Design Seminar - A plan for the planet

Toby Maxwell reports from the latest FX Design Seminar, hosted by BDP and sponsored by Universal Fibers, in which experts discussed how far sustainability has penetrated the agenda of the contract design sector.

Taking part were

Theresa Dowling (chair), editorial director, FX magazine; Alistair Barr, chairman, Barr Gazetas; Philip Gray, Head of sustainability, BDP; Craig Jones, architectural director, Boon Brown Architects; Alex Michaelis, partner, Michaelis Boyd; Joe Parry, director of global marketing, Universal Fibers; Sue Riddlestone, co-founder and CEO, Bioregional; Nigel White, managing director, JDP; Simon Wyatt Associate Director, Cundall

The impact on the environment of materials and energy consumption in the contract sector cannot be overstated. Recycling, upcycling, energy consumption and sustainability in all its characteristics are critical components of the construction and design process, but are all stakeholders doing enough to enable us to make collective progress in shaping a sustainable design future?

Sue Riddlestone, co-founder and CEO, BioregionalSue Riddlestone, co-founder and CEO, Bioregional

Put into context, the scale of these issues become clear. ‘It’s a big challenge,’ said Sue Riddlestone, co-founder and CEO of sustainability charity Bioregional. ‘If you think about materials, the reality is that if everyone around the world consumed as much in terms of materials and resources as we do in the West then we would need three planets rather than just the one we have. Architects and designers in particular have an important part to play, since around 70 per cent of the environmental impact of a new building is from the chosen construction materials. It’s not just the initial creation of those buildings either – they need to be designed for dismantling so that materials can be reused.

Alistair Barr, chairman, Barr GazetasAlistair Barr, chairman, Barr Gazetas

A lot of that is just not happening at all, so there is a long way to go.’

She adds that until it becomes slick and almost second nature for everyone to be making decisions with these factors in mind, we perhaps need to draw as much attention as possible to those who are leading in this area.

‘What’s more, if through taking a zero-waste approach it is possible to reduce costs then that also helps focus minds. Getting the saving money element in there is very useful.’

Philip Gray, head of sustainability, BDPPhilip Gray, head of sustainability, BDP

Nigel White, MD of building services engineering consultancy JDP, responded: ‘I would support that. It’s all very well having an altruistic leader who is doing things on moral grounds, but most clients don’t see it like that. The prime driver is often one of cost. Most clients are looking for three-year paybacks, which is a real challenge on most of the engineering solutions that we put forward.’

Taking the long-term view

This all begs the question, will clients pay more for something more sustainable? Alistair Barr, chairman of architecture practice Barr Gazetas, said: ‘Sometimes it costs more, but if you prove that the client is getting something more out of it then it does become possible. We’re lucky enough to work with the Crown Estate and when we discuss ideas with its people they are very clear that it is far from being a short-term developer. Through its head of sustainability, on a recent Grade II listed building, they’ve charged us with the task of getting the best BREAAM rating possible. It involved committing to an extra two per cent on the budget to get it from an “excellent” to “outstanding”, but subsequently the letting agent says it is pretty sure that the building was let faster because of that.

Joe Parry, director of global marketing, Universal FibersJoe Parry, director of global marketing, Universal Fibers

‘In addition, the Crown has a “green lease” that says if it wants to move in to its building, the commercial tenant has to undertake certain things. Initially, the letting agent was concerned that it would frighten away potential tenants, but what has happened is that it attracted an interesting group of tenants drawn to the idea of a green lease and which make a great deal of it on their websites, etc.’

Chairing the discussion, FX editorial director Theresa Dowling asked: ‘But do you have to work hard to inspire other clients to take this kind of approach? Is there an education and example approach that needs to be taken with new clients?’

Craig Jones, architectural director, Boon Brown ArchitectsCraig Jones, architectural director, Boon Brown Architects

‘I think my other clients are probably bored of me talking about the Crown Estate,’ joked Barr. ‘If I get briefed on a project and it says that just an ordinary BREAAM is fine, I will try to show the client the building and use it as a marketing tool – or a marketing stick – to say that this is possible, even within a listed building in central London. I may have alienated half of my clients, but when you have such a great example to talk about, it feels like you should.’

The quest for measurable impact

So with eco-options broadening and a proliferation of sustainable certification, such as EPC, Part L and BREEAM, how have things moved on during the past 10 years? Simon Wyatt, associate director at engineering consultancy Cundall, said: ‘All the certification that we talk about are little steps but are steps in the right direction. They’re all pushing the standard forward, but it’s such a broad area and none of these things are fully proven.

Alistair Barr, chairman, Barr GazetasAlistair Barr, chairman, Barr Gazetas

They are of course a good idea but none of them can be accurately rated at the moment.’ He believes that the problem in the UK in particular is that these standards and regulations can lead to projects being at risk of ‘death by over-regulation’. ‘When BREEAM came out in the Nineties, it was a positive because you sat down with the design team and it gave you good ideas on how you could improve water consumption and energy usage. Now, it’s more like planning enforcement that requires you to get to a certain score.

Most contractors want to get to the ‘cheapest score’. There are lots of things in there that can be sustainable but tend to get lost. Is it better to spend £10,000 on something that gives you lots of sustainability benefits but only gives you one point on the scoring, or spend £2,000 on something that gives you five points and a higher rating, yet may bring no specific sustainability benefits? That’s the choice facing many contractors and developers.’

Simon Wyatt, associate director, CundallSimon Wyatt, associate director, Cundall

He added that although some clients have very well-informed sustainability teams that are fully embedded within their organisations, many other organisations class sustainability as very important to them, but often the message gets lost as it goes down the supply chain. ‘They put together briefs that are 200 pages long but which no-one reads, or they have a group of project managers who are under tight time or cost constraints to deliver projects. They may want to do the best, but at the end of the day, the key thing for them is to deliver on time and cost – they may not be fulfilling their organisation’s aspirations but they are doing their job as best they can. Unless they have clear involvement from the top, it risks getting lost for these reasons.’

Sustainable design as standard

Alex Michaelis, partner at Michaelis Boyd, said: ‘Our approach is that we should just be doing it and hardly even having the conversation with the client in terms of detailed information and explanations because they are busy and can also get bored with such detail. So it’s something we take on within the basic fabric of the buildings – almost guerrilla detailing – because the cost difference is very minimal and there are usually bigger issues to take up the client’s time with. So orientation, building fabric and cost-effective lighting are all very basic, instinctive things that designers can just get on with and do.’

Sue Riddlestone, co-founder and CEO, BioregionalSue Riddlestone, co-founder and CEO, Bioregional

Craig Jones, architecture director at Boon Brown Architects, agrees: ‘It comes under the heading of good design – creating the building in such a way that it requires the least resources to operate right from the start. It applies no matter whether you’re designing in residential or commercial; it’s the real starting point.

‘But it also depends on who exactly is the client? Our own market has moved heavily towards residential and bulk housing.

Craig Jones, architectural director, Boon Brown ArchitectsCraig Jones, architectural director, Boon Brown Architects

Ultimately, the client is whoever ends up being the people who are going to live there, either renting or purchasing. I’m not sure that they are placing enough commercial pressure on wanting better sustainability, better recycling credentials in what they’re buying. Maybe – in London in particular – the product is just too expensive in a market where the threshold is already high enough.

If you’re conscious about the clothes you wear and you want a certain material for your shirt for example, or buying organic food, or even the environmental implications of the car that you drive, it seems that the same level of awareness is just not there when it comes to the built environment.

‘So, it means that for a lot of developers there is no-one pushing them to do more beyond the basic limit of what they have to provide, and I think that’s where the problem is.’ Bioregional’s Sue Riddlestone replied: ‘But it could be used as a commercial advantage.

Nigel White, managing director, JDPNigel White, managing director, JDP

In our limited development experience, we’ve found that if you build a community for sustainable living and you highlight the features of that – which are as much social as to do with energy saving and waste – then the units will sell more quickly than a comparable development nearby.’

There is some suggestion that an openness to integrating sustainability into projects could be linked to established generational views on the topic. Philip Gray, head of sustainability at architecture and design practice BDP – which hosted the design seminar at its London offices – said: ‘The Part 1 and Part 2 architects we see arriving here are far more environmentally savvy than some of the older ones. I look in the recycling bins and there are drinks cans in the compostable bins, and it’s not the younger people in the building who are doing that, but it’s often the contractors who either don’t care or are not in tune with how we operate and the implications of not working with it in terms of landfill tax. I think over the next 10 to 15 years we will see a new generation that will be embracing and demanding these things as standard.’

Simon Wyatt, associate director, CundallSimon Wyatt, associate director, Cundall

Riddlestone said: ‘It’s not just the education of the architect, the engineer or others working within the industry. The biggest impact needs to happen with the client. You might go into a meeting with a client and they may not initially be interested in sustainability, but when you talk about One Planet Living – it is based on 10 wide-ranging principles – you can always find something within it that resonates. When you start talking about social, cultural or health and happiness elements, there is going to be something that they are interested in. Once they buy in to that, they become much more open to the process and seeing the benefits of the other parts of it. So, it’s about going to clients not with an attempt to enforce these ideas, but getting them on board with the benefits and driving it forward from there.’

Understanding the benefits

There is also the matter of understanding, however. There remains a danger of a muddling of the messages surrounding sustainable design, what it entails and the benefits it can really bring. Michaelis said: ‘It begs the question, what is sustainability? Every client will have heard 100 different things about what it actually means and they are often befuddled by so many descriptions and codes. It causes them to switch off altogether as it can be really technical. There really needs to be something written for clients that can help them understand quite quickly what each different type of code represents and what sustainability really is.’

Philip Gray, head of sustainability, BDPPhilip Gray, head of sustainability, BDP

Riddlestone suggested that her own organisation’s One Planet Living initiative goes some way towards making this whole process that much more accessible: ‘It is a framework for sustainability, based on 10 principles, thats look at water, energy and waste but also takes into account happiness, culture and community, equality. It looks at everything and can be used as an overarching framework to include the Code for Sustainable Homes, the World Building Standard, and BREEAM.’

She said sustainability is basically made up of different building blocks and everyone has different ideas on what they want to do, so using a framework that is completely holistic means they can pick and choose the parts that are best for them. If they just want to focus on minimum levels of energy consumption then they can do that, but if they want an approach that incorporates the wellbeing of their staff then that can be included too in a step-by-step approach.

Craig Jones, architectural director, Boon Brown ArchitectsCraig Jones, architectural director, Boon Brown Architects

‘Because it’s about people, how they live their lives and what they need, it means that everyone can relate to it more easily just on a human level rather than solely from a professional perspective.’

How can sustainable initiatives be driven forward? Is it a matter of letting Government set the pace for long-term change? Perhaps so, but Alistair Barr believes the industry has to step up its own efforts in the meantime: ‘I’m bored of waiting for Government to take action. As an industry, it’s for us to be selling some of these ideas to our clients. If there is a way in which we can say to potential homebuyers for example that this new house has comfort and financial benefits from being better insulated and carefully specified in terms of sustainability – and package all that up in a way that is easy to understand – then that would be a great thing.’

But what of the developers role? For them, does it all just come down to money? ‘It does ultimately, but it also comes down to what the market wants,’ said Cundall’s Simon Wyatt. ‘If you go to pretty much any office building in London, you will see that they are being let at BREEAM “excellent” because without that tenants may be looking for a “brown discount’.

Quantity surveyors will tell you that there is not really such a thing as a correlation between rating system and higher rent, but what they are seeing is tenants negotiating for rent discounts if there is no BREEAM certificate. So, it’s more of a brown discount than a green premium. There has always been the search for green premiums but it doesn’t seem to work like that. We asked quite a few heads of lettings whether anyone had ever asked about energy consumption of a building before they signed the contract and the answer was no. The people who are tasked with finding the space are not interested, and by the time those who are come on board, the location has typically already been chosen.’

Lifestyle issues

Riddlestone suggested that often when we think about sustainability from a design and architecture perspective, we can be quite preoccupied with just the building, but thinking also about how people use and live in the building, and how we can enable a healthier lifestyle is a really important approach. ‘It’s down to the One Planet Living approach – designing for a sustainable lifestyle, and by default a healthier lifestyle. We worked on a zero-carbon community in Brighton in which a couple lost around 35kg between them since moving in as their lifestyle has changed so much through walking around the city rather than driving everywhere, got involved in the community and changed their lifestyle.’

Opting for a more sustainable lifestyle is appealing to many for a host of reasons, but from a financial perspective, is it truly attainable for everyone? Given the high levels of personal debt in wider society, will the future generation be in any position to negotiate green deals on the financial back foot? Wyatt responded: ‘Not until the housing crisis is resolved. You could pretty much build any kind of residential space right now and it would sell. There are companies that have put properties on the market without openable windows because they’ve been put up as quickly as possible and they’ve still sold in a matter of seconds.’

Nigel White, managing director, JDPNigel White, managing director, JDP

Craig Jones of Boon Brown Architects added: ‘There’s a lot of disjointed thinking, but the industry is moving forward positively. It’s just that sometimes it’s only small steps. Prefabrication for example, is making a difference.

It has become a no-brainer to pre-manufacture certain utilities so that sections can just be effectively plugged in, saving time and with no waste. That then leads to modular construction, and I believe the investment in this type of construction has been phenomenal in the UK in past 12 to 18 months. It’s still a very small percentage of potential construction overall, but it can only grow as people start to see its benefits. Factory construction and modular techniques can ultimately help to reduce waste.

‘With developing technology and 3D printing there are plenty of people out there trying to create that first built form using those techniques. A lot is going to happen, and in a short timescale we will see some quite significant advances, but fighting against that right now is the continuing housing crisis and the need to just “build build build”.’

A clearer path

Taking the guesswork out of the process is also an important factor said Riddlestone. ‘One thing we’ve found that makes a difference is giving people “toolkits”. We’ve done this with One Planet Living with the idea being that users can easily access and share knowledge.

What is also important though is to ensure that the “performance gap” on green development is kept to a minimum. A designer can create a highly sustainable plan for a project but contractors and sub-contractors come in and don’t always implement it in the way in which it was intended. Primarily it’s a skills issue and especially about having good communication at the right stages of the project.’

JDP’s Nigel White said: ‘It’s inherent in the process of competitive tendering. If you’re looking for the lowest price, contractors are going to tender for the lowest price, and they’re going to look for the lowest price from their sub-contractors. Somewhere along the line, someone is going to be cutting corners to get that price down.’

BDP’s Philip Gray said: ‘It has been a problem over a number of years on projects where the designer hands the project over to the construction teams and then never get to see it again. There is a real oversight here in not having the designer go back to check that things are working as originally planned. As designers, we can propose all sorts of snazzy and innovative solutions but often never get to see if they were fully implemented or used as we expected them to be used. It’s a fundamental flaw within the construction process that there are these two separate and distinct aspects of “design” and “build”.’

Cundall’s Simon Wyatt, saying that the Soft Landings Framework [a joint initiative of the Building Services Research and Information Association (BSRIA) and the Usable Buildings Trust (UBT) to help smooth the transition into use for new buildings] outlines how this could work, asked: ‘Why aren’t we using it? Why isn’t it embedded? For some reason people are not using it as widely as they could, but it has great potential.’ Sue Riddlestone replied: ‘We have come up with our own version of this called BEPIT (Building Energy Performance Improvement Toolkit), which is actually a very simple intervention that could save a lot of the time and expense involved in snagging. It is possible to solve these things.’

Theresa Dowling asked how important it was for architects and designers to know that the suppliers they use – and the products they provide – have the right kind of sustainable credentials. White said: ‘For some of the younger designers, it is very tempting to let a manufacturer almost do the design on a project for them but that’s the easy way out. Just getting a product in because it was the easy solution is not right and I strongly discourage that, particularly for young engineers who really have to be able to work out how to design things for themselves before they allow a manufacturer do it for them.’

Theresa Dowling (chair), editorial director, FX MagazineTheresa Dowling (chair), editorial director, FX Magazine

Alex Michaelis added: ‘You often have to go deeper to find out whether various manufacturers’ claims are really true, a bit like when food brands might say something is “organic”. We do quite a lot of work to assure ourselves about certain products.

‘We do a lot of work with existing buildings and trying – and often failing – to get people to reuse materials and change their philosophy from demolition to deconstruction. In the areas we work in, people will quite often throw away a bathroom that is only a year or so old, even if there is an opportunity to recycle or re-sell it.’

Rethink and repurpose

There is much scope for reusing materials within projects of all sizes but, says Riddlestone, it requires buy-in from all concerned: ‘You can save money using reclaimed material such as wood but there is the “fall factor” to take into account. You need to have the trade on side – it almost requires a workshop process right at the beginning of a project with all the different trades involved and including the finance director and sales people, in order to get everyone to buy in to the project. Once you’ve done that then it can work really well. And it’s a lot more fun to work on projects like that, with good team spirit from all parties and plenty of goodwill for trying to make it work.’

Joe Parry, director of global marketing, Universal FibersJoe Parry, director of global marketing, Universal Fibers

In terms of clients, are there torchbearers for sustainable design wondered Joe Parry, director of global marketing at Universal Fibers, sponsor of the design seminar. He asked the panel: ‘Is there a segment in the commercial design and build industry that is especially receptive or interested or which is challenging architects and designers to deliver more sustainability in the work that they’re doing? Is it government, education, healthcare, corporate or residential?’

Gray suggested this would be the higher education sector: ‘Students are a huge business and bring a large amount of money into these institutions. Fierce competition among institutions places great emphasis on the provision of fantastic spaces that encourage learning. If you can demonstrate this to prospective students then this can be really important for them.’

Wyatt added: ‘Universities think long-term because they build and operate the buildings. Developers elsewhere might well be interested in sustainability but they build a project, fit meters on to the utilities and then pass all responsibility for it to the tenant, so there is no further incentive for them. On any project, a client that is to operate the building going forward is generally more involved, more active and more passionate about it.’

So what does the future hold, 10 or 20 years down the line? Will a new generation care about all this as much as us – or perhaps be even more caring? ‘It’s an unstoppable trend,’ said Riddlestone. ‘I’ve always been an environmentalist but it used to be a very narrow or niche interest and one that most people didn’t even think about. Now everyone has greater awareness and it’s going through all of the professions and discussed politically on the world stage. Its profile may go up and down, depending on the politicians of the day, but I think the trend is an upwards one.’

Wyatt said: ‘There are different challenges for different generations. We talk a lot about air quality in London and how poor it is, but if you look at the historical graphs you can see it is so much better than it used to be back in the days of widespread use of coal fires. We do have challenges and there will always be challenges for the industry. Hopefully, the ones we have now will be solved in 10 or 15 years’ time and by then we will be dealing with a different set.’

Alex Michaelis, partner, MichaelisBoydAlex Michaelis, partner, MichaelisBoyd

Being bold enough to try something new is perhaps one of the issues to confront in the years ahead. Sometimes, one of the biggest obstacles to overcome is getting the client on board to try something new. Alistair Barr said that paint manufacturer Dulux had developed a system for processing the old unused paint that lurks in almost every school, college and university. The resulting paint is then about 80 per cent recycled – albeit with a restricted choice of colours. ‘Ours was one of the first projects to use this paint,’ said Barr. ‘I think within our industry we have a role to play in encouraging these sorts of innovations. Many clients are scared to be the first to try something, but if you have a client that is open to new ideas then we should be pushing that. And if it works well we should all be celebrating it and bringing it to wider attention. That’s the way you get people to invest in new products and new ideas.’

Defining Sustainability

The term is so widely used and yet is seemingly subjective enough to be open to many different interpretations. We asked participants of our latest design seminar event for their take…

Craig Jones, Boon Brown Architects

‘As an architect, I am duty bound by the ARB Code of Conduct to “where appropriate, advise clients how best to conserve and enhance the quality of the environment and its natural resources”. In parallel, I have to formulate a client’s brief to deliver the best possible design considering physical influences, planning policy objectives and financial limitations. So, design is a process of understanding the complete brief and making compromise allowances for all influences; good design achieves all these targets in equal measure and meets our aspiration to improve the environmental conditions within which we live and work.

‘From a sustainability perspective, our objective is to deliver a passive design approach to ensure that the building reacts to its environment in a positive way at the outset such that solar gain, natural ventilation and heat loss are balanced to minimise energy consumption.’

Sue Riddlestone, Bioregional

‘Sustainability is too often seen as a mystifying subject, a matter for the “experts”. It’s also often phrased negatively – limiting negative impacts, reducing carbon emissions and waste and so on. I think the way we talk about sustainability should be positive and inspirational. It should be about all of us being able to live happy, healthy lives, within the means of our one planet, and with space left for wildlife and wilderness. At Bioregional, we call this idea One Planet Living – it’s a simple and inspirational concept that everyone can understand and buy in to.’

Alistair Barr, Barr Gazetas

‘The three pillars of sustainability are environmental, economic and social. Just designing environmentally  efficient buildings is not enough and I want all our projects to begin with a discussion of how to create great places.

‘As designers, we should always be making places where people want to live, work and play. I want to create social spaces for homes, office or leisure and mixed-use schemes. That way many health and wellbeing benefits can flow from the project to reinforce the environmental and economic achievements.’

Simon Wyatt, Cundall

‘In my lifetime, I have been lucky enough to see many of the natural wonders of this planet. Sustainability to me is being able to preserve and protect it for my daughter to enjoy when she is old enough.’

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