New London Architecture

Five minutes with... Hero Bennett

Tuesday 10 January 2023

David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly

David Taylor catches up with sustainability director at Max Fordham to talk net zero, retrofit, Passivhaus, a rise in ‘carbon literacy’ – but urgent need for more action from government.

David Taylor
Hello, Hero. How are you? 
 
Hero Bennett
Well, thank you.
 
David Taylor
I wanted to talk to you about your role as sustainability director for Max Fordham, which I think you were appointed to last year, and your responsibility for achieving sustainable outcomes on projects, but also within the business. I wondered whether, firstly, those two things differ markedly? And also, what you have actually been doing in the name of sustainability on the home front, as it were?
 
Hero Bennett
Yes. I think we do try to test out our thinking in-house to inform our consultancy. So yes, we do try to tie up the two approaches, as much as we can. In terms of both in-house and consultancy, our focus in the last few years has been really trying to get to net zero carbon.  We've set this goal of trying to get all our projects to be net zero carbon, and that's what we're working towards as a practice. So, we've been testing out what that standard means on our own offices. We were one of the first practices to get all our offices Net Zero Carbon standard, and that was through quite a close working relationship with both the verifier and with the UKGBC, to work out really what their standard means in practice. So you know, there are lots of great ideas that the industry is fed into, but actually, when we try to apply these things on a project – and of course, many of our offices are listed buildings, where we've done retrofit – it's not straightforward. So that was a very useful process.
 
David Taylor
What was the trickiest bit?
 
Hero Bennett
Well, for example, there are areas of some of the buildings where we don't have metered data, because it comes straight from the landlord, and hasn't been easy to achieve that. And there have been other parts of the buildings where we've retrofitted as a listed building; is that retrofit enough? That's a very live topic at the moment; you know; what is an appropriate retrofit standard? There are different challenges in each of the buildings that we occupy. So we've taken that knowledge, and we've been using that a lot, on many of our projects. We now have lots of projects that are targeting net zero carbon and a few that have achieved that. For example, the Atomico refurbishment, which was the first net zero carbon office refurbishment. And yeah, we've been working with that and developing standards, and actually, some of the people in the practice are working on that, the UK zero carbon building standard being developed at the moment. I'm working with a task group so that is also certainly a very live issue for us.
 
David Taylor
How would you say the approach to sustainability in the built environment professions has changed in the last two or three years?
 
Hero Bennett
I think there's so much more understanding, so much more carbon literacy. The approach that we take is that we used to have to do a lot of capacity building around what the biggest issues are. What are the approaches that projects should be taking? And actually, well, of course, we still have to do that. But there's so much better understanding that we are being presented with; in many cases, quite sophisticated, incredibly challenging briefs. And sometimes, you know, with competing standards that aren't necessarily at this point achievable. Some of the extremely challenging standards are around achieving future climate with passive design, and also achieving ultra-low energy. These things are achievable, but not with business-as-usual buildings. And so, I think there's a real learning curve with, with clients with respect to that. What are realistic budgets for some of these really extreme and aspirational briefs? But yes, I think generally the industry is much more shifting towards more retrofit, and we're seeing clients really seeing the benefits. They're being pushed for lower energy in so many different ways; in relation to their finances, in relation to their stakeholders, their energy bills, and operating costs. But also, there is just much greater awareness of issues like embodied carbon, and now, increasingly, water consumption. So, you know, while rainwater harvesting was very fashionable 15 years ago, actually, then people realized it required a lot of maintenance, and many clients were not really equipped to do that. There's a real shift now in terms of an awareness of water being a real issue, again. Quite an interesting change.
 
David Taylor
I suppose a related question is to what degree there's a level of understanding that's arisen amongst the public as well. You "explain" sustainability in public consultations as part of your job, as I understand it. Do you think there's more awareness of environmental issues? 
 
Hero Bennett
Yes, absolutely. And there are so many Climate Action Networks that have sprung up. There are schools that have got a sustainability group, there are parents' climate action groups... it's now reached mainstream media. So, there is a much, much greater understanding, but it's still pockets of knowledge. So things like Passivhaus might have reached a few people's ears but there are still lots of people who won't be familiar with those sorts of terms. But I think that the cost of energy has also made people much more aware. People who perhaps were not so interested, have suddenly become a lot more aware of their energy consumption.
 
David Taylor
Talking of Passivhaus, you worked on Agar Grove, the estate redevelopment there, which employed those principles. How was that in terms of the public consultation process, and, I presume, in explaining some of the principles of Passivhaus initially?
 
Hero Bennett
Yeah, I mean, it was an interesting project because the council was really an exemplar in terms of how they took the residents along with them. They had a continuity client right through from the start right through to handover, and very close relationships. So that made that so much easier. The project was being led by what was best for the residents. So, there was quite a positive view. But there was also kind of a lot of scepticism about whether the client team and the development teams were really thinking about the outcomes for the residents. So, I think explaining the Passivhaus approach to them was really helpful. And it was really well received, that, you know, the benefits of Passivhaus are that, evidence shows that you really do achieve those low energy outcomes in practice, in comparison to the standard approach of construction. So, yeah, those were some interesting conversations that I think were generally well received.
 
David Taylor
So: final question, because we're just running up to time, is about optimism. I presume, being a sustainability director, you have to have a certain amount of optimism engrained in your own personal DNA about all of this stuff! How optimistic are you about the whole net zero carbon movement?
 
Hero Bennett
Yeah, I am optimistic about it. I would say I'm not a naturally optimistic person (laughs), but it is something that I do have to cultivate as sustainability director, for sure. We've got to look towards a positive future. Because, you know, otherwise, we won't take people along with us. So yeah, I am optimistic things have really, really changed in the last few years; we do need a real change in terms of the regulatory framework that we're working within. That is the one thing that I think is holding us back – we need that certainty. There is private money coming forward for meeting the net zero carbon transition, but it needs to be supported by governments having some certainty over some of those targets. So: while they've reaffirmed the targets, what we really need now is some pragmatic and practical goals for the near term.
 
David Taylor
Brilliant. Well, thank you, Hero, and good luck with all of it. 
 
Hero Bennett
Thank you. Bye!


David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly



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