22nd July 2022

Roundtable: Building Up and Out


To listen to the EG podcast of this roundtable, visit:

Last month, Civic Engineers hosted a morning roundtable in their converted warehouse studio on the River Thames , in Southwark. The conversation was chaired by Sam McClary of EG, based on Building Up and Out: If ‘the greenest building is the one that already exists’, then we need to redefine and redesign the spaces we have to make them last longer.

The conversation explored how we look at the processes of retrofitting, how people need and use buildings as well as how we in the built environment – custodians of how cities and space grow – factor in the impacted communities and measure value. While the conversation was framed around place and space, the heart of every suggestion came back to how to create and who we create for.

Taking part in the discussion were:

  • Andrew Ruck, Technical Director, Civic Engineers
  • Ben Cross, Development Director, General Projects
  • Catherine Ramsden, Founding Director, Useful Studio
  • Edward Jarvis, Urban Design Manager, London Borough of Camden
  • Gareth Atkinson, Director, Civic Engineers
  • Henry Abosi, Global Head of Business Development, John McAslan + Partners
  • Jacob Willson, Head of Design, Be First
  • Lydia Morrow, Project Director, Lipton Rogers Developments
  • Marion Baeli, Partner, PDP London architects
  • Olivia O’Brien, Senior Climate Consultant, Longevity Partners
  • Parisa Wright, Founder and CEO of community sustainability charity, Greener and Cleaner, and Director and Main Speaker at organisational culture change consultancy, Sustainability Wright
  • Pedro Gil, Director, Studio Gil
  • Rob Harris, Principal, Elementa
  • Robert Westcott, Director, Civic Engineers
  • Samantha McClary, Editor, EG

Our chair Samantha McClary opened with a provocative gambit to frame the retrofit conversation: should we change the thinking patterns of the industry to be that we don’t need to build anymore? Marion Baeli jumped in suggesting we ask why we’re doing the development and whether there is a need, particularly in that location; what our intention is, and how it could be as flexible from a design perspective as possible? , citing in France, the first ‘generic purpose’ building had just been completed.

Henry Abosi said that in the case of programming buildings and how we actually use them, rethinking how spaces work in future, versus its function today, might be completely different in 35 or 100 years’ time. There’s also a social balance to that”, said Olivia O’Brien, who stated we will be creating white elephants if we don’t design intelligently, that “there needs to be more of an R&D conversation”.

Co-host Gareth Atkinson conceded that as engineers there are many opportunities to play around with existing buildings; while agents are asking to create big column free floor plans, and doing so uses exponential amounts of carbon, good engineering techniques and skills can facilitate a flexible retrofit. Existing buildings often have capacity for additional storeys. A base policy to permit planning for sustainably constructed new floors with green roofs to enhance the biodiversity in the city would be welcomed.

Speaking from a council’s perspective, Jacob Wilson claimed that some of the buildings from the 1970s are hugely challenging to retrofit. For him, the priority is looking more seriously at the design of new buildings. He would love to be delivering more Passivhaus homes, but also designing for disassembly. However, he stressed that we don’t have a mature second-hand material market. The policy is starting to emerge, but the design process and the supply chain need to catch up.

Sam McClary moved on to ask whether placemaking policy should draw people to super local hubs to spread the economic activity across the county, or back to big cities – which is better for community and social inclusion? “If we’re being really hard-nosed about this”, said Rob Harris, “There needs to be cash to make change. Getting people in control of their own environments together and working as communities to have discussions and share knowledge is important. Local policies which need to be aligned on a global or a UK scale. Linking hubs together outside cities and creating a culture where we’re working together and we’re being together again will be fundamental to that whole philosophy of place, community, and driving that change through.”

Pedro Gil contributed that the 15-minute city and hubs concept is an academic idea that came from a Colombian economist – a migrant who had settled in Paris. “Thinking about innovative ways of living has permeated now as an idea generally accepted around the world. We got a taste of what 15-minute cities look and feel like during the pandemic. There is a strong and healthy importance in the idea of being uber local. The idea of investing in local communities and investing in local people.” Catherine Ramsden considered how to help local communities which are stressed – which need jobs or are suffering from poverty – and introduce these groups to the conversations around retrofit and sustainability. “We need to be doing more about increasing knowledge through jobs, upskilling of local members, and gain their interest in building in their place, so that everyone benefits from development. That there’s a sense of ownership and upskilling for a better life.”

Parisa Wright, shared that the physicality of space was important when undertaking community consultation in different ways to attract more diverse range of voices. “The kinds of people involved [responding to a physical space] are just completely different to who was engaging online, and suddenly that feeling of community is changing.” Citing that civil servants in government and in councils who are keen to communicate with the public about sustainability should empower a broader range of groups. They should engage with sustainability through research on the right language and activities to use, and the effects of intersectionality. “We [developers] need to be responsible for driving this agenda forward because no one else is going to do it”, Ben Cross said, suggesting that the private sector needs to find more opportunities for local people to benefit from training and employment created by development activity. “By bringing local people to our buildings, we can create positive and meaning change – and it doesn’t cost any more money. It’s just harder work. We need to not be afraid of a bit of hard work to create genuine social value”.

Developers must get much better at sharing knowledge, Lydia Morrow admitted, “Us developers are secretive people. We don’t talk to each other. Especially when we’re developing in the same areas…A big theme to emerge from this conversation has been focussed on people and communities. It’s been about how do we produce something – the future use of that space. “Furthermore, the messages around placemaking can be dubious. To back up Lydia’s point Rob Westcott suggested that people don’t necessarily know what they want because they’re being sold an aspiration of a kind of ‘detached house with two cars’. However, in reality, these are really poorly connected places and residents end up having to drive two cars to use school and community infrastructure which isn’t sufficient. “We’re setting communities up to fail, and I think we’ve got to get much better at communicating what good design is”.

How about financing that hard work? Andrew Ruck questioned why we need to get more building onto site; whether the problem is to do with the way development is financed. That we must keep building more to make it work.

He added he would like to see a change in how people view their building stock: to review the ‘nasty’ thing that surveyors, property landowners and landlords use, which is the red line. “That red line stops generally at the front door at the site boundary. I’d like to see that red line extend to the opposite side of the road so that everybody that’s thinking about their building and their site is also thinking about the public space. That could be a huge value driver for people trying to fundamentally charge higher rents in their buildings or sell buildings at higher values.”

“When the agency world talks about floor to ceiling heights, it’s just a shorthand appraisal of building quality”, said Ben Cross, “They are flippant, face-value measures of what a good building ‘should’ be and fails to acknowledge the inherent beauty, craft and quality of what is already there. Actually, creating a place that people love is the sustainability goal for all buildings. If you build something that people care about, they are going to look after it.”

The next Civic Engineers roundtable will take place later this year. Please be in touch if you have anything to share about your designs or the conversation above.,

Roundtable: Building Up and Out