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PODCAST: FCB Studios on leading the fight for climate change

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Words:
Eleanor Young

Always signed up to sustainable architecture, Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios has pursued its mission with renewed zeal in the last couple of years, as our podcast reveals

FCB Studios is one of only two practices developing and sharing a free carbon calculator tool, FCBSCarbon, with the profession. It has live net carbon zero projects on the books, it is looking at growing its own buildings and it has sponsored many staff to do Passivhaus training. ‘We are working in a revolutionary situation,’ says FCB Studios co-founder Peter Clegg. With this comes difficult questions about whick projects to take on, how to persuade consultants and tackling your own lifestyle.

How do new ideas get taken up? Watching Greta Thunberg: A Year to Change the World hammers it home that pioneers are needed in every field. Alongside the science, we need storytelling and doing to make the message practical. Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios has a long history of being a green practice but even they have been rediscovering their passion for climate action in the last couple of years, as revealed in this interview for series 2 of podcast RIBA J Meets, supported by VandersandenListen here or search for RIBAJ Meets on your podcast app. 

Strong voices for sustainability (left to right): Andrew Abraham from the Belfast office of Feilden Clegg Bradley, Jo White from the Edinburgh office and co-founder Peter Clegg.
Strong voices for sustainability (left to right): Andrew Abraham from the Belfast office of Feilden Clegg Bradley, Jo White from the Edinburgh office and co-founder Peter Clegg.

You can tell a lot about a business’s approach and how it takes on change from the lives of its people, so in my conversation with Bath-based co-founder Peter Clegg, and Jo White of the Edinburgh office, the first question was about lifestyles. We didn’t go through a whole assessment of individual energy footprints but White shows the value of the small shifts in family life as she talks about the case for scooting to school. Clegg reveals that he is now 98% vegetarian – though going vegan may be just a step too far for him.

So back to the work of design. When it comes to deviating from the standard way of doing things and designing radically green buildings, there is a lot of emphasis on evidencing those moves. As well as a tool to get the decisions right from the start of the project, White values FCBSCarbon for demonstrating the impact of one material or strategy over another. ‘Here is the difference it can make’ is the important phrase for White. It is what her clients and consultants need to hear.

  • The Passivehaus Croft Gardens student accommodation for King’s College Cambridge is designed by FCB Studios to last 100 years. A CLT structure and timber lining should sequester a substantial amount of carbon allowing it to be carbon negative for the first 7-10 years of operation.
    The Passivehaus Croft Gardens student accommodation for King’s College Cambridge is designed by FCB Studios to last 100 years. A CLT structure and timber lining should sequester a substantial amount of carbon allowing it to be carbon negative for the first 7-10 years of operation.
  • The Passivehaus Croft Gardens student accommodation for King’s College Cambridge is designed by FCB Studios to last 100 years. A CLT structure and timber lining should sequester a substantial amount of carbon allowing it to be carbon negative for the first 7-10 years of operation.
    The Passivehaus Croft Gardens student accommodation for King’s College Cambridge is designed by FCB Studios to last 100 years. A CLT structure and timber lining should sequester a substantial amount of carbon allowing it to be carbon negative for the first 7-10 years of operation.
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When FCBS was set up in the 1970s, fears of using up fossil fuels dominated the public consciousness, and this is what the firm addressed in its low energy, naturally ventilated buildings. This approach was labelled as ‘hippy’ then, says Clegg (who disappointingly doesn’t reveal whether he wore flowers and long hair in those days). The thinking was around solar and so was one of the organisations the practice set up – the Urban Centre for Appropriate Technology, a sister to the Centre for Alternative Technology in Machynlleth. It is still operating as the Centre for Sustainable Energy in Bristol.

Designing the Greenpeace headquarters out of an old lab building got them on the map and other headquarters with strong environmental agendas followed, the naturally ventilated National Trust in Swindon with its emphasis on solar power, the timber structure Woodland Trust in Grantham.

When FCBS completed BRE’s new environmental office in Garston in 1996 it was ahead of its time, designed to use 30% less energy than best practice. It also recycled 96% of the demolished workshops from the site, including using it as aggregate in the concrete. The practice is now revisiting the building to upgrade it.
When FCBS completed BRE’s new environmental office in Garston in 1996 it was ahead of its time, designed to use 30% less energy than best practice. It also recycled 96% of the demolished workshops from the site, including using it as aggregate in the concrete. The practice is now revisiting the building to upgrade it. Credit: DennisGilbert / ViewPictures

By this time every practice had the word sustainability on its websites and the standards for reducing operational carbon were in place. Everything was looking very much business as usual – until the IPCC report spelt out that we had just 10 years to avoid disastrous global warming. A summer of Extinction Rebellion action followed, and RIBA Stirling Prize winners including FCB Studios founded Architects Declare. The industry has started to say it needs more radical change than the lagging standard, prompting the work of LETI and the RIBA’s 2030 Challenge, which excitingly, like the Architects Climate Action Network come from the ground up. Climate action has again become a conviction, a mission for many architects.

In this episode of RIBAJ Meets three generations of the practice talk about how they are upping the ante and pushing at the boundaries of sustainable design with ‘a different level of commitment’. They discuss how it feels to guard sustainable design through value engineering and construction (‘we are at the sharp end of an endlessly pointy stick’), re-examine the firm’s own sustainable nineties poster-boy of the BRE offices, and explain how the practice’s Belfast-based Andrew Abraham has taken these issues to the top of government in Northern Ireland. And they don’t flinch from that fraught topic of what airport work the practice would take on.

Hear more RIBAJ Meets online or wherever you listen to your podcasts

Presented and produced by Eleanor Young. Sound edit Richard Coleby, upload co-ordinator Charlotte Collins, music Steffen Addington

 

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