Are boring buildings destroying the planet?
A Message from our Head of Content:
Are boring buildings destroying the planet? This is a question I have been pondering a lot over the last couple of weeks. On first reading, it sounds a bit flippant. Especially in the context of a task so colossal as the decarbonisation of the built world. But the more I pondered, the more I began to realise that there is something in it. A debate to be had at the very least.
It all stems from an interview I did last month with Thomas Heatherwick. Back in October, the designer behind structures including the Vessel in New York, the UK Pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai Expo and the 2012 Olympic Cauldron launched a blistering attack on “boring” buildings.
Through his book Humanise, part of a wider campaign of the same name, he has warned that we are in the midst of a “global blandemic”. That vast swathes of the buildings around us are so dull and uninspiring; they make us depressed.
While Heatherwick’s campaign - or certainly the strength of his language behind it - has raised some eyebrows, it does also raise some really important questions. The future of the built world is in a state of flux; not just in terms of its impact on our planet but also in relation to how people utilise, and interact with, spaces post-pandemic. Heatherwick believes that his attack on “boring buildings” is more than a quirky subargument in both of these much wider conversations. Rather it is the crux.
Boring buildings play a huge role in contributing to the climate crisis, he says, because no one is invested enough in their future. “They get demolished and replaced, and demolished and replaced, over and over again because nobody cares about them,” he says. “And that generates extraordinary waste and massive carbon emissions. It’s construction’s dirty little secret.”
It’s a fair point, although certainly not the only stance on this topic. Who can forget Gensler’s Juliette Morgan’s keynote speech at CREtech Climate in Copenhagen back in 2022? She argued that, in a world where many want buildings to look as aesthetically pleasing as possible, leaving an ugly facade in place in the name of the planet is something we need to be seeing much, much more of if we stand any chance of tackling the climate crisis.
While Heatherwick would argue that he isn’t advocating for beauty but “against total rubbishness”, there remains a debate to be had around whether - and at what point - we as humankind will learn to/have to live with (and indeed in) with what we have got - whether we care about it or not. Answers on a postcard for that one please!
Then there is the other angle to the sustainability discussion. How much longevity do boring buildings have when it comes to people? If humans stop using them well, then their value intrinsically drops. We have, of course, seen this happen first hand, world-wide as a result of the pandemic. Now as cities like London and more recently New York are seeing office occupancy levels finally on the rise, there is one big trend - or caveat depending on how you look at it - staring everyone in the face. People want to come back to decent space.
Does decent necessarily mean “not boring”? I don’t know the answer to that but surely it can’t help? Occupiers, tenants, employees; everyone is after varying degrees of - and let’s use Heatherwick’s words here - not rubbish. That could mean amenities, that could mean top-level tech, that could mean amazing tenant experience - just check out our HQO webinar linked below for more on that. But whatever the draw, there is no getting away from the fact that flight-to-quality is a real phenomenon. Occupier requirements have never been more discerning or demanding and, in many cases, it will be down to the real estate and tech sectors to put their heads together to deliver the goods.
Head of Content