With Mother Nature regularly expressing her anger at human-induced climate change and the recent COP26 conference, the plight of the planet is foremost in the public consciousness. The built environment shares a significant part of the blame for where we are but also has a key role to play in potential solutions. This essay sets out our long pedigree in sustainable design and our vision for its future, both through our extensive work in the UK and a current commission in Athens.
At Bennetts Associates we have been in the vanguard of UK sustainable practice for over three decades. We co-founded the UK Green Building Council and in 2019 became the first architects in the world to have approved UN Science Based Targets.
Far from sustainability being a restriction on good architecture we think the opposite – sustainable architecture and good architecture are synonymous. Indeed, we often say that sustainability is a Trojan horse for good architecture. We believe that humane, elegant and timeless architecture is simultaneously more beautiful to inhabit, as well as being inherently more sustainable. In arriving at this position, we have been influenced by sources as diverse as Vitruvius 2000 years ago and Terragni in the 1930s.
Buildings that relate to their ambient climate and available resources are rooted in their locality in a profound way that isn’t simply a sentimental vernacular. A concern with how local climate is tempered by a building’s passive form has been central to the task of architecture for most of history, whereas viewing sustainability as largely a technological issue reduces it to being something that is applied to architecture rather than something that is at the core of what architecture is - we subscribe to the former rather than the latter.
Through a series of pioneering UK office projects in the late 1990s and early 2000s we developed an approach to passive design that is still pertinent. Exposing the thermal mass of the structure rather than hiding it behind suspended ceilings enabled the use of natural or low energy ventilation. Importantly the higher perceived ceiling heights, the opening windows, the gentle acoustics and reflected lighting resulted not only in frugal energy use, but also in a more delightful human environment.
More recent projects have built on those early ones by looking with ever-greater rigour at every facet of sustainable design. As we have continually refined our approach to passive design and reducing operational energy usage, our attention has turned to other important aspects.
Embodied energy is ever more significant as operational energy improves. A Sports Hall at King’s Cross is an all-timber and near-zero carbon facility with innate ‘long-life, loose-fit’ adaptability for other uses. Woolwich Works brings new life to heritage buildings such that the embodied carbon locked into their glorious structures endures for decades more. The Norton HQ (images below) project employs circular economy principles with innovative use of ‘pre-loved’ materials.
Timber Square in London is a ground-breaking major commercial project using Science Based Targets to achieve net zero carbon – amongst many things, it employs retained buildings, a lightweight hybrid structure and off-site construction, as well as exemplary wellbeing, biodiversity, and public realm.
Increasingly, strong environmental credentials are fundamental to the approval and success, both popular and commercial, of all sectors in the built environment.
So how do we apply our approach to a fundamentally different climate like Athens’ and what is the point of doing so? As I stated in the recent webinar ‘Ready, Steady, Greece – The Race to Build Back Greener’ – “Climate Change is a global problem that needs global solutions with the very best minds coming together. We've been pushing hard in mainstream sustainability in the UK for over 30 years, and are keen to spread that knowledge globally.”
The Syggrou Avenue Office Complex commission for Dimand has provided a start on this journey, at a time when Greece has endured alarming reminders of the effects of climate change. Key to the project has been collaboration with local experts to understand climate and adoption of the Athenian ‘3S’ design rule - namely ‘Shade, Shade, Shade’. Large areas of glazing have been avoided and the whole building fabric, both solid and glazed, is protected from solar gain through a veil of fine louvres that become the identity of the scheme. External areas are shaded, with extensive planting to streets, courtyards, and roofs. Together with reference to rich historical influences of the city, we feel an innately Athenian scheme has been created. In future projects in Athens, we will look to push further on topics such as embodied energy, Net Zero Carbon, Living Building Challenge and 1.5-degree lifestyle alignment. A current project in SE Asia targeting ‘Net Zero Everything’ indicates the journey we are already on in work outside the UK.
In conclusion, designing for sustainability obliges the architect to pursue holistic solutions, have a deep understanding of climate and commit to data-based proof of performance. When done properly, not only do such buildings have more integrity and lower environmental footprints, but – importantly – we think they represent better architecture.
Director, Bennetts Associates
Published in the ADM The Green Issue: A collaboration of Lifo with Design Ambassador and Archisearch.gr
2020 - 2021
The new HQ marks the re-start of a British Motorcycles icon.
2014 - 2020
Our first all-timber project at Kings Cross constructed for Camden Council.
2020 — 2023
Our first project in Athens is a new landmark scheme set in the heart of the city with views to the Acropolis.