‘How do we deliver a sustainable, regenerative built environment?’ The question was addressed at an Architecture Today conference hosted with Tata Steel
Sustainability Director, AECOM
Director, Bennetts Associates
Director, Adam Architecture
Senior Architect, Tata Steel
Associate Director, Architype
Can specification be a power for good?
Yes, it can if we think intelligently, design for the circular economy, and start to measure the results. These were the lessons from Architecture Today’s half-day conference ‘Intelligent Specification: delivering a sustainable and regenerative built environment’, held at London’s Building Centre.
One of the first perceived barriers to improving sustainability is the resistance of clients. But, said Peter Fisher, director of Bennetts Associates, “Things have really changed – clients are worried about how they are seen. This week, for the first time in my career, an agent asked for better sustainability”.
For both Fisher and James Todd, associate director of Architype, a commitment to sustainable design goes back decades. What is changing now is a growing desire and ability to measure just how sustainable buildings are.
Wessex Water, near Bath (2001), designed by Bennetts Associates, achieved the highest ever BREEAM rating for a commercial building at the time, and became a benchmark for sustainable buildings (ph: Wessex Water)
Fisher gave some insight into the most important issues. “Commuting transport makes the biggest contribution to personal energy use at work,” he said. “Only then does embodied energy become important.” Embodied energy plays a far larger role in a building’s total carbon emissions than energy consumption in use, now that buildings are so well insulated, he said. And in terms of the embodied energy, it is the superstructure that dominates.
Bennetts Associates revisited its headquarters building for Wessex Water, constructed in 2001, and carried out a post-occupancy evaluation. Because it was built on existing foundations, the structure had to be lightweight in order to minimise the quantity of concrete used. And at a thickness of 100mm, it proved perfectly adequate for providing thermal mass.
The cladding, on the other hand, was heavy, and made of stone from a local quarry that was specially reopened for the project. “Transporting stone more than ten miles is an issue”, Fisher said. In contrast, lighter materials can easily travel further.
Section and floor plan of Wessex Water headquarters designed by Bennetts Associates
Fisher’s other bugbear is building elements that are not necessarily needed, such as suspended ceilings and raised floors (of which the UK has 80 per cent of all those in Europe), and even plasterboard. These items have high embodied energy and need frequent replacement.
Todd agreed, and in an effort to understand more about materials and their impact, and to be able to provide better information to clients, Architype is developing an in-house database of materials. It is currently working with partners to produce a web-based interface that will embrace both materials and products.
Architype routinely applies these principles to its own buildings. For example, at the Enterprise Centre at the University of East Anglia, where the practice carried out materials mapping, it reused old laboratory desks as wall panelling.
Architype’s Coed y Brenin visitor centre in the South Snowdonia National Park (2103) was built using Welsh-grown softwoods, and sets high standards in sustainability (ph: Architype)
David Cheshire, sustainability director at Aecom, is also looking closely at the impact of materials over a building’s lifespan. When considering demolition, he suggested, “We shouldn’t let technical materials enter the biosphere”. Ideally there should be no waste from old buildings, he said. This means, for instance, building in layers, so that elements can be taken apart and materials do not contaminate each other. “Why do we glue down floors as if there is going to be a typhoon?” he asked. And, he argued, buildings should be designed both for adaptability and disassembly. This means rectilinear design, and decent floor-to-ceiling heights.
Diagrams shown by David Cheshire of Aecom outline an approach to designing for sustainability, starting with ‘building in layers’
Adam Architecture has taken this idea on board at the new community of Nansledan on the edge of Newquay in Cornwall that it has masterplanned on land largely owned by the Duchy of Cornwall. The particular nature of the client group has allowed the architect to take a long view and to set design codes and standards. Development agreements with housebuilders, and a land-pricing mechanism for new phases of development, mean that all parties have an interest in the creation of long-term value by ongoing investment in the quality of place. Adam Architecture director, Hugh Petter, explained that houses facing onto the main streets incorporate an additional 300mm of height on the ground floor than would be needed for residential use, so that they can be adapted with relative ease for commercial use if required.
Nansledan, a new residential community at the edge of Newquay, Cornwall, masterplanned by Adam Architecture for the Duchy of Cornwall (ph: Adam Architecture)
The Nansledan project looks both at social and technical sustainability, using local supply chains and, for example, making blocks from discarded china clay waste. Such reuse of materials is becoming increasingly viable, and Aecom’s David Cheshire cited a company that will take back unused paint and recycle it, reducing the price as a consequence. He argued for demountable partitions which, in buildings that are often reconfigured, makes economic sense in the medium term. He has also discovered a company that will remodel old tiles by shaving a little off the surface. The difficulty, he said, is that the tiles don’t gleam in photographs: “The shiny floor problem will be the death of us all”.
Matthew Teague, senior architect with Tata Steel, said that if buildings are to be of high quality, then the architect must have the courage to specify – and that means being confident that the risk is being carried in the right place. That should be the manufacturer’s responsibility, he argued, explaining his company’s Platinum Plus guarantee of up to 30 years.
Structural steel node at The Kelpies, Grangemouth (ph: Tata Steel)
Specification is becoming increasingly complex, but also increasingly interesting, Teague suggested. Understanding more about materials and their impacts is vital – as is having the security of a watertight guarantee. Architects are taking questions of sustainability seriously and are amassing knowledge that they are not only using but are also willing to share. In troubled and troubling times, this seminar provided plenty to feel optimistic about.