The simple and the ancient
(Photo by Carole Raddato, The tepidarium, Minturnae, Minturno, Italy)

The simple and the ancient

The built environment is a key decarbonisation and health & well being problem. Whilst new technologies will be key, ancient approaches can inspire modern investible equivalents.

“The future is already here – it is just not evenly distributed.” William Gibson 2003

Summary: The simple and ancient often works. In many cases we need new solutions, but sometimes it should be more a case of applying what we already know, just much more widely. Sometimes, this “known” technology has been around a long time. Nowhere does this logic apply so aptly as in our built environment, the physical landscape that makes up our cities. We shall look at opus caementicium, Chaudes-Aigues, dikang, ondol, the hypocaust, and mediaeval tapestry. These ancient approaches led to modern equivalents. Different approaches to concrete production (or more strictly making cement), the use of geothermal, especially for district heating, underfloor heating, insulation, and retrofitting buildings, rather than demolishing them and starting again.

Why this is important: New technologies take time to perfect and implement. We have had thousands of years of innovation that could be deployed now.

The big theme: The built environment is an important sustainability theme, both as an integral part of societal existence but also as a major decarbonisation (40% of energy-related GHG emissions) and resource consumption problem (40% of global raw materials). There are many avenues to decarbonise across all phases of a buildings life: design, construction (and deconstruction or demolition), operations and interaction with other structures and the environment. Reduce, reuse and recycle and circular design principles can be applied to the built environment to reduce its overall environmental footprint and sustainability.



The details


At first glance it might seem odd to look at what we can learn from old and already proven technologies and practices. But it highlights an important point - in our desire to find and roll out investible solutions, do we tend to look too much toward new technologies, and ignore what we know already works.

Among the “known” we already have some interesting and investible solutions to our climate and environmental challenges. Examples include different ways of producing cement, geothermal anywhere for building heating, better insulation, domestic scale underfloor heating using known heat pump technologies and of course, building refurbishment. Some are already rolling out at scale, others just need a “gentle” push.

Have we become too fixated on new and innovative technologies?

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