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.

What is the difference between Passivhaus and BREEAM?

 

At a time when energy prices are rising, it is helpful to know about options in the home for reducing energy consumption. From an architectural and design point of view, this equates to much more than having a shorter shower or reducing the time the heating is turned on. Today, there are several ways to deliver a high standard in energy-efficient construction, using well-developed design principles and sustainability assessment methods. We work with two approaches in particular – Passive House and BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method).

RISE Design Studio Passive House London

Passive House – Energy savings of up to 90%

In recent years, there has been growing awareness of the benefits of a Passive House (or Passivhaus). This is a construction concept that dramatically reduces the need for space heating/cooling and primary energy consumption, while at the same time creating good, healthy indoor air quality. In Europe, a Passive House generally uses as little as 10% of the energy used by a typical building, or 25% when compared with the average new build designed for low energy consumption.

A Passive House relies on energy sources from inside the building, such as body heat, light bulbs, heat from the sun, or heat from indoor appliances to create a comfortable and healthy living environment. A mechanical heat recovery ventilation system is used to enable fresh air to enter the building without letting heat out, and allows heat contained in exhaust air to be reused.

For a building to achieve the Passive House standard, there is strong focus on energy conservation, particularly via insulation, air tightness and optimal glazing.  It is quite a simple approach and checking the design and build against the standard is straightforward.

BREEAM – thinking about carbon emissions

Although more complex to apply in practice, the BREEAM standard is concerned with more than energy conservation. The standard takes into account carbon emissions as well as energy consumption, and is more holistic than the Passive House approach. BREEAM considers the environment/infrastructure surrounding the house – good management, water consumption, biodiversity, transport, pollution, waste management, etc.

This broad-reaching approach allows careful master planning of projects, infrastructure and buildings, which is increasingly important in areas where pressure for housing development is high. BREEAM ratings focus particularly on the reduction of carbon emissions, low impact design, biodiversity protection and climate change adaptation, allowing the client or other stakeholders to compare building performance. To date, an ‘Outstanding’ BREEAM rating has been awarded to less than 1% of new non-domestic buildings in the UK and serves to inspire developers and others to improve, innovate and make effective use of resources.

Sustainability assessment at RISE Design Studio

We regularly work with both the Passive House and BREEAM standards, on both new build and retrofit projects. Our recent work that follows Passive House principles of sustainable design has incorporated the use of air source heat pumps, solar panels, airtightness, mechanical ventilation with heat recovery, and additional insulation.

The focus on sustainable value and efficiency makes Passive House and BREEAM certified projects a worthwhile investment, not least for creating a healthy home or work environment with reduced operational costs, and contributing to sustainability both within and outside the home.

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

Working towards a Net Zero London

 

Earlier this month, New London Architecture (NLA) published a report on ‘Zero Carbon London‘. Part of NLA’s Net Zero programme (#NLANetZero), the report provides new insight into progress in the built environment profession in the fight against climate change. It is based on results of a survey of over 100 London-based companies in the sector and points out some of the biggest challenges and opportunities for the city to get to Net Zero. In this post, we pull out some of the key points that ring particularly true for our firm.

Net Zero London RISE Design Studio

What is Net Zero London?

‘Net zero carbon’ is often used as a proxy for the six greenhouse gases: carbon dioxide is the most common of these. ‘Net’ refers to the sum of carbon emissions and carbon offsetting/sequestration (e.g. via absorption of carbon dioxide because of new woodland creation) being equal to zero. It is now widely-proven that climate change is caused by the increased concentration of greenhouse gases emitted in the atmosphere from human activities. This leads to an increase in global temperatures (global warming). Reducing the emissions of man-made greenhouse gases is therefore vital for tackling the climate emergency, and this is why ‘net zero carbon’ is so important.

For cities, which account for over 70% of global emissions and consume over two thirds of the world’s energy, reaching net zero is urgent. London has been one of the first global cities to commit to becoming carbon neutral by 2050 – the Greater London Authority has a plan to achieve this ambitious aim. 27 of the 32 London Boroughs and City of London have so far declared a climate emergency. London is also one of the major global cities that has signed the C40 Net Zero Carbon Buildings Declaration, committing to ensure that all new buildings operate at net zero carbon by 2030 (and all existing buildings at net zero carbon by 2050).

Achieving net zero in construction

The UK Green Building Council (UKGBC) explains net zero in construction as ‘when the amount of carbon emissions associated with a building’s product and construction stages up to practical completion is zero or negative, through the use of offsets or the net export of on-site renewable energy’. A net zero carbon building tends to be highly energy efficient and powered from on- or off-site renewable sources, with any remaining carbon balance offset.

There are plenty of exciting initiatives and projects being undertaken by public authorities and the private sector: from a citizens’ assembly facilitated by Camden Council to come up with recommendations for zero carbon homes, to the RIBA 2030 Climate Challenge that sets out the actions that chartered practice like RISE Design Studio will need to take.

More to be done

The NLA survey highlighted good progress in the sector. First, the vast majority of those who took part have signed up to one of the industry pledges such as Architects Declare (we have signed up). Second, those in the industry generally feel that they have the skills to address climate issues.

However, those who completed the survey feel that the biggest barriers to positive change are regulation and finance. The lack of green finance is a critical barrier for the London Boroughs to implement and achieve their targets. For organisations like ours, the current policy frameworks are not effective and act as a barrier for implementing measures that will get us to net zero. For example, a recent government consultation on banning the use of combustible materials in buildings suggests that a lack of joined-up thinking remains an issue – timber plays a very important role in decarbonsing construction.

The Covid-19 lockdown between March and May 2020 demonstrated that it is possible to reduce emissions and address behaviour change in a short time – carbon emissions in London dropped by 60%. But, the challenge is to achieve this reduction at the same time as people living their lives freely.

There is strong optimism in the sector that there is now an opportunity to transform our way of life and act in a more environmentally-conscious way. The upcoming inauguration of a US President who ran on a manifesto of clean energy and net zero no later than 2050 is also encouraging, particularly if he manages to rally the rest of the world (and our Prime Minister) to take the same steps.

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.