New London Architecture

Five minutes With... Michael Woodford

Tuesday 17 January 2023

David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly

David Taylor catches up with White Arkitekter partner Michael Woodford to chat through the practice’s civic and sustainable approach to healthcare projects.

David Taylor  
Hi, Michael, how are you doing?
 
Michael Woodford  
I'm great. Thank you.
 
David Taylor  
Good. I wanted to talk about White Arkitekter's approach generally to healthcare projects, and in particular, in reference to a couple of the schemes you're involved with, one of which is called Velindre, which is a project in Wales that's setting a standard for cancer care. Firstly, if you could explain a little bit about that project? Secondly, how it encapsulates – if it does – your approach to healthcare projects in general? And thirdly, what the difference, is between the way you approach healthcare projects in this country and abroad? Sorry, big, three big questions there! 
 
Michael Woodford  
(Laughs) That's no problem. Well, I think, maybe if I start by talking about our approach to projects in general? White Arkitekter is a Scandinavian practice, established in 1951, in Gothenburg. We've been around now for 70 years. During that time, a lot of the projects that we've been working on have been health projects. White is an employee-owned firm, and we're interested in social projects in general; the work of society, civic building - that includes housing, urban design, urbanism, schools, higher education, and health, specifically in civic buildings. And for some years, now, we've been striving to reduce the carbon footprint of our buildings and our projects that we work on. Our goal is that all of our projects are carbon neutral by 2030. We have over 1000 projects on the go at any one time in the practice. So that's a big ask. And I think our approach is generally to look at a project from the outset; how can we really tackle this project from the point of view of reducing its embodied carbon, and also its use of carbon operationally? That approach applies to all of our projects. We've been doing that in the UK in housing and urban design projects, and it's the same for our health projects. So, the healthcare building is a large, complicated building that uses a lot of energy and potentially uses a lot of high embodied carbon materials, such as concrete and steel. But the approach that we're taking now is to try to be analytical when we're looking at the project from the outset. You know, how much do we need to meet the build? Do we need to build at the beginning - you know, a retro first approach? Do we need to build a new building? If the answer to that question is 'yes', how can we build it in the lowest embodied carbon way possible, and still meet the client's brief? That involves challenging the brief. For example, do they need basements? All sorts of aspects of the client brief may point towards a high embodied carbon building. And we challenge that, every step of the way.  
 
David Taylor  
I suppose the question that immediately comes to mind is: to what degree is there a crossover between a green outlook and recovery rates for patients? If we're going to be hugely analytical about this. Is there a distinct correlation there that's emerging?
 
Michael Woodford  
Well, we do a lot of work in research in our practice as well, and we have particular connections with a university, Chalmers University in Gothenburg, and have done a lot of internal research into the effects of natural light, access to outdoor space, fresh air, and natural materials, for example, on health and wellbeing. And there is proof and evidence to say that it is having positive impacts on health outcomes. So, I think what's perceived perhaps as the Scandinavian approach to using self-finished materials, natural materials, lots of wood - they are healthier buildings. We combine that with things like Passivhaus design. That is another way of reducing the energy that the building uses by passive means. All these approaches are common practice, I suppose, in Scandinavia, and I think they do lend themselves towards healthier buildings in general.
 
David Taylor  
But do you feel you're making headway? Obviously, you're working in Cambridge as well on the Children's Hospital and Oriel, the Moorfields Eye Hospital, both of which seem to embody a low energy approach and use natural materials, etc. But do you think you're making headway in the British system?
 
Michael Woodford  
Absolutely, yeah. I think we're going from strength to strength in the UK; we've just embarked on a new project with the Royal Free as well, so we're working on a couple of projects in London, and then the Oriel. And I think people come to us because of our approach. Because of our track record, obviously, we're proven on a large number of projects across Scandinavia, delivering large-scale healthcare projects. Most notably, the new Karolinska Hospital in Stockholm, where things like the makeup of materials, the glues, the plastics - it's all been reduced. There are very strict requirements for the use of products and materials within that project. It's all trying to reduce the amount of VOCs, the embodied carbon materials, but also the wider health impacts in materials. So, I think our approach in the UK in the London context, and in Cardiff with the Velindre project is very much to build on all that - not on the knowledge that we have in the Scandinavian projects, but in a UK context. And actually, given the scale of the problem - the crisis facing the world - to go further, to really challenge the project team, the client team to push further. So, for example, in the Velindre projects with Arup we really pushed the client on the use of timber in healthcare.  Generally speaking, it's quite difficult, particularly building over 11 metres, (which it is not in this case, fortunately), but you have quite high criteria around vibration. Obviously, if you're moving beds around the building, you want very low vibration rates, and all of these things transpire against the use of timber. But we've really pushed hard and got a quite high level of timber in the project. But on top of that, we've been looking at alternative materials. So: using hemp block, and lime, as part of the breathable wall assembly. We've got recycled copper, reclaimed brick, and Gabion walls which are formed of slate, which is the by-product of the slate industry from a local Welsh mine. That was all done through quite an extensive material mapping process, looking at what materials are available adjacent to the site. All of these techniques, I think, resulted in what will be a very low embodied carbon building in that case. It's more of an approach if you like, to the design, but a different approach to the design process. Because you're not designing from the point of view of aesthetics. But strangely, when you start looking at local material mapping, you are actually using the local materials. So, from a planning perspective, it's a really positive thing. Working with local materials that are readily available and locally sourced is the most contextual thing you can do.
 
David Taylor  
And lastly, because we're just running up to time, I noticed from the Moorfields project that that that's eye care, research, and education all in one. Is that a trend you foresee becoming more popular?
 
Michael Woodford  
Yeah, absolutely. I think across all of the health projects that we're working on, the practical day to day health care services are alongside research. In the case of Moorfields, it is very much part of the city. It's going to form part of a whole new neighbourhood in King's Cross. Part of the work that we did was around the central atrium area, in the Oriel, and very much again, taken from our Scandinavian ethos that a hospital building is a public civic building. The ground floor should be accessible; obviously it wants to be predominantly for the patients, their families and the staff, but also it is a civic building in the city. If you were to visit Karolinska, in Stockholm, you can walk inside and you know, have lunch there and go to a shop or there's a bakery in the outside corner of the building. It's like any other civic building. And I think that was the sort of approach that we brought, at least to that project. So I think absolutely, that sort of multi-use buildings in healthcare is really important as well. At least in the projects we're working on; we're seeing that more and more.
 
David Taylor  
Brilliant. Well, good luck with all those projects. I hope not to be a patient in any of them anytime soon, but if I was, I think I'd make a quicker recovery because of your designs. So, thank you very much for your time.
 
Michael Woodford  
No problem. Cheers. Bye
Image 1: Velindre Cancer Centre, White Arkitekter, Image 2: Cambridge Children's Hospital, White Arkitekter, Hawkins Brown Turner & Townsend, Image 3: Oriel, White Arkitekter, Penoyre & Prasad, AECOM, Image 4: Oriel, White Arkitekter, Penoyre & Prasad, AECOM, Image 5: Cambridge Children's Hospital, White Arkitekter, Hawkins Brown, Turner & Townsend


David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly



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