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Outrage: greenwashing risks giving dirt a filthy name

‘Eco’ buildings that are, in fact, anything but, are architectural trickery at its most cynical 

Narbonne fosters architectural review

Narbonne fosters architectural review

Source: Nigel Young / Foster + Partners 

The ‘rammed-earth’ walls of the Musée Régional de la Narbonne Antique, France, have been constructed with only slightly less cement than concrete, resulting in this building being something of an illusion. Increasingly, the call for ecological construction is answered with responses that, in reality, are far from environmentally friendly

In 1825, German lawyer Wilhelm Wimpf began construction on one of the tallest rammed-earth buildings in the world. Entirely self-taught, he completed the seven-storey house in Weilburg three years later, and it is still in use today. The book he published chronicling the project was titled Complete Instructions to Build Extremely Cheap, Permanent, Warm and Fireproof Apartments from Rammed Earth. Soil was, for Wimpf, the material of the future. 

Nearly 200 years later and soil is still stuck in the future; contemporary Western architecture is only now getting to grips with earth-based buildings. The strengths of earth construction are the same for us as for Wimpf: low pollution, high thermal mass, good load-bearing capability and locally abundant. Yet confusion, rotten practice and greenwashing now risk dirt getting a filthy name. Will the mud stick?

‘The complexity of climate change is enabling greenwashers to sneak through destructive practices dressed as climate activism’

The huge ochre walls of the Musée Régional de la Narbonne Antique in France by Foster + Partners, which will be completed later this year, appear to be rammed earth but are in fact SIREWALL, a steel-reinforced earth composite with barely less cement than concrete. Architects may specify this material in part to project a facade of environmental stewardship onto the walls of their building, when under the surface all is not as it seems. Compacted soil is a beautiful material, its striations echoing the strata of the Earth’s crust, but depending on how you use it, it can harm, as well as evoke, the planet. 

There is no need to build rammed earth with cement. Wilheim Wimpf didn’t in the 1800s and Herzog & de Meuron used a zero cement mix in their 2014 rammed-earth herb processing facility in Switzerland. Some designers, however, are choosing the humble aesthetic of earth, and its ecological connotations, but without the sincerity to follow through those values on the construction site. Rowland Keable UNESCO Chair of Earthen Architecture sees a trend of architects specifying ‘stabilised rammed earth’ as a supposedly eco alternative to concrete but, as he points out, ‘stabilised rammed earth is really dry pack concrete’.

The representational value of certain eco-architectural tropes has become more coveted than the environmental accomplishments they signal. Hobbit-hole chic is an aesthetic that is, occasionally, more fashion than construction strategy. Passivhaus – once a sensible building standard for low operational loads – now risks swelling to an almost cult-like club, its acolytes committed to defending the standard even as the, at times, dogmatic focus on operational emissions dwindles in relevance against the more wicked problem of embodied carbon.

Greenwashing has become the background noise of faux ethical consumerism. It rose to new and literal heights in 2010 with London’s Strata SE1 tower. ‘I was sitting next to the architect. He was sketching away and just drew this huge sort of turbine at the top of the building’, recalled Chris Playle, director of WSP and lead engineer on the building designed by Hamiltons Architects. ‘Without any analysis or anything like that I just nodded, “I’m sure we can make that work”.’ But the three 9-metre turbines that top the 43-storey building don’t work. Although set to produce 8 per cent of the tower’s electricity, a decade on their 15 steel fins are motionless, an eco-bling tiara on an edifice of hubris.

‘The battle to look green is being fought more vigorously than the battle to be green’

The term ‘greenwashing’ was coined in the ’80s to call out hoteliers who would implore their customers to ‘save the environment’ by reusing towels, while doing nothing substantive to address their own polluting practices. The danger in urban practice is that the difference between effective and spurious ecological design is hard to spot. Even experts operating in entirely good faith can struggle to identify the difference between a truly sustainable building and one that contributes more than its carbon budget to climate breakdown. 

Seeing through specious gestures like living walls and tower-top wind turbines is getting easier. Knowing the difference between good climate investments (such as retrofitting insulation) and bad ones (like tearing out double glazing to put in triple) is, however, harder. Most of all, the struggle against greenwashing is about aesthetics. The battle to look green is being fought more vigorously than the battle to be green. The same conservation officer clutching a KeepCup and insisting on paper straws for their Bloody Mary over bottomless brunch on Sunday will, on Monday, demand carbon-heavy brick cladding and more car-parking spaces. The real tragedy of greenwashing is that we’ve internalised its logic to the point that corporations no longer need to encourage us to make meaningless gestures that lull us into thinking we’ve done our bit – we’re doing it all by ourselves.

When immobile wind turbines and fake rammed earth are part of elaborate games of eco-architectural trickery, something has gone seriously wrong. The complexity of climate change is enabling greenwashers to sneak through destructive practices dressed as climate activism. In 1838, Wimpf opened his book by remarking, ‘There are things in the world so simple and intuitive that one cannot understand how 20-30 years are required before they are put to work in the real world’. Two centuries on, we owe him an answer.

This piece is featured in the AR February 2020 issue on Soil – click here to buy your copy today. 

In print, Strata SE1 was incorrectly credited to Flanagan Lawrence instead of Hamiltons Architects.