less is more sustainable. It’s the same with the growth of cities: up to what point? It’s possible that everything to build has already been built. What we need to do is reconsider and work on what is already there.