8 July 2014

The Sublime and the Ridiculous

To reach the site for the school we travelled north from Gulu to Parabongo and on the way witnessed a massive highway construction project being funded and built by the Chinese.  This new road will connect northern Uganda and the border crossing into South Sudan, bringing with it both opportunities for the farmers to get their produce to new markets and threats that their land will become increasingly desirable to help feed the growing demand from China.

Typical Ugandan school building with
 uninsulated wriggly tin roof
Once in the north of Uganda we visited many schools but they were all built to the same colonial design, resembling pre-war barracks blocks with mud brick or blockwork walls, large, poorly shaded windows and single skin, wriggly tin roofs.  Inside, we witnessed class sizes of up to one hundred and fifty children being squeezed into the hot, humid, airless classrooms which must become totally unbearable when the temperature reaches the maximum 40 degrees centigrade outside.  School design is just one of the many undesirable legacies that the British have left in Uganda; the Pearl of Africa.

Hot, humid, airless interior
with class sizes up
to 150 pupils
What is truly remarkable is the contrast between the colonial “barracks block” school buildings and the beautiful, indigenous homes; composed of clusters of simple, circular huts that appear to grow up out of the landscape; in a similar way to the termite mounds that also share the land.  These homes are made from freely available local materials and use techniques that have been passed down through countless generations.

However, there is far more to the design of these buildings than that!  They are brilliant examples of bio-climatic architectural design, where every element has been carefully refined to create a comfortable, well-tempered environment inside with no energy inputs!  The heavy mud walls stay cool and reduce the internal temperature.  To stop them being heated up by the sun they are shaded by deeply overhanging roofs which also protect the mud walls from the torrential rains that occur twice a year.  They are topped by perfectly formed conical roofs, made from thin, flexible, round wood saplings, lashed together with palm fibre ribbons.

Traditional Ugandan home made of mud walls
with thick, insulating thatched roof with
deep overhanging eaves that shade the wall
The thatch covering this lean and structurally efficient frame, which is light enough to be lifted into place in one piece, forms a deep mat of plant fibres that prevents rain entering the interior.  This deep roof covering contains pockets of air that provide insulation, preventing the heat from the equatorial sun entering the interior; working in combination with the thermally massive walls to maintain a comfortable, well-tempered environment!
Cool dark interior with mud stool and
passive, evaporative water cooler 
Inside these perfectly formed, highly sustainable dwellings the furniture is also made from the earth; with stools, tables, beds and shelving units all exquisitely crafted from mud and adding to the total thermal mass to help regulate interior temperatures.  There is a seamless relationship between the fabric and furnishings that create a simple elegant domestic environment that is firm and full of  delight!

Food processor (right) and stove (left)
 both made from the earth of the site
Even domestic appliances like stoves and grain grinders are made from mud and stone and are seamlessly integrated into the walls and floor so that everything displays its relationship with the earth from which it is made.  These truly beautiful spaces reminded me of the paintings of interiors by Dutch Masters, sharing a warm, earthy darkness; providing a calming and restful counterpoint to the hot, bright, saturated colour outside.

Built-in adobe storage unit
The vision for the school we are going to help the community to build is to work with the farmers to build the school themselves so that the economic opportunities created by the construction process directly benefit the local community.  We want it to be as comfortable, elegant and sustainable as their homes and be able to be built and maintained by them.  We want to help them create a new exemplar for Ugandan school design that other communities will want to replicate.  Ultimately, we want to help them to avoid the mistakes that we have made in the so called developed world and in so doing help us to see how we can develop our own new sustainable architecture by rediscovering the lessons of our bio-climatic, vernacular.

Ultimately, I believe that it is essential that we return to designing buildings which are directly shaped by their climate and made from locally available and plentiful materials if we are to meet our needs in a sustainable manner; weather that is in Uganda or Britain.  To help us to realise this dream please donate to Pop-up Foundation so that we can commence the realisation of the vision!

Come on IKEA; do the Right Thing!

Sainsbury's pioneering eco store
threatened with demolition
 by IKEA after less than 15 years
IKEA’s decision to demolish Sainsbury’s pioneering eco store on the Greenwich Peninsula after less than 15 years is both shocking and enlightening.  As everyone knows IKEA understand sustainability; right?  Their Calvinist heritage values the notion of the collective good, thrift and endurance and this philosophy is embedded in the IKEA corporate mission statement:

"Our vision is to create a better everyday life for the many people."

They develop upon their corporate mission statement, expanding it into their customer proposition:
"Offering a wide range of well-designed, functional home furnishing products at prices so low that as many people as possible will be able to afford them."

So how can it be that a company with such a powerful and a clearly articulated vision can believe that it is acceptable for them to be responsible for the senseless destruction of a pioneering eco building after less than 15 years?  I would argue that their unacceptable behaviour on the Greenwich Peninsula is driven by an obsession with cost not value and that this is distorting their decision making, leading to outdated thinking that is not relevant to the specific demands of the many people who occupy our crowded island; let alone the residents of Greenwich Peninsula who already suffer from dangerously high levels of atmospheric air pollution caused by road traffic.

IKEA Southampton integrates their
offer into a city centre context
well served by public transport
Prior to the recession IKEA delivered two stores in Coventry and Southampton that sort to evolve a development model that retained their distinctive blue and yellow presence but designed a solution to work in harmony with, rather than to the detriment of their host communities, locating them in urban locations, well served by public transport and adjacent to existing retail centres.  At this point I should say that we worked with IKEA on their Hillingdon and Southampton projects, so have an in-depth knowledge of both the process and the resultant development; so it is uncomfortable to say the least advising a client that what they are doing is unacceptable and in conflict with their published sustainable development objectives.

We live in an increasingly resource constrained  world, where there is growing concern about the availability and price of many common building materials, so to senselessly destroy a perfectly serviceable building after less than 15 years, is in my view immoral and totally unacceptable.   Customers expect corporations like IKEA and Sainsbury’s to do the right thing when selecting and sourcing products, undertaking their business activities and helping their customers to minimise their impacts on the environment; but fail to see the hypocrisy that is implicit in promoting demolition.

IKEA Hillingdon scheme included a store
 with direct access to the tube
 at the end of an existing High Street
 along with 200 affordable homes
Sainsbury’s justify their position by saying that building technology has moved on since the building was completed and that their new store will use the latest technology!  Does it therefore follow that they will be closing all of their branches over fifteen years old: clearly that would be ridiculous!  If it were not for the restrictions that they have placed on the building preventing it being re-let to one of their competitors, it would not now be threatened with demolition.
IKEA say that they intend to recycle the small portion of the demolition waste pile that they create and are also going to use a green roof on their new store.  When you bear in mind that the proposed building will be over twenty meters tall I am not sure what they believe this will achieve for local residents, but the fact that they are happy to state this as some form of compensation smacks of tokenism of the worst possible kind.

IKEA are about to submit their Reserved Matters Planning Application and once that has been rubber stamped by The Royal Borough only English Heritage and the Secretary of State can save the building!  Catherine Croft, Twentieth Century Society Director said that:
“Not only would the demolition of such a recent building be a tragic waste of energy and resources, but this supermarket is outstandingly important. It is the most innovative retail store to have been built in the UK in the last 50 years.”
It still seems inconceivable to me that either IKEA or Sainsbury’s are happy to have their brands associated with an act of such wonton destruction but they appear not to care!  Last weekend, local residents who started a campaign “No IKEA Greenwich Peninsula”, held a protest picnic in the eco-garden planted by the Woodland Trust behind the store.  They oppose the loss of a culturally significant public building and the introduction of a large, car dependant store into the heart of their community, which already experiences some of the worst air pollution in London.

I believe that many retail companies view their property activities as not really core business and are therefore able to convince themselves that different standards of behaviour apply to their property activities.  IKEA would not buy up millions of pounds worth of second hand, perfectly functional home furnishing products, only to then senselessly smash it up; as this, they would rightly judge, to be unacceptable behaviour!  Yet this is exactly what their property department are proposing!

Come on IKEA, do the right thing, remove the threat of demolition from a pioneering eco building that is less than fifteen years old and think again.  Develop a proposition that meets the needs of the many people of London by developing a store directly served by train or tube and built with the same care, craftsmanship and environmental stewardship that you demand from you furniture.

1 May 2014

Uganda Balanced on a Knife Edge

A beautiful organic farm
 in Northern Uganda
Having recently returned from Uganda I am trying to readjust to life in London.  In the week that I spent there with Alison Hall from Pop-Up Foundation we packed in a lot.  She was keen to show me a number of schools in the country so that I could understand more about the challenges that we would need to overcome in building our school.  I was keen to meet the farmers who are our clients for the project and to explore the materials and techniques that they use to build their own homes, as our project is going to be self-built by them for their community and so that they retain the majority of the value that the construction process will create.

What I was not prepared for was the shocking stories of the people that I met, the reign of terror that they had experienced and the inspirational way they are now rebuilding their shattered lives.  I was vaguely aware of the Lord’s Resistance Army, but had no real understanding of the terror that they perpetrated throughout northern Uganda during their 20 year assault on the people of the region.
Annette a Child Mother and
aspiring national team goalie
We met a group of child mothers, all of whom gave birth under the age of thirteen, following abduction and rape by the rebels.  One young woman, called Annette, told her own personal horror story of how she was forced to dance on her dead mother’s body before being made to carry her severed head.  Today, after years of help and support by her community she is the statuesque goal keeper in her local football team and has been spotted as a potential star of the future, aspiring to playing in Uganda’s national side.
For me the people that left the strongest impression were a group of farmers who were all HIV Positive, many as a result of sexual violence inflicted during the conflict.  Working together they have rebuilt their burned out homes, replanted their staple crops and are now expecting their first coffee harvest, from seedlings provided by Seeds for Development, planted three years ago.  They were happy and healthy and provided a shining beacon of hope for other suffers of this dreadful disease along with a fantastic demonstration of the ability of the human spirit to overcome outrageous adversity.
The truly inspiring
 happy and healthy
 HIV positive farmers
In many ways northern Uganda is balanced on a knife edge and the decisions that its leaders take will define the future for many people.  During the conflict agriculture was almost entirely suspended for twenty years, with farmers forced into government camps for their own protection.  Anyone found outside the camp fences was assumed to be a rebel; and shot.  The legacy of this terrible period is fertile, organic land, rich in nutrients.

Currently, everything that is grown in this region is organic, as fertilizers are too expensive for farmers to consider and yields are naturally high.  With global pressure to increase food production it will not be long before the fertilizer salesmen come knocking on the door with their promises and lies and it is in my opinion essential that markets are available to allow farmers to secure the premium that their organic produce deserves so that they can make informed decisions about their future.

The journey from our southern base in Mokono, a suburban town outside Kampala to Gulu, the location of one of the largest camps in the north, took six hours on roads varying from modern tarmac to rough, red dirt tracks.  On the way we passed a varying landscape that was green and verdant even though it was the end of the dry season.  We experienced sudden torrential showers that turned the wide ditches on either side of the road into turbulent rivers of rust red water.  We also passed the first signs of change, with huge areas of land totally cleared of all trees, shrubs and plants ready to be sown with GMO seeds.  I had not realised that these crops do not provide fertile seeds, so when this change is made it ties farmers into buying more each year.  It would appear that much like the British created mono-cultural plantations of sugar cane and tea during the colonial period, there are now significant pressures to see this form of agri-business become the dominant agricultural model.

Uganda is rightly described as the Pearl of Africa but it is a pearl balanced on a knife edge and must avoid the mistakes that we have made and achieve truly sustainable development that is socially equitable, economically sustainable in the long term and achieved with the minimum impact upon the environment.  It must not be allowed to become the dumping ground for the outdated products of global corporations or be seduced by outmoded short term thinking that is not in the people’s best interests but will bring rich rewards to the powerful few.

17 April 2014

Made in Uganda: A Sustainable School

“How would you like to design and build a sustainable school in Uganda”?

Not the sort of question that you expect to be asked at an Awards ceremony; but then the 2Degrees Awards are not your run of the mill event!  The person asking the question was Alison Hall of Seeds for Development and Pop-Up Foundation.  She and Paul Clarke were very happy because they had just picked up their awards for Solution of the Year; I on the other hand was not; as I had not!
Beautiful traditional homes
 built from mud, thatch
 and small diameter timber
So we started working with Alison and Paul to design the school to be built on a site in Arugudi Village, Northern Uganda.  From the first discussions it became clear that there was a powerful meeting of minds about how the school should be conceived.  We wanted collectively to create an enduring, local solution that the community could build, maintain and run, using locally sourced and easily available materials and technology.  We wanted to develop and improve upon the existing vernacular architecture, breaking the colonial tradition of breeze block and wriggle tin that dominates most local school design.  We were also keen to avoid too much architecture and wanted to strive to find simple easy and efficient solutions to problems, so that we could provide an adoptable precedent that could be applied by other communities throughout the region. 

It quickly became apparent that one of the biggest challenges would be around water and sanitation.  It has long been recognised that female education is the key to unlocking development, yet currently most girls leave school when they reach puberty due to a lack of basic sanitation.  One of the first actions in making the school will be the sinking of a borehole to provide a supply of water for drinking and personal hygiene.

Human waste is a major health hazard, so we have developed the design of the school around an anaerobic digester that will process this material, from hazardous waste into a series of useful nutrients.  Solids and liquids will be turned into fertiliser, used to grow crops that will provide lunch for children.  The methane gas from the process will be collected and used to cook lunch, removing the need for timber or charcoal for cooking.

The school buildings will all be built by the community and their design has been heavily influenced by the local vernacular tradition of simple circular huts, with “adobe” earth walls and conical thatched roofs.  We believe that it is essential that local, freely available materials are used, so that the environmental footprint of the development is minimal, material costs are virtually eliminated and the skills and knowledge of local people are valued and developed.

However, this philosophical approach presented a significant challenge, since during the recent armed conflict many people were injured or killed when the thatched roofs of their homes were set on fire with them in them!  There is now strong resistance to thatch and we are exploring other alternatives, including exploring the use of fast growing bamboo to form both the roof structure and make bamboo roof tiles, due to its inherent fire resistance.

The conceptual layout of the school is less a plan,
 more an "aunt Sally" to be challenged, questioned and adapted
 by the farming community who we will help to build their own school

To help simplify and speed up the adobe wall construction we are developing a simple hand press that will produce regular shaped and sized mud bricks that can either be dried in the sun or using a parabolic solar oven, that can also be used to cook food once construction is complete.

The classrooms are hexagonal spaces capable of accommodating 50 children each, arranged in clusters of five to allow one teacher to oversee up to 250 children when necessary.  The space enclosed by the classroom cluster will be shaded by a tree to create a cool external shared amenity space, with large over sailing roofs reducing solar gains and providing shelter from monsoon rains.  Light will be provided within the classrooms by plastic water bottle rooflights that refract natural light through water to produce the equivalent of 50W light bulb.

The school site will also include a demonstration home where the community will come to learn about how they can reduce their impact through the adoption of new technologies like solar stoves, improve sanitation by installing simple tip taps so that they can easily wash their hands and learn to make and install water bottle rooflights.

So after nine months of research and development I shall be leaving for Uganda on Sunday.  I have had my jabs, started taking my malaria meds and am feeling both nervous and excited.  It will be my first visit to Africa and I am sure that I will learn a lot in the week that I am there.  One thing is certain, the discipline of designing using local materials and labour will certainly provide valuable learning that we will apply to projects at home.  Just imagine what our economy and buildings would be like if we could only use locally available labour, materials and technologies?

6 March 2014

Black Thoughts on EcoBuild

It has been a totally surreal twelve hours; last night I was at Royal Greenwich to witness the planning committee rubber stamp the outline consent that will permit the destruction of Sainsbury’s Greenwich, one of the most innovative and pioneering public eco-buildings, and then next morning off to EcoBuild to be bombarded by every kind of product, all pitched with an eco-spin.  I guess if we are going to demolish our best building after less than 15 years we really need to question the benefit of investing time, effort or energy to improve building performance; but that discussion can wait for another day!

Solar powered alternative
 to kerosene lamps
 supplied by Charity Solar Aid
My mission this morning was to search out the small and the innovative and I have to credit the organisers of EcoBuild, because they were far better represented than at previous shows.  I would suggest that visitors start their visit, as I did, by heading for Resource Area (Realising the Opportunities of a Circular Economy).  Within this co-located event, is a wide range of small education, charity and SME businesses all working to promote resource efficiency and reduce waste. 

The Royal College of Art are promoting their SustainRCA initiative providing education, research and consultancy for businesses.  The Great Recovery challenges the current economic and environmental model of take, make, dispose manufacturing.  They promote a shift towards more circular systems and believe good design thinking is pivotal to this transition. The Great Recovery is building new networks to explore the issues, investigate innovation gaps and incubate new partnerships.

&SHARE are a resource sharing enterprise that provides an insurance backed platform to encourage organisation to meet and share their resources, including workspace, equipment, skills or data.  They also offer users the opportunity to choose to work with businesses and non-profit organisations in their local area.  In a similar vein, restart provide training for individuals, groups and organisations on how to repair our electronic gadgets, helping to reduce the 23% of functioning equipment taken for disposal.
The combination of environmental and economic sustainability drivers being linked to positive social outcomes was a feature of many of the most interesting propositions as was the increased diversity of organisations represented.

Goldfinger Factory is an upcycling production and learning hub for London’s most deprived residents, selling desirable home furnishings and fit-outs for London’s trendsetting residents and businesses.  Based at the bottom of the iconic Trellick Tower by Erno Goldfinger, they must have one of the most desirable factory locations in London!  They provide free workshops for the local community in furniture up-cycling, DIY and interior design as well as accredited training, work skills experience and ultimately create new job opportunities.

Among the acres of PV on show, coming mainly from China, were a number of smaller organisations offering renewable energy storage and optomisation solutions.  My favourite show giveaway was a Cadbury’s Boost bar from SOLARiBOOST (do you see what they did there?) a low cost device which uses a domestic hot water cylinder to store electricity from PV panels as heat, removing the need for a separate solar hot water systems.
Similarly, Maslow provides modern, high performance battery storage of renewable energy used to power direct current (DC), LED lighting systems and other DC equipment, without the need for wasteful power supply adaptors.  It is great to see these storage technologies coming to market and challenging the assumption that renewables will be unable to meet our future energy needs due to their inherent, intermittent availability.

The UK timber industry was well represented under the inspirational Grown in Britain banner and included a particularly good stand from English Woodland Timber Ltd who offer a wide range of shingles, timber cladding and other products made from locally grow timber, along with larger section sizes, seasoned in West Sussex and suitable for a wide range of specialist joinery applications.  I would love to see the Grown in Britain idea developed into building projects that are Made in Britain, to create jobs, preserve value from construction locally and ultimately help rebalance our economy.

I was surprised and delighted to see Rentez-Vous a marketplace that allows individuals to hire out their under-utilised designer clothing represented.  It is interesting that they see value in presenting their service to the EcoBuild audience and I hope that this trend for diversification is encouraged and supported by favourable terms for charities, non-profit organisations and start-ups in the future.
My most surprising product of the show was a high performance pet door from petwalk which they claim offers great design, comfort, energy saving and protection for you and your pets.  My only reservation is whether our two Dachshunds, Hyphen and Ditto are bright enough to work out how a door works?  At least it can be programmed to open automatically when the door senses their identity chips!

Best visual aid was by Giraffe Innovation Ltd who produced a statue of a person and scaled their hands, feet, stomach and mouth to represent the impact of their carbon footprint and then provide recommendations on how to Change Your Habit.

I had a really interesting discussion with Solar Aid provides low cost solar powered alternatives to expensive, polluting and dangerous kerosene lamps and we shall be exploring opportunities to collaborate on our sustainable school project in Uganda after my site visit at the end of the month.

In summary, I would say that uncertainty over the Green Deal has significantly reduced the number of refurbishment products on display and that wind turbines have disappeared almost completely, to be replaced by an explosion in PV and biofuel systems.  The Green Fringe and Resource Co-located event are both good initiatives which have helped to make this show more interesting and relevant than it has been for some time.  I would love to see the diversity displayed in the exhibition reflected in the wider conference programme and would encourage the organisers to seek out the innovative and inspirational work of the many smaller organisations who struggle to get their story’s told in mainstream media.

5 March 2014

The Time for Rhetoric is Over!

The time for rhetoric is over; what we need now is concentrated and concerted action leading to actual strategic change!

It is my belief that we are at a cross roads in the evolution of sustainable development in the UK and that the choices that we make in the next decade will radically shape the nature of our economy, environment and society for the rest of the next century.  Get our choices right and we will make the transition to a zero carbon economy and develop the tools, techniques and products to help less developed nations achieve similar benefits.  However, if we get it wrong and allow short-term, poor strategic thinking to dictate our choices, we will see the rapid destabilisation of our economy and environment, creating a perfect storm that we will be increasingly powerless to arrest.
One of the first issues that we will need to decide upon which will have a major influence on our future is the relationship between energy demand and supply.  We know that we need to renew  our power infrastructure and that this will significantly increase our energy costs, yet we are rushing headlong into signing contracts for foreign built and operated nuclear power stations, although we have done virtually nothing to refurbish our poorly performing existing building estate.  Surely a programme of demand reduction must be undertaken before we are locked into onerous and expensive energy supply contracts that will last for the next 50 years?

In our rush to make inappropriate and short term choices we are, in my opinion, also embracing fracking with unseemly haste!  Did I miss something, or is “natural” gas not a non-renewable fossil fuel just like the stuff that we previously got out of the North Sea before we used it all up?  How are we going to prevent the worst effects of climate change if we are simply to maintain our reliance on fossil fuels?  We need a renewable energy strategy and to develop appropriate expertise to drive the transition to a post-carbon Renewable Age.  This will provide a clear vision for economic development, help to develop new green tech businesses and provide the impetus for training and skills development.

To effectively manage our activities, the construction industry must work tirelessly to achieve positive social outcomes and ensure that all of our products are tailored to fit the people who will use them.  We must urgently invest in R&D to increase our collective knowledge base and ensure that the gap between predicted and actual performance is closed.  We need to adopt User Centred Design methodologies that will ensure that buildings are fit for human occupation, breaking the tyranny of the image which forces people to inhabit ever more contorted forms conceived with no thought to the effects that they will have upon their inhabitants.  This will only be achieved when we radically improve the way we procure design and fully embrace intelligent, evidence based team selection protocols.

Ultimately we need to develop a model for integrated sustainable development where social drivers are placed at the epicentre of the design process with both economics and environmental issues thoroughly address and reconciled.  We need to find appropriate and relevant solutions that will drive through the paradigm shift that we desperately need if we are to address the pressing concerns of our age and create enduring value for those who will follow us.

This piece is also published in the UK Green Building Council(UK-GBC) publication:

A defining decade:
Radically transforming the built environment by 2025
A collection of essays from UK-GBC's Leaders' Network


19 February 2014


Whatever platitudes our politician’s come up with to justify their negligent lack of investment in energy efficiency and low carbon supplies, I believe that we must now accept the inevitable; the cost of running our homes is likely to increase dramatically! In response to this I believe that the FutureHaus will be sold not on what it cost to run but instead on the energy yield and income that they can deliver to occupants.  I believe that the design of the home is on the threshold of a period of rapid and dramatic change.  Energy costs and concern regarding energy security, coupled with technological innovation will see the home moving from a consumer to a producer of energy. 

Smart systems will store excess energy in household appliances including hot water cylinders, fridges and freezers and new technologies will make battery back-up an affordable option to run the home overnight.  A new generation of small scale, building integrated wind turbines, concealed in roof ridge tiles, will silently and invisibly harness the wind to provide the majority of power during the winter months.  Even human waste will be processed within the home by small scale anaerobic digesters, designed to look like other domestic appliances, that can be integrated into the interior of the home and provide both heat and power, along with limitless amounts of compost to feed the organic fruit and veg grown in the rooftop allotment.

The major challenge of our age will be the retrofitting of our existing building stock; 80% of which will still be in use by 2050.  This represents a massive opportunity for trusted organisations to offer customers the advice and help that they require to bring their homes up to the carbon positive standards required.  As new green technologies mature, their costs will reduce making them affordable solutions for the vast majority of customers.  We will need to find affordable, less disruptive ways of insulating large numbers of solid wall housing and this offers a significant opportunity for job creation and growth in the wider UK economy.  The technology in the home will need to be managed and updated and this will see the growth in new service offerings that will maintain the performance of the home in a similar way to the role that the garage plays in helping keep your car on the road.

As homes move towards zero carbon and on to carbon positive, a series of exciting opportunities will emerge.  The home will be able to become the fuel station for the car, charging its batteries with clean solar energy.  Solar hydrogen panels will provide the fuel for a cars hydrogen fuel cell, with the same system used to power and recharge the home when the car is in the garage.  Technologies that store thermal and electrical energy will develop rapidly and will remove the concerns that customers may have about the intermittent nature of renewable technologies.

Timber used for construction will continue to expand, but there will be an increasing demand for locally grown timber that creates forestry jobs in the local market and where the value added through converting lumber into timber products benefits the local economy.  In areas like the UK where land for forestry is restricted this is likely to drive the development of engineered timber products like Structural insulated Panels (SIP’s) and structures made from round wood, forestry thinning’s, will use limited amounts of material in very structurally efficient arrangements.

Timber waste will be converted into wood flour or chippings and used in combination with recycled post-consumer waste plastics to form a range of extruded sections that will be able to be used for both structural and non-structural application.  Waste paper and card will be used to make high performance structural tubes, achieving the carbon sequestration benefits of timber while reprocessing and upcycling locally derived waste.  Ultimately the notion of waste will become obsolete, with all material reprocessed to create new, high value products, creating jobs and helping to grow our local green economy.

Manufacturing technologies including 3D printing and CNC machining will allow manufacturing to be relocated from the Far East and undertaken within local markets once more, saving cost, time and emissions associated with existing long logistics supply chains.  New manufacturing technology will offer the possibility for products like flat pack furniture to be designed and manufactured in store,  allowing all customers the opportunity to become designer, customising products to satisfy their own unique requirements.

Ultimately I believe that we are on the threshold of a new age where homes are designed not simply to provide shelter but to make a positive contribution to the economic and environmental as well as the physical wellbeing of occupants.  This will demand new solar settlements, innovative residential design and integrated and intelligent utilities.  If anyone out there fancies joining me in the quest to develop the FutureHaus, along with the settlements that it will create, please give me a call!

13 November 2013

Save Sainsbury's Greenwich

So it is now official, Sainsbury's are to close their pioneering low energy supermarket in Greenwich after being open for less than 15 years and if approved it will be demolished to make way for an IKEA.  So a building that was awarded the RIBA Journal Sustainability Award in 2000 and was shortlisted for the Stirling Prize, the largest prize in British Architecture, the same year will be torn down after such a short period of time with barely a passing comment.

Is the sun about to set on
Sainsbury's Greenwich
 after less than 15 years trading?
We'll not as far as I am concerned!  You see I spent nearly five years of my early career developing the concept for what was then a pioneering development.  My team spent long hours designing a building that would redefine retail architecture and challenge the belief at the time, that all retailers required from their buildings was something to keep the customers, the technology required to moderate the internal environment and the fridges and freezers out of the rain.  The norm was for a dark, windowless interior, that was ultimately little more than a poorly built and badly performing shed, with no consideration given to customer comfort.  Lighting, heating and cooling were all achieved with inefficient mechanical systems, that wasted energy and did nothing to improve the conditions that customers were expected to endure.

So why is it considered obsolete and ready for demolition after such a short period of time?  On one level it is a victim of its own success; as since opening it has been well received by customers, achieving the highest Customer Satisfaction Index score for any Sainsbury's within the first year of trading.  As the number of people living on the peninsular has increased the store trade has outgrown the building and Sainsbury's want to move 500 meters away to a new store that will be three times the size and offer food and non-food along with an internet hub to serve online customers.  So the building is well liked and successful but still cannot find an alternative use?

So this is what gets me really annoyed, the reason why it cannot be relet to another tenant is that Sainsbury's will have in place a restrictive covenant on the building as part of their deal with the developer of their new store, preventing it from being used for food retailing.  I believe that this is anti-competitive and is a flagrant abuse of the planning system which originally granted consent for the development.  I have good memories of many meetings with English Partnerships and the London Borough of Greenwich as they considered our proposals and ensured that they were in keeping with local and national planning policies.  This process placed restrictions on the eventual consent including a requirement to review and reduce car parking provision over time and another to prevent extension in the first 10 years.  What none of us envisaged at the time was that once consent was granted it could be removed by Sainsbury's without any further democratic consideration and that by granting consent for retail use they could both have their cake and eat it, benefitting from the enhanced value of the asset that the consent crystallised but able to limit its scope so that only non-competing retailers could benefit when it no longer fulfilled Sainsbury's requirements.

To destroy an exemplar of
sustainable design best practice
 would be an act of vandalism
 that must not be permitted
This cannot be right.  If this restrictive covenant were not in place I am sure that there would be a long list of food retailers who would be only too willing to move in and pay the generous rents common in the sector.  The buildings would continue to be economically sustainable, the community would have a greater choice of where to shop and the environment would not be impacted by the destruction of carbon intensive construction after such a pitifully short period of time.  I feel very passionate about this; no architect should see their work destroyed as a result of underhand, un-democratic behaviour and not object.  The building is a good building and should not be demolished.  It must become a test case for the rhetoric that is now widely exposed by the sector to justify its dominant position in the nation's food supply chain.  It is not acceptable to promise communities sustainable development to gain planning consents simply to renege on those undertakings when it suits.  The government must urgently review restrictive covenant legislation to close this anti-competition loophole to prevent more perfectly serviceable buildings being destroyed to safeguard the self-interest of food retailers or others who would limit the use of land or buildings that they no longer require.  A free market must demand that this is the case and that the local communities that grant consent must be the ultimate arbiters of what can and cannot be done on any site.  If not, there is a real threat that the sector will be painted with the anti-competitive criticism that Tesco has previously been accused of.
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2 October 2013





1. The art or practice of designing and constructing buildings from the outside in.

2. Architecture where the style and appearance of a building is of ultimate importance

3. The creation of hollow and meaningless iconography which is ultimately inhumane and irrelevant to the concerns of our age.



While studying to be an architect I remember a lecture from Jeremy Lowe, our History tutor, on the evolution of styles in architecture.  It transpires that there are three distinct stages in the evolution of any particular style.  Initially, when a new style is first established it manifests itself in a rather crude manner.  Once people have worked out the underlying rules and principles and mastered their application, the trues and purest manifestation of the style emerges, often referred to as the “high” period; for example “high gothic”.  The final phase in the evolution of a style is characterised by pastiche as characteristics, elements and forms become over-elaborate and exaggerated, often to the point where the original characteristics are caricatured and become almost unrecognisable.

So you may ask, what has all this “arty bollocks” got to do with buildings, architecture and sustainability?  Well, it is my belief that we are on the threshold of a period of rapid and revolutionary change and that when we examine the buildings that we are making now it is clear that we are witnessing the death of modernism, as we make way for a new sustainable architecture.  Many of the most iconic buildings realised over the recent past are caricatures, the architectural equivalent of “gurning”, with designers trying to outdo each other with more complex and contorted form; with ever diminishing relevance.  Take for example, the Olympic swimming pool, the Walkie Talkie or at a smaller scale the ArcelorMittal Orbit.  Each one invests significant money, materials and energy to take a perverse shape which offers little or no additional value to the user experience.

Olympic Swimming Pool:
"Would you like wedges with that"?
The swimming pool was too small during the games, requiring two large wedges to be jammed into its flanks to accommodate the required seating.  While I am sure that it will win the Stirling Prize next year, because it is so achingly beautiful, in a time of austerity, I believe that we should demand more than dumb beauty from a public building costing more than £250 million and let’s not forget that the practice pool is not even naturally lit and the tall, arching north east and south west facades are fully glazed with no external shading and will suffer from both excessive solar gains and thermal losses.

The car melting genius of
the Walkie Talkie building
The Walkie Talkie building, nearing completion in the City, is only distinguished by is bulky deep plan and the random curves of its facades.  There have already been complaints that the fully glazed, concave south elevation is causing some unforeseen impacts on it immediate context, acting as an enormous focusing mirror and cooking cars and people on the surrounding streets!  Just think what could have been achieved if the manipulation of the suns energy had been part of the brief for the development rather than an unfortunate, unintended consequence!  It could have resulted in the design of an office tower where every desk received generous daylight, where glare was prevented by intelligent façade design and where every occupant was within 7 metres of a window and a view.

The contorted, "gurning" nightmare
 that is the Orbit Tower
In many ways I find the Orbit Tower the most disappointing of all; I have a great respect for the work of Anish Kapoor and the way he combines material and form to change our perception of ourselves and the world we inhabit.  I believe that the ability of the artist to make people think differently about the planet and our relationship with it is a powerful weapon in the battle to prevent climate change.  Works like his Cloud Gate in Chicago harness form to change the viewer’s perception of both the city and themselves.  However, the Orbit Tower, in my opinion, lacks any philosophical intent and instead resorts to meaningless shape making.  There is an almost wilful disregard for structural logic and materials efficiency that results in a structure lacking in grace and elegance, looking like it is the aftermath of a catastrophic structural failure.  Surely not the finest work from the team at Arup’s, although it is slightly reassuring to see that engineers are as susceptible to the cult of the meaningless icon as architects are.

So I would like to propose that we create a new category for these stylistically driven projects, “archicouture” and let it embrace any work that places shape making and formal gymnastics at the centre of the design process.  Then let’s make a rule that says, like couture in fashion, it is only acceptable for work of this type to be undertaken for the sole use and occupation by wealthy, private clients and that these buildings are only used by the public on a totally discretionary basis.  Then we can focus our resources on the development of projects that are anti-iconic and instead are focused on the wants, needs and desires of their intended users.  We can insist that proposals are philosophically rather than stylistically driven and that procurement processes judge intent rather than appearance when selecting teams for all publically accessible buildings including schools, hospitals, shops, offices and crucially housing.  The revolution, as Billy Bragg once said, is only a tee shirt away, so let’s make it an organic, fairtrade, unbleached and vegetable dyed one!

13 August 2013

Let There be Light

Someone famous once described architecture as the manipulation of space with light and it has long been understood that daylight has a powerful effect on both our physical and mental wellbeing.  So you would have thought that we would have reached a consensus about what represents adequate daylighting within a building and would only allow buildings that meet this standard.  Well surprisingly this is far from the case and in fact many of our most iconic offices are badly lit, hampering the effectiveness of the people forced to occupy them!
Architecture the manipulation
of space with light
It is interesting to note that while there are standards defined in the Building Regulations for most aspects of building design those relating to natural lighting are not very onerous, only requiring a bare minimum of a 2% daylight factor for 80% of the floor area.  This means that a fifth of any floorplate can be built that does not meet even this minimum standard.  In a typical city tower with a central core the area of the floor adjacent to the core and any desks in this location rely almost exclusively on artificial lighting.

Interestingly, the Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM) for offices awards additional credits where 80% of the floorplate achieves a 4% daylight factor.  This is not a standard that the majority of space currently under construction is able to achieve given the excessive depth of most floorplates.

I was recently at a seminar where a developer was extolling the virtues of their highly sustainable new office development that had floors of between 12 and 18 metres from the window to the core!  While as an occupant you would be aware that there was a window, it would be provide virtually no light to your workstation if you were unfortunate enough to be sat nearest to the core.

The issue of the depth of the plan does not only affect daylighting, but also has a major effect on the occupant’s views out.  Research has shown that a good quality view is composed of elements that are close to the window, elements in the middle ground and also parts which are more distant, but to be able to perceive the exterior to this level of detail through a window requires the viewer to be quite close.

Under BREEAM a maximum of distance of 7 metres from workstation to window is defined as achieving a beneficial view out and is acknowledged by awarding a credit for buildings which achieve this standard.  If this arrangement is applied to an office floorplate with windows on both sides it would result in an overall depth of 14 metres which would also be well and evenly lit due to lighting being delivered from two sides rather than one.
Careful disposition of solid and glass
façade materials help prevent glare
To ensure that the workplace is comfortable it is important that glare is avoided, particularly on computer screens.  This is impossible to achieve on fully glazed facades which allow in large amounts of light but in an unregulated manner, over lighting workstations nearest to the windows but not making any significant improvement to lighting levels of the desks further into the interior. 

Façade designs that combine solid and glazed sections can overcome this problem, particularly if the façade module is coordinated with the distance between desks.  A solid to glass ratio of around 50/50 allows sufficient glass for views and daylighting while providing highly insulated solid sections that protect screens from glare and prevent unwanted solar gains and thermal losses.

It is also important where the glass is positioned as the higher the window the better the daylight distribution.  Glass below desk level provides little or no benefit to occupants and often displays just how untidy many offices are!
External solar shading controls
unwanted solar gains
The orientation of windows also has a significant effect on the comfort, or otherwise, of the people who inhabit the building.  North facing windows allow in diffused daylight with little direct sun, so thermal gains are prevented at the expense of increased thermal losses.  Conversely, south facing glass will experience excessive solar gain and glare if adequate external shading is not incorporated.

However it is the east and west facades which present the greatest challenge as the sun hits these surfaces at a low angle which is hard to regulate and which can cause glare and discomfort deep within the interior.  West facing glazing also presents issues of solar gain, delivering as it does a spike in heat at the end of the working day when the building has already been heated by equipment and people.  Buffering of west facing facades with other uses like escape stairs or toilets can protect office areas from these unwanted gains.

Natural lighting is an essential component of a well tempered environment and deserves careful consideration and intelligent design if it is to be delivered in a manner that enhances the perceived wellbeing of occupants, rather than causing them discomfort.  Too much or too little daylight will have direct impacts upon the productivity of occupants which can ultimately affect the productivity of an entire organisation.

As the great Kevin McCloud put it:

“Integrity and authenticity and quality and appropriateness take a little more work than simple-minded beauty”

I passionately believe that user centred design will revolutionise the design of buildings and will ultimately help to create a new sustainable architecture, in which philosophy, intent and purpose replace vacuous beauty, meaningless style and contorted form and I for one cannot wait!