Full transcript of the Max Fordham roundtable
Chris Moore Thank you all very much for attending today. My name is Chris Moore for those that I haven’t met yet. I’m the head of communications here at Max Fordham. This is the first of three roundtable sessions we’re going to be sponsoring and facilitating over the course of the next few months. If there is anything that you need as we go along, please do give me a shout. The film here will be filming this for both the AJ website and the Max Fordham website as well.
If you fumble your lines and you want to reshoot, give us a wave, that’s not a problem. So I’ll pass you now over to Rory and Paddy as our facilitators, and enjoy the afternoon. Thank you.
Rory Olcayto Thanks very much. I’m Rory Olcayto, the deputy editor of the Architects Journal. Max Fordham came to us in the summer and we’ve had conversations since then talking about sustainability in a new, fresh way, and trying to get a different perspective on it and really have an opening conversation about what is the best way to consider what sustainable design is
We’ve prepared a kind of provocative piece which you have seen, design is not a Barcelona chair or how the hell do we solve climate change, as a way of trying to reposition how we think about good, low energy design.
Just to recap on what it says, we’ve already solved the problem of not sitting on the floor, so another well-designed chair isn’t really any great achievement any more.
Bruce Sterling, who’s a very provocative design theorist and science fiction author, has posited climate change as the real design solution that we need to solve.
Design is actually about solving problems, but perhaps, and I don’t know if this is necessarily true, somewhere along the line it’s become considered more of a lifestyle thing, an aesthetic thing, an Alessi kettle or a Swatch or whatever. I think we want to have a conversation that considers that but also reimagines or imagines, we don’t need to ‘re’ everything, do we, what design actually is a contemporary construction industry and how an engineer like Max Fordham can work more closely with architects to provide good design solutions for the real challenges that we’re facing.
For the purposes of transcription, we have an external company that’s going to be transcribing the whole thing, and that will be posted online, if we could just go around the table and introduce ourselves so we can get a sense of everybody’s voice.
If you just say who you are and what you do, and then move around? I’ve also provided you with, there’s the brief that you have, “Design Is Not Lost On The Chair”, but also some discussion points which I’ll kick off with. But we don’t have to tackle all of these, but again, these give a sense of where the conversation might go.
Everybody here has got strong opinions, I think, and some of you know each other. I don’t want it to be too formal where I have to say, “And to you, sir, or you, madam,” so really I think we should have an environment where we can just chip in and take the conversation in the direction that we want to take it.
We have around 1.5 hours to get it done, so we’re starting slightly late. It’s 3:07 now, if we can wrap up by 4:45, I think we’ll have had a good afternoon’s progress.
Perhaps, Ian if you could start and move clockwise around the table, missing out me, and tell us who you are.
Daisy Froud Can I ask one thing? Where do we want to get to?
Rory Olcayto Yes. Well, we want to get to a wider definition of what sustainable design can be. So if it’s not a Barcelona chair, then what is it, with the challenges of climate change, if such a thing exists, I think it does, in mind. But also, at the end of the day, we are working with Max Fordham on this, and Max Fordham want to be part of the wider conversation in design processes with architects to get the best design solution in place from the beginning.
Max Fordham is often thought of as the architect’s engineer. So Max Fordham would like to be able to have these conversations with you on a daily basis in terms of work. So it’s about setting foundations of a broader discussion that Max Fordham can have with you, that engineers can have with architects, and one that will hopefully lead to a more useful definition of what sustainability is and kind of removing some of the stigma that surrounds the word ‘sustainability’ or the term ‘green architecture’ and the relationship that engineers and architects have.
Daisy Froud So it’s not that we reach a consensus or manage to reach that point in two hours but we’d have laid out a terrain for a more useful engagement…
Rory Olcayto Yes. We’re not looking for a manifesto at the end of this, I think that would be too tall an order and maybe not that useful at the end of the day because I don’t think we’ll reach a consensus necessarily. But I think this is the beginning of an interesting conversation in which all participants and the different design consultants can feel that they’re equal partners in.
Ian Goodfellow Rory, is this one of a series?
Rory Olcayto It’s one of a series of three, yes. The next one is about creativity and the final one is about collaboration.
Je Ahn Okay. It’d be useful to know that, we might cover all of that territory here today.
Rory Olcayto There will be a feature in the AJ. Hopefully, Hattie will be able to join us for those, I’ll be chairing them and Hattie is a participant. I’m going to really duck out of making comments as such. Hattie, I think, will represent AJ’s voice on these matters. But yes, they’re all linked, so if we do touch on those issues, it doesn’t matter.
So I think if we could start, that’d be great. Ian, do you want to start and introduce yourself? Once you’ve done that, I’ll kick off with a question and then we’ll get rolling.
Ian Goodfellow Okay. Ian Goodfellow, partner at Penoyre & Prasad Architects, and lead on Sustainable Design.
Daisy Froud I’m Daisy Froud, I’m a founder of AOC, who are architects, but I’m not an architect, I’m a brief builder and I also teach on participatory design, the history and theory of, at The Bartlett.
Je Ahn My name is Je Ahn, I’m founder at Studio Weave. We’re architects but some people don’t see us as architects but it doesn’t really matter. I don’t really have a [Unintelligible 0:07:57] with me.
Alasdair Reid I’m Alasdair Reid, I’m a senior partner at Max Fordham, and I’ve just taken on responsibility for overseeing our sustainability team.
Keith Bradley I’m Keith Bradley, partner at Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios and we’re architects, and I think people think of us as architects, although we do do a bit of urban planning and those other things.
Alastair Donald Alastair Donald. I run the Future Cities Project in London amongst other things. I’m also a project director for the British Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale next year.
Philip Armitage I’m Philip Armitage. I’m a senior partner at Max Fordham’s. I’ve been fortunate to be driving design sustainability on projects here for the last 25 years, and I also have done other roles in the practice that I won’t bore you with.
Yeoryia I’m Yeoryia Manolopoulou. I am one of the founding partners of AY Architects and I’m also Director of Architectural Research at the Bartlett.
Hattie Hartman My name is Hattie Hartman. I am the sustainability editor at the AJ. I am also an architect who became a journalist and I spend a lot of my time talking to engineers and to Max Fordham.
Rory Olcayto Okay. Thank you for the introductions. What I’d like to start off with is the first couple of points on this, and they could be rolled into your discussion point. Why does the term ‘sustainability’ when applied to architecture have such an image problem amongst architects and other consultants?
That might seem a very obvious point to start with, but I don’t know if it’s ever accurately or reasonably be answered. Alongside that, do we need to redefine what we mean when we say ‘design’ in order to enable a better perspective on things?
So perhaps we can start in corner with Ian actually and really, if anybody wants to chip in, make some kind of sign, put your hand up or whatever, and we’ll take it from there.
So Ian, yes, starting with those two points.
Ian Goodfellow I’m not sure it has such a bad image actually. It certainly has probably come from a place that was about green architecture, woolly jumpers, all of that stuff. But I would hope that where we are now is getting into a slightly more sophisticated discussion about these things, given that there are quite depressing global issues around carbon and energy.
That said, I think it’s always been senate as somehow curbing creativity like it will be another factor that’ll have to be considered when designing the elevation of a building or something like that. Just unpacking that question, I think it’s possibly that that image problem comes from there, it’s another constraint rather than another opportunity. I would argue that it’s an opportunity.
Philip Armitage Yes, I tend to agree with Ian. I think that it’s only a problem if it’s not actually a part of the current initial thinking for a project. If you have to bolt it on partway through the process and it hasn’t been considered from the very first principles, then I think that’s when it’s perceived to be a problem because it’s difficult to do it well, to do it properly and end up with something that’s a considered, cohesive response.
So I think as long as it’s considered as one of the initial design constraints, then I don’t see it is a problem, I think it is, as you say, just another strand that you weave into all those things that form part of the design for a project.
Rory Olcayto Je, perhaps you could comment on that, seeing as weave was mentioned! Croydon, you’re working with a number of different architects tying together a number of different master plans and archectorial problems. Is sustainability something that is automatically thought about when you tackle these issues or is it something that you come to at another stage, and if you can maybe say a little bit about Croydon as well?
Je Ahn We are currently working in Croydon with I think about a dozen different consultants, actually it could be more. It’s led by a place making team within the council which have a very strong agenda of how they want to develop their town centre.
I’m not entirely sure how I can separate the issue of sustainability from the design because it’s never really a separate issue, because whenever you talk about design and procurement and how we’re going to deliver it, you think about local builders, what kind of materials we’re going to use, how it’s going to be delivered.
So I don’t think we think it a separate issue, we always talk about streamlining procurement and use local source as much as possible and streamline the entire process, which is helping sustainability. You’re talking about local storage, so minimise the movement of the materials, and all that kind of thing. It’s kind of work at the same time that minimises not just carbon impact but we’re talking about the real money as well at the same time.
So I don’t think we had explicitly saying, “This has to be sustainable development,” but it’s always been this underlying understanding that that’s just our duty that we’ll be delivering. So do we need to discuss it at a separate meeting?
Rory Olcayto Keith, you’ve seen the development of a sustainable approach to practice since the formation of your own firm. If we’re not seeing this as a bolt-on and that it is integrated, what’s changed in the last 20 years? If you were tackling a project that you’re doing today 20 years ago, in what way is it different? Because surely architects are always looking to do it best.
Keith Bradley Yes, sure. Just in terms of what sustainability is about, I may agree with this, people talk about embedded sustainability, and to a certain extent a lot of this is about language and maybe the politics of the practice, people trying to give themselves identity around a particular type of approach.
But in terms of architectural design and integrated with engineering, it’s been there from when I started to practice and before that. Thinking about response to climate and base and materials and mostly also about people’s lives and how environments affect people’s lives. We’ve ever recently have tried to think about another word to try and describe is there sustainability?
Rory Olcayto Why?
Keith Bradley Well, we’ve never liked the word very much and we still like to think of ourselves as environmental and social architects and using two words rather than one work. We think that the substantially word, it’s so broad and in terms of what we can do as architects and engineers, it’s all-defining and therefore there becomes this wash over it I think.
Sustainability is used in politics, in business, in all sorts of things, it’s like legacy even started to get used a lot, isn’t it? There’s that wonderful 2012 sitcom where you’ve got the direct response for substantially and the direct response for legacy. They were constantly arguing whether an issue is about legacy or about sustainability, and of course it’s about both but it’s also about some more specific things in that.
Going back with what’s changed, it’s interesting, I think a lot of things have come around again. Like for instance, Peter and Richard set up practice based on doing their own developments but also being interested in the environmental issues. They were interested in the running costs of buildings.
The initial commissions that then came from the practice, not from their own but from externally, their basis was understanding actually how a building would work and how much it would cost to make it work and how you could reduce those costs in a time of really high energy prices back in ’78, ’80 period.
Now, interestingly, we’ve had a period relatively recently of quite low energy prices in this country. They’ve also been quite low in a lot of other Northern European countries. So a lot of that focus has gone and we’ve been thinking about in terms of climate change and in terms of therefore carbon, rather than energy carbon and emission. Which is good because that falls under it as well, but there are elements now of actually coming down to think about a building isn’t just about that commission and being informed by what it will be when it is made, but actually how it will continue and how it will serve it’s use. So I think that’s come around again as an issue.
Can I just make one reference to the chair thing, just because I thought about it again? Because I thought it was interesting that, the Barcelona chair, it is to make me think about that period in history in terms of the late ‘20s, ‘30s, beginning of the modern movement and what the modern movement meant, a pioneering period which was about social change and also about technological change.
That was about sustainability in many ways. It was interesting that the Barcelona chair was developed as a production chair which then became actually this great high cost chair and became a luxury type item rather than becoming a masses…
Going back almost a century to that, there was the [S.L. tournee 0:18:57], the café chair, the first bentwood chair, which was massive. 50 million of those made at the time. Very low cost, very technologically advanced in that stage. If you think about the histories of chairs, I know you say we’ve learnt how to sit down and things like that, I haven’t actually, I collect chairs but I’ve never found a chair that I find as comfortable as the floor, so I’m inclined to think.
But there are issues around products and I know we’re not talking about products in terms of buildings’ environments, there are actually also the issues of innovation and use of mat and how that material then becomes style.
I think the issue of the image coming forward is I think the environmental and sustainable architecture is being abused in terms of actually becoming a stylistic issue and then derided because it’s stylistic. So you get tack-on, almost decoration of sustainable architecture that becomes then derided by those who are thinking more about the image and the look of something and trying to make something more –
Daisy Froud The same with participatory design.
Keith Bradley Yes.
Yeoryia Can I follow on this issue of substantially in terms of environmental and social issues? Because potentially I think the problem with the word ‘sustainability’ is very often it’s associated with some kind of technical solution and it’s separated from the [Unintelligible 0:20:40] of architecture which are about social and actually spatial practices.
So I think sustainability, if we think a little bit about passive design principles, is very much a spatial concern before becoming a highly technological concern.
So I think this junction of sustainability being taken away sometimes from spatial and social concerns and being overemphasised as a technological or engineering discipline has caused problems. But I would say that I agree that it’s an [Unintelligible 0:21:32] than a problem, but I think that association has been problematic.
Alastair Donald I suppose I come at this probably from a slightly different perspective than everyone else but people talk about ditching the word but keeping the ethos. I would ditch both actually, to be quite honest. I think sustainability is a problem that we need to address and overcome and leave behind us.
I kind of don’t really agree with the premise of the blurb, I have to say that, because there’s a lot of stuff that I would challenge in there. I don’t necessarily think climate change is the primary problem, for example. I think it’s not particularly helpful to think of building an architecture as a toxic process. I don’t necessarily think that design is all about solving problems, I think architecture is about something bigger than that.
So there’s all sorts of things in there that I disagree with, and to go back to your opening comment of removing the stigma in sustainability, I would say that removing sustainability itself would be a better move. Because people always talk about sustainability as a kind of the promised land, the golden future, the thing that we’re always going to get at and it’s just around the corner.
But to me, the reality is that Brundtland was 25 years ago, it was a quarter of a century ago –
Rory Olcayto Can you explain Brundtland?
Alastair Donald Brundtland? The UN commission that gave birth to the whole idea of sustainability. Already by 1988, Margaret Thatcher was talking about championing sustainability. The Queen was talking about it by the early ‘90s. The European Commission introduced its first sustainability legislation in 1990. Already sustainable transport was part of planning policy by the early 1990s. So all of these things have been in place for a quarter of a century, and yet what’s the discussion today? Well, we don’t build any houses so we’ve got a bit of a housing crisis. We seem to have a serious question over our energy future and whether we can provide enough. Mobility is reducing for the first time in two centuries.
So these are problems that need addressed, and you could argue that they’re problems that emerge out of the era of sustainability.
Keith Bradley But it would be interesting if we dropped the word. You know you say we should drop other things as well but…
Chris Moore This conversation just became so much bigger than it was.
Ian Goodfellow I think that’s the thing about cities, isn’t it, the role of cities in all of this, because actually with the increased size of cities, the increase in middle class across the planet, we are seeing a huge increase in consumption. We’re talking about I think the population plateauing around 9 billion 2050. But it’s not as if each person will just have the same energy requirements then.
Actually, it seems the promised land is the promise for the middle class, the aspiring middle classes, the buying power, and hence then this whole competition over limited resources. So there are limits which I think we’re all –
Alastair Donald I think that’s something we could discuss, I’m not necessarily convinced of that.
Ian Goodfellow There are ways that we can be more intelligent and potentially in tune with the ecology of the planet, the biosphere that we inhabit, to allow us to extend our limits, and that’s probably what our greatest challenge is. Peter Head of Arup’s continually refers to this being the beginning of the ecological age, and that seems to me a very optimistic way of looking at it rather than beating ourselves over the head with the Brundtland and everything since but actually trying to redefine what it is we as designers can do with the amazing promise of connectedness, technology and a more inspiring brief…
Keith Bradley But it has to connect to economy, doesn’t it, this thing? You could say if you break development down, if you were crude about it and society motivated or commercially motivated, but in both, there is an economic argument for it, and all generations have had that link between creating a culture, creating an economy, creating an integrated way of thinking about how they are operating the world.
That’s the connection and that’s why I keep wanting to break the word down, because of course everything should be sustainable. It’s there, and why would you do anything? You wouldn’t want to work and be connected up properly. So it’s a meaningless phrase, it’s like saying ‘good design’. We all want to do quality design of course, what’s the point of saying it?
Ian Goodfellow Yes, why would we toxify our planet and make it uninhabitable?
Keith Bradley What we need to do is identity specifically what it is that it is about, what our cultural values are, what it is about how the economy works, then label certain types of development, certain types of construction and certain types of environments to be made and be particular about it.
Certainly when I hear presentations on the other side of the table back to me about schemes, and you get this wash that comes over, it’s there as a bit of a PR spin on everything. There’s a catchall type situation, be specific.
Daisy Froud Also, do you have to be very specific about what we know? Because obviously, the reasons that we, as a human race, toxify the planet, we don’t operate as a ‘we’ and there are different interests that are exploiting things in different ways.
I really want to pick up on this point about thinking about how we need to operate, because I too get very frustrated by this idea of design as problem solving. I’m really glad it’s been raised a couple of times.
I completely agree with Alastair – I’m a linguist actually, my background, my degree’s in languages and I’ve been a translator. It is incredibly important the way that we frame the world and the language we use.
I don’t think we need a new word in the sense of a new bit of jargon to throw around. It is important that we examine our language from time to time and see if it’s still serving a purpose. I do think defining climate change as a problem rather than a context that we happen to be operating within or thinking of how we operate within, and then assuming that design is ever able to solve a problem in that anyone can ever take that objective position, separate a problem from its social, economic and political contexts and then resolve it, I think it’s balderdash and it’s equally disruptive is the idea that design is simply about an aesthetic veneer that we apply to things.
You see it in the way that sustainability in architecture has often a thing in that pure sense that’s attractive to tech-heads. You see it when you go to see buildings that are exemplars of sustainability, and they may be brilliant straw-bales construction but they’re bloody ugly, they have no relationship to the immediate environment they’re in.
I went to a visitor’s centre the other day that just closed its back through its straw-bales construction to what’s around it.
Rory Olcayto Who was the architect?
Je Ahn I’m sure you’ll find it very easily!
Daisy Froud But it is important… To give a very specific examples, there are people who have solved certain problems in terms of energy saving in housing design. But what of course is we all know what they find is that people move in to the houses and they don’t operate those systems in the appropriate way so the energy isn’t saved.
Alasdair Reid Let’s open the window!
Daisy Froud But where it’s been successful in places like Germany self-build cohousing schemes is where the residents have been involved with the designers from the beginning and adapting and designing the systems that work around their particular ecology of industrial and collected life, and then they take ownership of those systems and start using them.
So yes, I like this phrase ‘thinking about how we operate’, because that is much more what design is doing, helping find forms for these needs and aspirations within a collective operation, but hoo-wee, it’s just a bigger challenge, that means it’s given us –
Je Ahn We’ve been talking about this lifestyle and how we use sustainability as a marketing ploy and the woolly jumpers and all the [Unintelligible 0:30:34], but I don’t see that as a problem. Before we really walk we fall down a few times, and marketing ploys often I see as symptom of things changing. If constantly we’re hearing about it, you will actually just start thinking that naturally, “Oh, that’s something, I have to do something”, and a guilt trip.
Guilt is probably one of the most powerful human emotions to get you to do something, but we feel it every time. You go to a supermarket, do you get a plastic bag? No, I have a bag in my bag to get things packed from.
Keith Bradley I don’t think it is the best way, and interesting you say that, because I think it is the way often sustainable design is put forward and climate change is put forward, that we’ve got to do something about it, there’s a crisis looming, it’s your responsibility as well, feel guilty about it.
George Mombier talk about the ‘selfish gene’ in a different way, which I think is interesting, in that you appeal, not from a punitive manner, you actually appeal to something that is more encouraging, i.e. if you live in this way, it will actually enhance the quality of your life, you won’t be penalising yourself. You can’t going to be thrashing yourself to death, you actually are going to feel better, you’re going to live a happier, healthier life if you do this at all sorts of levels.
Je Ahn No, I wasn’t that, it is a symptom at this point that we are going through, and I’m really, really hoping the education, how we teach people, changed a lot. That was punitive before but now it’s encouraging. I think it will follow the natural course.
If I may say, if slightly we shift the conversation to design issues, you mentioned about this product issue, I think that’s a huge, huge part. We don’t really think about the design of sustainable architecture right from the beginning because we have not been really educated.
When I went to university, no one talked about sustainable architecture. I found it out when I really started to move into practice and it’s a completely different thing. Then you started looking at these products that tell you they are the complex product, and then so many different ways to achieve sustainable architecture, and there to sell this product and it’s a bolt-on to your whatever pristine architecture you’re designing.
Because you’re not thinking about it until Stage C or whatever, it becomes something that you just put it on on the top of it, and they are ugly. It’s just not really refined.
Now windows and claddings are refined many, many, many generations, they became somewhere beautiful and we specify them all the time, but sustainable products has not been really refined, has not been really thought through. I think that’s one of the key problems. You open a category, it’s just…
Ian Goodfellow But I think there’s also something in the discussion around design, about what design say as fashion. Fashion often feels it’s ensnared by sustainability, somehow it’s going to limit it. It shouldn’t necessarily… I’m always taken by a very great example that Chris Wise of Expedition Engineering came up with at the time of the Olympics and looking at the embodied carbon of the Bird’s Nest compared to the Sydney Olympics stadium and saying it’s, whatever it was, 10 times more steel involved and hence effectively 10 times more carbon [Unintelligible 0:34:18], they amended depending on the times of that and the methods of extraction.
But that in relation to then how they approached designing the Velodrome, and actually I would say the Velodrome is a very sustainable piece of architecture, but it’s every bit as elegant and sophisticated, I would argue as Zaha’s Aquatics Centre.
Ian Goodfellow Well, it is, but Zaha, there’s a bit of a polemic discussion there going on across the Olympics site, and I think that that might help us to move the conversation around design because yes, your association with straw-bales, etc., is one strand of where this has come from.
Alasdair Reid I think that’s absolutely right. I think it’s certainly true that when I was talking to some structural engineers recently who’ve been working on looking at that embodied energy. So they had a guy who simply was dealing with some universities in America, building up this database, and he was actually going to the engineers in the office and just challenging them, their designs, saying, “You could make this leaner here.”
It was producing two effects, it was reducing the embodied energy and it was producing leaner designs that were more elegant, and actually therein lies the kind of sustainable approach that doesn’t necessarily mock the aesthetic or lead you towards the bolt-on technique.
Alastair Donald I just don’t think that the bolt-on thing though is getting at the problem. To me, the problem is the core of the thing itself, not the fact that it’s bolted on to a later stage. So Keith, you said, rightly I think, that you wouldn’t want to build anything that wouldn’t work, would you? Of course you wouldn’t, but then that’s in the abstract of course, but the reality is we don’t live in the abstract, we live in a world where there’s proliferation of regulations that governs every single thing that we do and it’s all about sustainability at its core.
It shapes everything that we do. So I think the straw-bales thing, the reason that straw-bales which are, to my mind, never a particularly great design, never looked aesthetically very good, the reason they can be celebrated as something good is because we have this tick-boxing approach that says you’ve got to have all these sustainability-correct materials, and as soon as you do, yes, then you know that’s good design. It’s that old phrase of ‘sustainable design is good design, good design is sustainable design’, that kind of loop that you go into that you can never get out of.
But to me, the core of the problem is that if I’m told that I’ve got to reduce the energy of a building as part of my design, I don’t necessarily agree that using less energy is a good thing. I think society in general should aspire to use more energy, that would be a mark of progress. If you look at history and look at the way societies work, then it’s generally the case the more energy we use the better of we are.
I’m not arguing for waste and I’m not arguing against efficiency, obviously efficiency is a good thing, but to say that design must reduce energy, I don’t necessarily think it adds up. [Cross talk 0:37:54].
Rory Olcayto Those are some pretty strong points there. Could you provide some sort of context that backs up those points, because it does seem to fly in the face of perceived wisdom about energy consumption? This idea that progress is associated with increased energy use.
Alastair Donald Well, if you look at the last 200 years of history, even take the last century, for example, we’ve gone from a life expectancy of 30 years or something at the beginning at the 20th century to over 80 years in the current time.
Daisy Froud Who’s “we” in this context?
Keith Bradley The human race?
Alastair Donald In the West, in Britain let’s say.
Daisy Froud Yes, because I think that’s important to –
Alastair Donald Generally, we’ve learnt to live longer lives, better lives, we’re more mobile, we have more comforts, all of these things I would certainly argue are a matter of… Unfortunately, there are some people in the world that haven’t got the comforts that we have, and the real aspiration would be to make sure that they receive them and pretty quickly, given the circumstances.
Yeoryia In terms of the emphasis on the [Unintelligible 0:39:14], the super comfortable life, sometimes leads to, again, design solutions. For me, architecture is not a design, at this place, design solutions, it is something again, I agree with that, but I think it leads not necessarily to a good spatial result and not necessarily to a good social result.
So I think thinking about neighbourhoods for example, and what buildings contribute to the neighbourhood, thinking about local relations rather than, and not necessarily optimal solutions and comfort all the time because it may be that occupants may be more prepared to - For example, the relationship between interior and exterior life, outdoors and rooms that are inside, cultured, these relationships we take it for granted and we want always the same comfortable climate, the same comfortable temperature.
But it may be much more exciting for the occupants and I think for architecture if these relationships are much more fluid.
Alastair Donald I don’t think I argued against any of that. In fact, freeing people from thinking about some of the sustainability things would give us more time to think about the creation of beauty and the type of architecture and how we want to…
Philip Armitage I think there’s a basic problem that I haven’t felt that you acknowledge, I was a biologist before I became an engineer, and the reason that I could convert quite easily was because my interest in biology was about understanding how things work.
The reality is that we live in an incredibly complex machine that actually has limitations, and I think the growth of the human population is making that machine, is putting it incredible strain. If we break the machine, it will be to the detriment of everybody.
So my feeling of responsibility is to generate conditions where that machine can continue to function.
Rory Olcayto That’s a metaphor though, isn’t it? The machine metaphor, which is very much informed by the technological era.
Philip Armitage No, biology is all about very complex systems. Organisms are very complex systems, they relate to each other in complex systems and various ecologies relate to each other as complex systems. You can think about it technologically but the reality is that the robustness of the machine comes from that complexity.
Energy is one kind of strand of the frond that we’re seeing, but the reduction in the complexity of those systems is also another problem which is reducing the resilience of the machine as a whole.
Alastair Donald That’s why there’s a tendency towards complexity, isn’t there…
Philip Armitage Well, nature tends towards complexity because that’s robust. When you reduce that complexity, actually you reduce its robustness.
Keith Bradley Can I just say in terms of the technology, buildings are very simple. There are lifestyle changes and requirements that we have, but dealing with those actually is very simple. You talked about regulation, there’s a lot of now, a framework within which we can create very high standards and deal with the bigger issues of [Unintelligible 0:42:45], so they’re very easy.
Cities, to a certain extent, you could say are also reasonably easy in terms of there are models that we know work and we can adapt, and that the compact city is still seen to be a good model in whatever density.
So there are some very straightforward things that we don’t need to make too complicated. I think the issue to do with how it manifests itself as an environment, because that’s what we’re into, we’re into making things work, which we could say is easy, [S.L. but then willing 0:43:18] to representing that… What do people want? You say you want beauty. What is it that we want in beauty? How does reflect on what we want as a society, what’s our language? I think that’s a real challenge, and one of the reasons you’ve got the straw-bales and one of reasons you’ve got the horrible louvres on the outside of buildings or some, they only wants some decorations and they want something to say, “This is an environmental building,” or, “This is what our office is about. This is what I think my home should be like.” There’s an identity thing there, a statement’s being made, and there is, we don’t quite know to a certain extent, how we might generate those other values other than displaying them somewhere or other.
So our language of development is very –
Daisy Froud But I would add that I have nothing against a straw-bale building if that is desired in an appropriate context. What I have a problem with, and what I was using that as an example of is where technical –
Keith Bradley I’m not advocating it.
Daisy Froud I know, but I just hate to think, hate the straw-bale keeper of the world to feel like I’m against them…
Keith Bradley Straw man I might be.
Daisy Froud Its effects on technical solutions or even a focus on formal expression, both these ignore the issue of society and of social values and social aspirations, social needs, and how these are supported by design processes and how designers help these things find form.
So a straw-bale building might be perfectly appropriate precisely for that reason because everyone can be really passionate about it, people can help construct it. I know at Hackney City Farm, they’re incredibly passionate about theirs. But the problem comes when the focus on the technical and the formal expression of sustainability then excludes an active social inhabitation of the building and becomes an obstacle to a rounded way of thinking about sustainable inhabitations…
Ian Goodfellow Oh, you have these incredible curiosities. Like going to Santa Fe which is where there’s lots of adobe, but then you find that there’s a multi-storey adobe car park [Unintelligible 0:45:35] Santa Fe, and you think…
Daisy Froud That sounds great.
Alasdair Reid That notion of ignoring the social context, this idea that the technical and the compliance is dominated. In a sense, I would have thought that one of the more fundamental sustainable issues is if as teams we’re able to design buildings that are well loved by the people that use them in the ways that they are, they will inherently be sustainable, because they will continue to be used and valued by the people, and that does rely on that involvement of the people and engagement with them.
Ian Goodfellow The long term loose fit which is absolutely critical, because all the technological bolt-ons, let’s face not, not many of them are contributing very much. They’re an interesting investigation and they generally end up incredibly burdening for the building users, and as designers, maybe everybody around the table will agree… [Cross talk 0:46:49]. Hopefully not.
But what we can do, we can’t decarbonise the fuel supply, we can offer some suggestions, but actually, larger scale politics will inform that. But what we can do is design robust, well-considered buildings that are easy to use, and they meet the cultural aspirations, all the rest of it, but fundamentally be the basis of good design.
Je Ahn I have a question for you at AJ team. You talked about textual expression and identity, and often because we’re in the position that we have to explain our project within a couple of sentences. Then it becomes a quite simple thing, “This building has got substantially and we have levers on.” “This building is about light, we have [Unintelligible 0:47:45] lights coming through. This is about expressing whatever.” You know?
But how do you choose your stories because you are obviously looking at those one-liners? You receive an email, you will look at the first couple of lines, either it goes to the bin or you look through.
Rory Olcayto It’s an interesting question but this roundtable debate is not about us.
Je Ahn Because media plays a huge part here, because architects obviously want to be successful and they want to do the certain thing, and if media is not looking at every single aspect of it, multi-faceted understanding of… Building study obviously takes several pages.
Rory Olcayto Let’s come to that, we can come to that. Alastair, you wanted to address a point. Hattie, you can maybe address that as our sustainability editor.
Hattie Hartman I’m really interested that this has come so much around to straw-bales and technological fixes because I don’t think that’s what sustainable architecture is about at all. What I think is interesting is okay, you weren’t taught this but now you’re trying to, oh, well, maybe you are or you aren’t…
Say, in Croydon, you are doing it, it’s implicit. So what is ‘it’ and what does it look like? I don’t think it’s about straw-bales. So what is it?
Daisy Froud But surely that can only be judged through occupants. I think it is important to bring up the media because obviously there is more of a push now to not just report on buildings when they’re finished ‘ta-da’ with whatever their formal expressions, their integrated technical solutions, sustainability is played out.
Rory Olcayto I take your point, but what we’re trying to do with this discussion is address your point. The whole discussion here, the people have been invited, is about trying to talk about these issues using different kind of language. I’m very susceptible to words, it’s what I do, I churn out hundreds of thousands every year. So we have to be very careful about how we frame things, and this discussion is entirely about trying to find a different way of talking about it.
Alastair, I know you’ve wanted to make a point for about five minutes now.
Alastair Donald Yes, I wanted to come back to your point because I thought it was quite useful, the whole complexity thing. Because I think it’s definitely the case that biologists and scientists and all sorts of researchers have done some brilliant work across the course of the 20th century in really developing a fantastic understanding of the natural world and how it works.
I do think that it’s probably helped engineers as well in terms of the way that they think about engineering. So I kind of agree with that, but I think that the thing about complexity that I think is interesting, and I agree with your point about coming back to Rory about the difference between the mechanistic approach of the early 20th century and the emergence of complexity in the late 20th century.
It does seem to me that a lot of the time when we talk about complexity these days, it kind of almost seems to signal our own uncertainty as much as the actual complexity of the world. It seems that in that point in the early 1960s when all of that stuff started to come around, that our own uncertainties about how to build and how to create cities and how to make progress basically started to emerge. That was the time, it was Jane Jacobs whose last chapter in her famous book is all about complexity, and that’s the point that it really takes off.
I think what starts to happen is that we start to have a very different understanding of man’s relationship to nature at that point. I’m not convinced that it’s a better understanding, in fact I think it’s a problem because we seem to lose confidence at that point that we as humanity had the capacity to recreate the world in the way that we needed, and all of a sudden we became much more in tune with the idea that – we somehow became embarrassed about doing that sort of thing.
I think that we need to recapture some of that, not the early 20th century architecture in the mechanistic sense, but some of their ambition and ideas and almost futuristic take on the world that we can recreate it to our own advantage.
Philip Armitage I have nothing against ambition and those ideas and innovation and taking things by their horns and doing thing differently. I think the real point behind what I was saying is that there are real limits that we have to understand and work within, and if we don’t work within those limits, then we are causing ourselves a problem.
I’m not a fan of regulation, I think it’s stultifying, but the regulation that a global problem gets brought to individual projects. There are a few individual projects that have attempted to do something sensible, but throughout my career here, I see regulation being the thing which actually makes a difference.
Rory Olcayto Could you give an example?
Philip Armitage Well, you just look at the building regulations. Part L too. That has made a massive difference to the way buildings are built now, and that’s how change is made.
Oh, most definitely. Well, in some ways. From an engine performance point of view, absolutely yes. Whether they’re more attractive, I suspect it’s made to difference to matters, it’s just an approach you have to –
Keith Bradley Can I bolt on a comment to that? Because I absolutely agree with you. It’s interesting, there are other countries that actually tie their, you could say the requirements of regulation, i.e. standards, into other parts of the economy, i.e. taxes…
There’s no, at the moment, any tax breaks for doing the more environmentally conscious building. There is in Germany, there is in places like Singapore.
Singapore, for example, has a thing where you’ll get a tax break to do various levels of environmental performance, and they do a post-occupancy test after a whole and then three years to make sure what you’ve said that you’ve applied for and you got your tax break for is delivered.
So there are very much more sophisticated systems around and that sort of thing, but I totally agree with you. I think the idea of being clear about legislation tie in [Cross talk 0:54:20].
Rory Olcayto Could you give an example of the limits?
Philip Armitage The limits? Well, the planet is a closed system, chemically and biologically it’s closed. The only thing that is open about it is the energy that’s provided by the sun.
So if you accept that as your boundary –
Alasdair Reid But what does it limit us doing?
Philip Armitage It limits us, A) affecting the natural systems that support the things that we do. So the materials that we use, the food that we eat, the joy that we get from our surroundings are all within those limits.
Alasdair Reid Can I respond to that later?
Daisy Froud Very brief response?
Alastair Donald I just don’t accept that there are limits in that sense. Take resources, for example, which is one of the ways that this usually comes up. it seems to me that we go through history, again, to try and put this in a bit of historical perspective, we seem to have gone through resources and we’ve run out of some things and we’ve moved on to the next thing.
So we’ve constantly discovered new resources, and to me, there’s no limits in resources. Obviously, there’s a finite limit somewhere out there, but the limits, we’re nowhere near reaching them because it seems to me that instead of natural limits to what we can do, there are, the barriers that come is in us not being creative enough to exploit things.
Oil’s been there for millions of years, and it was only once society had reached a certain level of intelligence and inventiveness and development that we learnt to use oil. That old phrase, “The stone age didn’t end because we ran out of stone.”
So it just seems to me that where we are just now, we have not got the level of creativity just now about us as a society, never mind just architecture, to be able to invent new things that takes us on to the next level, and that’s where I see the interesting engineering.
Daisy Froud Two points. 1) Again this ‘we’. It is quite dangerous because it is very much a Western, colonialist, exploitative ‘we’ who built, who consumed energy and built wealth on the back of removing resource and freedom from other parts of the world. So I think we do have to be really careful about this idea that progress is something that ‘we’ as the world have in mind as a particular ideology. Because it’s something that grew of a certain cultural set of discourses in a certain part of the world. It was incredibly exploitative and still has a legacy to this day.
I would also argue that I don’t think you’re in that different a position. I don’t see why regulation isn’t a form of human enterprise and creativity. It’s not something that exists independently of culture, it’s part of culture. We, if I can use a lazy ‘we’, produce the regulations that we need, they are designed as well.
Alastair Donald I can argue against regulation.
Daisy Froud So to say that regulations are something that are imposed upon us by a they, and I’m not saying you’re explicitly saying this, Alastair, but architects moan about that a lot.
I’m just been doing the history of the planning system with my Bartlett students and we took the whole non-plan theory and we were looking at that and discussing, “Could that be implemented?” Of course, one of the students was saying, “Yes, but we do live in a non-plan…”
If you look at the history of the planning system, there was a non-plan, and gradually humans worked out, according to their values in the UK, that they needed to bring in this bit and that bit of regulation to prevent harm, because one person’s freedom is often harm to another person, in the history of the West, both within classes and geographically.
So we do have an evolved non-plan where human ingenuity has continued to tweak the system. So I guess an interesting task for design is designing the appropriate regulations that allow us to express our fabled creativity, but also to keep ourselves in check.
Je Ahn I wonder, the Max Fordhams, you guys are probably one of the top, let’s say, engineers around, of course there’s nobility in this country –
Philip Armitage The top, I believe. [Cross talk 0:58:40].
Je Ahn Does any of you actually sit in the policy committee shaping these?
Philip Armitage We’re not talking the central government for example…
Je Ahn But why are they not asking you?
Philip Armitage It would be a sensible question to come and ask us.
Keith Bradley Can I bring the thing back to design about and talk, you had commissioned resorts, I think –
Philip Armitage Can I open a window, does anybody mind? [Cross talk 0:59:22].
Keith Bradley Can I bring it back to design a bit in terms of what we can do? I think one of the things that as a society and as one of [Unintelligible0:59:45] series of disciplines, we can be resourceful. It does seem to me, even though we may be able to do things, do we want to do them? Do we want to use more than we need? If the less is more, can we work within a discipline that becomes an accepted passion or accepted culture?
Which actually says that beauty – and if we come back to that – and design comes out of a resourcefulness, that collectively we can bring our human intelligence to, and that is recognised as being something of real worth. An excess becomes something that is derided.
If there are things we can do, if we could approach all of our work, whether it’s problem solving, and I agree with you, I don’t think it’s about [Unintelligible 1:00:36] necessarily if there are issues, but I don’t think it’s about problems. With that in mind, even though we can do, we can put more cladding on than we need, we can bolt things on if we need to, but if that becomes something that is unacceptable, whether we’ve got unlimited resources or not, why not do it?
Rory Olcayto Is anybody arguing for using more than you need? I don’t know.
Keith Bradley Yes. There are.
Ian Goodfellow I think there are examples of that, and this is about the quality of the design in some ways, so maybe climate control within a building, there are some cultural aspects within certain organisations, a corporate image says, “I’ve got to have full air-conditioning. It’s unquestionable.” That’s the starting point rather than the comfort the criteria.
Keith Bradley Your example of the Beijing Stadium didn’t come out of an exercise of saying, “How can we be resourceful and inventive about this, about this material?” The reason we like the Velodrome so much is that its beauty comes out of some very, very simple, resourceful ideas about how you deal with structures in that space and how that space is shaped, not just for the cycling but for the environmental performance, etc. And we love it because it may be a beautifully designed chair that just looks right as well. But can you appreciate it from the functional aspects and the resourceful aspects as well as for looks.
Alastair Donald There is also a place for the Bird’s Nest, but if they’d factored in resourcefulness into that, and I’m sure, [Unintelligible 1:02:16] very good architects could have embraced that and achieved the same. So it’s then about what the values are underpinning…
Je Ahn No, the political context for the Bird’s Nest was completely different. We’re talking about China. That comes with a different power. The UK, Russia, any big country when they were in a power struggle, they built massive, redundant buildings, it happens every –
Alastair Donald They also built very elegant railway stations –
Je Ahn Yes, of course.
Alastair Donald Which is you look at St Pancras and the roof there, and then you look at the most recent roof, you think, “Which one’s the more resourceful?”
Keith Bradley Yes, absolutely. Elegant design. You talk about colonialism, some of the classical colonialism is often about power, exerting power through excess, through expression of that. I think we don’t really understand what it is, what the expression of what we’re doing means. We are therefore often thinking about the superficial aspects of sustainability, picking them off –I wanted to steer you over the language, we’re not going to let you off this.
Because it’s broader than that, because we are tied in. It’s a conspiracy, I tell you. We’re tied in to, when you’re filling PQQ documents for jobs, or whether we’re promoting ourselves while we’re , or we’re trying to get in a magazine article, whatever, we are using language and we’re specific points that are your tick box mentioned thing where we’re having to use those words as phrases, those intents, to be able to do what it is we’d like to do.
Philip Armitage In some ways I find I defend the…
Alastair Donald It’s conspiratorial, isn’t it? But to come back to your point of how much you use in building, because it’s interesting that over the past century or so, less is more has generally been accepted. So cutting the amount you use –
Keith Bradley I don’t think it is actually.
Alastair Donald Well, it is in certain ways a slogan that existed and [Cross talk 1:04:37]. No, and this is where I’m getting to. I don’t have a problem with aesthetically using less.
Alasdair Reid Venturi said, “Less was a bore.”
Alastair Donald Yes, and possibly it did get to be. But I think the way that the question’s framed today is that we shouldn’t do anything more than the minimum which I think is a slightly different from the main. No, I’m not saying you’re saying it, but I’m saying that generally that’s the way that things have started to be framed over the past 20 or 30 years, that we’ve got to reduce everything down because we can’t possibly afford to use force.
I’m not saying illogically put extra cladding on, but nevertheless, I think there’s something nice to defend the Bird’s Nest which I think is a very beautiful building and certainly looked a lot better than anything that we managed in London for 2012.
Ian Goodfellow But the is the context that we’ve just discussed earlier which is really that if we are in a closed system apart from the sun, then we’ve got to make sure that whatever we do, even if it’s with excess, that somehow we don’t overburden the system. We aren’t the slime mould that’s about to hit the top of the Petri dish and then all sink down.
It’s that somehow we’ve got to extend what we do. At some point, we’ve got to make a breakthrough and be able to harness the power of the sun really efficiently, because there’s a giant ball of energy in the sky and we’re down here going, “Where’s the energy going to come from?”
But in the meantime, we’ve got to find an appropriate way to balance what’s going on within certain acceptable limits so we don’t overburden the system. But at the same time, I think a key to this conversation about sustainability is that we’re not denying ourselves things all the time and we’re on a big guilt trip, that we’ve somehow got to have the courage to put out a vision in the future that we can then all move towards.
Which way is that, I don’t. We could have sub-waves and all the rest of it, but that somehow, there’s something that’s more inspiring than denying ourselves things that allows us to configure ourselves in an inspiring direction, and hence we harness then all design energies, everybody’s energies, to move in that direction rather than people taking [Unintelligible 1:07:12], “That’s not really what I do,” or whatever. It’s like somehow it’s a grander and more inclusive vision.
Rory Olcayto I’m totally happy to have the media discussed here as a point of topic, but I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to then give you an answer. You can make your point about why you think the media is wrong and how it’s maybe directing the agenda in a way that’s uncomfortable, but at the end of the day, I’ve got to write this piece, and I can’t write, “And then Rory said…” [Cross talk 1:07:44].
I’m more than happy to have the media put under the spotlight here as part of the wider conversation, so please just say what you want to say about it, don’t expect me to –
Daisy Froud But Hattie can –
Rory Olcayto Hattie can justify it from her position, yes, absolutely.
Je Ahn I wasn’t talking about that I’m attacking what the media is doing. I’m basically saying that we all have this kind of perception and it’s channelled through media, and media is basically voice of our time. They record it and they select in a certain way, they’re culturally very, very valuable, they distil all our thoughts in a very shiny little light.
What I was wondering is how do you select that kind of issue, because you know that impact’s quite wider field? So you obviously have quite a lot of responsibility in such a way that you select your stories and how to propagate the stories. So I was wondering what’s your method, rather than saying, “You guys are doing it wrong.”
Hattie Hartman Well, I take that very seriously. That’s a huge privilege because I feel I have a calling card to go see anything – well, lots comes into my in-tray but I also go out and see what I think is interesting. I’m always looking for things where the sustainability is invisible. You don’t walk up to it and say, “This is a sustainable building.”
But you have to dig deeper, you don’t just open the email, look at the image and click. One of my favourite projects recently was a small boathouse in Worcester –
Rory Olcayto Associated Architects.
Hattie Hartman Associated Architects. They actually started out to do a passive house boathouse and got a lot of headlines for that, but they didn’t do a passive.
But you would walk up to it, you would see anything that you thought was particularly, say, grim, but it was very well resolved in relation to the site, in relation to the context of the campus, and in relation to the way the building was used, and a delightful place to be, beautiful light, beautiful materials and they also did very careful ventilation, air-tightness, all those things. They even put their project on CarbonBuzz voluntarily with no one paying them.
So those are all the stories that I’m looking for, but they don’t necessarily meet the eye on first –
Alasdair Reid So it achieved a sense of, you said there was a kind of joy there of actually being in the place which I think is a key factor.
Hattie Hartman Absolutely beautiful. You walk in, the texture of the materials, the way the brick bond was used, it was lovely.
Daisy Froud Can I ask Hattie a question too? When you’re referring the term ‘sustainability’ and you’re saying ‘invisible sustainability’, and then you’re obviously judging things on certain criteria, are you interested or is it your remit in your role to be interested in that particular building that you’re reviewing within a broader context of sustainable development, thinking about all the legs of the story?
Hattie Hartman Absolutely.
Daisy Froud Or do you try and limit it?
Hattie Hartman As someone said before, the remit of what an architect can actually do is limited to the site. I’d like to think that as a journalist coming along and trying to evaluate something, and as an architect, you try to design something that is appropriate in its context, social context just as much as everything else.
That’s where I thought you were getting to, so of course, I try to look at those larger issues. We always are talking to the designers and we often are talking to the clients as well to try to see where the match is. But no, I think we take a very broad…
It’s a thorny topic, this topic, it’s very, very thorny. Often, the best projects I have to say have had the hand of the engineer quite early on.
When I go see Foster’s they say, “The engineer is sitting down with us before anyone has drawn anything.” I don’t know, I’d be interested in what others here have in their experience to say on that front in terms of collaboration.
Rory Olcayto I think you would like to make a point Yeoryia?
Yeoryia Yes. Collaboration from the very beginning is very important because ideas are generated from the beginning and you stop having this problem of design again or so many problems by having everybody together from the beginning.
Architecture is from the mental, they think about ideas, you bring them together on the table and that’s how you are likely to reach a better project.
But I wanted to say something else. I think in this conversation, we’ve often discussed either the environment or architecture as some kind of instrument, so we’re harnessing the environment as this complex machine but we either want to take advantage of it or we want to block it because it’s a problem for our building.
Architecture also is discussed a little bit in an instrumental way, and I think maybe this is not so useful and it becomes more interesting when the building and environment are more, some kind of synergy. We’re not trying to make a building super airtight and isolated from the environment, super optimal in terms of comfort, that there is some kind of interaction and maybe some kind of architecture, you have the two as two equal partners, the environment, rain, the cold and space are working together and occupants enjoy these relationships.
I think there’s a lot to learn from other countries who do that. If you go to houses in Syria, I was lucky enough to go there before the situation. They are amazing because their spatial relationships are so interesting, so depending on what the culture there is or where the orientation of a room or a window means that the occupants change. There’s a kind of a seasonal occupancy of the building throughout the year or during the day.
So there is a much more exciting relationship between environment and building rather than the two being, the one blocking the other or taking advantage of the other as if they are machines. So they have very interesting examples that we can learn from.
For me, I think the other thing for a small practice, it’s quite good to look at models of these kind of buildings because they inspire you in terms of passive design which can be achieved with smaller budgets. You cannot afford all the mechanical services that would facilitate what you want but you can do a lot simply with working with the space.
I don’t think it’s about finding the latest, most expensive product, I think sometimes you can do a lot simply by studying very much the environment, working with the neighbourhood and studying examples of buildings which has achieved a lot spatially.
It’s not only I think buildings in the Middle East, but also big architects have done that as well.
Je Ahn I completely agree with you, but sometimes we find ourselves in situations that are very dense, our urban system now is very, very different from how we used to live 150, 200 years ago when we had an expanse of land and you could format your house in a certain way.
Alastair Donald Except the boundary of London hasn’t shifted for a century.
Je Ahn Yes, but I think it’s the mode of change. We just have to learn very, very quickly. They learnt how to live like that for centuries I guess, but now we have to learn it within like 50 years, so we make a lot of mistakes. You sealed your house completely airtight and people started getting sick, so you started learning actually, natural ventilation is quite important.
So they started to make the air ventilation. I think this, all of our learning process, adopting to our environment that we’re actually given. If we’re accepting that the dense city urban environment is sustainable, I don’t know whether it’s true or not to be honest, there’s argument left, right and centre about that. But if we are accepting that as a base model, then we should really try to figure out how that works, and rural situation will be different –
Ian Goodfellow Well, surely a far more important question is whether we want to live in density or not. I mean who cares if it’s sustainable or not?
Keith Bradley Also, how does our society advance itself? You’re going back, there are lots of traditional models that we still live in and people still enjoy, and they enjoy that for the very reasons that you said, whether it’s a Georgian house in the middle of London or whether it’s a courtyard house in Syria.
I’m fascinated by the fact that often we don’t actually change very much apart from most of the aesthetics that are around us. If you think about the house here, certainly in the northern hemisphere, it hasn’t changed very much. I was just thinking about this 1929 Barcelona chair again. At the same time, there was a house that was never built that Buckminster Fuller, Dymaxion house. It was exactly the at the same time as the Villa Savoye, but what it did, it was a technological proposition about an advanced lifestyle.
That house would be a raised up glass house on a stick. It was going to do all your ironing and washing for you. It was a dustless environment, it was all controlled. It was about creating some sort of paradise of the future so that we could have leisure, we could just enjoy being and looking out on these horizons and we didn’t have all the hassles. We didn’t have the draughts in the windows, we didn’t have to do all the chores.
A lot of advancement is actually about what it is that we want to do, or what we want to do less of, and the invention around that, the gadgets and things in our kitchens or the emancipation, particularly of women, to being the servant to the house. It has a huge effect, but we haven’t really grasped some of those issues of social change, of opportunities or what it is actually we want to enjoy, and taken those in to design in terms of making environments that are responsible and resourceful, all those things.
Yeoryia … again, London. I’m not from here and I come from a country which actually we don’t preserve our buildings, well, a few places the situation is awful.
Alasdair Reid Acropolis is doing all right.
Yeoryia Well, the Acropolis is doing all right. But one of the most fantastic things is that we’re having here buildings that last centuries, they can be used. They are very generous in terms of their typology, they can be schools, they can be houses, they can be offices, they can be… This one was a can factory, wasn’t it? I think that’s also kind of another fantastic thing that an architect can achieve, a building that is sustainable for very… let’s use this word now, for a very long period of time and generous enough to take very different kinds of lives.
Alastair Donald I think that’s a really interesting point. We can maybe shift it on to that, that idea of, this is something that Simon Norfolk talks about a lot, about disposing the typology, and that a good building is actually just a flexible building which can have any number of uses and a long life.
You know, are we maybe constrained as architects and engineers by typology, and is that making our environments less sustainable by having a different type of building for so many different uses. There are only a few typologies that are maybe really fixed and couldn’t be anything else, like a nuclear power station or something. Or maybe you could use a nuclear power station for something…
Philip Armitage That is a very good point and what’s quite interesting about the approach that certainly is going with us is about the first principles design. It’s allowed, I’ve had a fantastic time, working on a whole range of sectors. I’ve worked on all these different typologies over the years, but the fundamental design principles are the same.
There are certain elements that might take place – obviously if you’re designing a laboratory, there are some intensive processes that go on in there that are quite unique to that building and you may have to adapt things particularly to that. But otherwise, I think there is an opportunity there to apply some good core principles to create a decent internal environment that will cover a lot of flexible uses.
Je Ahn But is there any building, except nuclear power station, you can’t actually convert it into something else?
Alasdair Reid Theatres are quite specific.
Je Ahn Well, the theatre, you strip out the seats, you put the floors on, it depends if you want lighting for a [Unintelligible 1:21:35].
Ian Goodfellow What happened in the 1980s, actually it was a low point for building you could say. Something around there in terms of buildings being incredibly bespoke, and what we found with the whole schools programme is it wasn’t the 19th century buildings that we needed to knock down when we were reconfiguring those school sites, it was invariably the buildings from the ‘80s that had been so specific in terms of structure, M&E, spatial layout, to leave almost no room for them to be flexible.
You find they were steel frames integrated with all kinds of things that just, there was no place to move.
Yeoryia I think this is the point that flexibility in the ‘60s was taken as it was a kind of mechanical fix building, it will have openable, special doors and walls and it was so suffocating-specific that then you couldn’t have a more generous room that could take very different lives.
I think it’s a different type of flexibility, it’s all the flexibility by mechanical means, it’s a flexibility spatial.
Keith Bradley I think it’s difficult to design all that in. For instance, the piano factory out here, that’s mad as an office, but absolutely fantastic, but it’s used as an office as it’s beautiful, but it’s mad. [Cross talk 1:23:11].
In terms of flexibility, angles and all the usual conventions of modern workplace, it is mad, but it works and it has an identity to it. You could argue that some of the best reuse buildings are things that have been designed for something and then used for something else. Rather than saying we’re going to design something that could be a workplace, could be a school, could be a house. Design it but on the basis that it could be reused.
Yeoryia You have to design it for something different anyway, and that gives the pleasure later on.
Alasdair Reid We’re both designing with Max Fordham higher education environments, and they’re specific, there’ll be a specific building like your business school or library. But actually, the way we’re approaching it, and this is a ‘we’ which you might choose not to [Cross talk 1:24:14]. …the fundamental principles of it is that it’s robust and it’s long term and it’s loose fit, and it still has identity but that identity can then morph into something else in the future, but it’s good common sense, I would like to think…
Philip Armitage But basically access to fresh air and daylight, I think are also in the fundamental [Unintelligible 1:24:39] for flexibility. Which is why things like theatres don’t work very well, it’s a commercial. If you generate spaces that are well day-lit and have got access to fresh air, they can support a whole wide variety of different types of uses.
Je Ahn No, but people always find opportunity for the oddest, oddest type, and often those become most beautiful refurbished building. I’m pretty sure that someone will find an ingenious way to turn the beautiful theatre into luxury flats – they are very good at that anyway.
Keith Bradley … for all those bathrooms.
Je Ahn Yes, it’s a foreign, a London man, he talks about this, designing buildings as just spaces that can be used to different ways. Sometimes I understand that, sometimes I don’t understand that, because if you’re designing to something, because we need constraints to shape something, and I completely agree with you. Functions completely became upside down, things are joyful most of the time.
Rory Olcayto You’ve got 15 minutes left.
Alastair Donald It seems to me this kind of conversation is a good example of the way that something that’s eminently sensible in a way, the idea that buildings can be planned to be used again. I don’t see anything wrong with that, but the particular framework that we exist, the context that we exist in today is that before you know it, that kind of idea that you can reuse buildings becomes something different that you shouldn’t plan buildings that can’t be used again.
That’s kind of a limit, I think, on how we design and how we build, because there might be perfect sense in designing buildings that last no more than 10 or 20 years, and we shouldn’t rule that possibility out.
So I think there’s a very good example of the way that a sustainability discussion gets taken and turned around and a set of barriers to something in a certain situation that you want to do then start to be erected.
Ian Goodfellow I would say that BREEAM is a really good example of that. Because about 10, 15 years ago, it was a great relief to have BREEAM, because suddenly you could all sit around the table, you weren’t seen by the client as just plucking bees out of the air I think is a Brazilian expression but it’s very good to just suggesting that you’re just randomly grabbing another idea and putting it there and they’re going, “Is that sustainable?”
Suddenly, there was an objective platform to have discussion. Now it’s become so bespoke that you get yourself in ridiculous traps. You find that, like we did with a library for the University for Kent, to achieve excellent we were going to have to ignore the fact that there was a heat main there on the side. Because it wasn’t a low or zero carbon current there or low zero carbon energy source that was providing that heat, and we would have had to not connect to that.
So we advised the client and we chose to go with the very good and connected to the heat main knowing in the long term it would be a much better solution.
So I take your point. You end up creating these incredibly prescriptive regulations that end up driving everybody crazy, but probably BREEAM in its current form is probably turning people off to sustainability as much as many things.
Alastair Donald But this is the whole crux of sustainability to me, and it goes back to something that you were saying earlier about, if I remember rightly, you said something about, “We need to balance what’s going just now within limits.
But the key thing for me is that those limits are not the traditional limits of scarcity that are imposed by the natural world or by economics, they’re self-imposed limits, that’s what sustainability is. It says that take no risks with the future, that we need to impose limits on ourselves as to what we do.
What you end up with, I think, is a design ethos that’s rooted in self-restraint. It’s self-restraint, it’s an imposition on our own freedoms as to what we design, and that’s the thing that I really think needs challenged and overcome. We cannot do that, I think, and this goes back to the complexity discussion, unless we reignite our faith in us as human beings and we don’t consider ourselves as people that are toxifying the planet or toxifying a building process.
Architects are not toxifying things, they’re the source of creativity, they’re the source of the future of creating a better world, and unless we recover a more positive sense of what that can be and …
Daisy Froud This good and evil dialectic, creative, uncreative, that’s not what it is at all. I have many sympathies of what you’re saying, at the same time I don’t think it’s accurate therefore to say that if we’re not toxifying the world we are free and creative.
We just are. We are existing in a context, we are within certain systems, and if we could find a way to operate as a collective we and not exploit certain groups for the benefit of others, mind you, that’s a bit utopian, we would continue to operate within that and use our freedom to take choices It’s challenged this whole language of the either or. That’s just a particular way [Cross talk 1:30:07].
But that is a choice you are making about how to see the world in that that dialectical way.
Alastair Donald I think it was an objective set of limits just now that are imposed on us rather than limits and minimum standards –
Ian Goodfellow I don’t think we can ignore the carbon issue. It does appear that we appear increasing carbon in the atmosphere which doesn’t appear to be a good thing to do. So that does seem to be some kind of limit in terms of the way that we are operating currently.
Alastair Donald You could ask how currently.
Ian Goodfellow Sorry, the last thing on that. But I do think it’s interesting what you’re pointing in terms of that shift from ourselves in relation to our environment is that actually it’s a coming to terms with ourselves as the managers of the planet and it’s an uncertainty about how the hell we go about that.
But certainly, as various people have said, there is no such thing as ‘away’ in terms of throwing things away. It’s going somewhere else, and that whole thing of realising we’re in a closed loop and we have to manage ourselves accordingly is probably part of that uncertainty that you’re identifying. But I recognise it is also a great opportunity.
Daisy Froud Yes. Is it not an empowering thing to have that bit of progress and we believe in progress, that bit of knowledge, that way of thinking, “How do we operate within this?” I don’t see why it’s automatically a non-progressive thing.
Keith Bradley Also, working within constraint, which you said earlier, I think you’re asking for an unconstrained release of something beyond what might be considered to be the regulationary framework.
Alastair Donald Not just regulationary, I think the political and social framework that we exist in today.
Keith Bradley As designers, I think one of the things that we search out most are: what are the issues, what are the boundaries that we work within? What are the responsibilities that we consider to be wanting to address?
The more you have actually, the more interesting it becomes and the more creative you can become, and the more you can actually work with people of other interests. We haven’t really talked much about collaboration and working together with engineers and others today, but the more you can get that combined intelligence at work with a really intelligent appraisal of what it is that we’re actually out there to do, then the more beautiful something becomes.
So I think those constraints are incredibly creative.
Chris Moore Might come back.
Yeoryia I think there is a point that you’re making, this idea of the architects taking a risk and architecture as a creative practice needs to take risks.
I would say the reason why you would do that, if you say every design proposal is an experiment, every building in a sense can be seen as an experiment.
We need to do it in a sense I think for the discipline of our [Unintelligible 1:33:27], so as I say, I take that phrase from a different perspective, that the idea that you take a risk in order to also contribute something to architecture, to the environment also…
I think it’s very important to do that as an architect.
Rory Olcayto I’m going to have to interject here. We’ve got eight minutes here. What I would like to do just to round off really is for everybody around the table to address the motion with their thoughtful closing statement, whether or not you agree with it or not, whether you think it’s correct or wrong, whether our design is problem-solving, whatever, you can say what you like.
The point is design is not a Barcelona chair. We know what that means specifically about being a Barcelona chair, about that notion of design as an aesthetic thing of beauty. I would argue that’s maybe art, not design, but how the hell do we solve climate change as being the flip side of that? You might find that objectionable or incorrect or whatever, but just as a way of closing off what you want to say at this table, if you can address that somehow and we can make sure we get all of these points down as well.
We will try and cover as much as you’ve said today. It’s been videoed, there’s going to be the transcription as well. I hope that’s a reasonable request.
Daisy Froud Are these like the first two lines of our press release going back to…
Rory Olcayto I think you’re all highly articulate people who’ve made lots of interesting points here, so if you can condense it into something… It’s like a little magical spell. Your statement of intent, where your thoughts emerge from and what drives your approach to what you do.
Daisy Froud In how many words?
Rory Olcayto Once everybody’s done, we’ll know it’s over. So maybe we could start in this direction? Don’t worry about getting it inch perfect, we can chuck it back to you. But what’s your closing feelings addressing the headline of this? What is it you want to say? The most important thing that you want to say, you may have already said it.
Je Ahn Can I go first, because otherwise I’ll just forget?
I think in general, the fact that we are having this conversation here is a very positive thing. I am a huge optimist. We’re learning through the various processes. There’s something I learnt to love in this country is that British understanding and it is all about layering. Very, very thin layer on the top of each other until you get to the point, you don’t actually rip up things from the beginning, it’s just very slowly moving one by one by one.
I think this understanding of sustainability where we are, it’s kind of like we’re building up the layers and sometimes the policies, I love policies because people make policies for the bottom. It’s not for the top, that’s not the goal to achieve, that’s for the bottom. We have infinite freedom to make the most wonderful thing that we want to do.
Also the policies change, they sometimes change a little bit too slowly, but at the end of the day, again, layer by layer, it changes, and that’s something I love about here, and we constantly discuss about it, we bicker about it, and then at the end of the day, we do something about it and it changes.
You saying advising clients to go for ‘very good’ because this is good for you, that’s an amazing thing that we can actually do that. So I’m hugely optimistic, and hopefully we can be all happy, not doom and gloom.
Rory Olcayto Thank you.
Yeoryia I would be interested in seeing how we can deal with the relationship between the environment and architecture as a synergy more than the one part harnessing or avoiding the other.
So more seeing them in spatial terms rather than in instrumental terms, more seeing them I think spatially and architecturally rather than as machines.
Then I would like to see more passive design principles and spatial design principles being incorporated in our thinking about building some cities rather than only, or I guess together with the more mechanical aspects.
Is that enough?
Rory Olcayto That’s perfect. Please, this isn’t for any press release or sound bite or anything, it’s just really an opportunity to have a closing statement.
Philip Armitage I think there are limits, and I don’t think those limits are a barrier, I think they’re something you work with rather than against. I think that the complexity of the natural world is part of what makes me feel very happy and I consider it beautiful, and I would be very sad to see that go. So I’m happy to defend it on that basis.
I think that engineering is about understanding how things work and I think that the buildings need to work and so to be part of a collaborative process to create things that work, that respond to the limits in a positive way and engage with people is what I would like to see.
Rory Olcayto Thank you. Please, just keep going, yes.
Alastair Donald Well, I suppose I want to come back to these points on limits really. I think it does crystallise it. For me, sustainability is about limits and ultimately it wants us to accept less. I’m for more freedom and I ultimately want us to have more and I think that’s a useful starting point and a useful ethos for architects and for engineers actually to try and throw off those limits.
I hear there’s quite a lot, the thing that you’re talking about, about constraints being useful in concentrating the mind and aiding the design process, and I just don’t buy it really. Because I think why not have more materials as options? Why not have more technologies that you can work into the architecture? Why not have more freedom and more possibilities in terms of the way you’re designing?
To me, all of those things, in and of themselves, they won’t necessarily guarantee a better outcome, but I think as a starting point and a set of choices, I think we should have confidence in ourselves as designers that more is better and that we can navigate our way through those choices to actually come out better off at the other end.
So that’s my take on it. Sustainability is a set of self-imposed limits, a kind of poisonous self-restraint that we’ve got ourselves into just now. We should kick that off.
Rory Olcayto Keith?
Keith Bradley In part, my closing words are a sort of homage I think to forums and good engineering. Because I think at the heart of making things work and being environmentally responsive and climactically responsive, which they have to do, then we must listen to the science. We must, as architects, put the art to one side or to be clear about what is art and what is science.
In terms of the analytical approach to the work and the observational approach to the work, getting that absolutely clear. I think that a lot of architects don’t do that.
But also to say there are a lot of not very good engineers, so make sure you get a good engineer, you work with him closely and you listen and learn to that and work within the criteria that is set. It isn’t a free-for-all. There are issues that define a good working, functional building, let’s get that right to start with, which has all the issues of what members now call the [Unintelligible 1:42:22] practice, and it’s also where you get your materials from, embodied energy. All those things are really important. So get that right.
Then be very clear about what it is that is the art of architecture, and again, lots of the others to listen to that. Generally, the client has a lot to offer in terms of what they want, in terms of representing their place, and obviously then the role of the architect is to synthesise all that, as you were saying earlier, Hattie, bringing that together.
The last thing that comes out is your styling which I think is your point about that Barcelona chair. That may be now represented as style over substance in this debate. I don’t necessarily think that is the case, but that is the purposes of this thing.
So the style for me comes out of all those processes of science and art and then you get a real true representation and not just a functioning building but something that symbolises what it is that we are about as a culture and as a series of professionals.
Alasdair Reid Yes. Okay, I think for me the essence of what we’re all about here around the table is that we’re trying to create some fantastic buildings really, some good places to be in. What underpins that is that they are places that people enjoy being in and their enjoyment will come from the aesthetic side, it will come from the sense of pride in the place, it will come from the fact that the building works and that they’re comfortable in it.
I think that all of those things lead to the building becoming a very valued, and that in itself is a very sustainable thing if it becomes a very well-loved building and it lasts, then we’ve done a very good job together I think. That’s something that I think architects and engineers need to work together to do.
I also think that this element of design being just Barcelona chair, if you like, there’s something about elegant simplicity, and one can introduce elegance and simplicity in the engineering of the buildings as well.
Then that also leads to potentially addressing the environmental aspect of sustainability in a soft way that in itself supports that whole, rounded sustainable [Unintelligible 1:45:03].
Rory Olcayto Daisy.
Daisy Froud I think I want to start by just reiterating, I don’t think anyone said it is, but design is not aesthetics but design is not problem-solving. Design is a process of being able to find forms and structures that bring into some kind of material reality or give material responses to human needs and aspirations.
For that to be a successful activity, it has to be a process-driven activity and a collaborative activity. Climate change is not a problem, it is a context. I think the minute we label it as a problem, it encourages tech-head paternalistic-type solution-finding which is precisely what stops a collaborative questioning way of looking at how we live in the world.
I do think sustainable design goes hand in hand with the more social participatory collaborative way of designing that considered issues of spatial and environmental and social and economic equity alongside the actual act of producing buildings and spaces. Not to control or engineer them, because we know that we can’t do that, but certainly to respond to them.
There’s been some bizarre conversations recently on the side of lifetime neighbourhoods which is I suppose the new term that we have for sustainable communities. Some of these discussions are attempts to say, “How do we make a lifetime neighbourhood purely in formal and technical terms and urban design terms when completely ignoring the issue that there are massive spatial and political questions about who actually gets to live in these neighbourhoods in the first place, to choose to spend their entire life there and move from one unit to another when people are increasingly excluded from space.
So I think it’s something that designers have a role, and particularly design media also has a role in generating public conversations about. I do think the whole ‘housing crisis’ as it’s called at the moment is a really interesting opportunity for that, going back to Alistair’s point, I’m talking specifically about the ‘we’ of the political body, the citizens of the UK do want to live.
Because this ignited public discussion, the Daily Mail’s full of it about the housing crisis. So these are tremendous opportunities to think, “Okay, how do we want to live on the land with the resources, in the global relationships that we now have, and what kind of housing might meet some of those needs and aspirations?”
So that’s something I’d definitely like to see further explored.
Alasdair Reid Wow.
Je Ahn The pressure’s on…
Ian Goodfellow Obviously a lot’s been said, and I agree with a lot of the points that are raised. I think possibly just to add to that, I’ll come back to: the design is not a Barcelona chair, no disrespect to chair designers but I might say that building design is not a Barcelona chair. But it can incorporate all of the elegant simplicity and good quality design that that Barcelona chair has, but in addition it is the social art, it has to integrate a whole range of other qualities and elements and nuances to allow humans to inhabit it and inhabit it intelligently and know how to use it, which is something we’ve not really touched on too much, but it’s critical to making buildings of low energy.
I prefer to talk about low energy buildings than sustainable buildings actually.
But also to say that it is an extraordinary opportunity where we are in history. We’re obviously going to be, I believe, finding out a lot more about nature and natural systems operating and the whole bi-mimicry revolution that will start to make us consider more intelligently about materials and possibly opens up the whole thing of resource much more than limit as we learn to live more intelligently in our biosphere.
So I think just to conclude, sustainability I think is a bit of a trap, the word, that we should find a way to unpick it so that it doesn’t meet that barrier, but it should be seen about finding a way for us all to progress intelligently living on this planet.
Rory Olcayto Everybody’s obviously contributed to wrapping up without needing to do so. So thanks for doing that. I’d also just like to congratulate you on not using the term ‘world class’ or iconic once at all. I think that’s a first for the AJ in the last 10 years. So that’s certainly an achievement.
There’s going to be another two of these debates that Max Fordham will be involved in. I think you’ve got it off to a brilliant start, and hopefully I can do it justice with Hattie in the pages of AJ on 29th November.
So thank you all for coming.
Keith Bradley Postscript, because I just only discovered it the other day. A little drawing for you which is a crib of an Eames sketch. It’s very simple, but as a chair designer principally that also had in broader social values, [Unintelligible 1:50:57] turned to architecture, filmmaking and everything else.
Anyway, very simply, he said, “The essence of good design is the coincident of interest.” He drew this diagram of three parts. There’s the client’s interests, this bit here, you can draw it any shape you want. There’s the designer’s interests, that shape, and there’s society’s, and the sweet spot comes when obviously those all come together.
So I thought it was a wonderful thing, because often one talks about conflicts of interest, that idea of coincident of interests bringing together… You could say that’s the essence of a sustainable design because it is actually capturing everything that we need.
Je Ahn Well, hopefully there is a place that they overlap.
Keith Bradley Yes, I’m sure. What I’ve found, there are things that, quite rightly, he’s saying they’re outside society’s interests, so we all have things that aren’t necessarily, so at the end this altruistic attitude that we all have isn’t [Unintelligible 1:52:02]. There are things, and we certainly have clients that are [Unintelligible 1:52:06] within society’s interests, and we do as designers.
Anyway, I thought that was quite a sweet little diagram.
Rory Olcayto Yes, absolutely, and a nice note to end it on. Just to get back to the Barcelona chair thing, I think that initial thought wasn’t so much about the practice of furniture design or of small iterative changes in design that can make something even better. I think actually the problem with the whole Barcelona chair perception of that design is one of capitalism and consumerism and it’s about commodification of things and how everything now has a kind of value that it didn’t necessarily have when it was first created.
That is the unfortunate paradigm in which we were working, and my opinion is that it’s actually difficult to see past the marketplace now. It’s not so much sustainability [Unintelligible 1:52:56], or anything like that. For me, that’s the barrier. I know that you probably have issue with that as well. [Cross talk 1:53:04].
That was the thinking behind that there because I’ve been involved in architecture now since 1989 and I have equal passion I think for well-designed objects as well.
I don’t know if it was necessarily the debate that Max Fordham was thinking of, but I personally think it was [Cross talk 1:53:29], it was very good.
Daisy Froud It’s been so fun. I always do these things because I think oh, good, it’d be good to do it, but it’s actually been the best fun, really fun. [Cross talk 1:53:36].
Chris Moore Thank you one and all for attending. I would have paid money for a ticket to sit. No, I was actually quite privileged.
I’m looking to Guy Neville now who will be buying a beer or two.