Meet Duncan Campbell, Director of Atelier Ten London, as we talk to him on the shift to net zero, the lessons London can learn from its international neighbours, and looking ahead to the future. Duncan Campbell joined Atelier Ten in early 2023 having spent 25 years in the construction industry as a creative building services designer working across the cultural, residential, commercial and education sectors.
What attracted you to take up the position at Atelier Ten?
I first came across Atelier Ten in the early 2000s while I was working at Arup and we collaborated on a project in the USA. This is also where I met Patrick Bellew for the first time. From there, my career went in various directions, and I gained experience working on multi-disciplinary projects both in the UK and internationally. When the opportunity to join Atelier Ten came up, I was incredibly excited by the prospect of joining a global, mission-driven organisation that was committed to making a real difference to the environment – there are very few organisations within the environmental sphere that are so specialist while having a global presence.
Being based in the London office, how do you work with Atelier Ten’s other offices in the UK and around the world to share knowledge?
It may sound like a cliché, but collaboration is key. We have global and regional forums where we share knowledge. There is an amazing group of leaders across the regions who have a united mindset – collaborative and positive in their approach, each with the end goal of driving innovation and achieving the best outcome for our projects.
Every region offers slightly different services and has different expertise, so sharing our knowledge with one another is crucial – and the move to hybrid working has made this so much easier. For example, Atelier Ten in the UK is our global hub for MEP design, the USA has great expertise in the use of mass timber, and over in Australia we have great depth of experience with NABERS benchmarking, something which we have been able to bring to the London market, enabling us to stay at the forefront of where the UK is heading.
We are, of course, also part of the Surbana Jurong group, and through that network we can offer Atelier Ten’s environmental design and MEP services in other geographies where we don’t necessarily have an Atelier Ten office.
How is the profession changing with the emphasis on net zero and circular economy?
Over the past five to ten years, it’s become even more apparent – and critical – that to truly tackle the climate emergency, we need to see better, more creative and more dynamic thinking from the environmental engineering profession. We need to move past giving ourselves a pat on the back for doing what is expected of us, to pushing the agenda forward.
Particularly over the last two to three years, we have already seen substantial change in the industry’s ability to truly understand, analyse and manage embodied carbon, which can have a disproportionately positive effect through really good design. Whereas once we would have focussed design on being cost effective and providing maximum levels of comfort, our primary focus now is how we can manage carbon through our projects while also delivering design excellence.
Is there a specific approach that exemplifies this thinking?
We need to simplify, simplify, simplify. We’re moving from a world where we designed complex systems with the aim of minimising operational carbon use, to a world where we are trying to remove systems and simplify building design so we can remove embodied carbon from the process. The carbon targets that we need to hit by 2030 mean that there is no benefit in saving operational energy in 25 years’ time, we need to save carbon now! And the way that we can do that is by minimising embodied carbon.
How can engineers and others in the built environment tackle and progress the environmental agenda?
It’s all about being advocates, it’s about speaking up when we see things that aren’t aligned with our goals, having the confidence to do that, and also being educated to do that so we have the knowledge to create positive change. But also, not beating ourselves up – we have to accept that as built-environment professionals we can all be accused of hypocrisy because we are all having an impact and are implicit in the climate emergency. We need to balance our environmental impact with our obligation to deliver the homes, workplaces and cultural spaces that allow people to deliver a decent and rich life. It’s about making the best decisions within the constraints we have so that we can move things forward.
The focus on energy efficiency and focus on low-carbon design has been constantly evolving throughout my career and we have to accept that perhaps some of the design decisions we made in the past may be wrong today, so it’s important that we recognise this and proceed with humility through an uncertain environment.
Is this something you have been passionate about throughout your career?
I have been working on designing low-carbon buildings since the early 2000s. Some of my early career was focussed on developing solar shading systems. Then, in a subsequent role I set up a sustainability and physics group focussed on delivering practical engineering solutions in buildings across a range of sectors including cultural, commercial and residential.
How do you see priorities shifting in the types of projects Atelier Ten will work on?
We have always been selective with the types of projects we take on – we look for projects where we can drive innovation and/or where we can be part of something really sustainable. For example, we might take on a project that does not necessarily have the lowest carbon credentials or is the most energy efficient but has an interesting engineering problem that needs to be solved and we can move the sustainability agenda on in a broader sense. Our aim is to encourage as many of our clients and collaborators to adopt the most sustainable option for their projects.