'But while the climate crisis was engineered in the past, it was mostly in the recent past; and the degree to which it transforms the world of our grandchildren is being decided not in nineteenth-century Manchester but today and in the decades ahead.'
- David Wallace-Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming
A Call to Collective Action
Globally, almost 30% of carbon emissions are caused by the construction and operation of buildings. Within the UK alone, this figure is 25%. Infrastructure and the built environment responsible for 29% of the world's threatened species. To date, the UK has lost more of its natural biodiversity than almost anywhere else in western Europe. If the UK is to successfully transition to net zero by 2050, the scale of the challenge is clear to the industry. There is an acknowledged and immediate need for architects and their collaborators to rethink long embedded industry orthodoxy and the design and material strategies we use in our daily practice to create our homes, towns and cities.
On a hopeful note, change is patently visible across the industry. However, this change needs to be accelerated and discussed at every opportunity. A broader and holistic approach to sustainability has begun to catalyse, giving us the tools to measure and meaningfully respond to the sometimes intimidating and incomprehensible scale of the dual climate and biodiversity crises. Given the scale of the construction industries’ contribution, it's imperative that architects and other design professionals lead the way in helping shape policy, set benchmarks early on, promote innovation, and ensure they are continually vocal, in order to offset the distortion of fact, ignorance or apathy of those who choose to downplay the key issue of our day.
The Importance of Collaboration
At Wright & Wright, we value close, rewarding and often complex collaboration with the numerous clients, contractors and designers we have worked with over the years to deliver sustainable exemplars. Collaboration informs our approach to sustainability. After all, without comprehensive buy-in, success is often compromised. We find it helpful and informative to question what sustainability means to us in the broadest sense, in order to add definition to the term and allow all our collaborators to contribute in creative ways. What does sustainability look like from a governance level for our clients? How can we as architects collaborate with clients to develop a brief to deliver on sustainability targets?
For example, at our student housing project for St Edmund Hall in Oxford which will soon break ground, sustainability means housing all undergraduate students within their own College accommodation for the first time in the Hall’s history. This provision frees up much needed private rental accommodation back to the local market, whilst providing affordable, purpose designed homes suited to modern day student needs, along with a lasting income stream for the College. The College is also targeting being as close as possible to net zero energy by 2030, meaning any new building or existing building retrofits have a crucial part to play. In this instance, sustainability is financial as well as environmental.
The success and failure of the project will rest on how well it caters for the needs of its users; how will the project serve to lift students’ spirits in small moments as they reside, study, and socialise. Working with the College, we agreed to break the accommodation down into smaller buildings, and then in turn into individual cluster flats of six to ten students, each with a kitchen large enough to allow for a shared meal. This scaling down approach also allows the buildings to assimilate into their context and respect the historic character of the surrounding neighbourhood of Norham Gardens, one of the first conservation areas within the UK.
Equal attention is afforded to the external spaces that weave their way between the buildings. Designed in collaboration with landscape architects Bradley-Hole Schoenaich, the gardens have been conceived as outdoor 'rooms' of varying characters. They provide verdant outlooks and direct connections from the student rooms or social spaces. The gardens feature an abundance of biodiverse planting, seasonal variety, and plentiful opportunities for students to engage with their natural surroundings and promote wellbeing. Through the deft balancing of building density and landscape, we are forging a new campus that is environmentally, financially, and socially sustainable the College.
A crucial aspect of our approach has been to ensure users have a voice in the design process by involving students in consultation. We've achieved this by organizing dedicated focus groups where we've gathered invaluable feedback. This input has influenced not only the overall planning of the site but also the smallest details within the bedrooms.
Additionally, we've conducted regular workshops with both the client governance group and our project team, focusing specifically on sustainability. When we approach the topic of sustainability in an open manner, it often leads to a wide range of thought-provoking questions. These questions cover everything from the fundamental need for the project, to design considerations such as material selection, as well as financial sustainability aspects such as project funding structures and consultant fees.
The active engagement with a client group made up of experts from diverse fields such as material science, ecology, energy and the arts, has provided a welcome challenge to the team. It has enabled us to innovate, provided accountability in the design process, and resulted in better design outcomes. What’s become clear to us is that this type of dialogue provides cohesive understanding of the key sustainability levers for the project, what motivates people involved, and in turn allow us to hone the sustainability brief at the earliest stage.
Sustainability at Norham Gardens, St Edmund Hall
Working with Max Fordham, our frequent collaborators, a sustainability framework has been set with wide ranging targets on everything from fabric performance, embodied energy and internal air quality, to daylight, water use and waste streams.
All three new buildings at St Edmund Hall are designed to the industry leading Passivhaus standards, which prioritises the highest levels of efficiency in building form, airtightness, thermal efficiency, glazing and ventilation. Designing to these Passivhaus standards allows the client to have a proven, measurable, sustainable outcome through environmental modelling of the design, air testing and a rigorous site inspection and documentation process.
An existing historic late 19th century Villa on the site will be retrofitted using similar design principles to provide further student bedrooms. The case for retrofit is clear. 80% of buildings which will be occupied in 2050 already exist, meaning retrofit is a priority in any decarbonising strategy.
Another benefit of this approach is it allows the core mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems to be lean and highly efficient. The environmental stability of the buildings is guaranteed due to the fabric first approach to the building envelope, in turn reducing demand and the operational energy required. Renewable energy is provided via air source heat pumps and photovoltaic arrays.
As well as operational energy, a huge emphasis has been placed upon reducing embodied carbon. Structural and civil engineers Price and Myers have worked to develop lean designs for structure and drainage that work with the spatial layouts and use the modular nature of student housing to the advantage of the design. A cross laminated timber frame is used as a sustainable alternative to a concrete or steel frame wherever possible. The use of concrete below ground, or steel above ground where needed, has been analysed and discussed on a case-by-case basis in order to choose the most sustainable option that can integrate spatially and with surrounding building services.
Externally, the buildings are clad in handmade brick and clay tile. Although higher in embodied energy due to the firing process, the materials are sourced from within the UK and chosen for their ability to weather gracefully, last the test of time and complement the existing character of the conservation area. Supporting the skilled handmade and hand laid brick industry is an added benefit, given the challenges it faces due to the proliferation of thin panels of brick veneer. All glazing is triple glazed and optimised to promote ample daylight and useful solar gain, without the need for clip on external shading devices.
Internally, sustainable alternatives to commonly used materials have been sought; natural and renewably sourced floor finishes and joinery, Fermacell boarding over plasterboard, low VOC paint, in order to provide a visually appealing, comfortable and healthy indoor environment.
At all milestone stages of the project the project has been measured back against the key project benchmarks such as the RIBA 2030 challenge and LETI targets. Areas for improvements are then identified, and in turn the wins reported back to the client.
Biodiversity on Site
A point of difference for the project is the keen emphasis on improving biodiversity across the site and adding biophilic appeal. By working with the College’s garden team, our landscape architects and leading ecologists Biodiversity by Design, a projected biodiversity net gain of 89% will be achieved, far exceeding the soon to be mandatory 10% net gain target. Major contributors to this include green roofs on all new buildings, a garden pond dedicated to ecology and an array of biodiverse planting including climbers and native hedging. New and replacement trees have been specified which are currently endangered in the wild, in order to tell a story and provide an excellent source of clippings for future trees. All the above improve wildlife habitats alongside smaller features such as bat and swift bricks, dead log stacks and timber structures for invertebrates.
The Role of the Contractor
Key to a sustainable outcome is having a contractor who understands the project aspirations, particularly in a Design and Build scenario. Early engagement of the contractor through a two-stage tender process has been key for St Edmund Hall and many of our other projects, in discussing and agreeing how to deliver what has been promised on paper, through the addressing of topics such as community engagement, local employment, habitat protection, prefabrication, material salvage and sourcing and waste streams. Adroit contractors have begun to meaningfully engage with sustainability issues surrounding the delivery of projects beyond the standard check list. This is evident in the upskilling of the workforce in areas such as Passivhaus delivery and their understanding of the increasing significance of embodied carbon in the whole life carbon model of a building.
The ideas and thoughts raised are not exhaustive in describing our approach or applicable to all scenarios, but may serve to illustrate the multilayered, collaborative endeavour in which we are engaged. No one can design in isolation. The aim must be to foster dialogue and debate, then cohesion and excitement within the team. Only then can we deliver truly sustainable outcomes.
Looking forward, the future promises further advancements. AI, robotics, energy generation, new building materials and a decarbonised grid are but a few technologies with the capacity to further revolutionise the way we work. Many already have; the universal uptake of BIM modelling to reduce waste, the advancements in 3-D printing, and the increased automation and prefabrication of the building process have forever changed the way we design.
In welcoming these advancements, we must not forget to look back on lessons handed down from previous generations of builders and craftspeople. Their buildings illustrate a mastery of responsive, passive climatic design that has endured. Their use of so called 'primitive' local building materials - rammed earth, thatch, hemp and clay-based materials, load bearing stone and others - have such latent potential at an industry wide level to provide sustainable change. Often breathable, anti-bacterial or anti-allergenic, low in embodied carbon and with skilled human input at their core, these materials can be fused with the aforementioned technological developments to offer sustainable alternatives to today's convention.
No one designer can hope to master the complexities of today's projects alone or the vast array of evolving technologies at our disposal. It's only through taking our seat at the table and collaborating with one another that the path to a regenerative, resilient, and holistic form of sustainability can be found.
St Edmund Hall
A new, Passivhaus student campus for one of Oxford’s oldest colleges achieves increased accessibility, inclusivity, and biodiversity net gain through a holistic architecture, landscape and ecology design strategy.