Solutions in Action

Alessia Mosci, Director MWAI talks climate change

What are some of the material and product choices that can make a big difference to the sustainable outcome of a project?

Sustainable project outcomes should be at the forefront of the design profession with many manufacturers in the construction industry having transitioned to deliver products that are more carbon efficient, if not carbon neutral, and readily available on the market. Some construction processes, on the contrary, remain a heavy burden on the planet and their use is still widespread due to lack of tested alternatives.

Thanks to recent software technology and the ability to extrapolate data from existing and renewed manufacturing process, the outcomes are now more easily quantifiable. Generally speaking, when working with existing buildings, improvements to the thermal performance and the introduction of efficient energy systems have the biggest impact on a project’s sustainable outcome. When these measures are paired with a sensitive approach to design solutions and materials, for example, by choosing products and finishes that are manufactured in the interest of environmental sustainability, it all makes for a good legacy.

New build projects are very different because every decision – from the choice of materials to its weight, density, disassembly and travel distance – all bear significantly on the outcome.

How do you look to measure the sustainable impact of your projects? Is it always a major component of your discussions with clients?

Most, if not all, of MWAI’s work involves existing buildings, often listed and always in need of substantial upgrades. We have conversations as early as possible with our clients and discuss options to reuse. These recommendations range from recycling structures and materials on site, to stripping, stocking and upcycling by making elements available to the second-hand market.

Many clients are attuned to sustainability as a business priority, but what role should architects and developers be playing in guiding or encouraging other clients about the importance of carbon neutral choices within a project?

While this is certainly true for new buildings, it can be slightly more abstract when dealing with existing buildings for lack of quantifiable data. However, existing buildings and their ability to be adapted and reused are fundamental if we want to tackle the pressing challenges of reducing CO2 emissions in the construction industry and help confront the broader challenges of climate change. Since structures are the most carbon-intensive elements, it does make sense to keep what stock exists, rather than demolish it and rebuild it.

Alessia Mosci
Alessia Mosci

What are some of the biggest obstacles you face in delivering the most sustainable projects possible, and what could be done to make it easier to deliver a more sustainable end result?

Unfortunately, we often feel there is not enough support from governing bodies on these topics and no true incentives for private owners to adapt, reuse and repurpose existing buildings. This is difficult when trying to balance design solutions and overall project costs. The good news is that we have noticed a shift in mentality, whereby in recent years clients have been prepared to engage in conversations such as capital costs vs running costs, the type of energy employed, whether certain materials are harmful to the environment and also about the impact of their personal legacy at local level – such as the building or the street – as well as at global level.

Similarly, the UK construction industry is often slow at embracing change and the specification of sustainable processes. Reclamation or recycling of certain products is made difficult by the lack of research. As architects, we can do a lot by quietly embedding processes and measures in our projects, sourcing locally, or simply by choosing manufacturers and products that don’t just offer a cost saving or offer to offset carbon but that have actually invested in change.

Has the pandemic created an opportunity for businesses to ‘reset’ their approach to carbon neutrality, or has the cost of lockdown made it more difficult to achieve the investment necessary for long-term sustainability initiatives?

The past year has been challenging but we like to think that the best outcomes are born out of hardship and that many businesses will come out more focused on sustainability, from new lifestyle choices to their sustainable impact. In the context of the climate crisis, we certainly felt more validated in our contextual work over the past ten years and compelled to do more about the sustainable reuse of buildings and the materials we choose.

Please tell us about a recent project that has demonstrated key carbon neutral solutions in action.

Over the past 12 months, like many other businesses, we were faced with the dilemma of our own workplace and whether we should invest in renewing the lease and commit to refurbishing the office space which looked tired after ten years or search for new office spaces in central London. After careful consideration, we opted to refurbish the current space and to do it in an environmentally conscious way.

We began with the main ethos of upcycling materials, and decided any new features had to be 100% natural and have true eco credentials. We chose to upcycle some of the materials we are lucky to work with on our construction sites. We selected some beautiful marble off cuts and worked with a UK installer that kindly helped us create tiles that we could then utilise in our bathroom.

We upcycled some joinery and fittings from another site rather than sending them to waste and chose to install a new flooring as the old floor boards were old and in disrepair. Once we eliminated the option of reusing the existing timber flooring and accepted that transport could not be off set, we looked for products that would be carbon neutral in their cradle-to-gate production and opted for a Marmoleum linoleum flooring by Forbo, which delivered both a sustainable outcome and a minimal seamless design.

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