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James Timberlake: 'We don’t see form as independent of performance'

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James Timberlake, partner at Kieran Timberlake, speaks exclusively to the AJ about sustainable architecture

At the US Embassy you are aiming for both BREEAM Outstanding and LEED Platinum. What were the challenges of achieving both standards?
One is carbon reduction based and the other is an achievement-based approach. There are places where the two are in conflict with one another. In order to make the right choices we often showed our client where those conflicts were and then had them make the choices of which direction they wanted to go in.

Which is better?
I would prefer that there was one system around the world. Unfortunately the politics of countries gets in the way. If all architects were using a common international goal it would be far better for the global profession – we wouldn’t have competing evaluations of how you look at something. I want the superficiality of it to go away. I want sustainability – as it is at Kieran Timberlake – to be integrated into every architect’s process and thread of wellbeing. But unfortunately that is not how many think. Sustainability is thought of as an achievement standard. 

How important is post-occupancy monitoring in understanding the energy use and performance of buildings?
It is extremely important, particularly from a human use point of view. But the whole notion of post-occupancy evaluation is in its second generation, its adolescence. It needs to mature.

Post-occupancy evaluation is in its adolescence

We need a global forum on what constitutes post-occupancy evaluation. Now, most post-occupancy evaluations are not shared in the wider architectural community, so data, information and results are hidden.  There is little to no accountability. 

Will you be monitoring the US Embassy building once it is completed?
We’re having that discussion with the embassy about what data and metrics they are going to be able to provide us. We have invented wireless sensors which we are going to roll out for public consumption. But we don’t think the embassy will allow us to put them in for security reasons because it is a communication device. 

How do you balance a desire to create a sustainable building with the needs of the client and any other constraints, such as budget or time?
They are not in conflict with one another – as we have proved at the US Embassy and many other projects – if you begin with it as part of your brief from the outset and if you don’t see it as an added layer. It has to be part of how you evaluate materials, life cycles, budget, and programme – then it isn’t seen as an added layer or an interference with the design.

Too often architects treat design as how things look rather than how things look in context with how they operate and perform. It is continually being perpetuated by certain architects. We [at Kieran Timberlake] don’t see form as independent of perform.

Eventually we are going to see a need for standards to evaporate

What is the future of sustainable architecture?
Eventually we are going to see a need for standards to evaporate because it becomes just how we do things. But maybe that is two generations away. In the intervening generations we need architects to be held accountable for the holistic integration of sustainability.

That is where LEED and BREEAM began, but it is not enough. At some point people have to be called out for environmental failures – for red buildings as opposed to green buildings. There ought to be a red building award.

How do you see our cities developing in the future?
Projects like King’s Cross are paradigmatic for our city developments. They set exemplars for how we should go about integrating infrastructure, transit, rehabilitating heritage and adding new to create total environments that are live, work and play spaces. I have watched the area for 40 years. It used to be derelict – you didn’t go there.

The UK is definitely more ahead than the US

How do approaches to sustainability differ between the US and the UK?
The UK is definitely more ahead than the US. We feel more comfortable with the standards and expectations in the UK than in our own country.  The US has a long way to go. Our firm has been aspiring to work here and in Europe for years. We see this as a natural step and progression.

What other projects are you working on?
Several large masterplans for universities in the US. We are being considered for a large mixed-use development in New York. We have a 1,500-acre [607ha] development which we are doing for the US government in Virginia. We’re doing some housing in India – a prototype for a customisable, mass-produced, off-site housing model. We hope that it will be a product next year.

Have you had any offers of other work in the UK as a result of the US Embassy project?
We are actively pursuing work in the UK. We’d love to be in partnership with people over here.

Have there been any barriers to working in the UK?
No. It has just been about getting the right project.

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