Designing for the Future - Insights from our most recent panel discussion

By Clare Dowdy (Guest Author, Host)

08 March 2022

How has the built environment become more climate conscious in the past year? It’s the hot topic across the architecture and construction industries, and hardly a project gets launched these days without its ‘green’ credentials being trumpeted.

But in the introductory session of Max Fordham’s webinar series 'Designing for the Future', the panellists dug down to expose some of the challenges of meeting our Net Zero Carbon targets.

The panel comprised Hero Bennett, Sustainability Leader at Max Fordham; Raheela Khan-Fitzgerald, Architect and Whole Life Carbon and Sustainability Designer at Hawkins\Brown; Christian Dimbleby, Architect at Architype with experience in inclusive net zero design, the circular economy, embodied carbon, building performance and natural materials; and Judit Kimpian, author and teacher for net zero policy and architecture. The event was moderated by myself, design and architecture journalist Clare Dowdy.

Climate consciousness was an issue very close to Max Fordham’s heart, and as a company, their Net Zero Carbon Guide helps the industry navigate the process of achieving net zero carbon for old and new buildings.

For Hero, the biggest changes in the past year have been around the financial industry and “a bottom-up approach”. She pointed out that 2021 was a record year for investment in sustainable finance, through ESG investment and green bonds. “It’s being led by the speculative market,” she said, “a lot of speculative offices are asking for net zero carbon strategies.”

Alongside this, there’s an awareness on a personal level that’s feeding into movements like LETI and Declare. “That’s helped with carbon literacy and a much better understanding of what the building performance targets need to be, to achieve net zero carbon.”

Christian cautioned that while clients were raising their aspirations, he didn’t see that always translating into projects. “There are a lot of high-performance briefs out there, understandably so, as no one wants to be stuck with buildings that they can’t rent or sell in a few years’ times. But in reality, there are still not many construction sites that will deliver Net Zero Carbon.” He believes there needs more regulation and support to upskill designers and clients.

Judit is pushing people to incorporate the validation of key performance as built and in use. “That link is still broken because of a lack of legislative requirement to do this.” She has been campaigning for legislation for over a decade.

Raheela backed this up, pointing out that without legislation in place, “we can only get so far with a bottom-up approach.”

Retrofit was flagged up as a key component of our Net Zero Carbon future, but only if the finances – namely VAT - add up. At the moment, retrofit is disincentivised, Christian said. He called for legislation to create a level playing field between new builds – on which no VAT is paid – and refurbishment. He cited an Architype and Max Fordham project, Entopia – the refurbishment of a 1930s telephone exchange in Cambridge – calling for deep retrofits rather than a light touch.

Other retrofits with impressive carbon credentials were shared. The Rylands Building is a 1929 Grade II-listed former Debenhams in the centre of Manchester, which Max Fordham is turning into an office. The company is looking at how circular economy principles can drive the refurbishment, and Hero gave the example of reusing Crittal windows as internal partitions.

Meanwhile, Judit cited Keynsham Civic Centre – the headquarters for Bath and Northeast Somerset Council. In the process of consolidating from several buildings to one, 96% of operating costs were saved. “For clients who are owner-operators, going down this route is a no-brainer,” she said. “For speculative projects, we’re relying on sustainable finance drivers to create the finance for those buildings.”

She mentioned the importance of scheduling as a way of revealing waste in the process that can be engineered and designed out early on, “you end up with buildings of a different aesthetic.

An audience member asked how building design could encourage occupants to behave in more environmentally friendly ways. Hero defined behaviour change as making the right choice really easy for people. That could be about opening and closing windows and blinds at the best time.

For Judit, the industry was not placing enough emphasis on ‘user experience’ design. Meanwhile, others promoted the use of Building User Surveys and Post Occupancy Evaluation, and encouraged the notion of architects engaging long-term with users.

So while ‘green’ finance and self-regulation are helping us inch forward on the journey towards Net Zero Carbon, the feeling was that Government needs to do its bit. As well as sorting out the VAT paid on retrofits, and that means legislating on material production. “Materials should have more requirements put on them in terms of how they’re produced,” Hero explained.

As an introduction to the ‘Designing for the Future’ series, the webinar highlighted the important role that engineers play in the process of the making sustainable projects happen. And it brought up a number of urgent issues that will no doubt be explored in more depth in the coming events.


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