Healthy Buildings 2020 conference report by Hattie Hartman

A summary report of the ASBP Healthy Buildings Conference and Expo 2020, by journalist Hattie Hartman.

Please click on the speaker’s name in bold to link through to their biography and presentation.


In the context of climate emergency, the ASBP’s 2020 annual conference had a distinctly different tenor this year.  As chair Gary Newman noted in his opening remarks, the challenge for those like the ASBP who have been on the sustainability journey for many years now centres on how to make the change we need. It’s no longer about explaining why.

Two dynamic keynote speakers from beyond construction galvanized the 150+ strong audience and set the stage for more technical discussions later in the day. Ex-Labour MP for Wakefield Mary Creagh forcefully conveyed the state of ‘Emergency on Planet Earth.’  [To hear Creagh, check out her 8-part podcast of the same name.]

After a succinct summary of England’s health inequalities as highlighted in the Marmot Review and a sprint through the challenges of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, Creagh honed in on the policy gap that exists if the UK is to eradicate poverty, violence and hunger by 2030. She noted that during the recent floods and in times of potential resource conflict over essentials such as food and water, the poor suffer most. And that post-2008 financial austerity and the 2015 Syrian refugee migration will pale in comparison to the climate crisis.

Acknowledging the complexities of the environmental movement and the danger of orthodoxies, Creagh cautioned against taking the moral high ground. ‘Puritanism in the eco-movement is debilitating,’ she said. With a change of tone, she played a YouTube clip from Bill Nye the Science Guy, ‘The Planet is on F**king Fire’ (viewer discretion advised..).

Creagh went on to cite numerous disturbing statistics. Our current trajectory of global warming is set for a 3° degree rise; at 4°, insurance markets will stop working, she claims. In the UK, 20 per cent of homes are at risk of overheating. And deaths from overheating will treble by 2050. Air pollution, both outdoors and inside our homes, is a massive problem.

Creagh sees flooding as the UK’s greatest risk and despairs over the lack of clarity about who is in charge: DEFRA, the Environment Agency, local councils or the PM? The UK needs to deliver resilient infrastructure now.

Creagh predicts that it is the risk to business that will drive change and estimates that a transformation to a green economy should only cost 1 – 2% of GDP. Citing the dramatic drop in the cost of PVs, Creagh firmly believes that innovation can reduce real costs.

Author of Be More Pirate: Or How to Take on the World and Win Sam Conniff Allende, the second keynote speaker up, passionately and engagingly argued for a disruptive approach to change making by ‘breaking the rules’, defying convention and using agile networks. Since his book was published in 2018, he has been commissioned by companies from Red Bull to Lego to facilitate innovation workshops. If you missed him at the ASBP conference, check out his Ted talk on YouTube. How to break the rules, change the world and get away with it.

On a more pragmatic note, Marianne Suhr, chartered surveyor and co-author of the Old House Eco Handbook (2013), focused her talk on the critical importance of what she terms ‘responsible retrofit’ when undertaking environmental improvements to pre-1919 stock, and in particular heritage buildings.

Suhr cautioned against the dangers of jumping on the ‘retrofit bandwagon’ which can be replete with unintended consequences. Showing a string of images of insensitively applied external wall insulation and other unsympathetic interventions, Suhr challenged the ASBP audience to be vigilant, because ‘we are about to do some really bad stuff.’

She advocates the use of breathable materials, in particular lime products rather than impervious cement-based materials. The push for increased thermal insulation and improved air-tightness can have far-reaching consequences, particularly in historic properties.

Suhr stressed the importance of a holistic approach tailored to each specific building, with a strategy of repair that retains the character and authenticity of original fabric, rather than literal restoration.  This approach is likely to be the least costly, resource efficient and most enduring, and therefore the most sustainable over a building’s lifetime.

Speaking as an Architects Declare signatory, Cullinan Studio practice leader Carol Costello began with, ‘No one wants to be a hypocrite, so what do we do?’. During the aptly titled session ‘Accelerating change: How can we ‘Be More Pirate?’, Costello dissected Architects Declare 11-point pledge point by point and enumerated the practice’s response.

Cullinan Studio’s long engagement with these issues is reflected in:

  • senior partner Robin Nicholson’s role as convener of think tank The Edge
  • ASBP and sister organisations under the umbrella of the Sustainable Development Foundation (such as Passivhaus Trust) being collocated in Cullinan Studio’s office which facilitates knowledge exchange
  • retrofitted warehouse office which consumes 40% less energy than previous premises
  • employees measuring their personal carbon footprint since 2008
  • inclusion of whole life carbon modeling and POE as part of basic scope of services whenever possible – Recent project: National Automotive Innovation Centre (2018)  in Warwick (Post-occupancy evaluation report, February 2020)

‘We can’t manage what we don’t measure,’ Costello said.

  • accelerating shift to low embodied carbon materials – Recent project: Alder Hey Children’s Hospital Community Cluster (2018) which uses CLT and glulam
  • Reduction of construction waste – Research funding bid in collaboration with the ASBP Plastics in Construction Group to reduce plastic packaging on site at Dudley College of Technology (ongoing)
  • Minimising waste – Bunhill 2 Energy Centre, London EC1 recovering waste heat  from the Underground (2020)
  • Innovate UK funding research new typologies for local energy supply

So how to do more?

Next up was Stephen Richardson, Head of Projects, Europe Regional Network for the World Green Building Council. According to Richardson, embodied carbon represents 25% of the global carbon budget in a 1.5° scenario.  As author of the World GBC’s report Bringing Embodied Carbon Upfront (Sept 2019), Richardson summarised the report’s 10-page action plan for tackling embodied carbon in construction.

The report argues for setting global targets to achieve net zero embodied carbon by 2050. This means every country must take immediate action to develop its own roadmap for how this can be delivered. Collaboration and transparency are essential in order to develop the necessary policies and regulations. Richardson highlighted Norway, Sweden and Australia as countries with embodied carbon roadmaps in place and noted that the UK’s roadmap is three years old and in need of an update. According to the report, all governments (national and local) as well as developers and designers should have embodied carbon targets in place by 2025.

The overall strategy should be to reduce embodied carbon up front by using a whole life carbon approach on every project, including attention to maintenance over a project’s lifetime and dismantling and reuse at end of life. Finally, any residual embodied carbon emission should be offset within the project if possible or through a verified offset scheme.

In closing, Richardson asked everyone to turn to his or her neighbour and commit to one action within the next month. My neighbour intended to read Be More Pirate.

Next up on the afternoon’s agenda was Well-being in the Built Environment, a discussion of changing attitudes towards the importance of healthy workplaces in the commercial office sector, presented by Patrick Staunton, Health and Wellness lead at CBRE.

Staunton’s presentation unpicked the over-used term of well-being, defined it in the round (environment, physical, psychological and social) and summarised some interesting statistics. For example, workers with daylight are 18% more productive and students with daylight learn up to 26% faster, according to one study. He then delved into the advantages for landlords, developers and occupiers and the increasing focus on ‘optimising human capital.’

In addition to developers and end users, Staunton highlighted the need to involve and educate the many disciplines that deliver projects: manufacturers, contractors, design teams, suppliers, and project managers.

Staunton emphasized the need to demystify and ‘translate’ the WELL Standard for UK industry, noting that the supply chain needed training to get up to speed in order to comply. He advocated identifying areas of supply chain risk, with a particular focus on insulation, flooring, paints, sealants and furniture. He recommended training through product-specific seminars with large suppliers mentoring smaller companies.

Greater material transparency is also essential, with a dual focus on the content of a particular product as well as its emissions.  According to Staunton, REACH is not sufficiently stringent and Cradle-2-Cradle is the way forward. Likewise, performance verification is essential to ensure that buildings perform as intended. The industry challenge is to take these healthy building initiatives on board while retaining cost certainty and accelerated programmes.

Last year’s ASPB double award winner Harry Paticas of Arboreal Architecture gave an update on the Enerphit retrofit of his own home, a 1978 mid-terrace in southeast London. His interventions to date have achieved over 70% savings in operational emissions.

In a surprising reminder of today’s increasingly globalised world, Harry shared with the audience that the purchaser of his excess length of MVHR duct intended to transport it to Uganda where she is building a house. Amongst Harry’s other home improvements in the last year are:

  • a new deck built from timber from several Leylandii which he cut down in his back garden (with sawdust delivered to a local stable)
  • a new workspace with a window into the stair for borrowed daylight (in lieu of adding a rooflight)
  • a seasonal external shading system made from fabric for south-facing windows
  • installation of sensors to measure temperature and humidity in both his own home and a neighbour’s for comparison

Paticas has also recently launched Retrofit Action for Tomorrow (RAFT – @retrofitaction), a retrofit programme which includes delivering a series of engaging workshops to primary and secondary schools on the climate emergency, environmental conditions and the importance of the energy performance of buildings.

Finally, Paticas shared a current project, the retrofit of a residential flat in Ernö Goldfinger’s Metro Central Heights at Elephant and Castle. Originally designed as offices in 1964, the buildings were converted to 400+ flats in 1997, and listed in 2013. For Paticas’ client, new double glazing (applied to the whole building) has resulted in unintended consequences in the form of an extensive mould problem. Paticas’ proposed solution to resolve the mould growth includes fitting an MVHR unit into the ceiling void and linking it to existing grilles in the listed façade, addressing thermal bridges with aerogel lime plaster, and introducing metalised blinds into the glazing cavity to reduce heat gain.

All in all, another thought-provoking day masterminded by the ASBP. The main message: Be more Pirate in everything you do. These are extraordinary times.

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