Bricks, Mortar and Bricolage: an Economic Geographer’s Take on the Stumbling Blocks of Knowledge Transfer in the Built Environment Industry

by Briony Turner

Lucas Cranach the Elder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Tree of Knowledge

If you can get past the academic jargon, there’s an interesting article on knowledge transfer of green building design by James Faulconbridge in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers.  Perhaps the reason it’s interesting in a practitioner sense, is that it is based on actual professional practice –it draws not only upon other academic reflections, but also on those of 25 current British/Australian industry professionals.

The paper says it aims to suggest a framework for geographical analysis of attempts at mobilising green design knowledge.  However, it misses a trick, in that it raises some salient and relevant points for industry with regard to the stumbling blocks of transferring innovative design and best practice into action.  For those in the built environment industry it will come as no surprise that application of this framework, i.e.. the paper’s conclusion, reveals that knowledge is situated and place-specific and that solutions need to incorporate bricolage within knowledge assembly and transfer.

The author makes reference to blockage of attempts to reduce environmental impact being in part due to the lack of recognition of the “benefits of collective learning and the sharing of green design knowledges” -whilst this paper is not country specific, for the UK this is not necessarily the case.  The stumbling block quite often, as pointed out later in the paper, is the institutional context, particularly time, importance and resource allocated to the processes of knowledge mobility.  Much new knowledge, often termed within industry ‘best practice’ (even when its more-often-than-not actually innovative practice), is freely available, but hearing about it, knowing where to find it and having time to digest it and work out how to adapt current practice to incorporate it, are part of the daily struggle of most bought-in, already interested practitioners.  For those that aren’t (the greater challenge when it comes to step-change within professional practice) other/additional knowledge mobility tactics may well be required.

Many professionals use conferences as a means of staying up to date, the odd lucky few get to go on study tours as mentioned in the paper.  However, in these austere times, ability, both in terms of time away from the desk and cost, for the majority, is hampered.  Cracking how to enable effective knowledge transfer within current regime constraints is certainly a challenge worthy of uptake here in the UK.

The paper also suggests that economic geographers can contribute to debates about transitions to sustainability and building design via institutional analyses of knowledge mobility.  Hopefully they will, but perhaps in more accessible language, to ensure their own knowledge contributions aren’t rendered ‘situated’ within academia.  It would be wonderful to see the recommendations within this paper in plain English, in trade press such as the RIBA Journal, Inside Housing, Building, Eco Building, Green Building etc.

Now, a brief, but I hope the reader will agree, salient semantic foray into a few of the terms being used.  Focus of academic and industry efforts must not get tied to purely a focus on ‘green design’ as commonly perceived and, in fact, as reflected in this paper’s definition, as “negative environmental impact mitigating” design, but instead should ensure that focus includes the social aspect, i.e. not simply the wider community/society, but the people, the inhabitant(s), aspect of homes.  Homes should be fit for habitation now and in the future, i.e. resilient/enable their inhabitants to be resilient to current and future climatic projections.

Along these same lines, industry needs to assign more importance on the incorporation of domestic function as well as to form and fabric into thinking on green/sustainable design.  Whilst at present there is increasing focus on energy efficiency behaviour of inhabitants (pause here for a wry smile on reading the title of the National Housing Federation’s recent launch event of their “Count us in” report on this, aptly named Don’t forget the people”), the internal environment of homes and health of inhabitants receive less attention, yet are, as, if not more, important – certainly important for those landlords aware of the housing health and safety rating system

Furthermore, sustainable design/green design that tackles both mitigation of carbon emissions from residential stock and adaptation of stock to projected changes in climate is not confined to new build.  These are design issues as relevant to new build as to existing housing stock.  For more information on this, take a look at the useful, clearly set out, easy to read “Design for Future Climate” report produced by the Technology Strategy Board, and for those wanting facts and figures on overheating in particular, take a look at the Department for Communities and Local Government’s recent gap analysis and literature review, which formed part of their investigation into the overheating of homes – their recommendations are also worth a read.

If you’re struggling to connect why excessively cold and overheating homes are design problems, take a look at the Heatwave Plan and the Cold Weather Plan for England 2012, short documents both published by the NHS whose recommendations include factors relating to the built environment.  The NHS picks up the pieces of this current neglect of thinking about the internal environment and domestic life within homes.  Its staff know all too well the contribution of poor housing stock to the medical and death toll during periods of climatic extremes, projected to become increasingly more frequent over the coming years.  Speaking of the NHS, there is an intriguing piece of research underway called SHOCK (not) HORROR which is capturing the highly refined and evolved efficient knowledge transfer processes within A&E wards for help in improving infrastructure resilience. Watch this space…

books_iconJames Faulconbridge, 2012, Mobile ‘green’ design knowledge: institutions, bricolage and the relational production of embedded sustainable building designs, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. doi: 10.1111/j.1475-5661.2012.00523.x

globe42Count us in”, National Housing Federation

globe42Cold Weather Plan for England 2012, National Health Service

globe42Design for Future Climate, Technology Strategy Board

globe42Heatwave Plan for England 2012, National Health Service

globe42Investigation into overheating in homes: analysis of gaps and recommendations, Department for  Communities and Local Government

globe42Investigation into overheating in homes: literature review, Department for Communities and Local Government

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