5 Minutes with Duncan Baker-Brown

Mark speaks with Duncan Baker-Brown, Founding Member of Award-Winning Architects, BBM Sustainable Design about his career

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Through his previous Five Minutes with Ehab Sayed, Founder of sustainable building product manufacturer BIOHM, Collingwood’s Head of Built Environment, Mark Goldsmith, was introduced to Duncan Baker-Brown.

Not only is he founding member of award-winning Architects, BBM Sustainable Design, but he spends half his week lecturing about Sustainable Architecture at Brighton University. Back in the early noughties he was one of the minds behind the Greenwich Millennium Village; he fronted the RIBA Futurehouse project and worked with Kevin McCloud on the television series, The House That Kevin Built.

Additionally, he’s written a book on the subject, The Reuse Atlas: a designer’s guide towards a circular economy, with a second edition due to come out in the summer, and he is up for the UK Construction Week Role Model of the Year award in 2020.

Here’s what they discussed:

Mark: From your background it is clear that creating a more sustainable environment from within the built environment has been a key focus of yours for many years Duncan. How did you first become interested in the subject, and when did you realise that taking your career, within architecture, down this path was the way you wanted to go?

Duncan: From the age of about eight I was acutely aware that there was, shall we say, a tension between the natural world and human development in the shape of ever-expanding cities and infrastructure such as roads, railways etc. I was brought up near Epping Forest which runs from Walthamstow in North East London up to Epping in West Essex. As a young boy I witnessed the countryside around me ploughed up for the M11 and then the M25 motorways. I can remember the first time I saw the NatWest Tower in the City of London; it was from the high point of a walk I took with my mother through a beautiful meadow that I thought (as an eight year old) was taking me deeper into the countryside. Far from it. We were walking towards London!.... and it was that moment when I realised how close the city was to my rural ideal, and how vulnerable it was. So, I’ve been environmentally aware since a very young age. However, once I got into architecture, I decided to study part-time and work in practice at the same time. It was the late 1980’s when I thought of leaving the profession and joining Greenpeace. Basically, I felt that architects were simply facilitating corporate greed and excess. However, I decided not to work for Greenpeace, but to mix my two passions (architecture and the natural world) and went to the University of Brighton to complete my post-graduate studies focusing on Sustainable Architecture.

Mark: Having listened to a few of your talks one thing that has stood out to me is the fact that, as an industry, we need to appreciate that our carbon footprint isn’t mainly attributed by occupational emissions; rather it is the whole package of constructing buildings, throughout the whole of the supply chain (materials, transportation etc). Through your work at the School of Architecture at Brighton, you coordinated the Waste House project. In a nutshell, what were you looking to achieve with this project and, of materials used, which ones most surprised you during the construction stage?

Duncan: Since we completed the RIBA House of the Future in 1994, it has been evident to us that reducing the amount of energy a building consumes during its lifetime is an ambition many architects and clients have been able to focus on. However, this is only one part of the story. We all need to be made more aware of the huge amount of energy, water, pollution, raw materials etc., that is expended during the design, construction, maintenance, and eventual demolition of buildings. It is this element, often described as ‘embodied carbon’ (although it relates to much more than carbon), that is now fast gaining a greater understanding within our industry, and it is this issue that our Waste House project engaged with. In 2012 when we started visioning the project there was this incredible statistic that for every five houses built in the UK, one house worth of material went to landfill or incineration. Fast forward to 2020 and we have nearly halved this figure, but our sector still throws away 120 million tonnes of material annually which is 60% of all UK waste. So, our initial vision for the Waste house was to prove that we could construct a new building, performing to PassivHaus levels of energy conservation and air tightness, only using this type of discarded material…. and to prove that “there is no such thing as waste, just stuff in the wrong place!”. We also wanted to share the design and construction process with students and apprentices. So, the project was built by over 360 young people from local technical colleges, as well as our own university. Along the way we slightly changed the brief and decided to capture waste flows from other sectors, in particular domestic waste, i.e., the sort of stuff we all throw away daily. Hence the building became a vessel collecting (often) plastic products without an end-of-life strategy. For example, we collected 25,000 toothbrushes in only four days from Gatwick airport – all destined for incineration, and most of them never used. It should be noted that the Waste House is a teaching facility and live research project in itself. It’s main reason for existing is to inspire future designers to create products, buildings etc. with an end-of-life- strategy beyond becoming harmful toxic waste polluting our oceans and natural landscapes.

Mark: Much like diversity within the industry, sustainability seems to be a continual cyclical subject. However, over recent years, the message seems to be filtering through the various chains of command, to the point where local authorities are having to sit up and take action. In your keynote speech during the Architect’s Journal 100 Awards dinner last year you highlighted the phrase, “mine the Anthropocene”. What does this mean and what other key advice can you give authorities when driving a more sustainable way of constructing?

Duncan: The Anthropocene is the current geological epoc; the layer of human-made stuff that wraps our planet, whether that is plastic in our oceans, air-borne pollution, landfill sites, cities – everything we have ever made that hasn’t composted. The Anthropocene has built up to such an extent that there isn’t any were on Planet Earth that isn’t touched by it. Now in the early 21st century we find ourselves consuming stuff as such a rate that we can say with all certainty that you would get more gold, of a better quality, in a tonne of smart phones, than you would get from a tonne of the best gold ore from South Africa. Many people are saying that rare metals are running out, but they are not really, they have just been dug up and spread around the planet. So ‘Mining the Anthropocene’ is my call to arms to humans to stop mining for new raw materials and literally re-use previously processed material that is already above ground. This approach encourages us to work with existing buildings, places, whole cites even, instead of demolishing them and throwing them away. It turns the current ‘take, make, throwaway’ (thus adding to the Anthropocene) ‘linear economy’ back on itself into a ‘circular economy’ emulating the rest of the natural world where waste from one system is food for another.

Mark: Lastly, over recent years, what projects have impressed you from a sustainable viewpoint, and are there any material manufacturers that you feel are going over and beyond what is expected of them?

Duncan: Because of writing my book and curating the annual ‘Waste Zone’ at Futurebuild, I’ve got to know about a lot of amazing projects that are tackling the climate crisis in an informed and positive way. Projects such as the de Ceurvel development in Amsterdam which has completely inspired the ABN AMRO CIRCL Pavilion. In addition recent retrofit projects by Lacaton and Vassal in Paris (La Tour Bois le Prêtre ) and in Bordeaux (The Grand Park District), as well as Architype’s Enterprise Centre at UEA in Norwich which proves that university research labs can be made of carbon ‘locking’ sustainably harvested materials. With regards to material manufacturers who are doing what they ought to about the climate emergency, I would cite Biohm as one of the best exponents of a truly holistic approach to the design, construction and inhabitation of civilised places that work in harmony with planet Earth and all of its citizens; humans included. In addition, Local Works Studio are doing some amazing work with us, and others, proving that existing places, including buildings, are the source of valuable resources for the construction industry. See the oyster shell tiles they made for our Waste House recently.

Order Duncan’s book, Reuse Atlas

About the author
Mark Goldsmith
5 min read

With 21 years of recruitment experience under his belt, Mark has spent the last 17 focused on Building Products & Construction

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