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Pioneering the use of bio-renewable materials

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Renewable and locally-sourced materials are the main focus of Architype’s new building for the University of East Anglia

Footprint recently attended an evening seminar held by the Alliance for Sustainable Building Products and Architype. The seminar focused on renewable building products, and involved a presentation on the findings of a recent report entitled Carbon Sequestration by Buildings, alongside an introduction to Architype’s University of East Anglia (UEA) Enterprise Centre. This was followed by a lively discussion about the merits of using bio-renewable construction materials.

David Robson kicked off the evening by presenting a report co-written with Piers Sadler. The report, Carbon Sequestration by Buildings, looks at the use of renewable building materials and their potential for carbon offset. The study aimed to establish the scale of potential carbon sequestration by buildings in the UK, comparing this with greenhouse gas emission reduction targets.

The report focuses on the use of wood in construction. This is particularly relevant, as from this year carbon stored in newly created forests and harvested wood products is counted within the Kyoto Protocols greenhouse gas inventory. This inclusion of wood products increases the pressure to use home grown wood within construction.

Architype Rapier

The Rapier interface aims to be easily approachable

James Todd from Architype gave a quick overview of the practice’s Rapier tool, a research and development project funded by the TSB. Rapier is a web-based tool designed to measure the embodied carbon and environmental impact of a project, helping designers to make informed decisions.

The project results from Architype’s previous experience of carbon reporting tools and is based on a spreadsheet which they use within their offices. They found that many of the tools already available are time consuming, not necessarily relevant to building, inaccessible and unintuitive, and often require a building to be further down the design stages. Rapier aims to combat this by incorporating analysis into the project early on through an easy to use system.

The Rapier project is currently in the testing stage, and will be launched at Ecobuild in 2013.

Architype UEA

Ben Humphries, director at Architype, then used their UEA Enterprise Centre as a case study to emphasise the role of sequestered carbon in buildings.

The £15.9million building which will be known as the Norwich Research Park (NRP) Enterprise Centre, is targeting both BREEAM Outstanding and Passivhaus certification.

The building also trials an innovative single point delivery method, which involves the contractor heading up the design team from day one, allowing sub-contractors to be involved in the project from the beginning. They hope that this approach will enable them to use natural materials more innovatively and harness the skills of the individual sub-contractors.

Architype UEA Materials Map

Architype have mapped the locality of materials chosen for the building

A main aim of the project is to use materials which are both sourced locally and are bio-renewable. Architype’s designs focus on materials which can be sourced within 100 miles of the site.

Architype UEA thatch panel

Prototype prefabricated thatch panels have been created to test the viability of the material

Rarely used in the UK, but commonplace on the continent, thatch will be used for the building’s cladding. Prefabricated thatch panels will provide winter work for local thatchers as it can be done indoors. This prefabricated approach develops the use of traditional materials, making them applicable to modern projects, whilst hopefully supporting the development of a local economy and skills base.

The practice are also investigating how local timber can be used in the building’s construction. Fast growing English timber, such as Sitka Spruce, is often regarded as unsuitable for structural use. However, this project is looking into ways in which these trees can be used for construction. Currently the use of locally grown Corsican Pine and Grand Fir within Brettstapel walls is being tested by the BRE. Ben Humphries said: ‘as a practice we don’t think that burning wood is the way forward, anything that promotes the use of wood in construction is a good thing, rather than giving off carbon by using wood for biomass’.

During the discussions John Hutchinson of Fielden + Mawson, praised the designs, saying: ‘it looks to me that Architype have managed to produce a building which will not only be good for the environment, but also for the building user. This is because the building skin is breathable, natural daylighting has been thought about, and the building’s inhabitants will be comfortable. These factors have to be considered ahead of building efficiency, in order to create Passivhaus buildings which really work’.

Tom Dolllard of Pollard Thomas Edwards added: ‘This building should be commended. It provides jobs for local workers whilst engaging with the local community.’

It will be interesting to see the cost information come out of this project. It is this which will prove whether the project is really viable in the mainstream. The brief requires the building to be produced for the same cost as a traditional construction project, in order to prove that this kind of sustainable building is possible. Ben raised the issue that the cost of building sustainably will only come down if both contractors and architects stop costing risk against it. He added ‘sustainability doesn’t really cost more, it just takes knowledge and understanding’.

Potentially a lot of lessons could be learnt from this project, and it is interesting to see the use of bio-renewables being seriously considered, both in the UEA Enterprise Centre and in the Carbon Sequestration in Buildings report.

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