Unit 17 [2023-2024] Make it Matter

Jason Coe & Lee Fox

The UK is falling behind its targets to achieve net-zero carbon emissions. We all recognise the pivotal role the built environment can play in helping the UK meet these goals. However, progress in reducing our reliance on fossil fuel-centred construction is moving too slowly. We recognise the imperative for change, but how do we take action?

Unit 17 offers a unique opportunity to break free from the constraints of the ‘tried and tested’ construction approaches and financial models that currently bind the industry. We seek to critique, challenge, and promote change by fundamentally reimagining the materials and processes we use to build our towns and cities. We will encourage our students to have a sense of agency, equipping them with the skills, tools, and confidence needed to drive transformation within the industry.

Our approach begins with a return to first principles, prompting a reevaluation of construction practices. Underpinned by a thorough focus on material innovation, we are intrigued by lessons from historical, low-tech construction methods, such as stone, earth, and timber, and the potential to adapt and reimagine them to suit contemporary needs. Simultaneously, we look to the future, examining the circularity and reuse of materials from past construction projects. Across this spectrum, we will explore the structural, environmental, and creative potential of materials and consider how our details can provide a snapshot of a wider story.

This year, Unit 17 will investigate sites of production, considering how the built environment can evolve from a source of carbon emissions into a carbon capture industry. We urge you to identify issues that deeply resonate with you and to craft unique responses to the climate crisis. Let’s look ahead to 2050; it’s rapidly approaching. What critical challenges will confront the UK? Is it more extreme versions of the present issues like overheating, mountains of waste or poor air quality? Or are there problems that are barely on our radar right now and may soon bubble to the surface?

Building upon your research focus, we will imagine how past, present and future sites of production can reverse these problems. Projects will investigate how we extract raw materials from our planet and how to procure materials for a low-carbon future. Can technological innovations help reinvent past processes or result in new emerging industries? Our interest extends to the entire ecosystem surrounding these practices, exploring opportunities to heal and rejuvenate the landscape, enhance biodiversity, create industries, and bolster local economies. Our buildings will house and facilitate these processes, developing forms that encapsulate the materiality, never forgetting the lives that they serve.

We will dive into the realm of low and negative-carbon construction methods and embrace circular economy principles by creating resource maps for natural materials and local waste streams. Our goal is to deepen your understanding of construction processes, instigating a journey of material innovation. Along the way, you will calculate the embodied carbon of your designs while considering projects throughout their lifetime, fully embracing the notion of reuse.

Overall, projects will present bold and ambitious solutions, serving as tangible, real-world, and visionary solutions that extend beyond the boundaries of our studio walls.

Image: Andrew Reynolds, Cultivating Wetness