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24May

Architecture: From Prehistory to Climate Emergency review – how energy use shapes our world

Barnabas Calder’s engaging study of construction and its environmental impact is at its best when it doesn’t dwell on ancient masterpieces

Consider the Georgian terrace, now a widely admired model of traditional city-building. Its most important material was not those of which it was ostensibly made, but coal: coal fired the kilns that made the bricks and the lime for the mortar; it helped make the glass for the large windows; it smelted and melted the iron for the railings and nails. It was burned in the fireplaces whose serried chimneys rose above the roofline, and was stored in the coal holes beneath the pavement, which were studded with the circular metal plates through which the fuel was poured.

Without coal, these houses would have required impossible acreages of forest to supply the timber to generate the heat to manufacture these products. From the mid-18th to the mid-19th century, reports Barnabas Calder, pig iron production in Britain rose by a factor of about 65, which without coal would have required an area of woodland almost the size of England.

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