Lessons and challenges for our industry with Duncan Campbell

Duncan What do you think will be the next big focus for environmental engineering and the built environment?
The next five years are really crucial. Many institutions and organisations chose 2030 as a staging post on their net zero carbon journey, reflecting international targets set in the context of the Paris Climate Agreement. We’re currently seeing the rapid decarbonisation of construction products – every six months there are lower carbon alternatives being introduced, whether it be steel, glass or concrete. While that is encouraging, what we don’t know is what the next limiting factor will be and where the continued improvements are likely to begin to tail off. We don’t yet know when we will get to an optimised point with embodied carbon whereby we will be required to shift our focus to operational carbon again.

There’s also a lot of debate around re-use versus new build which I think is going to carry on. It’s good for the industry to have a good look at those projects and processes to make sure we’re challenging ourselves and providing the right solutions for those buildings.

If you look just at the UK, in terms of broader sustainability, we’ve got an enormous issue with housing – we’ve got to somehow solve how we create new towns and housing opportunities in a sustainable way, we’ve got ageing infrastructure, not just roads and transport but hospitals and schools. We’ve got to look at how we renew all of those in a sustainable way, there’s an opportunity for an amazing amount of investment that we can have a positive impact with if we get right.

What are some of the most urgent lessons London can take from other places?
If we look at the commercial sector, buildings in Northern Europe are generally
so much simpler than what we’re delivering in London. In the Netherlands,
for example, it’s generally accepted that buildings may have heating systems but no cooling systems, while here in London a lot of the complexity in our buildings is driven by what tenants and end-users want, which may not necessarily be the best for the environment. It’s all about getting that balance right so we can learn lessons in simplification while ensuring buildings are fit for purpose but future-proofed for climate change.

As Londoners are our expectations on commercial buildings too unrealistic?
There’s definitely a piece around getting occupiers and tenants to understand the implications of decisions. NABERS has been really positive thing, as it has focussed tenants’ attention on reducing operational carbon. We still get a lot of tenants that want ultra-low operating energy use but want tightly environmentally controlled buildings that are densely populated but flooded with light, fresh air – this is the element around educating people. We need to get precedent projects out there as an industry – a low energy building doesn’t mean an unpleasant building or an uncomfortable working environment.


And what is something London leads on in terms of sustainability and environmental design?
The conversation around embodied carbon, particularly
in London. You look at the planning policies that the City of London, Westminster and the GLA are looking at bringing
in – they are really pushing the industry to think differently. Those policies aren’t necessarily perfectly drafted from a construction point of view, but they are pushing the agenda in the right direction.

What kind of project would you like to take on?
I’ve spent a large part of my career working in the cultural sector across the globe, so I am always excited by the prospect of cultural buildings, be it retrofit or new build. I love the idea of doing an ‘Atelier Ten’ cultural project given its track record in this sector over the years.

One of the great things about this sector is working with cultural institutions – understanding what their mission and drivers are, and developing a scheme that works for them. Decarbonisation of the cultural sector by creating amazing buildings for the public that showcase and drive social sustainability is something I am passionate about and have done a lot of work in.

Cultural institutions tend to be inherently trusted by people, arguably more so than governments or corporations. This therefore gives them a great potential to act as leaders in this area.

If you could have worked on any project in the world what would that project be?
A former colleague of mine worked as the structural engineer on La Sagrada Familia. Working on a Gaudí project…that’s very cool!

How would you describe your ideal client/collaborator?
Someone that is passionate about what they do and can communicate that passion and enthusiasm. Also, someone that is willing to understand what we at Atelier Ten do – they don’t have to necessarily understand environmental design, but they need to open and be curious. Passion and curiosity can go a long way!