Source: Nana Reimers


Anne Beim has been a professor at the Royal Danish Academy since 2008. She is heading  CINARK — Centre of Industrial Architecture, which is bridging academic research with practice and industry. For the past 10 years she has been chair of the graduate program  Settlements, Ecology & Tectonics. Materials and cultures of construction have been a fundamental baseline all the way through her work. 

What drives you the most? 

There are multiple answers to this question, but the fundamental interest lies in the new ways of building with sustainability at its core. Dealing with research which can be very heavy and theoretical and seeing how it can be converted into something practical and applicable and with that offering new solutions to the industry. 

In CINARK we have been dealing with what we call 'radical tectonics', trying to position ourselves in pushing these new ways of building and thinking about materials in ways that we have not necessarily seen before. Seeing other stakeholders across the industry learning from that and acknowledging this as a quality is of course also a driving force. 

Another parallel driver is bringing this into education and seeing the students pushing these questions further and reacting to what is happening in our surroundings. Where do the resources come from? How do we deal with the extraction of materials from regional or local sites? What are the expenses in terms of CO2 and other environmental impact when we transport and process the materials? How are they being implemented into construction design and later becoming our buildings and our cities?

The exchange of dialogue and ideas with our students is extremely interesting. This metabolism of materials — from the perspectives of the students, is a great driver for me. 

Having worked so much with research and how to bring that into practice across the building industry, what are the main challenges today when you look at sustainability in the built environment? 

I think it is the extent of the problem and similarly the number of approaches or answers to it. What we see in the building industry right now is that there's a great eagerness to define the problems in similar ways as we have defined previous problems. So much so that we want to control, calculate, measure, predict and plan everything. We think we can sort it all out, it is human nature. 

I think we are facing a new epoch: I find it very interesting to live in this moment of history, but it's also frightening. We are in some kind of paradigm shift where we need to learn how to theorise in new ways, which is not possible 'On demand'. 

I think it's dangerous if we think we can just find technologies and create databases that tell us what and how to do things…to fix it all for us. This is not enough. It is a stepping stone, but it's not enough. It's not just one way of doing things, we need to try all different kinds of  things. 

The way the world is organised at the moment is based on capitalistic ideas. The power systems want to keep the existing structures and procedures within society, they show no real interest in changing or being revolutionised. So the question is: Are we prepared to radically change things? Currently this idea is regarded as unrealistic and kept in the background by many politicians as it's a very difficult discussion to have. For me, this is fundamental to the problem of sustainability. 

It's a meta-level discussion, but I find it very important that we allow ourselves to see  today's sustainability problem from completely different perspectives than we have before. 

Having just mentioned the tools being solely a stepping stone. What is your opinion on the standardisation of LCA methods and data that can facilitate a kind of shift?

I do understand why and I very much appreciate that we have lifecycle theories and methodologies that help us to discuss one material solution over another and to compare the environmental impact of choices we make.

But there will always be this so-called 'critical blind spot' when we do the LCA calculations, we only measure objective matters. There's a lot of aspects and qualities that are not included and that have to be acknowledged:LCA only tells us a little part of the overall  story of the building.

Life Cycle Analysis has now become part of Danish building regulations and you could say it's the first step towards some sort of improvement. But it may also be a pitfall due to qualitative aspects that are not considered. This is due to the fact that many features of architecture can't be defined quantitatively, thus they do not fit into the standardised  measure systems.

Right now we implement 'countable' and 'measurable' methods to control sustainability in construction. At the same time construction is becoming more and more standardised and  regulated. How do we ensure the fact that the regulatory bodies are still transparent, ready to change and democratic? If you create a new construction solution, it might not fit  into the current system of standards and measuring, but it might be extremely  sustainable. How to leave room for something like this to happen we really need to keep in mind. 

How do we move towards biogenic materials? 

There are many hurdles if you want to apply biogenic materials for construction. It is a  group of materials that has been abandoned for about 200 years, when we saw that there  were ways of building with brick, steel, glass and concrete that could optimise the strength  and durability of buildings. So actually we moved away from the rammed earth, straw, wood… because they held a building physics that was demanding and 'problematic'. Also, at  that time we did not have the proper knowledge about how these different biogenic  materials performed. So for about 200 years, we haven't really researched the field of  biogenic materials in similar ways as we have with mineral materials and the abilities and  technologies linked to them... 

To make a difference right now for the use of biogenic materials would be to provide a proper backdrop for research and knowledge exchange, both internationally but also between the different stakeholders in the building industry that has to be brought together. For example, much has been highly informed by the craftsmen because they have deep insights about how the material acts and reacts under particular conditions and constructions whereas architects know about material expression and ways it ought to work in a design. 

On top of this, I see two primary ways of moving fast forward with biogenic materials: for the building industry to either provide the muscles to bring themselves together, or for the politicians to supply them with the necessary funding and legislation. It's a matter of bringing many similar companies together, to bring a lot of data together  and create the industry EPD needed. When it's an entire branch or group, it's a lot easier to move than being an individual player. Of course this requires a lot of organisation and alignment amongst the stakeholders in the industry. 

In parallel to this - we need a fast track at governmental level for new ways of building combined with historical ways of building and reintroducing them into contemporary construction, and potentially even giving dispensation for new ways of constructing with  biogenic materials.

And of course, knowledge sharing. It's so important to share all this information and to collaborate across the building industry. Some knowledge out there is very niche and therefore hard to find, so I discovered that it helps to work with different search machines and languages. So searching in French, German, Polish and other languages helps to find new companies, knowledge and products out there. There is so much out there.

Many interesting people, companies and 'environments' go under the radar or they are not even online. 

What do you imagine the built environment looking like in 2030? 

We more or less know what to do: we have to reduce our present-day consumption; build with less square metres — that counts both for the new build but also for existing structures, as it's not just a matter of restoration but also a matter of how we program these buildings  as part of a greater picture. 

2030 is pretty soon. If we haven't changed fully, I hope that at least we are on the right track. That we have dared to build in new ways by then. And more importantly, we do what we talk about, and don't just talk about it anymore. I wish to see the changes we are talking about- to see them in action to be realised. 

I also wish that we will see the responsibility from the industry itself, because what we see in the industry today is business as usual: There's a lot of resistance and lobbying going on ensuring that the present situation stays put, and this is also why things are moving extremely slowly. 

We cannot just expect that 'society will create the changes for the better for us', we have to take action ourselves first and foremost. We have to change our behaviour collectively, and every time we do something we should consider: Could I do this differently? And if not for the planet then at least for your own good conscience: no one is coming fixing it for us. 

Finally, the last question is free for interpretation. What is your advice for those who strive to change the industry for the better? 

Whatever resistance you might meet, keep going. We are obliged to do this: not only for our own survival but for the future generations. We carry a responsibility for all living species. I just think humanity can do better. I mean, we are one of the most intelligent and  conscious mammals species and we carry a responsibility for not only our own species but  also for others. Going back to the building industry, I think everyone should try their best to  work towards a green transition, and not put up barriers for others to succeed because of  business interests. And lastly, of course, we should collaborate and help each other bring on the green transition.