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Green Sky Thinking review: Is sustainability only skin deep?

Hopkins' 100 Liverpool Street proposals - January 2015
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On 25 April AKT II hosted a panel discussion to debate the question ’is sustainability only skin deep’. The conclusion? Good design is about health, not just building fabric, says Hattie Hartman

Taking place on the 37th floor of KPF’s recently completed South Bank Tower refurbishment - where AKT II engineered the addition of 11 storeys to a 1972 tower by Richard Seifert - seven speakers offered varied takes on how to get beyond the greenwash. Not certain what to expect from this seminar, I was anticipating mostly technical discussions of how early testing of structural options can make substantial savings in embodied carbon, but in fact health and well-being dominated the evening.

First up was Chloe Phelps, design and feasibility manager at London Borough of Croydon and one of those shortlisted for Emerging Woman Architect of the Year in 2015. After a brief overview of Croydon’s numerous boom-and-bust cycles, Phelps highlighted some of the borough’s current initiatives including finding the best use for under-utilised council-owned sites, and identifying opportunities for growth and delivering projects through the council’s new development arm, Brick by Brick. In a part of London undergoing massive change, Phelps noted the importance of embracing the ordinary, maintaining affordability and fostering community.

College Green Metropolitan Centre Croydon by Rick Mather Architects

College Green Metropolitan Centre Croydon by Rick Mather Architects

College Green Metropolitan Centre Croydon by Rick Mather Architects

Hilson Moran’s Marie-Louise Schembri focused on the changing regulatory drivers for sustainable building design in London, specifically the tripling of the carbon tax on residential development for projects of more than 10 units, announced by the GLA in March and coming into effect on 1 October. Currently residential projects must exceed 2013 Building Regulations by 35 per cent to avoid a carbon tax; in October, that will change to 100 per cent. Schembri noted that the tax will mostly impact lower-budget housing association projects, where it is more difficult to absorb the cost in overheads. ‘Industry is just getting used to the 35 per cent,’ she said.

Schembri also highlighted problems with overheating and indoor air quality as a result of tighter Building Regulations, reiterating the need to understand how compliance is impacting building performance, and also for more nuanced compliance models which take into account opening windows, lighting controls and increasingly intelligent control systems with user interfaces. Overheating and indoor air quality directly impact occupant well-being, the focus of three of the remaining four talks.

AKT II’s Marta Galiñanes-Garcia spoke about the need to make buildings flexible and adaptable, and the significant wins that can be made in embodied carbon by retaining existing structure and foundations, such as in Hopkins Architects’ refurbishment of 100 Liverpool Street, where 30 per cent extra floor space will be added. Good as-built drawings are key, as well as tools which enable clients to make informed choices early in the design process. Presently no BREEAM credits are awarded for retaining existing structure.

Fourteen times as many deaths occur from poor indoor air quality compared with air pollution

Citing one frightening statistic after another, AECOM’s Nicola Gillen, Arup Associates’ Jo Wright, Sweett Group’s Lizi Greenhill and Twin&Earth’s Alicia Costas Freire touched on various aspects of the growing health and well-being agenda and a future of more ‘agile’ work environments which encourage us to move around. Gillen noted that if you stand all year rather than sit, it’s the equivalent of running three marathons. Fourteen times as many deaths occur from poor indoor air quality compared with ambient air pollution, stated Wright. Greenhill highlighted the need to incorporate health and well-being initiatives into project briefs to introduce items such as stairs between floors, a variety of breakout areas, more light and views, better lighting and CO2 sensors, which if planned for early can be included for as little as £1/m².

Kudos to AKT II for spectacular views, a seven-strong panel of forceful women speakers and some nuanced responses to a tough question. The consensus was designers need to enhance their understanding of how people use space rather than relying on a tick-box BREEAM approach. Designing is about people’s health, not just about building fabric. It was particularly welcome to see speakers from across the industry sharing views to break down those silos.

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