Ideas to Remember

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Published on: August 16, 2014

It strikes me that the terms of reference for the CERA earthquake memorial project almost entirely miss the point.

Why are we limiting proposals to the location selected?

The riverside site represents a number of quite profound social and architectural deficiencies and lost opportunities for any disaster memorial of international stature.

The worst is that the result will be tidied safely away from the psychic ‘epicentre’ of the event, and away from day to day street life. Very much robbed of any visceral power it might otherwise have if integrated into the urban fabric of the new CBD.

Hiroshima while rebuilding managed to preserve a poignant ruin of a whole building in the middle of what was left of their city, and Pompeii, by preserving many entire streets of buildings has huge resonance for visitors today.


Why would the organisers of this event conclude that for a memorial installation commemorating the earthquakes that effectively obliterated our city, with the profound rift and disconnect between our past and future built environments that this loss represents, that it would be inappropriate to preserve at least some of the ruined fabric from the old CBD? Would this really be too confronting or difficult for the people of Christchurch to achieve?

Why can we not preserve even a whole streetscape in it’s ruined state – for example the remaining portion of High Street (for which redevelopment is not likely soon anyway)? This would bring home the raw impact of the event to our descendants and visitors in a way that no secluded memorial sculpture can capture, and will represent a significant and dramatic tourist attraction to offset the draw of the heritage fabric we have lost.
This part of town, in its ruined state, now possesses extraordinary architectural richness, power and value – a state we are never likely to recapture deliberately.
We have urban fabric here with hard earned ‘patina’ that would otherwise take perhaps a thousand years of hard living to replicate. How is it that for such a young country we do not see the value and importance of this resource?

Beyond preserving this street scape, surely we should be endeavouring to capture and preserve ruined walls, foundations and other artifacts right around the CBD, and integrating these into our new built fabric in any number of ways? Expanses of ruptured and buckled paving left as is; small alleyways between shattered brick walls embedded in modern concrete as a retreat from the day to day hubbub of 22nd century street life , perhaps leading past some poignant spot (perhaps with poetry); Old foundations visible through the surface of new paved plazas; ruined columns framing small green spaces where office workers can eat their lunches; old damaged facades facing new buildings …

Perhaps a sense of overwhelm is behind the current desire to sanitize, and why we are so apparently unconcerned with preserving visceral traces of the event? Or is it just oblivious insensitivity to the extraordinary yet rapidly vanishing resource and opportunity we now have?

The desire expressed by many to ‘move on’ from disaster is restricted to the current generation only – our children and their descendants will very much regret the loss of this tangible and rich patina that could otherwise enliven and inform their built environment.

Paul King Architect | Christchurch | New Zealand | (03) 383 4592 |

Christchurch Cathedral Rebuilding

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Published on: March 16, 2013
Cathedral Render
An updated rendering, December 2013, with able assistance from Sam Fastier & Bernard Farrant


In May 2012, and again in December 2013, I had the privilege of working once more with Sir Miles Warren (I was an employee of his at Warren & Mahoney in the 90’s), and we prepared a model & some images to illustrate his proposed very low cost ($18m) strategy for reinstating the cathedral.

In essence, the original masonry base would be salvaged & made safe to a height of a few meters, while everything above this would be rebuilt in lightweight & earthquake resilient timber, adopting a contemporary implementation of Gothic principles (expression of load paths, verticality etc.), and honouring something of the original architect George Gilbert Scott’s intention, who had actually designed the cathedral in timber, not stone – for fear of earthquakes! (sadly he was overruled when the project was subsequently taken over by Benjamin Mountfort).

Cathedral cutaway
Cathedral cutaway

With Sir Miles’ approach we sit quite unashamedly between the strong desire of many for the comfort of complete and verbatim reinstatement of the original building, and the equally strong desire of others to do something a little more intellectually challenging with the site that acknowledges our own time and place in history – such as the idea championed (claimed?) by mayor Bob Parker for a variation on Norway’s Hedmark Museum, where the original building is retained as ruins encased within a contemporary glass shell.

Of course there is almost no money to do either of those, and amid all the politics and legal squabbling, the Anglican church faces the dilemma of dwindling congregations (and incomes) who have different priorities and practices than those of the Victorian settlers who built the original cathedral, and a pressing need to address the many other damaged and underinsured churches throughout the region that must also compete for funding.

So it may be that while our approach pleases few completely, it takes something from the aspirations of most parties, and of all the proposals put forward to date, it does offer the outstanding benefit of being feasible.

Cathedral transcept looking up
Cathedral transcept looking up

Paul King Architect | Christchurch | New Zealand | (03) 383 4592 |

Christchurch ratepayers forced to fund obstruction of own building projects?

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Published on: December 23, 2011

Be warned, this article is something of a personal rant.

I was advised by the Christchurch City Council recently that the processing of a Building Consent application I had lodged for a client could not proceed, because I had filled in a downloaded application form obtained from them in August 2011, when I should have been using an updated version of the same, changed in November 2011.

The form had been slightly rearranged to accommodate a single new tick box item, asking whether the job was earthquake repair related.

Neither the fact that I was able to immediately inform the processing officer concerned that “no, this job is not earthquake related”, nor the fact that the drawings & specification in front of her clearly did not refer to any earthquake remedial work, nor the fact that she was otherwise staring right at all the pertinent application information, on the original form, seemed to be of significance.

She was unimpressed by the sense of injustice I expressed at the lack of any expiry date or warning about checking for updates on the original form, or indeed on the Council’s own download web page for the form.

She could not, when pressed, identify any flaw with the information provided, or any tangible benefit to council or the client in my resubmitting the same information on an updated form, but it seems they are ‘Quality Management Accredited’, and they get Audited you see….

Rather than manually adding a quick note to the file, and telling me to use the new form next time and otherwise just getting on with it, it seems Council would remain paralysed with the uncertainty of it all, refusing to process any further – unless I (between expletives) downloaded the new form, filled it out again from scratch, saved it as a new PDF file, messed around yet again digitally inserting the required ‘hand written’ signature, re-imported the other required supporting documents, set up council’s required PDF bookmarks, logged on to the council portal and uploaded the replacement.

To tell them what they already knew.

Not only was a chunk of (un-billable) time & effort involved for my part, cost was added to the client’s processing fee at Council’s own breath-taking hourly rate.

Yes, rather a trivial example,  probably petty of me to mention it … but with a city in ruins to deal with, does it not beggar belief that this sort of approach is still flourishing in council?

How is it that council employees could still feel, in the midst of a crisis that threatens the very viability of Christchurch as a city, that their own internal policies and systems somehow come before the objectives of the population they are hired to serve?  Should they not be falling all over themselves to stay out of the way of the fragile beginnings of recovery?

No matter how kind a face you put on it, Council apparently remain blithely internal in their focus,  comfortable in imposing compulsory delays and costs on the public, that benefit absolutely no one but the writers of arbitrary policy directives.

Because they can.

My recent Christchurch experience of course is only one small example of the mindless obstruction generated by Council employees across the country – who are all no doubt ‘just following orders’ as they zealously implement their various tick-box systems. Every Architect has their share of war stories – cases for example where months of drawing work have been rejected for using the ‘wrong’ font or page size …  One case I heard recently was where the poor client was hit with a $120,000 bill for processing a Resource Consent application on a completely innocuous $20,000 alteration.

Sooner or later, shouldn’t the performance of our officials and systems be evaluated? Not against internally devised boxes ticked, procedures followed, and policies adhered to, but against the objective value they add for the property owners who pay their wages?


Paul King Architect | Christchurch | New Zealand | (03) 383 4592 |

Architects agree on the way forward for Christchurch Rebuild

As an urgent public service response to Christchurch’s recent devastating earthquakes, a good number of Christchurch’s Architects who feel passionately about the city, including some of its most respected and experienced practitioners, have for some months been volunteering their time to consider and work on strategies and ideas for the reconstruction of the central city.

With the input of other invited professionals and stakeholders of high standing, the working group identified that the future viability of Christchurch as a major cultural and economic hub is genuinely at risk and that new and bold planning initiatives are required to address this crisis.

As a first response, we undertook a number of design case studies using some key under performing sites across the city to generate ideas addressing the character and planning of the precincts they occupy. A computer model of the entire CBD incorporating these was generated.

Our intention is to share these preliminary outcomes with the public as well as with Council, but we acknowledge that much more remains to be done and considered before we can reach anything like a complete or coherent design solution for the rebuilding of Christchurch.

Even so, strong consensus as to the way forward was evident amongst all participants in the group, and from a very early stage. Twelve key strategic recommendations have emerged (see NZIA submission for details).

As Architects, we hope that Council will come to recognize that the profession does indeed have the expertise to share this urgent task of re-planning the city, and that it will engage directly with us, acknowledging a substantial on-going role for Christchurch’s Architects in all strategic planning processes and decision making, before it is too late to matter.

With the willingness of Council and other stakeholders to act boldly and to collaborate deeply on a design led process with the very profession that built the city and understands it so well, we conclude that Christchurch can transcend this crisis, and that we can all look forward to a very exciting future indeed.

The full submission is available here: NZIA-CANTERBURY-Recommendations-for-a-Design-Led-Reconstruction-of-the-Christchurch-City-Centre

Below are some of the images that emerged from this preliminary design exploration process

Your comments welcome!

Paul King Architect | Christchurch | New Zealand | (03) 383 4592 |

Christchurch ’48 Hours’ Competition

Christchurch Architects were put to the challenge recently, with a design competition to address the earthquake ravaged city centre.

Starting at midday on 1st July 2011 and finishing an exhausting but exhilarating 48 hours later, 15 teams comprising over a hundred Architects, architectural designers, landscape architects, urban designers, engineers and students gathered together at Lincoln University to compete in the 48 Hour Design Challenge. Teams were assigned one of five earthquake damaged sites within Christchurch’s central city, and tasked to propose innovative Architecture that would address the reconstruction opportunities presented by each site, as well as wider economic, environmental and social themes.

There were four sites within the Red Zone: Cathedral Square and BNZ Building; 160 Gloucester Street; the Orion NZ Building at 203 Gloucester Street; and 90 Armagh Street, including the Avon River and Victoria Square. The fifth site, which sits outside the Red Zone, is the former Christchurch Women’s Hospital at 885 Colombo Street.

The supreme award was allocated to the designers of a scheme for the 15000m² Orion site, situated near the Avon River in central Christchurch.

The winning solution proposed salvaging the structure of an existing car parking building to create a new and exciting mixture of retail and office spaces, affordable housing, a covered market and an innovative community space in the form of a 30 meter timber lattice framed floating ‘drum’. The design created a landscaped public square with pedestrian links to Latimer Square and the river, acknowledging multiple layers of connection with time & place, weaving in memories of earlier waterways, wells and flora, and the indigenous pre European occupation and food gathering activity associated with the Avon.

The winning team, named after its sponsor ‘NZ Wood’ consisted of:

Jason Guiver, team coordinator & sponsor, NZ Wood Timber Design Advisory Centre
Paul King, Architect and 3D visualiser, Architecture Prime Ltd
Jasper van der Lingen, Architect, Sheppard + Rout Architects Ltd
Di Lucas, Land scape Architect, Lucas Associates
Dr Jackie Bowring, Professor of Urban and landscape design, Lincoln University
Chris Speed, Structural Engineer, Dunning Thornton Ltd
Ben Carter, Civil Engineering Student, University of Canterbury

“Though there is only so much that can be accomplished in 48 hours, this outcome vindicates a strongly design led collaborative approach rather than a planning rule driven approach to rebuilding our city, and shows what can happen when Architects are actually allowed to do their job” said Paul King, one of the winning Architects.

More coverage on the competition can be found here:
in this 3 News video clip.

Images by Paul King, Architecture Prime Ltd

Paul King Architect | Christchurch | New Zealand | (03) 383 4592 |

Auckland Waterfront Competition

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Published on: April 17, 2011

Just found some work we did in a joint submission with some landscapers for the Queen’s Wharf architectural competition in 2009. Our scheme disappeared without a trace of course (the first clue that something was going badly wrong!) and as it turned out the entire competition was a shambles – millions were spent by hundreds of Architects and other designers researching & preparing submissions, and not even the winning scheme went ahead.

The concept involved some undulating green walled (as in covered with live vegetation) pavilions forming a variety of spaces for people involved in the activity, or just watching the world go by. A “fishing net” installation at the end reaches out into the sea, perhaps to rescue hapless revellers overcome with world cup spirits…

Paul King Architect | Christchurch | New Zealand | (03) 383 4592 |

Lab results: Designing Stimulating Environments May Save Lives

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Published on: March 29, 2011

Alla Katsnelson

Sarah Salmela / iStockphoto

Stress has acquired a bad image as a contributor to disease, but a little stress may be no bad thing.

Mice raised in a complex environment providing social interactions, opportunities to learn and increased physical activity are less likely to get cancer, and better at fighting it when they do, a new study suggests. A mild boost in stress hormones seems to be what keeps the cancer at bay by switching on a molecular pathway that restrains tumour growth.

Researchers from the United States and New Zealand injected mice with melanoma cells — the deadliest form of skin cancer. After six weeks, mice raised in an enriched environment — extra-large cages housing 20 individuals with running wheels and other toys — had tumours that were almost 80% smaller than those in mice raised in standard housing — five animals to a cage with no additional stimulation. Whereas all the normally housed mice developed tumours, 17% of the mice from the enriched environment developed no tumours at all. Tests in mice with colon cancer showed the same effect.

“We were very surprised by the degree of the reduction in cancer” in the mice raised under enriched housing conditions, says Matthew During, a neuroscientist at Ohio State University Medical Center in Columbus and a lead author on the study, to be published in Cell tomorrow1.

Unexpected effects

Researchers studying environmental enrichment have mostly focused on its positive effects on the brain, explains behavioural neuroscientist Abdul Mohammed at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, who was not involved in the work. “This study is pushing the field to show its effects on tumour growth.”

When During and his colleagues began the work in 2005, he himself had skin cancer, his mother was suffering from ovarian cancer, and a close friend had died of melanoma. “I was interested in the whole question of why the natural history of cancer differed so dramatically from one individual to the next,” he recalls.

The ‘enriched’ mice, the researchers found, had slightly raised levels of stress hormones, but the most striking physiological change was markedly reduced levels of the hormone leptin, known to regulate appetite. Blocking leptin abolished the effects of enrichment, suggesting that the hormone was key to the pathway that led to the anti-cancer effects.

Next, the team looked for changes in the hypothalamus, a brain region that regulates the body’s energy balance and links the nervous system with the endocrine system. They found that expression of a gene encoding the signaling protein BDNF increased dramatically after two weeks in mice living in enriched conditions. And simply overexpressing BDNF in the hypothalamus, the researchers found, mimicked the protective effects of enrichment, suggesting BDNF, too, was a critical regulator of the protective pathway.

Finally, the group found that the increase in BDNF was linked to the decrease in leptin levels in fat cells through the action of stress hormones. “What we’ve really shown here is that the brain, by switching off this pathway, is actually preventing a proliferative environment,” says During.

The health challenge

To make sure that the cancer protection was not simply due to the rodents’ increase in physical activity, the researchers looked for a reduction in cancer among mice housed with the addition of only a running wheel. Running on its own had no effect on tumour growth, and these mice experienced no gain in stress hormone or BDNF expression, nor a dip in leptin levels.

“This is a novel finding,” says John Hall, a physiologist at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson who studies obesity. “And I think it’s going to stimulate a lot of people to learn more about how enrichment can reduce tumour growth.”

Work by Hall’s group2 and others has begun to hint at leptin’s role in tumour growth. Hall notes, though, that his group’s study suggested that leptin had a relatively weak effect on tumour growth.During stresses that by enriching the rodents’ cage environment “it’s not that you’re just creating a happy place, you’re challenging them”. The protective effects of the stimulation that the test mice received could easily translate into human benefits, he says, and points to possible benefits of a more active lifestyle — not just physically, but also socially and cognitively.

The team is now working to determine which particular elements of the enriched environment are producing its positive effects, During says. They are also developing gene-therapy vectors for delivering BDNF to treat disease, and studying leptin more closely to determine how accurate a marker it is for cancer protection. “Could you then devise interventions, either physiologically or behaviourally,” says During, “and use leptin as a readout?”

  • References

    1. Cao, L. et al. Cell 142, 52-64 (2010). | ArticlePubMed
    2. Brandon, E.L. et al. Cancer Biol. Ther. 8, 1871-1879 (2009). | ArticlePubMedChemPort |

Paul King Architect | Christchurch | New Zealand | (03) 383 4592 |

Christchurch Earthquake 2011

Categories: Earthquake
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Published on: March 29, 2011

What more can I say?



Paul King Architect | Christchurch | New Zealand | (03) 383 4592 |

Leaky Building Syndrome, And How To Avoid It!

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Published on: March 28, 2011

Horror stories about poor construction standards in many new homes have dominated the news in recent years. Popularly known as “leaky-building- syndrome “, this phenomenon has sent shock waves through the New Zealand  building industry and shivers down the spines of many potential new home buyers. These events have brought into question the advisability of purchasing or building a new home at all.

Many prospective home buyers are left wondering —” is it worth the risk?” and, “if things go wrong, who’s to blame?”


Buildings around the world have always been subject to leaks as they age, sometimes because maintenance has been inadequate, and often during severe weather conditions. However, here in New Zealand and overseas there has been a significant increase in leak problems that can’t be explained this way.

Various groups have been blamed — builders, building materials manufacturers, city councils, the government, architects and other designers, and even homeowners themselves.   In reality, most problems have arisen due to a number of factors and cannot be attributed exclusively to one agent or authority.  If we are aware of these factors and take them into account during a new home’s design and construction, leaky-building-syndrome is entirely avoidable. As always, good professional design and advice ahead of time is the best insurance against potentially serious leak problems – now, and into the future.


How Leaky-Building-Syndrome happens

Geographical location
The vast majority of New Zealand “leaky building” problems have emerged in the north of the North Island – where high rainfall & high humidity have exposed problems that would not arise as quickly (or at all) elsewhere.  Local climactic conditions need to be factored into the design of homes built in any region, and while experienced designers and builders are able to properly achieve the standards required, it seems that an overheated property market in the North, particularly in the Auckland area, had fostered a “cowboy” culture in which builders, owners and developers have taken short cuts to build more quickly and cheaply in recent years.



Certain materials used in buildings are blamed more often than others. Particularly strong criticism has been made of the use of plaster on polystyrene wall linings in combination with untreated timber wall framing.  If this construction technique is employed, only the outer painted surface provides for weather tightness. This weakness is compounded by the fact that if water does get through the surface, there is no easy way for it to get out again, so it can remain locked in the interior of the wall.

As a result of prolonged exposure to dampness, untreated timber framing quickly develops mould and rots – often without any visible sign from the outside until it is too late.   Better construction techniques exist that ensures that water resistance is not just dependant on a layer of paint!, and that allow drainage back out of any water that does penetrate the surface as result of  extreme weather conditions.


Bad design details

All too often the quickest, easiest and lowest cost “standard” methods of construction in recent years have been the most leak prone. Over-reliance on sealants and poorly designed or installed window flashings are common faults, made worse on buildings without wide eaves to shelter the walls and windows from rain, or on complex buildings where there are more joints that can develop leaks.   Good techniques exist to prevent leaking on any building, but these can cost a little more to design and build properly and may not be well understood by some designers & builders.

Lack of ventilation

Older New Zealand houses have always leaked – often more than the new “leaky buildings” we hear about!

However, in order to save on heating bills, newer buildings are usually much better sealed against draughts.  Ironically, this means they can be less able to ventilate away any moisture that forms within walls and roof spaces and consequently, any trapped water is more likely to sit for long periods and cause rot and other damage.


Building Regulations

The New Zealand Building Code is “performance based”.  It is flexible enough to allow for the use of new technology and innovation within a framework of generalised safety and durability requirements. However, while the code does offer guidance for many specific situations, it cannot hope to cover all of the huge range of situations, and all of the construction materials and systems that are available in any detail – this is left to the skill and experience of the designer and builder selected.  The code also only sets minimum standards.   Builders and owners who opt to build just to the minimum standards required by law allow themselves less margin for error. Mistakes do happen and purely price-driven decisions frequently do result in problems for home-owners – and not just from leaks!


Lack of oversight by local authorities

The checking of building consent applications by local authorities provides only minimal protection for home-owners.  Under current legislation the owner bears final legal responsibility for meeting all building and planning regulations, or for engaging builders and designers as required to achieve this.  As a result, and for some years before the crisis emerged, domestic building consents were often granted based on fairly minimal architectural drawings and details submitted.

This is fine where the owner delegates his or her responsibilities by engaging competent designers and builders who actually know the Code, understand the ramifications of each choice, and have the skills and judgement to select appropriate construction materials, details and methods in every situation  – but in a price driven market, the importance of such competence has often been overlooked.

As a result of “leaky building” publicity however local authorities now require much more thorough and detailed design information and drawings up-front, to catch more problems before they arise.

While some problems that emerge can be picked up later during construction on site, the reality is that Council building inspectors simply don’t have the time or funding to visit all building sites often enough to ensure that every problem is detected in timel, so good drawings are essential!


Inadequate training and knowledge of builders

Some builders and trades people —often the cheapest ones— have limited training or little overall understanding outside their own trade. This means they are often only familiar with minimum standards of construction or have little detailed understanding of how all a building’s parts need to work together.   This can be made worse when a homeowner or project manager or developer with even less training tries to co-ordinate all the different trades involved in the complex process of building a new home.


Inadequate training and knowledge of building designers

Price is usually a reflection of quality, and builders and designers who offer the lowest prices are often those least qualified to do the job. It’s the age-old rule—you get what you pay for.

This rule is particularly important in New Zealand, because until very recently there was no minimum legal level of competence required to design and build houses here.  The Government is currently establishing a mandatory “Licensed Building Practitioner” regime covering a range of designers & trades people to address this, and exclude some of the Cowboys operating in the Industry.

However the final processes for establishing competence and standards to be set for these practitioners are still evolving.   Currently Architects are the only designers of houses obliged to meet proven academic and professional standards.


Lack of input from Architects

The statistics show that problems are very much more likely to arise when home owners choose not to engage a Registered Architect.

Building a home is not a project to be undertaken lightly and an Architect’s input is essential if design and detailing issues are to be well resolved ahead of time.  An Architect can also monitor quality of work and building costs independently during construction to forestall any problems that do emerge.


Conclusions: Getting what you pay for

In a nutshell, it seems that much of the “Leaky Building Syndrome” has largely resulted from a combination of four main factors:

  1. The desire of home owners to save money and time.
  2. The availability of a wide range of new and cheaper building materials.
  3. The availability of a wide range of cheap tradespeople and designers in the construction industry.
  4. A tendency for owners to “do it themselves”, hiring and managing each trade separately during construction, foregoing the traditional single experienced contractor who would otherwise take full responsibility for and manage all construction,  and foregoing an independent Architect who has the skill and experience to ensure design  quality from the outset.

The ever-increasing range of cost cutting options clearly carries with it an increased level of risk, and at the end of the day, while building practitioners must be held to account for what they do, home-owners must also take more responsibility for choosing wisely.

If the true long-term costs and benefits are considered rather than just the lowest short-term cost, most problems disappear.  A new, well designed and well built home will always give the very best protection against leaks – and other problems. It is also a wonderful lifestyle option that, in the long-term, provides many New Zealanders with a sound investment and lasting value for their money.

Paul King Architect | Christchurch | New Zealand | (03) 383 4592 |

“Sustainability” – what exactly does it mean?

Categories: Environment
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Published on: January 3, 2010

Most of us take “sustainability” to be a pretty compelling and important objective, but what does this term really mean?, and what exactly is required to achieve it?

Sadly, “sustainability” is rather an abused and emotionally loaded concept – with many different people using it to serve different and often quite contradictory agendas, and as a result there are many definitions for the word.

This Wikipedia article gives an overview of the problem.

“Sustainable” (source

To most of us though, at first take any intuitive plain English definition would probably describe the capacity of our environment to be maintained or to remain unchanged indefinitely under the effects of some human activity.

“Sustainability”=ability of environment to remain unchanged indefinitely if an activity occurs ?

Desertification is one process where there is good evidence that human activity is altering environments  – deserts are expanding in many parts of the world through agricultural practices that increase wind blown soil erosion and reduce rainfall.

The Sahara desert was long thought to be one such example, but there is evidence now  that the Sahara may be slowly shrinking and becoming wetter & greener as the the warming earth alters rainfall patterns & provides an increasingly fertile atmosphere (C02 is plant food).  If human activity is causing the warming as is widely suspected, ceasing the activity might halt or slow this greening process.

Whether it is shrinking or growing under the affects of human activity though, fossil evidence shows that the “eternal sands” of the Sahara, even before humans came on the scene, were anything but enduring.

We now know the Sahara was not even a desert at all a mere 10,000 years ago, but had also previously been far larger than it is now.  In fact this environment appears to be alternating naturally between wet & dry to follow Earth’s ever changing climate.

The underlying point here is that though we do clearly have an impact, with or without human input, in nature nothing remains the same indefinitely – there is no natural environment that will be preserved forever simply because humans change their behaviour.

Assuming the Sahara really is shrinking due to anthropogenic global warming, this case also illustrates  that not all change caused by humans is necessarily bad.

Perhaps then this “unchanging” benchmark is not quite right for describing sustainability?

If we soften our definition considerably to describe only those things we do that do not degrade environments to the point where our foreseeable descendants will be negatively impacted, perhaps we may be getting closer to something we can use.

“Sustainability”=ability of environment to support human life indefinitely if an activity occurs ?

This approach implies acceptance of natural variability and of human modification to ecosystems, but managed in a way such that the rate of resource extraction is balanced by the rate of recovery of the environment to achieve long term stability.

But we are still not all the way there!

Incontestably nearly all of the quality of life improvements each successive generation has achieved and enjoyed so far (medical, educational, cultural) were made possible through economic growth and increased rather than stable rates of resource extraction – very many of which are not renewable, and the result has clearly been environmental degradation.

So far, rather than negatively affecting their descendants, use of non renewable resources and environmental degradation by our ancestors has accompanied longer, healthier, less arduous and more stimulating lives.  This holds true for more people today today than ever before – even in developing countries! And there is every reason to assume that such advances will continue and become more widespread –  as long as there are unused resources available to fuel their development.

Or put another way, at least as things stand, reducing human resource use will entail shorter, less healthy, more arduous and less stimulating lives for our descendants.  If we do take the well-being of our descendants into account,  we may find that nothing is made truly “sustainable” in the long term simply by minimizing our environmental impact in the short term.  After all, people who’s aspirations are curtailed have a fairly consistent history of not sustaining the political and social systems that thwart them.

“Sustainability”=ability of environment to support human life AND human aspirations indefinitely if an activity occurs ?

However, even a  definition along these lines may not suffice. because even if our descendants did settle for something like  the restricted “simple” lives our ancestors once lived as a model for sustainability, we still hit a rather large snag  –  population growth.

Wikipedia: World population from 1800 to 2100

Imagine all 7 billion of our current global population, let alone a projected 14 billion all simultaneously attempting to forgo industry & infrastructure and live off the land … this is clearly just not workable for very long, and the environmental impact of trying would likely be far more devastating than anything we do now!  There are already far too many of us to feed  & find cooking and heating fuel for, and far too little useful land and forest to obtain it from in a renewable way as it is – we depend too heavily on our high-tech infrastructure and intensive fossil fuel burning farming & production  methods and transportation networks  just to sustain our current population, and we need more resources all the time as the population grows.

We also know on the other hand that production and consumption (by definition), is what drives strong economies, and strong economies provide the economic surpluses that fund widespread educational & cultural opportunities,  social welfare and old aged care, as well as driving technological innovation.    We also have good evidence that families in economies that deliver these things become smaller, in part because parents (and in particular women) have more alternatives – and no longer need to rely on having many children to support them in old age.

Conversely, it seems pretty clear that population pressure (as well as all the awful social fallout we know accompanies high population levels with low levels of economic development) would be made far worse by any attempt to seriously reduce consumption levels.

In other words, we have to somehow reconcile three seemingly contradictory imperatives: any useful definition for “sustainability” invokes not only the need to protect and manage the natural environments that support us, but also the need to maintain high levels of economic activity, because this in turn is required to support long term human needs and aspirations as well


Is there really a “sweet spot” in the middle ?  Well, it depends …

Technology is often put forward as the “magic bullet” that could eventually solve our environmental dilemmas, allowing us to achieve more with less environmental degradation – and with the benefit of strong economies our levels of innovation and capability do tend to improve constantly (even if these advances are not always directed at environmental protection).

However, no matter how good we get or how focussed we get on environmental issues  there will always be upper limits on what we can do at any given time – some pretty startling breakthroughs in efficiency, energy generation and resource extraction technology will be required to substantially alter the underlying trajectories of sustainable consumption vs sustainable supply of resources for our ever growing population.

Which all goes to suggest that in tandem with technology,  the  key to unlocking the tension between preventing environmental degradation for our descendants and facilitating their human aspirations, is to for us to seriously address our population size.

Perhaps with this in mind we can now set a more meaningful benchmark for  sustainability:

“Sustainability”=ability of environment to support human life AND human aspirations indefinitely if an activity occurs, for a given population size

Fewer people simply make less impact, whatever their level of consumption – what might not be “sustainable” for  20 billion, might well be sustainable for 1 billion.

Every child not only represents all the consumption and environmental degradation they will contribute  over their own lives, but all the consumption and degradation generated by all their many thousands of descendants.

In architectural terms, while we already have the technology to make a difference through incorporating more insulation, solar hot water systems, thermal storage , PV and wind power generation, optimal orientation etc, and while these good things are also getting better as technology and understanding improves, simply having one less child is probably at least as effective and environmentally responsible, and dare I say it; sustainable – as any other choice you as a consumer could make.

… and if the money you save by having fewer kids is what it takes to get you that Architect designed eco-home, everybody wins!

The Active House, Lystrup, Denmark – generates more power than it uses



Paul King Architect | Christchurch | New Zealand | (03) 383 4592 |

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August 2020

Welcome , today is Tuesday, August 11, 2020