Architecture and the Kindness Economy – learning from Mary Portas

“Architecture is not just about what we build – but how we live.”

We have been captured by Mary Portas’ work on the Kindness Economy. This new value system requires businesses to understand the fundamental role they play for the wellbeing of people and the wider fabric of our society. At the heart of this approach is the need to balance commerce with social progress. We also see the need to balance our architectural and design business with the environment. In this post, we reflect on what we have learned about the Kindness Economy that resonates with our work at RISE Design Studio.

Mary Portas ii

Our shifting relationship with buildings

As we emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic, we are realising just how much buildings influence every part of our lives. After spending more time in our homes and immediate neighbourhoods than ever before, we have become more aware of how we interact with the buildings we inhabit and how nature is reflected both internally and externally within and close to our homes.

In her recent podcast with Amanda Levete CBE, Mary Portas suggests we are going through a radical shift in our relationships with buildings. Architects are therefore at the forefront of designing our world post-pandemic. Buildings are the greatest expression of the idea of community and we need to understand who we are building for, particularly as different communities have different values, which need to be reflected in the architecture that surrounds them.

Lead by example

There is growing concern that volume housing is often built cheaply, with a focus on maximum profit for the developer, rather than on achieving maximum impact for the people who live there. As architects, we need to understand who we are building for and tailor designs accordingly. Different communities need different buildings, and housing should be designed around shared values not the value of a project or the resulting profit.

In an era of spending more time living and working in the home, it seems conceptually inappropriate that the design is in many cases driven by profit for someone who is not rooted in, or connected with, that community. This raises questions about how to encourage a shift in approach – Mary Portas would argue that this can be done by leading by example and showcasing successful projects for others to take inspiration from.

Between office and home

What will change as many of us start to return to the office? It is perhaps hard to predict but within the Kindness Economy there lies potential to re-imagine the office as a family home. Small companies may move from warehouses into townhouses, creating a homely office or a neighbourhood co-working space. It will be important for companies to have conversations with their staff about the future, to achieve a more positive work/life balance.

Attracting people back to the office will also require more thought about what kind of spaces people want and whether they want to work in those spaces. There is an opportunity to design buildings from which everyone has access to some outdoor space, nurturing the connection between inside and outside, and the local environment that we have all got to know so well when our movement was restricted.

Nurture community and connection

Although we live in an increasingly digital world, we are arguably more disconnected than ever before. Enforced remoteness and distance has negatively affected the culture and connectedness of our lives. As we re-emerge, we need places to meet, to learn new skills, and to feel a sense of culture around us. As we look to new ways of living and working, social interaction will be very important. How can people be put at the heart of buildings?

As many town centre properties lie empty, there is now an opportunity to begin a transformation but this will need risk-taking, innovation and creativity. Mary Portas points out the immediate opportunity to re-purpose these buildings without extensive demolition, in a way that exploits the characteristics that make a building so difficult to convert – a large central atrium, perhaps, or large indoor spaces with no natural light.

While challenging, these are exciting opportunities for architects – perhaps we can convert old department stores into spaces that are home to community functions and activities that will help to bring us all together again? Perhaps they could become places where people can grow food, making use of the latest technology in hydroponic farming? People’s concepts of a shop have changed and there is growing agreement that we need to re-purpose and re-vision these properties to create spaces and activities to bring people together.

You can visit one of Mary’s Living and Giving Shops across the UK.

 

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.

What is retrofit?

 

The 2008 Climate Change Act committed the UK to reducing its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 80% by 2050 (against the 1990 baseline). The buildings sector accounts for 37% of total UK GHG emissions and, of these emissions, 65% are from the residential sector. With this in mind, there has been growth in the residential retrofit industry, whereby buildings are adapted to become more sustainable and energy-efficient, while in the non-domestic market, retrofit can often be part of a larger refurbishment project. The majority of our existing residential and commercial stock requires some level of retrofit to enable the government’s ambitious emissions targets to be reached. In this post, we look at some of the methods available for retrofit and consider the role of architects in the retrofit of existing buildings.

retrofit living spaces

Making homes more energy-efficient

A study in conducted in 2014 estimated that 40 million houses in the EU would have to be retrofitted by 2020 if the reduction of emissions is to stay on track. In general, retrofitting involves the use of new technologies and materials within the home, to increase energy efficiency. A popular and simple example is improving insulation. A new heating system might also be installed, or double glazing might be fitted. There is also the option to carry out a Passivhaus retrofit. Although it is more difficult to reach the exact requirements of the Passivhaus standard in a retrofit project, the Passivhaus Institut has developed the EnerPHit standard for projects that use the Passivhaus method to reduce fuel bills and heating demand.

High performance buildings

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 the building’s users (read more on our blog about sustainable architecture principles that improve health). A retrofit project also presents the opportunity to reassess the accessibility, safety and security of a building.

The role of the architect

Retrofitting the home to increase energy efficiency can have significant architectural implications for the interior/exterior of houses. 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. There are exciting options to retain the facade and rebuild the living spaces within the building. Because architects have an overview of the whole build process, they tend to be well-placed to act as a lead co-ordinator in retrofit projects. If you are keen to implement the Passivhaus method, you are likely to need planning permission as the work may require external insulation or changes to the roof, for example. Again, an architect can help with this.