Sustainable buildings must engage our emotions, AECB conference hears

Mark Siddall shares his experience of our latest conference with Passive House + readers

This article can be found in issue 18 (page 15) of the Passive House + Magazine which is free to AECB members

Have you ever had one of those moments of immense clarity when things just slot into place in ways that they have never done before? I’m guessing you have. In my experience they happen at random points in time. They are completely unexpected. I had one of those moments at the AECB Conference this year, but before I tell you any more about it I’ll tell you about the things that led to that pivotal moment.

First a little context. The AECB 2016 national conference was held at the University of East Anglia (the second time it’s been held there). Whilst it may be one of the UK’s most inaccessible universities it remains a hot bed of thoughtful and considered building design. The focus for this year was the ADAPT building.

ADAPT stands at the gateway to the campus and facilitates teaching, private tenants and events by providing cellular spaces and areas of open plan, plus a modest auditorium. We were told what sets the building apart is the fact that it is East England’s greenest business hub. These days claims such as these justifiably cause people to baulk as they feel more than a twinge of cynicism (or perhaps that’s just me.)

So it’s with a healthy dose of scepticism we learned how the brief for the building set challenging sustainability targets. It has a 100-year design life. It achieves BREEAM Outstanding. There was intense consideration of the local supply chain and considerable effort put into sourcing materials from the local area. Materials were selected to minimise the use of embodied carbon. It uses natural materials (including 300 panels of thatch). It was designed to accommodate deconstruction and demolition. The building achieved the Passivhaus Standard. Finally add to this cocktail a good dose of Soft Landings.

All tallied up it reads like a checklist of nice to haves. But does it really work?

In short, my scepticism was left at the front door. As an experience the building is a delight. It’s light and airy. Okay the ventilation in the auditorium was pushed to it’s limit on a couple of warm summers days but apart from that it was, in my experience, nothing less than a joy. The journey was worth the trip for that experience alone. Compliments to UEA, Architype and Keepmoat.

CarbonLite Retrofit Course presentation
CarbonLite Retrofit Presentation

The Carbonlite Retrofit Standard (CLR) took stage again. The training programme acts as a bridge between ‘make do’ and best practice retrofit. It is about creating solid foundation of understanding for professionals that work with existing buildings day in and day out. By underpinning the work of building professionals it is possible to avoid long term unintended consequences that could have costly implications. This flagship programme has been through the pilot phase and it now in general release. So if you work on existing buildings regularly and would like to discover more about how to retrofit buildings properly then click here.

This year’s conference featured deep dive workshops tackling subject areas including ventilation and airtightness. I worked with Paul Jennings – a fellow trustee of the AECB – to host the airtightness workshop and assemble the airtightness demonstrator. In addition to making our own contributions we heard from master builder Mike Whitfield, Liam Schofield and Chris from Nesthaus and Barisa Ristic Ognjen Ristic. Key lessons included:

  • Airtightness is only one aspect of air movement that can undermine performance
  • Under no circumstances should duct tape be considered suitable for creating an airtight seal
  • 3 meter rolls of membrane are easier to install and require less labour.
  • Contractors that treat trades as a commodity do a disservice to the client and the respective trade (particularly airtightness professionals).
  • When creating an airtight building you must be constantly vigilant for idiots mistakes
  • Without a sound design and robust specification good standards of airtightness are virtually impossible.
  • The contractor should appoint an Air Tightness and Thermal Integrity Champion (ATTIC). They should be on site every day and should be the primary point of contact for all things relating to insulation and airtightness.
  • Continuity of labour is a prerequisite.

Building upon last years popular talk, Nick Grant of Elemental Solutions delivered a tour de force on his favourite subject – Value Engineering. Delivered with humour and irreverence Nick’s nonsense style call to arms was a certainly one of the highlights.

Liz Male delivered a sizzling presentation that focussed upon how we communicate sustainability. One thing is for certain, the marketplace is changing. ISO 14001 (Environmental Management Systems) and ISO 45001 (occupational health and safety) are aligning. The Advertising Standards Authority has taken a view on how words such as ‘eco’ and ‘sustainable’ may be used. As the marketplace evolves, the old days of arguing ‘green is good’ are rapidly fading onto the horizon. Furthermore, the public are becoming jaded by doomsayers that threaten environmental catastrophe (even if it is true). Hell does not sell. We are seeing new and emerging expectations.

To communicate successfully we were told we need to return to the basics. We need to engage people at a visceral emotional level. We need to start telling engaging stories about how lives are being transformed, people are being empowered and how our client’s undertakings are heroes.

By focussing upon the virtues and the fundamental benefits of the buildings we create, by collecting data and evidencing proof we can demonstrate that sustainable buildings are better buildings and better homes.

And this was my spear in the chest moment. The flash of light if you will. The future of sustainable construction will succeed not based upon selling logic and technology. The left side of the brain will not triumph over the right. The future of sustainable construction will succeed by engaging people’s emotions and by creating well-crafted buildings people fall in love with. Sustainable construction will succeed by creating lovingly engineered architecture.

Read more about the AECB 2016 Annual Conference

View presentations from the AECB Annual Conference