Place Potential Think Piece Series: Should we build less and reuse more? #3

It seems crazy to be writing a blog about whether or not it’s better to build or re-use our existing buildings. Clearly we should re-use, retrofit where necessary or re-purpose our buildings, NOT can be very sustainable.

The obvious questions we should be asking ourselves is “WHY don’t we re-use our existing buildings?”

Humans; are we all one big happy family? Or individuals looking out for ourselves? For various reasons; economy, governments, religion, society has drifted further away from actively caring about each other and our environment. We have become passive.

We may have lived collectively and dependently in the past, encouraging us to empathise more and take action to help each other and care for the environment that provides for us. We also may have been motivated to higher aims, striving for beauty and quality to reflect our gratitude, love and spirituality. In a time where economy rules the roost, empathy takes a back seat and the desire to create good quality, beautiful buildings is lost in favour of value engineering and poor quality design. Resulting in cheap, unthoughtful buildings that reflect the intent behind them.

Over the last century we have become numb to the failings of local government and developers as our buildings have been systematically streamlined to the bare bones of adequate shelter.

Even so, why would we rather re-build than re-use? In most cases I believe we have no respect or attachment to the spaces we have little choice to live in. For most of us they are poor quality, unhealthy, ugly buildings stripped of all things good and we know it. So perhaps there’s a little sparkle of pleasure in pulling down these buildings that are an affront to our sense of worth and beauty.

© Colin Brough

© Colin Brough

We may be fickle, but humans also have an amazing ability to hope. In re-building we hope to do a better job and make a more beautiful and high quality building. In reality this hope is commonly also value engineered out. We’re so used to getting the bare minimum, that because we expect less, we get less. High ideals come at a price and all those extra pounds add up. What’s the point of spending more or waiting until next year if most houses all look the same anyway?

Depressing stuff, but it’s not all doom and gloom! I think the tide is turning, we come into contact with more and more self-builders, co-housing projects and retro-fitters now. If money is the main driver for local government and developers then I think they too are realising there is an added economic value to quality and beauty in a buildings, especially social housing and lower to middle income households where financial constraints often mean a poor quality living environment.

© The Cave Co-operative

© The Cave Co-operative

When communities lost control of building their own homes and work spaces and became dependent on government and developers we inadvertently gave over our power as a people collective and our commonality, and with that buildings have lost their purpose, creativity and their joy.

Put people and communities back into the design and building process and the environment in which we live and work will reflect the quality and beauty we all expect. Then we might only build new buildings when we’ve run out of old ones.

Liz Crisp is a co-founder of The Cave Co-operative and a Glass-House Enabler.

Should we build less and reuse more? – The Glass-House Bristol Debate in partnership with The Academy of Urbanism takes place on Wednesday 5 February.