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Coque Claret and Dani Calatayud have been working and researching together for the last 15 years. As architects and lecturers at the Vallés Higher Technical School of Architecture (ETSAV), their extensive trajectory is based on their conception of architecture as a means of creating spaces that are more energy-efficient, less contaminating and hence healthier for the humans who inhabit them. They talked about all these concepts with great enthusiasm during our interview.

– The start-up of the first ‘superblock’ in Barcelona has sparked off intensive public debate. What is your involvement in this project?

Coque Claret: Salvador Rueda, the director of Barcelona’s Urban Ecology Agency, started talking about superblocks some 30 years ago but it is only now that anyone has shown the determination to see whether it could actually work or not. At the same time, other lecturers at ETSAV and other educational centres formed the Confederation of Architectural Workshops with the basic aim of getting things underway. In the first one, ‘Combating the Cold’, in relation to energy poverty, 200 students were tasked with building a refuge in one week to tackle energy poverty. The experience formed part of the ‘Pilot Apartment’ exhibition at the Barcelona Centre of Contemporary Culture (CCCB). We have also collaborated recently with the International University of Catalonia (UIC) and Salvador Rueda to set up a trial superblock which has sparked off what we believe is a very interesting debate.

It involves testing out a very economic urban planning model which could radically change the city, especially in terms of the atmosphere and the nature of this space. There are still a lot of question marks because the city is a complex place with lots of antagonistic ideas. It’s a bit like a scientific experiment. The project puts all the issues on the table and hence gives rise to discussions and debate. It was done over a week with 200 students assembling everything, some of which proved very popular with the general public and others not quite so popular. Some things appear wonderful in the eyes of a child but are terrible for ambulances or buses, for example. The worst thing about superblocks is that they were a concept almost 30 years ago that almost nobody talked about, but now they are the topic of mass debate. Obviously the end result of the superblocks won’t be what we’re seeing in the current experiment, but this is the start of a process to transform the city in a reasonable way and make the most of all the potential of Barcelona’s public spaces if we can radically rationalise the circulation of traffic with internal combustion engines.

Public health is an added motivation for implementing this process, something that has really come to the fore in recent years. This is a key factor. The unhealthiest air in Europe is in the Eixample district of Barcelona. Our model of a compact, sustainable city has the worst air on the continent and also the highest number of deaths from illnesses associated with breathing this air. This can’t go on. We can’t possibly be the most sustainable and at the same time the unhealthiest of cities. This is the main driving force for change exemplified by the superblocks: not so much a sustainable city but a healthy city where people can live. Anyone can understand that.

Dani Calatayud: In terms of the carbon footprint it’s an improvement, but not a great improvement. Perhaps the definitive reasoning lies in the increase in suspended particles smaller than 2.5 microns (PM 2.5), a large proportion of which come from the emissions of diesel engines and have a dire effect on our health. What is surprising is the absence of these incontrovertible and hugely important arguments in our media.

C.C. Some of Europe’s major cities are already working along these lines: Amsterdam, London, Paris… We’re not inventing the wheel. It’s about seeing how this idea can be adapted to our own urban model. The superblocks have tremendous potential for systemisation and above all they are very economic to set up. With four signals and four pots of paint you can completely change traffic mobility and reduce the flow of cars in the rest of the city as a knock-on effect. There are going to be a lot of obstacles, but nobody can maintain that it’s healthy to live in a city where 80% of the cars have diesel engines – it’s incredibly dangerous.

– So a sustainable and healthy city model means giving up cars?

D.C. Let’s not kid ourselves, the number one problem facing sustainability is climate change, which entails an immediate reduction in emissions by the United States by 75% and Europe by 50%. This entails reducing emissions in the construction sector by 90%, including the stock that’s already built, which represents 22 million buildings in Spain. Of all the actions undertaken, the ones with the most delays are those that affect cars, road and freight transport, and aviation. We’ve become accustomed to the argument that people living in a compact city have a much smaller mobility footprint. But it’s not true – the mobility footprint depends on income. Higher income families travel much further distances by plane while low income families do not, for example. As it’s not accounted for properly, people say that compact cities are sustainable, but it’s rather more complicated than that. Some residents of compact cities have a very low mobility footprint, but others have a huge one, visiting their second homes and travelling 40,000 miles a year by plane, for example.

C.C. And it’s not just about moving around. What about the food they eat, their clothes, manufactured products of all kinds? The city can’t be sustainable because it is a giant energy condenser. The hinterland that a city generates and needs is much bigger than its actual municipal area.

D.C. It’s forty or fifty times bigger. Barcelona would need four whole Catalonias to absorb its emissions.

C.C. We can make our cities healthier through different actions, but sustainability is about the consumer decisions we make.

– Are the efforts of the construction industry to reduce its impact achieving any results?

C.C. Not in Spain, no, because virtually nothing has been done. It is only the economic crisis that has helped to reduce our carbon footprint. The crisis has forced us to reduce consumption and has decarbonised things in the last few years, but it’s nothing to do with policy. Countries like Denmark and Germany have been implementing these policies for years and the situation is starting to stabilise. It is a scandal, for example, that the average use of heating by a Spanish household is higher than in Germany. How is this possible? Because they have much more efficient buildings over there. How is this possible? Because they make laws and they abide by them, and they ensure that people comply with them.

D.C. There are two major strategies. On the one hand, some countries have committed to undertaking fewer actions but very intensive ones, like Germany and the Nordic nations, where they have established that new buildings must be passive (the 2050 standard). Others have gone for a more far-reaching strategy to improve existing buildings. This is the case in the UK, where perhaps they may not have as many passive buildings, but their efficiency standard with a good certification system has enabled them to improve the overall classification of their existing buildings.

C.C. The budgets these countries set aside for these polices are often ten times higher than in Spain. There are other influential factors here as well, such as the energy generation infrastructure, political decisions and so forth. How can it be possible that the country with the most hours of sunshine in Europe does not have the highest solar power production in the continent? You can draw your own conclusions.

– Has the crisis, which has been especially deeply felt by the construction sector, served to highlight these new needs so that a sector with different priorities can be developed?

C.C. Building has resumed, but it’s being done in the same way as it was ten years ago. People have not taken on board the opportunity, and the only option, which is decarbonising construction. Emerging from the crisis has just meant turning on the diggers again, not actually taking any action on existing properties and improving their efficiency. This has been tried out with building renovation plans, but they don’t work, and then I wonder who is interested in these buildings being inefficient.

D.C. By not building, the sector has managed to reduce its emissions. But in terms of energy efficiency, it’s not that we’ve improved efficiency, just that we’re using less. There is more energy poverty. Consequently, there is a latent inefficiency which I believe will bounce back, because we have not taken any action to intervene in the major carbon drivers – i.e. the passive behaviour of buildings and the construction system.

C.C. Then you start studying life cycles and you see that building with wood has nothing in common with building with concrete, for example. It’s not a problem of contentiousness, it’s a scientific fact. The longer we take to accept this, the bigger the problem is going to get.

Although the crisis has been a force for decarbonisation, we have also lost comfort in housing along the way by increasing the price of energy and freezing people’s salaries. We have saved on emissions, but we have increased the health care cost while people are living in worse conditions today than they did a few years ago. In economic terms this is a serious problem. We need to take preventive action and this is only possible by tackling existing buildings and managing them properly; this is the other major course of action. The problem is that nobody has the slightest idea of how housing works, sometimes not even the architects themselves. We try to be efficient without knowing how to.

– Does this mean that there is a serious lack of training?

C.C. Yes, but at the same time it offers a great opportunity. It is essential to be aware of this huge problem in order to tackle it. However, we look at all these problems separately: energy poverty, public health, building efficiency… We need to take an overall view.

D.C. There is not a single country in the world where the carbon footprint has got smaller. It’s something very difficult to achieve, though countries like Germany, Denmark and Norway have made serious efforts to contain it. Our planet is inhabited by cities which are places that consume 80% of the whole planet’s energy. Changing this trend would take a century.

C.C. To do so, it is essential to get people to understand a very complex problem. From a theoretical standpoint I don’t think it’s possible, but when it comes to health, it is. Building systems, materials and energy efficiency are all closely related to people’s health and quality of life. This also applies to the superblocks; people will understand their purpose when they realise the air is much healthier. This is not an ideological cause; we are talking about proven, devastating data.

D.C. The evolution of the price of energy in Spain has no comparison with the rest of Europe; we have gone from the twelfth or thirteenth position on the ranking to second in terms of the price per package of 1,000 kW. This fact, along with the profound economic crisis, has really hit part of our society very hard. We cannot underestimate this fact. Meanwhile, electricity is not yet expensive enough to incentivize energy efficiency habits in around 60% of the population. It is punitive for the other 40%, but the problem is that people don’t know what to do to rationalise their consumption. Consequently we’re facing the need to counter a lot of obstacles with the right education.

– Health-related aspects are the cornerstone of the European RELS project in which you’ve participated. What is its objective?

C.C. It’s about generating a methodology for intervention in social housing. The most underprivileged people live in social housing and this is the most efficient group in terms of energy use, often at the cost of their health. The goal is to see how we should act, what we need to do to achieve protected housing with a low energy demand whose users are aware of their role when it comes to managing them. The project has given us the opportunity to work on two pilot schemes and in one of them, in Taradell, the people have learned how to use their homes properly, reducing consumption and at the same time increasing their comfort levels. The success of this European project has been demonstrating that this is possible. Now, the next question is how can we extend this to housing as a whole? It needs political will to generate a cluster of all the parties involved in an integrated way. We can’t resolve the problem by tackling it through isolated actions. The project divides energy demand into four elements, one of which is based on income, how high it goes, and what proportion of it people are prepared to spend on their comfort. Based on this, it is possible to better adjust interventions in buildings, avoiding aberrations such as paying more for electricity than on the rent itself.

D.C. This study might also conclude that there is a need to change climate control systems in housing to make them affordable for users. We’ve found that 100% of houses were using some form of alternative heating. In the United Kingdom, people aged over 65 cannot sleep at a temperature of less than 18ºC as this is highly risky for their health. In Taradell, a similar regulation would mean evacuating the building. They now know that the average temperature in buildings will be 20.2%. We are facing a public health problem, which of course costs money. There are examples of integrated research, such as a compendium of 5,000 cases worldwide of post-housing renovation, which shows that mental illnesses associated with energy poverty dropped from 30% to 15%, respiratory diseases from 15% to 7%, and cardiovascular disease from 14% to 6%.

C.C. The problem is that inefficiency and insalubriousness in the home kill by tiny increments, while cancer or a cardiovascular disease are lethal and generate immediate social alarm. The sector believes that its mission is to construct buildings and this is wrong. What we build is liveability. We have focused too much on walls and overlooked the air, the liveability factor. Just providing shelter is not enough. Certain comfort parameters are essential to achieve reasonable liveability. At the same time, the impact of users on a building’s performance is massive.

– Where does the Smart City concept fit into this scenario?

C.C. Perhaps it answers the eternal promise of technology to save the human race from any contingency. The fact is that, historically, every major technological advance has entailed an increase in energy intensity. Will we be capable, in the 21st century, of taking a technological leap by reducing energy intensity? If so, it would be the first time in the history of humanity. For many devices of this kind, income is still the differentiating factor. It is obvious that the Smart City concept has some fantastic things about it, but I don’t believe it makes us more aware of reality.

D.C. We are technicians and scientists and of course we have to resort to science and technology to improve the management of resources, but we’re also very keen on reading articles by sociologists and economists. At the end of the day, we need sociological validation; this is about people’s consumer decisions. Technology is obviously helping us, but the enemy is very powerful.

C.C. We have a certain prejudice against the blind faith that technology will save us from everything, but it has always helped us.

– To sum up, you’re saying that healthier and more efficient buildings would involve a huge amount of consumer decisions and technological resources?

C.C. From a strictly architectural viewpoint, it’s about seeing when we can start integrating the true costs of our actions. Will we be capable of seeing through a project with no hidden loopholes? This is the challenge of the 21st century in every sphere. I still remember, 30 years ago, a conference at the COAC by Italian architect Enzio Manzini who said that by 2050 humans in the Western world would be moving around 90% less because otherwise they would not be able to exist. I didn’t understand him then and it took a long time before I did. Resources are limited and the model is expansive, so there is an obvious conflict.

D.C. Reducing the diet and type of energy we feed humanity is inexorable. For 200 years we have been living on the bodies of carbon fossils that died 115 million years ago, but the balance on this particular credit card is running out. We need a century to turn things around, but this is the only way open to us.

C.C. This is why it is such an exciting challenge, and that’s what we’re working towards. At Construmat a few years ago, a Dutch environmental lecturer explained his experience of living for one year according to his environmental footprint, 1.8 hectares. He said that by the end he was much more aware of the energy needed to produce a specific activity, such as light to correct exam papers. Today we believe we’re all connected yet we have no idea about how things work. We need to find a reconnection between the systems that work, such as the sun, with the only machines that metabolise it – plants. This is inevitable. And this reconnection requires a degree of literacy that needs to come from every level of society. I think it is just beginning to start, and the first thing is to get our health back. It doesn’t make any sense to live a long life if you can’t live well.

– And in this process of reconnection, what role should architects play?

C.C. More and more now, I’m seeing architects not as professionals capable of coming up with solutions but rather as catalysts of processes, as the seed of collective or individual experiences that facilitate change, at least in the urban environment. We try to get our students to have a real-life experience of what we’ve been talking about today. Less theory and more practice. I know we’ll make mistakes, but that’s OK. This calls for courage and taking a stand against a way of viewing society that is rooted more and more in the quest for certainties and safety nets. I’m sorry, but life is uncertain by its very nature. We need to be brave, to realise that we need to cope with these challenges and make the most of every moment. If we don’t experiment, however, we’ll never find any answers. I believe that architects have a certain capacity for a more cross-cutting approach than other disciplines, which allows us to process different inputs in terms of urban planning. That’s why we can be useful. If we just sit back and bask in the aura of generating objects with a high media profile, we’re lost.

D.C. At times of expansion, architecture and urban planning are focused on urban growth, making cities grow and gaining more square metres. The economists tell us that we’re only present at the beginning of the value chain, adding new square metres of occupied space, but we need to be present across the whole chain, including the life cycle and recycling of what has already been built. In other words, we should look after the management of what we have built. We can do this so much better as we have the necessary skills. If we’re the ones who designed the first part of the value chain, why not look after the second part? This is unfamiliar territory that we need to explore more deeply.