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From sustainability to capitalism, Rising Stars discuss the challenges they face

Words:
Pamela Buxton

The hurdles of low-carbon design as well as issues of longevity, inclusion and how capitalism gives little value to good architecture were all discussed by this year's RIBAJ Rising Stars at a recent roundtable

Martha Summers’ toolbelt x harness design is both commentary and proposition, part of building systems, networks, and ultimately ways of working to offer a different kind of value.
Martha Summers’ toolbelt x harness design is both commentary and proposition, part of building systems, networks, and ultimately ways of working to offer a different kind of value. Credit: Martha Summers

There was certainly no shortage of big issues to grapple with at the Rising Stars roundtable, supported by Origin. How can architects define the value they bring, and be recognised for it, in a capitalist society? How are they tackling the challenges of designing sustainably and inclusively? How can architects learn from other sectors? And how can meaningful community engagement be delivered?

Sustainability challenges

The event kicked off with a discussion about the various difficulties of building in a low-carbon way, especially at scale and in the context of the GLA ban on timber (and other combustibles in external walls of homes higher than 18m).

There are no easy answers, said Jack Hawthorne, an associate at Henley Halebrown.

‘We’re really grappling with how we can hit RIBA 2030 targets with the current legislative context we’re faced with... It’s really nuanced and complicated. There needs to be bigger legislative changes to enable it to happen.’

The elephant in the room, he added, is that ‘developments are happening on a large scale and everyone is still building in concrete’.

Without the option of building in timber, architects have to make the best of a difficult situation.

‘We were left with no option but to optimise the structure and layout to make the best use of what we had to use,’ said James Purkiss, speaking about a proposed project he worked on when at Archio, designed in collaboration with Henley Halebrown. More positively, he said, there was an interest in measuring and illustrating how low carbon targets could be delivered, a topic close to his heart as a net zero research fellow at UCL.

Hawthorne said that architects were ‘much more liberated to push the boundaries’ in terms of approaches to sustainability on small projects. Certainly this was the experience of Clementine Blakemore at her award-winning Wraxall Yard project, which created accessible holiday accommodation at a restored dairy farm near Dorchester. Supported by a client with similar values, she was able to explore low-carbon approaches and materials.

But without the assistance of an in-house carbon calculator, she still experienced the challenges of balancing the pros of a potential product’s sustainability credentials, for example, with the cons of needing to import it because it wasn't manufactured in the UK. What’s needed, she says is a carbon surveyor in the same way that projects always have a quantity surveyor – perhaps the two roles could be combined. Without this, she adds,  ‘it’s an extra burden – we’re all trying to do our best’.

Participants discussed the idea that there was no such thing as a sustainable material, only sustainable systems. Even CLT, for example, is not necessarily always efficient in that it tends to use more material than is strictly needed, said Purkiss.

Longevity and inclusion

Faye Sedgewick described her work advocating the inclusive design of homes and care homes for healthy ageing, She undertook this as a knowledge transfer associate working across practice (Building Design Northern) and academia (Northumbria University). The emphasis on future-proofing for sustainability should, she said, also extend to ‘really simple things’ in the public realm to ensure accessibility for all.

‘We as architects should be advocating to make improvements to people’s daily experience," she said, asking: ‘How can everyone in the room support more inclusive practices and stand their ground with clients?’ She added that the RIBA’s inclusive design overlay to its Plan of Work (2020) was a useful innovation.

She explained that at her practice, every project now proactively implements a compliance plan to show how future adaptability of residential spaces to meet Category 2 standards has been considered at an early stage, particularly regarding accessibility for older and disabled individuals. Facilitated by the KTP, these drawings are fully developed by RIBA Stage 4.

‘Once you do one [Category 2] project drawing, you know what you’re doing, and it becomes more cost-effective the more you do it,’ she said. ‘It becomes the norm.’

Considering accessibility at a very early stage rather than at the end was key, said Blakemore. She described how at Wraxall Yard, future change had been enabled by thinking through the required future space requirements for an extra Changing Places hoist, with space for two carers on either side, in advance.

‘We didn’t fit it but we enabled the space, and if there is a need, it can be retrofitted, she said.

The discussion returned to accessibility issues later. Blakemore commented that Part M, which didn’t even come up when she was at architecture school, focuses on physical disability, not even mentioning autism. But from the Wraxall Yard project, she learnt that there can often be comorbidity.

Articulating value in a capitalist society

The Rising Stars were keen to discuss how architects can show their value and be better paid for it – a perennial issue that no one has cracked, noted chair and RIBA Journal editor Eleanor Young.

Purkiss, who is now a retrofit manager at Cambridge City Council, thought there was ‘a real opportunity’ for architects to be able to quantify the value of what they bring to projects, whether in social or monetary terms.

‘Architects need to get better at measuring the value of add-ons in order to get paid better,’ he said.

Blakemore questioned whether separating out different roles that architects do would actually be the best approach. Instead, she suggested, perhaps it’s better ‘saying that they are all architecture, and we just need to be paid more for architecture. Shouldn’t sustainability be so intrinsically linked to design that it’s not separate? And social value – it’s all interlinked.’

By separating the roles, there’s also the risk, she added, that the client might appoint someone else to do them, with the architect left answering to them.

According to Martha Summers, who has donated her services to design several queer and feminist community spaces including the London LGBTQ+ Community Centre on the South Bank, ‘the fundamental problem is capitalism’.

She explained: ‘For me, the issue with value and how we define our value is that ultimately architects don’t add value under the terms in which value is currently defined – which is profit. If all you’re interested in is making the maximum profit you can, why on earth would you hire an architect? You’ll make more profit without one.’ She added that, although you’d end up with a worse building without an architect, if you can market it successfully, you’d still make more from it.’

She often wonders, she says, ‘how you avoid the good work you’re doing inevitably being co-opted and turned into another way to extract profit’.

Her approach is to look to a better future by ‘world-building and world-making’.

‘You have to try to build systems and networks, and ways of working, that are aspirational in terms of a point in the future where you are working under a different system that isn’t so compromised,’ she said. 

She also talked about the importance of creating more third spaces that are neither work nor home. There are, she says, fewer and fewer such spaces due to the impact of late-capitalism and gentrification.

‘Why? Maybe society is resistant to them because such places are sites where you can organise politically.’

She is currently working on a temporary third space: a project to transform, with paper, a gallery at London’s Central St Martins into a narrow boat queer bar for one night only.

The power of research

Oliver Beetschen described the importance of learning from other sectors. Before moving to theatre designer Charcoalblue, he worked at Hawkins\Brown on a project funded by Innovate UK, Network Rail and the DfT to disrupt conventional approaches to the design and delivery of railway infrastructure.

Informed by learnings from the food and aviation industries, the project used design for manufacture and assembly (DfMA) to create an off-site-manufactured footbridge that could be delivered in three months rather than the norm of two years.

Architects are ‘well-placed’, he said, to influence others and get things moving. ‘As soon as you start speaking to these different industries, it can unlock something. We can’t wait for government to catch up and for legislation to catch up.’

He’d like to see a wider research fund focused on bigger issues.

‘More money should be put into research development so we can learn on a specific project without losing money, and then influence the rest of the sector,’ he said.

Sedgwick added: ‘Architects don’t know what kind of grants and research and funding is out there.’ Her own knowledge transfer partnership position has been funded by Innovate UK.

She feels that these research projects could be the next big thing for practices and that all parties win – the university gets the research, and the practice gets the knowledge.

Community and public realm

Blakemore celebrated the role of schools, especially Victorian board schools, as ‘dignified buildings that anchor the community’, and said she was keen to get involved in the idea of school streets. There was dismay at how ideas such as low-traffic neighbourhoods and the 15-minute city had spawned a right-wing backlash.

Participants mused over the merits of parklets and why they might be offered. Were these positive pockets in the urban landscape or merely as, Summer put it, ‘tiny sticking plaster’ compromises instead of an actual park?

Larry Botchway, co-founder of social enterprise design practice POoR (Power Out of Restriction) Collective, talked about the challenges of ensuring ‘how the everyday person can influence and change their environment’ – that they are truly part of the process.

‘I strongly believe in co-design,' he said. ‘But don’t think it gets applied in the way it should.’

When it comes to involvement in neighbourhood plans ‘there’s not really agency because there’s not that fundamental knowledge there’.

He talked about the power of the self-initiated, bottom-up approach – ‘setting the brief yourself, finding the funding yourself, rather than waiting to be commissioned.’

For those working in this area, it was important, he added, to understand that the ‘fundamental material that we deal with as designers is perspective’, and to realise when they need to bring in other viewpoints.

POoR is mindful of ensuring that the projects it is invited to take part in are aligned with its vision as an organisation. 

‘As a rule of thumb,’ he said, ‘the best-paid work is the worst for what we’re trying to do, so we just won’t do it. It’s about finding that balance and making the right decisions.’

New horizons

For several of the Rising Stars, it’s a time of change. Purkiss is tackling his new role as a retrofit manager. Both Summers and Sedgewick are contemplating next steps – Summers has gone full-time with her own artistic and architectural practice and Sedgewick is approaching the end of her knowledge transfer partnership role. It will be fascinating to see where all of this year’s Rising Stars cohort go next.

 

Book choices – how the Rising Stars are spending their book prizes:

Oliver Beetschen
Theatre and the City by Jen Harvie, Red Globe Press

Clementine Blakemore
Old Materials, New Climate: Traditional Building Materials in a Changing World by Susan Pranger, Routledge

Larry Botchway
Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire by Akala, John Murray Press

Jack Hawthorne
Irish Architecture – 20 Houses by 6 Architects by A+U Architecture and Urbanism Magazine

James Purkiss
Materials – An Environmental Primer by Hattie Hartman and Joe Jack Williams, RIBA Publishing
Social Value in Architecture by Flora Samuel and Eli Hatleskog, AD

Faye Sedgewick
Towards a Resilient Architecture by Mae Architects
The Caring City: Health, Economy, and Environment by Izaskun Chinchilla, Actar Publishers

Martha Summers
Queering the Interior by Andrew Gorman-Murray and Matt Cook, Routledge
Queer Premises by Ben Campkin, Bloomsbury Publishing

A wide selection of these books are available from the RIBA bookshop

RIBAJ Rising Stars is produced in partnership with Origin Windows.

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