Spotlight on David Lea and low carbon design

 

When we build we reveal our vision of the future.” These words embody David Lea’s approach to designing buildings that are in harmony with the natural world. Today, this has never been more important and here at RISE Design Studio we will continue to take inspiration from Lea’s work, long after hearing the sad news of his death earlier this year.

RISE Design Studio David Lea

Beautiful buildings, minimal harm

At the heart of Lea’s long career as an architect was his desire to create low-impact buildings. Many of his projects were built mainly from natural products, including timber, hempcrete, locally quarried stone and lime render. His last major project included an auditorium built with seven metre high walls of rammed earth. This now renowned project – the Wales Institute for Sustainable Education (WISE) in mid-Wales – comprises a range of accommodation and workshops, with pools of water, paved terraces and timber-slatted galleries interspersed throughout. This keeps the inside spaces in ‘constant dialogue’ with the outside world with an almost Japanese feel.

The WISE centre, like many of his other projects, were based on design principles that embrace creativity, minimise waste and retain an element of simplicity that complements the natural world. In his first important work – a sheltered housing scheme in Surrey – Lea implemented a system of easily built timber details so as to avoid any wasteful cutting. In later phases of the same project, he incorporated lime-rendered wall finishes, a method that he used in combination with locally quarried stone in his other work.

Growing concern for the natural world

As Lea progressed through his career, his concern for the natural world grew and he became increasingly restless with life in London. Relocating to Snowdonia in North Wales, he focused increasingly on rebuilding his own property and cultivating his land as part of the wider ‘back-to-the-earth’ movement.

While in Wales, and through his work at the WISE centre, he was able to showcase his use of hempcrete – a mixture of hemp and lime – as a sustainable alternative to concrete. Students and staff continue to experiment with this material at the Welsh School of Architecture and there is growing interest and use in hempcrete in a wide range of architecture, construction and scientific circles.

An activist at heart

Most inspirational is the way in which Lea instilled in his students a crucial need to think about the future that they build. His appreciation of changing light, combined with creativity, simplicity and responsibility towards the environment, was distilled into the minds of so many architects who now have the opportunity to learn from and carry on his important work.

Francis Kéré, materiality and place

 

In 2022, Francis Kéré was awarded architecture’s highest international accolade, the Pritzker Prize. Kéré’s many projects show us the power of materiality rooted in place, which is something that we emphasise through the use of local materials in our architecture and design work.

Francis Kere RISE Design Studio

Against the odds

Kéré was born in a remote village in Burkina Faso, with no electricity, running water or a local school. He left his family at age seven to study at a city school, where he later trained as a carpenter. After receiving a scholarship for an apprenticeship in Germany, he went on to study architecture in Berlin. Despite being far from home, one of his first projects was to design a school for the village he grew up in, in collaboration with members of the community and using local materials. For this, he was awarded the Aga Khan Award in 2004 and the Global Award for Sustainable Architecture in 2009.

Innovative use of local materials

The Burkina Faso school project included the use of clay-earth bricks and suspended, corrugated metal roofs, to encourage stack ventilation for students learning in a hot, arid climate. By placing the overhanging metal roofs like this – rather than in the common way that makes houses hot inside – cool air is drawn in through the building’s windows and hot air is then released through holes in the ceiling. The innovative use of local materials and adaptation of traditional building techniques, combined with insight and involvement from the community, have been central to Kéré’s renowned approach.

Impact and investment

As awareness of his work grew, Kéré received widespread recognition for his experimentation with different materials to create cool and comfortable buildings in the hot African climate. He has also managed to raise funds for several projects focused on improving schools and other educational buildings for Africa’s young people, often involving buildings’ users in its construction, as he did in his home village.

Continuing to experiment with natural alternatives to air conditioning, one of his most recent projects – a technology campus in Kenya – uses wind towers shaped like termite mounds. In another project – a secondary school in Burkina Faso – he used local, laterite stone as the main building material. By orienting the building east to west, the amount of direct solar radiation on the walls was reduced, and a sharply protruding metal roof (like that used in the school in his home village) creates a large amount of shade.

Other projects in Africa have used a modular approach, with local people employed in the construction of modules, using local materials such as clay, laterite, cement bricks, gum wood and loam. Once again, large walls and impressive overhanging roofs remove the need for air conditioning in most buildings – a vital outcome in the changing climate and in communities without electricity for air conditioning, or the means with which to pay for powering cooling systems.

Inspiration

As the first black architect to win the Pritzker Prize in its 43-year history, Kéré acknowledges that he hopes to inspire young people in Africa to realise that paths like the one he has taken are open to them too. He continues to draw inspiration from local environments and there is a sense that his most impressive works may be yet to come.

Passive House – a luxurious way to take climate action

 

At RISE Design Studio, we work hard to minimise the environmental impact and energy consumption of our projects. One way we do this is by working with the Passive House and EnerPHit standards. In October 2021, publisher and editor of Passive House Plus magazine, Jeff Colley, gave a TEdx talk in Tralee on ‘How Passive Houses can improve your life and help the planet’. Jeff’s talk highlighted some of the key reasons why the Passive House is key to tackling the climate emergency.

Passive House RISE Design Stdio

What is a Passive House?

A Passive House (or Passivhaus) tends to use energy sources from within the building, such as body heat, heat from the sun or light bulbs, or heat from indoor appliances to create a comfortable, healthy living environment. Typically, a Passive House features high levels of insulation to roofs, external walls, ground floors (with no heat loss at junctions), triple glazing and air tightness. A ventilation system recovers heat from stale outbound air and passes it onto incoming fresh air that is then filtered when entering the house.

Your home is your sanctuary

In an increasingly uncertain world, we are often made to feel that taking climate action equates with making sacrifices in our lives. However, the Passive House shows us how climate action does not need to feel like this. Instead, it can improve life in several ways. Most importantly, a Passive House costs very little to heat (and in some cases nothing at all), and the internal environment always feel fresh and comfortable, whatever the weather.

The emphasis on ‘future proofing’ means that a Passive House can withstand any weather and/or temperatures that the future may bring. As Jeff Colley explains in his talk, people who live in Passive Houses regularly describe constant comfort, no ‘cursing at the cold’ in the mornings, and peace and quiet – acoustic performance is very high, making it hard to hear anything outside or between party walls in flats/other shared accommodation.

No need for heating

Impressively, there are many examples of Passive Houses whose residents rarely or never turn on the heating system. In some houses, a heating system is not even needed, with only small battery-powered back-up if required. For example, of 18 sheltered housing units built in Devon for elderly people, the heating had not been turned on in nine of the units five years after construction. Similar accounts relate to Passive Houses in which there has been a boiler issue but this is not an urgent problem, as in more standard homes.

A healthy home is a happy home

In the west, we spend about 90% of our time in our buildings, making it important that our home is a healthy place to be. Experiences during the pandemic have also made us think more about air quality and ventilation. Recent research in Ireland suggests that the benefits of Passive Houses go even further than reducing energy use and creating a comfortable living environment. Over 200,000 global lung cancer deaths each year are estimated to be caused by the presence of radon in buildings. This is a particular issue when the weather is cold outside and the indoor environment is warm – radon can rise up from the ground into the living environment. The average levels of radon in a Passive House have been found to be much lower than in an average home.

Drawbacks?

Some critics have questioned whether the Passive House standard restricts architectural freedom. However, the standard is remarkably flexible and accommodates good design, in both retrofit and new build projects. The standard can be applied to any building, including commercial and residential, and even listed period buildings.

The first Passive House hospital is nearing completion in Frankfurt and Passive House schools are becoming increasingly common, such as the Harris Academy in Sutton. Impressively, the standard has also been used in a very progressive council housing scheme in Norwich. The standard can be used to create a good indoor environment for ‘things’ rather than people as well. For example, an Imperial War Museum archive near Cambridge uses the approach to protect its artefacts for future generations.

Jeff Colley suggested that the main drawback of living in a Passive House is that it may become hard to stay in other people’s homes when one has become so accustomed to such high comfort levels. Joking aside, the Passive House is an excellent example of how ‘being green’ doesn’t have to mean sacrifice. As Jeff argues, it is one form of radical climate action that everybody can agree to. We fully support this argument and we continue to work with clients on new build and retrofit projects that apply the Passive House and/or EnerPHit standard.

Photo: Hervé Abbadie and Karawitz

Refurbishing homes for net zero – upskilling our design team

 

Refurbishing and retrofitting existing homes is a large part of the challenge of transitioning the built environment to net zero. We are faced with a significant task, especially as every home is different – efficiency measures that work in one home may not be appropriate for another. Retrofitting is also a daunting task for homeowners, particularly in terms of engaging a contractor with the right skills and experience for the job. At RISE Design Studio, we have worked on several projects that have included energy efficiency measures and, as the push to net zero becomes ever more critical, we are working hard to upskill our design team so all our projects are as energy efficient as possible.

Retrofit flat London

Embracing refurbishment

The 2008 Climate Change Act committed the UK to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050. The buildings sector accounts for 37% of total UK GHG emissions and, of these emissions, 65% are from the residential sector. As a result, there has been growth in the residential retrofit industry, with buildings being adapted to be more sustainable and energy-efficient. The majority of our existing residential stock requires some level of retrofit to enable the government’s ambitious emissions targets to be reached.

Common measures include improving insulation. A new heating system might also be installed, or double glazing might be fitted. Yet, conserving energy is not the only reason to retrofit a building. Improving indoor environmental quality, reducing dampness and mould will all lead to increased health and productivity levels of residents.

Upskilling our design team

Recognising the increased momentum in London around reaching net zero, we have really enjoyed working with clients on refurbishment projects that incorporate environmental considerations. Modern architects are well-placed to add creativity and innovation into the drive to retrofit existing housing stock, particularly those that may prove very expensive to retrofit. For example, historic buildings such as Edwardian terraces are protected, and increasing energy efficiency can pose a real challenge. However, there are exciting options to retain the façade and rebuild the living spaces within the building.

More and more clients are seeking energy efficient homes and we are fully aware of the important role architects play in helping to reach the government target for 2050. As a result, we have been working hard to upskill our design team to work on these types of projects.

Maximising design benefit

There are several industry standards designed to increase the efficiency of residential property, including the Passivhaus and EnerPhit certifications. A Passivhaus project tends to use energy sources from within the building, such as body heat, heat from the sun or light bulbs, or heat from indoor appliances to create a comfortable, healthy living environment. However, it can be difficult to reach the exact requirements of the Passivhaus standard in a retrofit project.

Recognising this, the Passivhaus Institut has developed the EnerPHit standard for projects that use the Passivhaus method to reduce fuel bills and heating demand. We are working hard to implement this standard in our projects and our design team has developed the skills to align retrofit projects with this approach. EnerPHit takes into account the limitations associated with retrofit projects and relaxes some of the Passivhaus criteria to reflect this. Nevertheless, it is still a very demanding standard and generally results in a building that outperforms a new-build property both in terms of energy and comfort.

Kitsungi – the art of repair

 

Celebrating the beauty of a naturally imperfect world is a tenet of our work here at RISE Design Studio. By embracing impermanence and accepting that we are always in a state of flux, it becomes easier to appreciate what we have, rather than compare ourselves to others. It is this mindfulness and ‘living in the now’ – with all its imperfections – that we try to capture in our work. An important influence on our approach is the Japanese art of kitsungi – ‘golden repair’ – which respects the unique history of an object.

Reclaimed bricks RISE Design Studio

An accidental art form

It is thought that kitsungi was developed in the 15th century when a Japanese shogun broke his favourite tea bowl. He was disappointed that the repair involved stapling the pieces together, which left the bowl looking unattractive. Instead, local craftsmen filled the crack with a golden laquer. This made the bowl more unique and valuable, and prompted a new style of repair. As the style developed, the lacquer was likened to natural features like waterfalls, rivers, or landscapes.

The need to accept change

We often feel regret when something breaks or is wasted. For the Japanese, this is ‘mottainai’, a feeling that dates back to the original era of kitsungi and remains present in contemporary Japanese environmentalism.

In London, we are tackling the challenge of developing a circular economy to support net zero targets – mottainai and kitsungi can provide us with the inspiration we need. In our ‘throwaway culture’, we often miss opportunities to transform broken or used objects into something new, perhaps even making those objects more rare and beautiful than the originals.

This is the essence of resourcefulness – making the most of what we already have (or what already is) and highlighting beauty alongside any flaws. The perfections and imperfections are what gives our surroundings a story and meaning.

Embracing the past in the home

What does this mean at home? It can include choosing authentic furnishings that create a lived, harmonious space. It might also mean sourcing used furniture and allowing each scratch to add to the narrative of an item’s history. It might mean repairing walls, floors and external materials to reflect the history of the building and the changes it has seen through the years. Sourcing local or reclaimed materials might also help to root the home in its local environment and landscape.

Imperfections are gifts

The art of kitsungi is not only about objects – it is also about how we live our lives. It helps us to realise that we, like the tea bowl, are all fallible. We heal and grow, and we often survive emotional blows and live to tell the story. However, it can be hard to admit our failures and accept that bad things can happen. If we are to learn something personal from the local craftsmen who repaired broken items with gold, it is that imperfections are gifts to be worked with.

We take pride in working with imperfections in our projects, whether those be in buildings with a story to tell, with materials that reflect the local landscape, or with furniture and other fittings that have existed for several generations.

Architecture and the planet: a crucial moment

 

David Attenborough’s ‘A Life On Our Planet‘ brings into sharp focus the destruction of Earth’s habitats that he has witnessed during his nearly 70 years in broadcasting. There is no mistaking the significant scale of the issues currently faced by our planet. At the end of the film, Attenborough offers us some rays of hope: the power of the right financial incentives to encourage reforestation and renewable energy development; the potential to replenish the seas with fish by protecting our coastlines; the importance of raising the global standard of living to slow population growth. But what role can architects play in tackling the pressing issues such as climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution?

Garden studio RISE Design Studio

Cultivating a circular economy

It is common knowledge that buildings have a significant impact on our environment. In 2014, a European Commission report noted that construction and builing use in the EU accounts for 40% of all energy use, 35% of greenhouse gas emissions, 50% of all extracted material, 30% of water use and 35% of all generated waste.

Armed with this information, it has become imperative that architects consider how their design decisions can reduce the impact of the industry. It is time to move away from the traditional ‘take, make and waste’ system towards a ‘take, make and reuse’ approach – a circular rather than linear economy. Recycling materials becomes paramount, working hard to divert construction and demolition debris from landfill and reusing, repairing or remanufacturing materials where possible.

Burrows road home renovation RISE Design Studio

– This glazed extension to the rear of a house in London used bricks reclaimed during the demolition to create a feature wall in the new space. 

Building in biodiversity

We also now know that plants and trees in our cities play an important role in tackling climate change and improving the health and wellbeing of residents. Green infrastructure – networks of green space and other green features in our communities – is central to quality placemaking. There is a compelling case for developing more natural and semi-natural habitats in our cities, towns and buildings, and architects play a key role in considering green infrastructure in the earliest stages of design.

Mill Hill new build RISE Design Studio Green roof

– Our new build house in Mill Hill features a green roof (along with other Passivhaus principles) to minimise the environmental impact and energy consumption of the house.

Embracing energy efficiency

Increasing the energy efficiency of buildings is a concern that has been increasingly recognised in UK legislation and policy. This may involve retrofitting buildings – using new technologies and materials such as insulation to increase energy efficiency. Conserving energy not only has environmental benefits – improving the quality of the indoor environment and reducing dampness increase health and productivity levels of residents.

Rise-Design-Studio-Douglas-House-ph-Edmund-Sumner-25-600x817

– Our Douglas House renovation features a range of passive and active environmental technologies (insulation, airtightness, solar panels, a mechanical ventilation heat recovery system, rainwater harvesting and smart thermostats).

At RISE, we see the importance of contributing to positive change in the way we conceive, construct and deliver the built world. We have made a serious commitment to reducing the impact of our projects on the environment and creating designs that improve the health and wellbeing of our clients and communities.