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Special report: Prince Charles on rethinking the way we work

Prince Charles believes the ICE’s charter should be revised to encourage engineers to focus their efforts on sustainable construction and development. Mark Hansford reports.

Prince Charles last week urged the ICE to rethink its goals in a seminal lecture at One Great George Street. He said that while civil engineers were firmly “in the front line” in the battle for sustainability there had to be a profound change in the way they viewed their role.

He asked whether the ICE’s Royal Charter, granted in 1828 at the peak of the Industrial Revolution, implicitly encourages climate change. It describes civil engineering as “the art of directing the great sources of power in nature for the use and convenience of man”.

“Civil engineering is, of course, a life-saver and a life-preserver,” Prince Charles said.

Front line

“If there is one profession that has awoken to the need for more sustainable approaches, it is civil engineering, putting you [civil engineers] firmly on the front line in the battle for sustainability.

“But what has occupied me for a very long time is quite why, with all our technical knowledge, we find ourselves facing the threat of catastrophic climate change.

“I fear the answer lies in the very words in your Royal Charter,” he said.

“We have been all too willing to direct and use the power of nature for our own ends, with scant regard for the long term consequences of our actions.

“It seems to me that if we are to address the many accumulating challenges confronting us today, we need to be a bit more respectful of, and attentive to, those powers of nature.”

He said that while modern day ICE members should take pride in achievements of past members like Bazalgette, they now carry that legacy on their shoulders and question their guiding principles.

“We have, by default, engineered something of a looming disaster and we need all the ingenuity we can muster to pull back from it”

Prince Charles

“I would urge you to consider carefully whether those words in your charter are still as relevant today as they were in the 19th century,” he said. “Perhaps it is time to revise them for the task ahead and refocus the definition of what it is to be a civil engineer,” he said, mooting an expansion of the meaning of the word “art” and suggesting that, rather than “directing nature’s powers” they should be understood properly so that “underlying patterns of behaviour” can be worked with accordingly.

The prince was speaking at the Halcrow-sponsored ICE Sustainability lecture. The speech comes nine years after the ICE launched a sustainability charter to try and to force members to get up to speed on sustainable development (NCE 17/24 April 2003).

The charter states that all grades of member should aim to “develop and maintain a high standard of sustainability awareness and to continuously improve sustainability performance within their professional activities”.

ICE Council then ­further ­attempted to embed sustainability into its thinking in 2007 by creating a new definition of civil engineering as “a vital art, working with the great sources of power in nature for the wealth and well-being of the whole of society”.

New definition

The new definition is a play on the wording of the Royal Charter, but the charter itself has not been changed.
This week the prince suggested that a change in the charter could stimulate action that should be “obvious” to engineers.

“I don’t have to tell you about oil prices, climate change, droughts or floods. It must be obvious to a room full of engineers that we are plainly exceeding the capacity of our planet to provide us with many of the natural resources we use and to accommodate all the waste we produce in return.

“It is sobering to consider that we are now using so much water that some of the biggest aquifers that irrigate the bread baskets of the US are depleting considerably faster than the rain can replenish them, or that, because of the continued burning of thousands of acres of ancient rainforest every single day. During periods of drought, the Amazon basin becomes a net emitter of carbon dioxide, a reversal of its natural role as a net carbon sink,” he said.

“Any sane individual, and certainly people as practical as engineers, are surely moved to ask the question: ‘How much longer can we go on like this, living so wilfully beyond our means?’ We may well have created a technologically sophisticated human world, but I’m afraid the evidence speaks for itself.

“We have, by default, engineered something of a looming disaster and we need all the ingenuity we can muster to pull back from it.”

“I am not sure there is a proper appreciation of the real urgency with which we have to adapt our approach”

Prince Charles

Prince Charles said engineers must come to realise the importance of using lower carbon materials and more natural techniques (see box).

“Buildings are still too often constructed out of materials that are deeply environmentally unfriendly,” he said.

“Glass, steel, concrete all surely fall into that category - because of the embodied energy in their production.”

He accepted that good work was being done, with some architects moving away from “creating enormous, energy-guzzling glass boxes” and towards a more environmentally sustainable approach.

But he stressed that it was not enough for engineers to let architects take the lead.

“Being, as you are, at the heart of making design work, you are powerful agents of change,” he said. “I have followed very closely how civil engineering, informed by advances in science, is now beginning to work in an integrated way with other disciplines, to seek better ways to manage energy and water more efficiently.

Better supply chain system

“Your thinking is creating better systems of supply chains that reduce the carbon impact of new building and, indeed, the retrofitting of existing structures.

“I have been fascinated by the way engineers have managed to install in old buildings, energy efficient techniques like passive heating and cooling systems,” he said.

“This leads me to suggest that if we could really marshal our forces, by taking the innate ingenuity and inventive capacity of British engineering - which is second to none - we could work to make parts of this country recognised as real centres of excellence for environmental engineering and the kind of technology that draws on nature’s own ingenuity.”

He stressed that his vision was not “some sort of pipe dream” and that there were real economic reasons why it needed to be taken seriously.

“I am not sure there is a proper appreciation of the real urgency with which we have to adapt our approach,” he said.

“We are now in a new and very different economic paradigm. We are not living in some sort of temporary, economic bubble where the prices of raw materials are only artificially inflated for a short time,” he said, citing the price of iron ore which in the past eight years has surged to a 110 year high.

“We have to turn to a much more sustainable way of doing things. Not just because of the moral imperative, but because we simply cannot afford to be as profligate as we have been.”

 

Prince Charles’ key messages

BUILDING TO LAST

Prince Charles singled out “touchy” architects who design buildings that become ripe for demolition within 30 or 40 years.

“I’m afraid if a building is of a fashionable design today it almost inevitably condemns it very quickly to becoming unfashionable - tired looking, out-dated, no longer contemporary. So much of modern thinking seems to have ignored the importance of looking to the long term,” he said.

But engineers are equally culpable: “As a historian I have always been moved by the way your predecessors took the trouble to ensure the infrastructure and major buildings they created - the sewage works, the power stations, the aqueducts - were not just functional blots on the land or townscape, but worthy, civic neighbours that were a pleasure to behold. That is not as apparent, I’m afraid, in the legacy of the 20th century approach.”

 

EDUCATING THE FUTURE

Prince Charles called on the ICE to work with his Building Community foundation to put engineering sustainability at the heart of its summer schools.

“It would certainly be enormously encouraging if the ICE would ever consider working with my foundation to include a sustainable engineering element in the courses it runs,” he said.

Lecture sponsor Halcrow said it was looking at seconding employees to the foundation to boost engineering input into housing design. “I am delighted that my foundation and Halcrow are exploring the possibility,” he said.

LEARNING FROM NATURE

Prince Charles highlighted the work of his Foundation for Building Community to create a low carbon “Natural House” at building research body BRE’s research centre in Watford.

Designed to be easily adapted for volume building, the Natural House uses natural materials like interlocking clay blocks, clay roof tiles and loft insulation made from wool. “It does not wear its green credentials like a collection of
eco-bling,” he said. “But all the same it is made of something other than conventional bricks.”

The clay blocks are low-fired to produce less carbon, and are moulded in such a way that they are breathable, yet have high insulation properties.

The blocks are rendered in lime and hemp, also natural materials.

The wool loft insulation is long lasting, disperses condensation, and ventilates in warm weather. It is also non-flammable.

Readers' comments (4)

  • Sorry, but I'm struggling to understand the engineering basis on which the Prince thinks he is qualified to ‘challenge the Charter’. Will the ICE be changing our Charter in response to every new fad that comes along? In the 60s and 70s it was the threat of a new Ice Age, but we still managed to build a thousand mile motorway network in less time than it will take to break ground on HS2. Leave the Charter as it is please. The green agenda has become a new religion, and the Prince appears to be manoeuvering to be its High Priest. ‘Educating’ (read ‘indoctrinating’) the future etc. Woe betide dissenters!

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  • John Mather

    Civil Engineers at the heart of society delivering sustainable development through knowledge, skills and professional expertise - I think we've got it!

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  • It is disappointing that Prince Charles did not congratulate Civil Engineers on the many projects completed with full regard for the environment and sustainability (NCE 9th February).
    On the other hand his concerns about undue self interest are valid for projects such as the A46 Newark to Widmerpool improvement which is nearing completion. The Highways Agency and their ‘ECI’ contractor Balfour Beatty allowed costs to escalate from £87m at award of contract in 2004 to approximately £375m when construction commenced in 2009. The construction is of high quality but many regard the scheme as ‘over engineered’ with some sections having unnecessarily large, environmentally intrusive embankments and cuttings destroying valuable agricultural land and requiring on-going maintenance commitments. Certain junctions were ‘over designed’ to accommodate ‘rush hour’ traffic flows which could easily have been reduced by commuter bus and ‘park and ride’ provision. The Highways Agency and the Public Inquiry Inspector (a Chartered Civil Engineer) refused to consider the scheme design in the context of regional transportation.
    A more modest scheme would have been adequate for traffic and safety, less intrusive on the environment, and more readily adaptable for future regional developments.
    It does seem appropriate, as HRH suggests, to update the ICE Royal Charter to remind Members of our commitment to sustainable affordable solutions.
    John Greenwood

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  • Why does nobody talk about the real 'Elephant in the Room' when banging on about sustainability, carbon footprint etc? Population and population growth. Until this starts to be seriously discussed I'm afraid the rest is just fiddling while Rome burns.

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