New European Bauhaus Economy Panel: Better buildings, more sharing, and a new narrative

UIA NEB economy photo credit Ivana Stancic Dark Matter Lab

At the UIA World Congress of Architects CPH 2023 a Desire panel debate discussed the need for fundamental transformation at speed and scale. Takeaways - among others - were buildings to last for more than 200 years, sharing community, the belief in the power of stories and the wish of turning the built environment into the biggest hero.

Published July 11, 2023

First, in July 2023, Copenhagen hosted the UIA World Congress of Architects CPH 2023 with several thousand visitors from more than 135 countries. The overall theme for the congress was green and optimistic: Sustainable future – Leave no one behind.

But how to fulfil that promise is not totally clear. There are several ways to choose. How to act clever? How to involve citizens besides other stakeholders? How to make the necessary changes so irresistible that everyone wants to follow?

As a part of the New European Bauhaus lighthouse project, Desire our partner organisation Dark Matter Labs has developed an invitation paper regarding the New European Bauhaus economy to discuss some of the problems with the built environments, that are responsible for approximately 40 percent of global carbon emissions.

At the UIA, a Desire panel debate with some of the contributors to the paper talked about the need for fundamental transformation at speed and scale. If you are interested to know more, then visit this article to watch the video recording of the debate.

Among other takeaways from the debate, we have collected these three to unfold here:

- Buildings to last for more than 200 years

- Sharing community to support downsizing houses and fewer new buildings

- A need for a new narrative to support the green transition

- Indy Johar, Moderator of the debate and responsible for the invitation paper, Architect & Co-Founder, Architecture 00 and Dark Matter Labs
- Kirsten Dunlop, CEO at EIT Climate-KIC
- Don Brenninkmeijer, Chair Investment Committee at Laudes Foundation & Chair at Built by Nature
- Hélène Chartier; Director of Urban Planning and Design, C40 Cities
- Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, Founder & Managing Director, Bauhaus Earth

The scenario

As the original Bauhaus movement transformed our theory of design, the New Bauhaus movement will fundamentally transform how and what we account for; how we interact with and use spaces; the ways we live and work; and how we design our built environment. This will require us to shift the entire economic landscape of Europe.

To set the scene, Indy Johar started by saying he wanted to frame the conversation a little bit by being slightly provocative:

“I don't think it's sufficient for us to talk about the future imagining we can solve the problems with straw-barrel houses. And I'm being pejorative, yes, I know, but I want us to grasp the scale of what we're talking about. The reality is if we were to live within the Paris Accord, all of Europe can afford to build 178,000 homes. All of Europe. The UK, which has a target of 300,000 homes, can afford to build 14,000 homes. That is one part of the problem.

The second part of the problem is the energy conversation. Between 2019 and 2020, the global increase in energy demand, just the increase, was greater than all of the installed renewables. So, if we think our existing wind turbines are going to get us home, we're nowhere close. And when we talk about, yes, we've got to go from a hydrocarbons economy to, in reality, we're moving from a hydrocarbons economy to a minerals economy. That shift means 80% of our ecological destruction is driven by mining.

What does that really mean for the biodiversity losses that we're talking about? We need to recognize we're living in an extinction-level event in our ecological systems.

I think there was like, even three years ago, we were part of a conversation which was saying, yes, we've got to retrofit all of Europe's homes. A quarter of a billion homes. Well, unfortunately, we don't have carbon budgets to do that. And we then don't actually have the minerals to do that. And we don't have the labour supply to do that. So, what is the nature of the problem that we're really talking about?

Why I think this is a really important conversation is I think the fundamental constraints and opportunities are going to transform what we design and how we make our places of the future. Fundamentally going to transform. And if we're going to talk about a biomaterial economy, we're going to have to recognize we're going to have to change what we eat. Because our landscapes, and our food systems, are currently fragile. 80% of our deforestation is driven by food systems. It's about changing what we value. It's understanding care, understanding collective intelligence, understanding a whole new economy of being,” Indu Johar said.

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Buildings to last for more than 200 years

Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, Founder & Managing Director, Bauhaus Earth - which is a Bauhaus movement for the whole planet, started by mentioning that the UIA congress took place in the very same week where the hottest days on earth ever were measured globally when the mean temperature crossed the 17-degree centigrade line, first in July and continued to new records the next days.

“And we are just starting to go into the hot season, and El Nino is brewing in the East Pacific, so this year, at least the second part of this year, will be the warmest ever recorded. The next year will be even hotter. So, we are heading for the ball, and instead of using the brakes, we are accelerating.

The sector, which is actually the worst perpetrator, as you indicated, if we keep on building the way we do in Europe, in Africa, in Asia, in America, we will consume the residual carbon budget the world has for 2 degrees. 1.5 degrees is gone already. For 2 degrees, we will consume it in 10-15 years. But this is the only sector - that's very important, and everybody should know about it - that can turn from climate negative to climate positive.

For example, if you turn cities into carbon storage facilities, so if you build from timber, that's the easiest way, there are other ways. If you use renewable materials, dark metal matters, actually. If you use timber for a house, then you can store carbon, and extract it by photosynthesis from the atmosphere, but only if the house has been operated for at least 2 centuries.

That's our red line. Everything shorter than 200 years will not help the climate. So that's another important information to send. We can actually turn the built environment from the biggest sinner on the climate, on biodiversity, and so on, into the biggest hero! That is the message here.

Now let me conclude here with one remark on integration. Of course, we are short of space, of areas, and so on. Agriculture, urban development, and so on, it's all competing. But why is it competing? Because one of the perversities of the old Bauhaus approach was functional disentanglement. It means you have people sleeping in one place, working in another place, creating in a place, and everything is commuting by fossil fuels, by cars, and so on. This paradigm has to be killed. It's in the Chart of Athens, 1933. (Read more on Wikipedia) And we have to replace it with a chart of integration, where we re-entable functionality. You can do agroforestry. You can combine solar energy with agriculture. Etc.

And in particular, if you build from timber, for example, instead of one story, which you put on top of an existing building, you can build ten stories, because you have only one-tenth of the weight if you use timber frame construction. You can make wise use of horizontally two dimensions, and vertically one more dimension. So, it's three-dimensional integration we have to do. And for that, we must have a new paradigm, and it is reflected in the new European Bauhaus. And to be absolutely clear, it has to become a new global Bauhaus movement, of course, because only if the Europeans team up with Africa, with Latin America, with Asia, and so on, where thousands of solutions wait to be implemented when we can save the planet,“ Hans Joachim Schellnhuber said.

Here Indy Johar picked up the 200 years lifespan for a building:

“I think most of the average lifespan of a Danish building is 30 years, I'm told now. So, the new build, that's 30 years you're replacing it. We've got to get to 200 years. If we're using timber, it isn't just cool to say, hey, I've got a timber wall that's going to last me 15 years. That's not the strategic point. We've got to get to 200 years. Let that sink in. What is a 200-year building, and how do we build those sorts of infrastructures?

One to answer that question could be Don Brenninkmeijer, a fifth generation family entrepreneur. The family business goes back 180 years, and it's mainly in the apparel industry. Today the family has two philanthropic activities that are related to the built environment to support innovation.

Don Brenninkmeijer started by talking about his concern for his four kids and their future:

“What do we need to do now to be able to give them the same opportunities that I and those in this room have had? And what do we need to do now, and how do we need to act? And that drive comes from a very long-established business background and working in for-profit businesses. But as a family, I think what we've come to appreciate over the course of the last six or seven years is how can we use what we call the spectrum of capital to really impact the system transformations that we need to see in all of the areas where we are active?”

The great advantage of working with philanthropic capital is the possibility to help people and companies with money to take risks and create innovation and drive momentum behind things that are not yet proven but might be part of a solution space or part of creating a new reality.

‘Built by Nature’, created two years ago, works specifically about how to accelerate the use and the adoption of bio-based materials in the built environment.

“Cross-laminated timber is just one of those examples, but where we're trying to put a heavy focus and say how do we actually allow insurers, asset managers, architects, designers, cities to come together and really understand how do we use these new materials? How do we create materials that last longer than 25 years but make them all of a sudden last for 200 years?

What are the actual measurements that we need when we use that material? And how can it help, for example, dispelling myths around the fire safety of them or the moisture management or even that it enhances actually people's health and well-being because the building breathes and actually makes you feel more comfortable,” Don Brenninkmeijer says.

His family’s ‘The Lauders Foundation’ aims to address climate change and inequality through business.

“Within Lauders Foundation, we work to address things on policy, advocacy, and new narratives. But for example, the 15 million people in Europe that are working in construction, what is their journey going to be from currently building with steel and cement and how many people are going to be building with concrete?

And hammering nails into buildings into a world that is modular, built outside of cities, and they're going to be assembling it in a way that's different and needs to be done differently. How do we help them, and others move into that space? How do we help the development of using digitalization to accelerate and enhance the building of materials that we need to have to create that new built environment that we want to see?

That is alongside climate change. And then on the for-profit side, support our business activities in the built environment to try and go on with that same change. How do you get investors and asset owners to also want to put money behind new innovative types of business models, new innovations that exist within the built environment? Don Brenninkmeijer said.

A concrete example is in Holland, in Groningen, where they have been able to redevelop the building and put floors four, five, six, seven, and eight all in timber:

"We're saying new materials allow you to increase the amount of occupancy in that space.” 

Sharing community to support downsizing houses and support the need for fewer new buildings

In the last few years, a trend of tiny houses has occurred worldwide. At the same time, we hear that the unit square meter per person is increasing. People want new and bigger apartments and houses. But according to the Paris Accord, we must downsize. But how?

At the beginning of the panel debate, Indy Johar also asked how to change values to support the green transition. A way to address this could be circularity and sharing community.

“What does this mean for the solution spaces? How do we deliver comfort? What does comfort look like in the 21st century? Is it going to be about ever heavier buildings? Or is it going to be completely different? Is it about private luxury, or is it about shared luxuries and private sufficiency? What does an economy of private sufficiency look like? Do we own materials anymore, or are materials part of open chains of value, finance, and structure in completely different ways? What are property rights? Do property rights work in an entangled world? How do we operationalize that? Think about the dark matter of the kind of institutional infrastructure which privileges the world around us, and what does that future look like? Because I think that's going to transform what cities we make and the places we make,” Indy Johar said.

Kirsten Dunlop is CEO of EIT Climate-KIC. She talked about regulation, policy, policy dialogues etc. and she talked about innovation and entanglement.

“There are 35 million rooms in Paris and there are 60,000 roofers, for example. We should do it to half the scale of changing what we're talking about. This is about designing innovation to work those intersectional challenges, deliberately design for relationships, and deliberately design for entanglement. That requires a shift in what we consider value to be. So, innovation is no longer a solution, innovation is a mechanism to enable learning and entanglement and interdependence and exploring and looking for the combinations of wastewater energy, minerals, materials, and solutions.

It means innovation that is designed to push and present new alternative forms of what we define as being assets. The cities in the city mission are working as fast as possible to get to the form where they can define a regenerative district, street and community as an investable asset.

How would you put your money into something that had features of regenerative living? Because that's the thing you're investing in. And that requires shifting thinking about value, not from the prior period, demonstrable historic database, but for a future period, which means starting to pull into view the actual cost of materials or the actual risk.

If you can prepare the alternative building structures, if you can already construct the dialogues with developers, planners, financiers, policymakers and citizens so there is a preparedness around the possibility of actually showing future value and releasing that future value into present decision-making, that's the point of working innovation, this kind of mission, new European Bauhaus logic. How do you demonstrate, how you pull the future forward quickly enough into the present so there are the beginnings of a build of confidence just ahead of the regulation we know we need to firm this up and get the mass market to move,” she said.

The shift has already happened in some areas because of - you could say - creative destruction. Don Brenninkmeijer explained:

“Over the last ten years, all of our real estate pretty much used to be commercial real estate. But we recognize that with the coming of the internet, you don't need that commercial real estate space anymore. It becomes, unless you're ahead of the curve, a stranded asset.

No one wants to buy it anymore. The value devalues. And you all of a sudden get exodus from a sort of small cities where buildings are empty and there's nothing going on. So, we said, how do you change it? How do you look again at not this defragmentation of what happens where, as Hans Joachim was mentioning, but how do you start to create mixed use?

How do you start to look again at the combination of work, living, commercial, entertainment, and food, and bring that into something which actually rejuvenates, again, the environment that you're in? Create that in a way that is done in collaboration with the community that looks at bringing in the voice, not only of the developer and the architect, that upfront says this is a beautiful design but talks to the people that are going to be living there and allows them to say how can they feed into what actually they need?

If they're all saying we're going to a shared economy of cars, you don't need a massive parking lot. So, in order to enable those kinds of conversations to take place, how do you spend time using the different forms of capital to convene people, to have the conversations, to hear the different voices, and then to be able to say let's also make the right decision about how to go forward in the right direction?

The same thing is happening at the moment right now with the office industry. I don't know whether there are any architects here that only build office buildings, but I would think you're probably on to a losing trajectory if you keep just thinking about office buildings. That's no longer the way that we're going to envisage healthy, flourishing cities where people want to be in certain environments. You need to start moving and shifting that reality.”

A need for a new narrative to support the green transition

How do we bring the public into the climate conversation? Indy named that the C40 Cities has been doing extraordinary work with many cities around the world. Here Hélène Chartier, Director of Urban Planning and Design in C40 Cities, had examples to show the way forward to reach the public.

“We have seen recently in Spain a mayor destroying a bike lane. So, we absolutely need, and it's our work to also work with the cities and the mayors, not only to go, to take the good decisions and everything, but also to create the narratives that bring what you are saying, something where the community can also find something in this ecological revolution that we must do.

I'm from Paris and before joining C40 I was working for the Mayor of Paris. I think the Mayor of Paris has been quite courageous to follow the Copenhagen example and to try to transform the cities, especially the public space, mobility, and priority within the city. It was super difficult, the lobbies that she had to face." 

They were also trying to think about the narrative, because - Hélène thinks - they were focusing a little bit too much of the narrative on the fact that climate change, and pollution, that people recognize but it's a little bit far from their reality.

"So, we also tried to think about how we could propose a vision for what a better Paris for the people and for the planet looks like. And that's where, for example, the idea of a 15-minute city (editor: an urban planning concept in which work, shopping, education, healthcare, and leisure can be easily reached by a 15-minute walk or bike ride from any point in the city. Read more on Wikipedia), which is not new and it's exactly what you mean about the bad urban planning and the integrated approach. But it was just a shift of narrative that was very important where we basically tried to explain not why they must change but what they will win with this change, and what good urban planning policies will bring them."

A very concrete example, Paris has a new policy now to remove 50% of the parking space. 

"It's hard, it's a very complicated discussion. But we say if you remove 50% of the parking space, we can create six new Gardens of Luxembourg (park in Paris - Jardin du Luxembourg on 23 hectares)."

Hélène Chartier also brought up that the city of Paris some weeks ago has released their new bio-climatic master plan – which supports the new narrative:

“It's very interesting also in terms of mainstreaming. The master plan of Paris says no more demolition. It's absolutely new rule. They say you must prove every project that proposes demolition has to prove that there was no other choice. Structural problem or absolute impossibility to convert the building.

It's important to shift the paradigm. It's not anymore like an option, and the person in the permit will have to check. We know that the buildings that are demolished today are not demolished because they have structural problems. They are demolished because the aesthetic is not okay, it's not working with the aesthetic we want, or because it's too complicated, too expensive to transform.”

Here Oslo’s climate budgeting also brings innovative help to doing things mainstream, and C40 are working with 10 cities that are trying to do the same. Oslo has a finance department in the city, and every decision that is made in the city needs to go to the finance department, and the finance department checks if they have the budget. Now the finance department has a climate department, and for every decision of changing the food in the canteen of the school, building a new school, they will have to assess what that means in terms of emission in relation to the carbon budget. 

"That’s very simple, and cities are doing it, national governments are doing it, business should do the same, individuals should do the same,” she said.

Hans Joachim Schellnhuber added that he believes in the power of stories:

“You have to tell people on the ground, in the suburbs, in the favelas, wherever, what is your personal benefit if you engage on a new paradigm. But you should not underestimate that people, human beings, are also willing to do something or even to sacrifice something which is not a direct return on investment. It's not just a short-term benefit.

Think of Ukraine for example. Who has a personal benefit if we support the Ukrainian people now? We think something is going wrong, something evil is attacking a country and we are willing to sacrifice a lot of things just for supporting the good against the evil. It is like that. It's a huge narrative. So, what I'm saying is the following: People are also willing to support something which has no immediate neighbourhood benefit. They are willing to support a great narrative for example.

They want to support a story, even if it's a long-term story, a story where they want to be part of it. They want to be actors in a really good story. It may sound like a fairy tale in the beginning, but we all love fairy tales and a happy ending. So, what we need to do, as architects and planners, you have to tell a good narrative of a future we all want. You have to convey pictures of a better future where not only a few but many have a decent space of accommodation. If you tell a really good story, most people will subscribe to it.”

Hélène Chartier thinks the politicians recently have shown how to do it:

“We need people on board. And I have an example that struck me during the Covid-19 pandemic. President Macron was, perhaps every week on television explaining to the people, which was actually good, explaining what was happening, what was the situation, and how they did not understand.

He put a silent committee helping to say, OK, it's not a political decision. A few months after he went to Glasgow for the COP, there was absolutely no discussion with the people. He should have done the same type of communication he had done during Covid-19. Just to prepare, I'm going to represent you at the COP. So, what is our strategy. What a French person represents. And this important discussion is not happening.”

That was a nice parallel in terms of how our leaders work with science in a continuous way, Indi Johar concluded:

“I think Covid-19 was a good moment where leaders actually have this kind of relationship between the science. I agree it doesn't deal with the spirituality point. But I think in the process of moving to a new economy, I think some of these things come up.”

The “Invitation paper - A New European Bauhaus economy designing our futures” will be further developed over the course of the next twelve months with a series of in-person and online engagements. A final version of the paper will be launched at the New European Bauhaus Festival in Brussels in April 2024.

Watch the full debate on video

Read the Invitation Paper