Having signed up to the Architects’ Declare climate manifesto earlier this year, being mindful of our carbon footprint we decided against taking flights for our 2019 study trip and headed for some creative inspiration closer to home. Our much anticipated annual study trip is our time to team build, add to our professional development and inform our architectural design thinking.
Invited to visit the renovation of the historic Flaxmill Maltings in Shrewsbury, we made this the starting point for a packed programme of art, history and architecture, from medieval Shrewsbury to Birmingham, “the Workshop of the World”
So we all piled into the minibus, and set off on a promisingly sunny afternoon up the M5 to Worcester and our first stop The Hive, designed by our neighbours at FCB Studios. Unusually this building combines both University and Public Library. Sunlight glinted on the seven unique cone forms comprising the roof (inspired by the kilns of the historic Royal Worcester works and the undulating ridge of the Malvern Hills) and was reflected by the golden scales of the cladding. We were impressed by the fantastic sustainability credentials and the beautifully calm interior of concrete and ash.
The next morning we met Alistair at the Flax Mills. Alistair is project director for English Heritage and he told us all about the renovation before we donned hard hats to explore the separate buildings that make up the site.
It was a real treat to see how the world’s very first metal-framed building was being brought back to life and to learn about the history of the mills through the industrial revolution from Flax mill to Maltings from such a knowledgeable source. So a huge thank you to Alistair and we look forward to a return visit on completion.
The bright lights of Birmingham beckoned but we felt we couldn’t pass Walsall without dropping in on the New Art Gallery, designed by Caruso St John. Even though it is now almost 20 years old it remains an exciting contemporary structure. Spencer was impressed:
“I really liked the Walsall art gallery, it was wearing really well, the patina of use seemed to be improving it – some really intriguing spaces within what looks like a simple cube of a building”.
One more stop off before Birmingham, in wet and windy West Bromwich, and a building some described as the low point of the trip, Will Alsop’s The Public, former Arts Centre now a Sixth Form College. Matched only by the neighbouring Sprinkles Gelato shop front, we mused.
Once we had negotiated the traffic diversions in the ‘motor city’ of the Midlands, the hotel was a welcome rest (and Livia’s favourite building, although unsure whether that was the architecture or the breakfast), before immersing ourselves in Brummie culinary culture in the Balti Triangle. Lauren’s favourite moment.
The next day after a hearty, aforementioned, breakfast, we abandoned Chris to the rugby world cup and set off through the Mailbox to the canal basins (via Make’s The Cube) where we piled onto a narrowboat to cruise just a small part of the huge network of waterways in and around the city to get a sense of Birmingham’s industrial heritage and to see how Birmingham is responding to the challenges of industrial decline with emerging new developments. Chris had caught up with us by then, very happy with “England boshing Australia” in the quarter final.
The new Birmingham Conservatoire by FCB Studios (2018 RIBA National Award) was also notable. The private and intense world of rehearsal had been brought together with the public world of performance in a welcoming and accessible space. A peek into the beautifully detailed Bradshaw Concert Hall was well worth it.
Looping back to the city centre and the iconic Rotunda, the Selfridges Slug (sorry Jan Kaplicky and Amanda Levete), New Street Station (AZPML) divided opinion.
After negotiating the new Bullring Shopping Centre on a Saturday afternoon (consumerism on a massive scale), we found ourselves in dire need of refreshment so we quickly diverted to once gritty, now bohemian Digbeth and the creative Custard Factory environs. Highlights included the street art, bar/barber’s and the wonderful Digbrew Company Beer and Taproom – with thanks to Lauren for the discovery.
Highlights of our last day were the discovery of Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands’ Birmingham University Sports Centre, another RIBA National Award winner and Lauren’s favourite building and the stunning Coventry Cathedral, Alex and Matt’s favourite.
Lastly, we took the opportunity to visit one of Designscape’s own buildings near Coventry, a production facility and HQ built recently for Exactaform Cutting Tools, a company specialising in diamond tipped precision cutting tools. Only those who had been managing the project had visited before so it was great to see the bricks and mortar first hand instead of the CAD. We were clearly colour coordinated for our visit!
Wending our way back to Bath, weary but buzzing with inspiration and creativity, it seemed that the all-round winning building from our low carbon 2019 Study Trip was the New Art Gallery, Walsall, and the most popular favourite experience, the Digbrew Company Beer and Taphouse. Roll on next year!
Since signing up to the Architects Declare climate manifesto in June Designscape have been investigating ways in which we can to develop our practices and procedures to meet the challenging ambitions of the commitment we have made.
Architects Declare, is an open pledge by the practices that have signed up, to join together in recognising the twin crises of climate breakdown and biodiversity loss. It is also a recognition of the paradigm shift required in the wider construction industry to tackle these imminent threats and how we, as architects, can help advocate positive change.
According to UK Green Building Council the built environment contributes around 40% of the UK’s total carbon footprint. Almost half of this is from energy used within buildings (heating & electricity consumption). While Designscape have always been mindful to incorporate energy efficiencies into building designs, the focus is on tackling the other major challenge of embodied carbon.
Embodied carbon is a neat way of describing the carbon emitted during the manufacture, transport and construction of building materials, along with the end of life emissions of a building including decommissioning and disposal of materials to landfill.
Also termed Whole Life Carbon, in 2016, emissions alone within the build environment were higher than the Green Construction Board’s target for built environment emissions by 2050.
According to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), we have 12 years in which to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels or face droughts, floods, extreme weather events and poverty for hundreds of millions of people.
As the 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg told global leaders at Davos in January: ‘Our house is on fire’.
So rather than just paying lip service, Designscape understands that signing up to the Architects Declare pledge does require meaningful action. It requires us to evaluate all new projects against the aspiration to contribute positively to mitigating climate breakdown and we will be actively encouraging our clients to join us in adopting this approach.
Many of the systems and design standards we have relied upon need to be challenged. We have a lot to learn and not everything we need to know is as yet freely available. We need to share our knowledge and collaborate to find persuasive facts and arguments to fuel this process to a sustainable future. As a starting point, Designscape have implemented a programme of round table to discuss how we can begin to fulfil our commitment.
At our first, we started to review our typical approach to building and asked ourselves a number of poignant questions: ‘how confident are we in our knowledge of the efficacy of the materials we use?’; ‘what is the real carbon footprint of commonly used building materials?’; and ‘how can we obtain reliable knowledge about embodied carbon?’ We resolved to focus on our Top 10 materials.
We agreed that buildings cannot just meet carbon performance metrics and be sustainable. They need to work for their users and give delight or they will not be long lasting. The life time value of a building is important, as the shorter the lifespan of a building, the bigger its impact it has in respect of embodied carbon.
We also discussed how the design of a building may need to change if a certain aesthetic significantly compromises performance. The use of glass has long been a challenge in this respect. Not only is it at least 10 times less well performing than a typical insulated wall, glass can also create unacceptable overheating through solar gain and requires a huge amount of energy to produce. Double, or triple-glazed, units have a relatively short life expectancy (typically 20 years), however, glass allows natural light into our interior spaces and the connectedness with the outside improves our sense of wellbeing and happiness. The best answers are rarely simple.
At our most recent session we were delighted to welcome Professor and author Bill Gething – long-standing friend of the studio, highly respected sustainability expert and architectural consultant. Bill’s presentation highlighted a number of climate change facts and detailed some alarming predictions based on our existing carbon trajectory, leaving us with the thought that our need to reduce carbon emissions is just the tip of the iceberg!