From concrete tunnelling to self supporting stone facades and Range Rover Shopping Trips, how could an innovative engineering approach inject sustainability into design teams?
Steve Webb is the design engineer behind that most accessible and amusing of carbon measures, Range Rover Shopping Trips. His article equating the carbon cost of steel shelves or brick facades to supermarket runs in a gas-guzzling vehicle made clear the huge responsibility of construction professionals and was one of 2019’s best read articles on ribaj.com. His practice now wants to make sustainability consultants part of the design team as carbon guardians.
For the last 15 years Webb Yates Engineers, which Webb co-founded, has been working with some of the best UK practices. You know that amazing stone load bearing facade by Amin Taha in Clerkenwell? That was one of theirs (see overleaf). They worked on the jigsaw of ply stairs that opened up a Victorian house for Marie’s Wardrobe, by Tsuruta Architects, and the 8m cantilever that defines the Virginia Water Pavilion working with Stanton Williams. BPN’s stark black and while Ghost House in Warwickshire and Selgas Cano’s cool and curvy Second Home coworking space in Spitalfields – they both show the deft hand of Webb Yates. A questioning and requestioning of materials and their abilities seems to be at the heart of how Webb Yates Engineers operates. How else could they have come up with that gravity defying spiral stone Formby Stair invisibly tensioned with steel cables?
It is not the sort of work one might expect from an engineer whose career started with 12 hour shifts as a tunnelling and site engineer on London’s Jubilee Line Extension. ‘Everything was dirty, people were grubby with missing fingers and twisted spines,’ he says. There might be a little poetic licence in the hellish scene conjured up but when Webb had a chance he moved rapidly to Whitby Bird where he met Andy Yates, whom he later set up with. The emphasis on sketching there is echoed at Webb Yates Engineers. ‘We have zero tolerance on shit sketching,’ Webb says. ‘As engineers we don’t have that much agency. If we sketch out options we can send them to the architect. It is a way of getting through to someone, to persuade them.’ He loves the ‘ping pong of ideas, like between a cinematographer and director’.
We meet outside a recent project, an office extension near King’s Cross in London, York House by dMFK for The Office Group. It has a brick lattice facade, then a layer of glazing before it meets the five storey extension’s glulam structure and the stripped back concrete columns of the refurbished 80s building behind. Given Webb’s condemnation of the carbon cost of bricks I am a bit disappointed by the material and multiple layers, despite its striking impact on the street. ‘It’s a lot of stuff,’ I say. ‘We are always fighting against a lot of stuff,’ admits Webb. It was a contextual nod to the old building and a client preference from early on. The brick would have supported the new floor plates if it hadn’t had to have windows to satisfy the planners. As it is the corrugated angles of brick support the brick itself as it spans from floor to floor, held in place with 6mm reinforcing bars. It is a clever answer though perhaps not to the right question in sustainability terms. But there are only so many things you can fight for. The timber structure was almost scrapped 20 times, Webb reports.
‘We had taken time setting out the sequencing so there was no rational reason, but there are different lead-ins on material and timber is longer, and contractors have established procurement routes and people they trust.’
It is easier when the client wants the same thing. Webb did a presentation to potential client Bywater Properties. ‘We talked about ourselves, stone and timber and they asked for a timber building.’ The agent was unexpectedly enthusiastic. Webb adopts the role: ‘Oh yah, sustainability, I can sell that like hot cakes.’ So he and Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios have a £25m timber structure building, Old Paradise Street, just submitted for planning. A project discussion can easily spin out into wider questions such as Legal and General’s CLT factory, ways of using the UK’s rather weedy sitka spruce, the incredibly hard beech glulam BauBuche (which Webb Yates paired with 90mm concrete slabs on the Anna Freud Centre in north London for carbon sequestration, thermal mass and strength) and whether too much commercial forestry would be bad for the environment.
From 2015 to 2017 Webb Yates had a big growth spurt, opening offices in Bristol, Birmingham and Dubai. It almost doubled its staff within one year as it set up two new teams, in services with ex-Arup Andy Lerpiniere and in architecture (as Interrobang) with Maria Smith, ex Studio Weave and onetime RIBA Journal columnist.In the intervening years Smith took an engineering degree and now has a team of four architects. ‘They break up engineering culture,’ says Webb happily. But the growth was not matched by workflow so they are no longer touting for work in Dubai, and voluntary redundancies have seen staff numbers shrink to a more sustainable 63. In the office a meeting room wall is lined with beer bottles, not a testament to hard drinking but to the annual creative competition of team brewing and branding.
Smith styles the practice as ‘transdisciplinary’ and suggests how it might go beyond the norm by offering carbon and energy guardians who can ensure nuanced, informed decisions – particularly about embodied carbon at the time they will make the most difference to a project. As Webb has been pushing timber and stone so Smith has been researching for her curation of the Oslo Biennale, active with Architects Declare and elected to RIBA Council on the promise to address climate change.
Since the IPCC report there seems to be a sea change in attitudes in construction, with major developments committing to publishing their paths to zero carbon, the London Plan requesting embodied carbon information for referable schemes and the RIBA setting its 2030 Challenge to support practices in making more sustainable projects.
‘As engineers we work out rough carbon calculations,’ says Webb. ‘But it needs time and knowledge.’ The resources are growing but things like the Bath Inventory of Carbon and Energy database or Hawkins\Brown’s emissions reduction tool are still blunt instruments. Webb Yates Engineers hopes that carbon guardians will operate alongside a project in the way cost consultants or CDM coordinators do, so the most important decisions can be made at the right time. Will it work as a business? It is hard to say but there are manifest opportunities to bring more evidence, rigour and fundamental questioning to early stage design decisions and how they are implemented. This is a team who are not afraid to point out the madness of crushing, heating and reconstituting limestone to make a weaker material, concrete. I’d want them on my side.