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For Werner Sobek, it is an obligatory task for mankind in the coming decades: To build emission-free and with less material for more people. In the second volume of his trilogy “non nobis”, the world-renowned engineer and building researcher examines the complex boundary conditions of building in the future, and not without ambivalence.

Review by Thomas Wagner

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It is a fact that something has to change. But how this can be achieved in the construction industry is proving to be extremely complicated. If you want to win the future in this sector, you need a lot of in-depth knowledge and have to draw the right conclusions. What can be built on? What is being blocked? Which path is viable? Which one leads astray? In his foreword to the second volume of Werner Sobek’s trilogy “non nobis – on building in the future”, Ernst Ullrich von Weizsäcker makes a startling comparison: “If you equate an appropriate building standard with our own, you would have to use 1,700 gigatonnes of building materials to make this building standard possible in the Global South. That would be almost double the amount of the built environment that exists today! Such a dramatic expansion would be an ecological disaster. We must therefore develop ways and means of meeting the needs of billions of people for more constructed environment without bringing our planet to the brink of collapse.” Humanity’s duty in the coming decades is therefore obvious: learning to build emission-free for more people with less material.

Is our Present Escaping into the Past?

One of the “boundary conditions of the future” that Werner Sobek reflects on makes us sceptical: “Our present is characterised by a mass escape into the past. Never before have so many adults read so many fairytale books, never before have more retro items been sold, never before have more coloured pencils been sold to adults for colouring in colouring books on Sundays, never before have more castles been rebuilt or dragged into the centre of attention. Is this return to the dreams of the past perhaps also due to the fact that more and more citizens are plagued by fear when they think about their own future and the future of their children? A future that they can no longer shape themselves, but which is approaching them like something seemingly inevitable?” Instead of becoming nostalgic and being paralysed, says Sobek, it is important to start from what is – and ask questions about “What next?” and “Where to?”.

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Is it even Possible to Shape the Transformation?

The construction sector is responsible for a significant proportion of climate-damaging gas emissions, the consumption of precious natural materials and toxic waste. In the first volume of his trilogy, the renowned engineer and construction researcher used facts and figures to tackle the concealment of the true connections in the construction sector. In the second volume, he now reflects on the “boundary conditions” to which a view into the future is subject. You could also say that Sobek attempts to describe the conditions under which the future can still be shaped and not just endured and suffered. As he puts it, he is concerned with “the corridors of action that remain for mankind to limit global warming and the associated events and consequences to a level that will make human life on earth possible in the future”. The diverse interrelationships between the construction industry and the sectors of mobility and industry, agriculture, forestry and others make “an interdisciplinary approach unavoidable”, but also make the “horizons of observation” more complex and the “statements to be found more complex and complicated”. Although Sobek is convinced that an interdisciplinary approach is the only possible way “after decades of doing nothing” to “identify the remaining corridors for action”, he limits the scope of his perspective: The boundary conditions described and the conclusions drawn from them were “not based on sociological, political or economic positions, but exclusively on scientific and engineering positions.”

The Inverse Babylonian Problem/ Who Can Still Understand It All?

Sobek attempts a balancing act: on the one hand, he relies on detailed scientific and engineering findings; on the other hand, he criticises the fact that “the whole of science, in a complete departure from the ideals of Plato and his academy, does not attempt to understand the whole, but instead, in a highly competent manner, takes its leave of the individual”. But who, according to Sobek, is still supposed to understand the whole? He compares the current situation of mankind with the Tower of Babel: “Babel was not just about the competence to procure enormous quantities of suitable building materials, the organisation of a construction site of unprecedented size, the organisation of the workers, their food supply, their social integration or the static mastery of a building of unprecedented height. It was about understanding the whole as a prerequisite for organising its implementation.” In view of global warming, humanity is facing “an inverse Babylonian problem”, which can only be “overcome, if not at least alleviated, by a terminology that is common to all languages”. From which Sobek draws the conclusion: “This book is not about methods for erecting towers of unprecedented dimensions, but about what the foundations are for working together on the future. It is about understanding the whole.”

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The Gap between Knowledge and Action

The picture Sobek paints is not exactly hopeful: Although the looming catastrophe was already clearly recognisable, scientists had buried themselves in their specialist disciplines, politicians had only tackled the problems in a few countries and there with little courage, the population had bought ever larger cars and the like. Alarmists have been denigrated as “alarmists” or “negativists”; international conferences have in fact only led to disappointingly small steps. The agreement reached at the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris in 2015 is an exception, but its implementation is still a long time coming in many countries. “Even now,” says Sobek, “as the acceleration of global warming, population growth, resource consumption and the destruction of our environment can no longer be ignored, nothing is actually happening to prevent the approaching catastrophe. In one of the best-informed societies in human history, knowledge about the future has nothing to do with people acting for a common future.” In other words: there is not a lack of knowledge, but a lack of taking the necessary steps.

There is no Scenario of What the World Could Look Like in 2050

However, those who rely on planned action are in a quandary: on the one hand, they have to rely on detailed data and facts, but on the other hand, they are unable to grasp the whole picture. Sobek rejects apocalyptic ideas of an Armageddon or fantasies of a “reset” as well as those that the problems and consequences would have disappeared in a “post-civilisation world”. Nevertheless, he states with resignation: “To date, there is not a single scenario under public discussion about what the world could look like after 2050.” What is lacking is “a grand narrative about how humanity could live with climate change”.

When Sobek repeatedly emphasises that the cause of humanity’s current situation is “less a technical than a social and therefore to a large extent a political problem”, which is why, in order to avert the climate catastrophe, “these causes and not their technical side effects must be discussed”, the author gives the impression of skirting around the crucial issue like a cat around a bush: Sobek names the causes anchored in the current economic and social system but, lacking an overall picture, does not include them in his thoughts on the transformation of construction. Although the construction industry has begun to reduce resource consumption, climate-damaging emissions and waste generation “in some countries around the world”, Sobek says that “the big picture” is still missing in the construction industry. It is obvious that we need to move away from a Eurocentric perspective here. But does it make sense to want to tackle the problem with new standards and methods of “global relevance”, even if these are “not just standards for the poor, the hungry and those born into our world without opportunities”? There is little to criticise about the two “overarching agreements” that Sobek proposes for the development of these standards, apart from their abstract nature: “the unconditional appreciation of the other as a human being of equal dignity and the non-debatable primacy of the preservation of nature”.

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Strategies for Solving Multidisciplinary Technical Problems

Sobek’s observations refer to a large number of “boundary conditions” and “corridors” within which future options for action arise. He focuses on new global building standards, evaluates the removal of CO2 from the atmosphere and the goal of a net-zero society in 2050. He looks at emission quantities and emissions to be saved “that arise in the production, conversion and demolition phases and that comprise almost half of all emissions caused by the construction and operation of modern buildings”. Using five scenarios, he wants to open a discussion on “the extent to which it is or will be possible to provide all those living today and those born in the future with an appropriate standard of construction”. The analyses and calculations present such a complex network of what exists, what is expected and what is desirable that the task that needs to be tackled is dizzying. In all of this, Sobek analyses the social whole from the perspective of an engineer, assuming a controlled (by whom?) and differentiated ability to act, the lack of which he also laments.

Who Can Draw the Picture of the Future?

Sobek is neither a dreamer nor a visionary nor a prophet. His sober language often sounds technocratic, but avoids groundless alarmism. His idea that a “scientifically precise overall picture” is needed to initiate change is irritating: “Mankind today,” says Sobek, “cannot draw the picture it needs to understand what is at stake. This is shameful, but it is also a reflection of our society.” Would it take a courageous leap into the unknown to win the future instead? Including the confidence to be able to quickly correct failures? If we wait until all the facts are together and a complete picture of the situation can be drawn, won’t we inevitably be too late? Sobek emphasises that it is not the intention of the book to paint a gloomy picture of the future. On the contrary. He sees this volume as “a book that gives hope”. Whereby he wants hope to be understood in the sense of Ernst Bloch’s “docta spes”. For Sobek, this means: “a scientifically based approach, founded on understood facts and contexts, for the conscious and skilful development of the future”.

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Almost defiantly, he adds: “Don’t believe anyone who tries to convince you that you can’t plan for the future.” Architects and engineers have done nothing else all their lives. They know how to “perform complex planning while constantly adapting to changing boundary conditions and objectives”. But weren’t and aren’t architects and engineers first and foremost the ones who made the construction industry into what has led (among other factors) to land sealing, energy wastage, global warming and climate change? That the spear that struck the wound is also able to heal it belongs (until proven otherwise) to the realm of myth.

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Werner Sobek

non nobis – about building in the future
Volume 2: The boundary conditions of the future.

348 p., hardcover, approx. 114 illustrations & graphics, size: 22.5 x 21.5 cm,

AVEdition, Stuttgart 2023

ISBN 978-3-89986-384-0

49,00 Euro

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