The Victorian age in Britain witnessed the full flowering of the mineral-based economy. The efficient harnessing of steam power had been achieved, with its concomitant impact upon the subterranean extraction of coal, transforming architecture not merely formally and materially but ontologically too. This reflected what economists have described as the transition from organic to energy-intensive, carbon-based economies in the industrialised world, setting in train the now apparently irreversible and devastating conversion from fungible to consumptible modes of production. Steam-powered mechanisation through the mass combustion of carbon enabled industrialised nations to punch through the so-called ‘production ceiling' that had limited organic economies in the past. By the 1850s in Britain the burning of coal to produce heat energy accounted for some 90% of total energy consumption. Thus, compared to previous epochs of architectural production, much Victorian architecture both embodied and represented the phenomenon of machanisation as the means of this energy transfer. One of the most basic parameters of this new ontology was the vastly increased input of energy surrounding procurement and transportation of materials. Whether it be marble, stone, iron, encaustic tiles, glass, or the humble brick, all were subjected to processes of mechanisation resulting from the extraction and combustion of carbon. Consequently, the embodied energy inputs of building production increased many fold.
Drawing on the insights of leading economists, this paper seeks to explain the nature of Victorian architecture's new ontology, and how it shackles any full understanding of such architecture to an appreciation of the carbon-based economy upon which it was reliant for its existence. Highlighting specific examples, the discussion will engage with instances of this reliance through material extraction, processing, transportation, and on-site construction, suggesting that ‘Victorian architecture' was not only a new architecture of energy, but fundamentally, and because of this, one of carbon also.