New London Architecture

Five minutes with... Dr Craig Robertson, AHMM

Tuesday 02 August 2022

David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly

Dr Craig Robertson

Head of Sustainability
Allford Hall Monaghan Morris

David Taylor chats to AHMM head of sustainability Dr Craig Robertson about the ‘lessons in carbon’ the practice has been working on with UCL, and delivering net zero on commercially-driven projects

David Taylor  
Hi, Craig, how are you doing?
 
Dr Craig Robertson  
Hi David, I'm very well, thank you very much. Thanks for giving me the chance to talk to you.
 
David Taylor  
I'd like to have a chat with you about a presentation you gave at the NLA last week about 'lessons in carbon' and your relationship with the Knowledge Transfer Partnership with the UCL. For people who weren't at the event, and as a sort of shortcut to the video, which is going to be online as well, could you give us the absolute kernel of that presentation?  What's the main output? And can you explain that relationship?
 
Dr Craig Robertson  
Yeah, so the presentation was to launch one of the first outputs of a knowledge transfer partnership that we've been working on with UCL and the Institute for Environmental Design & Engineering there. We've been working on that for the last two years nearly. The presentation was a kind of a double header - it was an introduction to why that piece of work exists, it was the kind of headlines about net zero carbon and delivering net zero carbon for architects guide that we're going to publish. And then my colleague, Matt Murphy presented a case study that a lot of the data for the knowledge transfer partnership came from. And that bit of research is looking at how we deliver net zero carbon, the opportunities and constraints with that concept in large scale mixed use, urban, complex, commercially-driven projects - the kind of kind of projects AHMM, typically work on. So, the output was looking at processes, ways of thinking, and ways of approaching a design process to deliver a net zero carbon building, under those terms.
 
David Taylor  
And there's a real-life case study that you were involved with at Canada Water, I understand?
 
Dr Craig Robertson  
Exactly, yeah. So, the two pieces of work work in parallel. The project in Canada Water is a large scale, commercial, large office building with two over-30 storey residential towers attached to it, which obviously raises complexities and difficulties and challenges when trying to achieve very low carbon in lifecycle terms. So we use that as a case study. The client, British Land, were very generous in giving us access to data and people and processes within that project. So, the research drew upon what was happening in that project, but also drew upon the rest of the stuff that's happening in AHMM and other projects that we're working on on very low carbon projects within the practice. 
 
David Taylor  
I was just going to ask about the brief really, because what interested me and pricked my ears up was that it was 'for a complex mixed use densely developed and commercially driven project'. I suppose in the background there, it sort of suggests that commercially driven is one end of polarity with some of these aims. Am I wrong? Is that a cynical assumption?
 
Dr Craig Robertson  
When you say one end of polarity I take that to mean contradictory?
 
David Taylor  
Well, not contradictory, just that this is the equation: commercially driven versus net zero. Is that too cynical? And too base? 
 
Dr Craig Robertson  
It's not necessarily 'versus', but certainly, I mean, that's one of the reasons why we wanted to do this work because a lot of the guides that were available to us weren't necessarily looking at projects in those terms. They were looking at much simpler building types. And perhaps in sort of ideal or idealized circumstances. So what we wanted to look at was what happens when you take a project like that, which is commercially driven, because a lot of the work we do is commercially driven... ...It's complex, it's urban. So, what are the opportunities and constraints when often we're trying to put a lot of a lot of building on site on a site, you know, which comes with its own developmental issues when we're talking about carbon and just sheer quantum - stuff that we're putting on there. So, it's an investigation into what opportunities are in there, what constraints are in there and how we tackle that as a profession?
 
David Taylor  
Of course... And what were your particular takeaways from from the event personally?
 
Dr Craig Robertson  
Well, I thought the event was really good. It was really well attended, lots of engaged questions afterwards, Dr Simon Hatherly my colleague who's a research associate, presented 10 things we're delivering net zero carbon around. These kinds of projects, in terms of how we think about development, what opportunities are in there in terms of different systems of a building to the wider kind of energy, social economic systems that a building and the context that building sits in. So, my takeaway from that was that, in conversation I had with with people afterwards was that I think this piece of work is going to be really valuable, when it's published. I think it is really in-depth. I think there's some really good thinking in it. I know I'm saying this from a piece of work we did, but I think there's some really novel thinking in there. I think both the case study and the research are pushing on the conversation in industry around this topic, and I hope they'll be valuable to the wider industry, because come September, the guide and associated toolkit will be published and made available for all to use.
 
David Taylor  
And what does this research bring you, as an architect? It's quite a general, wide question, but what's your response to that?
 
Dr Craig Robertson  
Well, I suppose, as architects, the context within which we're working is constantly evolving. The planetary limitations of our activities are an important constraint on what we're doing. So, it gives us an understanding of how we're working within that. And what we need to be doing to ensure that we are doing all we can to tackle the climate emergency and contributing to a wider discourse in our profession.
 
David Taylor  
We are speaking the day after the prime ministerial candidates had their latest TV interviews, and carbon didn't seem to figure at all. How do you stay optimistic in your line of work against that general apathy?
 
Dr Craig Robertson  
There was a single, cursory question, in the debate last night...which I think exposed the sort of lack of depth of understanding of the seriousness of the crisis which we're in
 
David Taylor  
Yeah. 
 
Dr Craig Robertson  
So yeah, it is difficult to stay optimistic. And it's difficult to think that we're doing enough because we aren't doing enough. I mean, as a species, as a kind of network of nations, governments, corporations - however you want to organize ourselves - we're just not doing enough to tackle this. So I think I suppose another thing that came out of the presentation was that actually, if you look at global CO2 emissions, 40% of them are down to buildings in UK, and something like 44% come from buildings. So actually, as a profession, and as an industry, the built environment industry, it's kind of in our gift to deal with this. We've got a massive,  amazing opportunity an amazing set of skills, and an amazing influence on our global ability to meet our zero carbon targets. So actually, we just need to be more persuasive. We need to be smarter, we need to be producing better data, we need to be analysing our buildings better. And we need to be about pushing this forward, because nobody else is. So, I don't know if that's remaining optimistic, or taking the responsibility on ourselves and just doing it. We just need to do it and take the responsibility.
 
David Taylor  
Because it is extraordinary, isn't it? We had the hottest day on record, and there's a sort of kerfuffle in the papers, and then the next day almost, it's almost forgotten about again, and it's business as usual. So, I just wondered, I mean, obviously, the architecture profession is doing a great deal on this front, but it feels to me like the message isn't hitting home enough, really, across the board. I don't know whether you think that, or have a comment to make on that?
 
Dr Craig Robertson  
Well, I think I think it's hitting home much more than it was say, three years ago, or four years ago. I think the wider public awareness of this is there. I think there's a desire to make it happen. I mean, I think the existing governmental stuff, I'm not sure about that. But I think in wider society, I think there is a drive; there is a desire for it. And I think we need to build on that myth, not lose the momentum that we gained over the last two or three years to make it happen.
 
David Taylor  
What are the next steps regarding this work for you guys at AHMM?
 
Dr Craig Robertson  
So: we are going to publish this work in September and put it into the world and hopefully see people using it, commenting on it, feedbacking on it and working with it. And then in terms of research for us, we are sponsoring a PhD student from September... 
 
David Taylor  
Oh, right! 
 
Dr Craig Robertson  
...So they are going to be looking at how we build this work better into our design methodologies, particularly with digital design tools, to help us meet the challenge more effectively in our design processes. The student is from UCL again. We've  got a good partnership and collaborative relationship with them. So yeah, we're doing that with them again.
 
David Taylor  
Well, brilliant. Thank you for your time. And thank you for continuing to bang the drum on this very important issue.
 
Dr Craig Robertson  
Thanks very much for talking to me - appreciate the opportunity. 
 
David Taylor  
Thanks Craig.


David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly

Dr Craig Robertson

Head of Sustainability
Allford Hall Monaghan Morris



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