Smart Takes

Prince Charles disses steel and glass 'eco-bling' architecture

Posting in Architecture

Modern glass and steel buildings are "energy guzzling glass boxes," according to the Prince of Wales. Does he have a point?

Increasingly, new buildings are built of glistening glass supported by concrete and steel -- and Britain's Prince Charles told the Institute of Civil Engineers that such "eco-bling" construction is unsustainable.

The Prince said these building processes and extensive paving were causing environmental degradation across the country, and that architects should aim to build more "in harmony" with nature, according to the Telegraph. He said:

”I'm afraid if a building is of a fashionable design today it almost inevitably condemns it very quickly to becoming unfashionable -– tired looking, outdated, no longer 'contemporary. And so, within thirty or forty years, they are ripe for demolition and replacement."

This argument -- that architectural fads will inevitably fail -- isn't very sensible. But there is some evidence that he may have a point about glass construction.

One benefit of a glass building is certainly aesthetic: who doesn't like to look at a skyscraper that sparkles like a diamond in the sunlight? And as for sustainability, letting in vast amounts of sunlight could reduce lighting costs, saving energy.

However, glass buildings can actually consume a great deal of energy as well. In 2010, Alex Wilson, the founder of Environmental Building News, argued that because glass has little insulation, such buildings consume more energy through heating and cooling.

In general, heavily glazed buildings consume more energy than buildings with more moderate levels of glass. With a higher glazing fraction, solar heat gain as well as heat loss in cold weather are both greater. Glass does introduce daylighting, of course, and well-executed daylighting can reduce both electric lighting and mechanical cooling costs but the ideal percentage of glazing is far below that of many of today's prominent all-glass buildings.

Some architects are trying to be more creative with glass; London's Gherkin skyscraper, for instance, has a glass "exoskeleton" that attempts to redirect wind through open windows to save on cooling costs. And engineers are reformulating glass to take on different shapes and to have the structural strength of wood beams.

Nonetheless, while the Prince's alert may need more evidence, perhaps he is right that architects should think in the long-term before building another glass monstrosity.

Prince of Wales hits out at modern buildings as 'energy-guzzling glass boxes' [The Telegraph]

Photo: London's Gherkin building. (Wikimedia Commons)

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Hannah Waters

Weekend Editor

Weekend Editor Hannah Waters is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. She writes a blog on the Scientific American network, and has written for Nature Medicine and The Scientist. She holds Biology and Latin degrees from Carleton College. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure