New London Architecture

Five minutes with… Paul Toyne

Wednesday 18 November 2020

David Taylor

David Taylor

Editor, NLQ

Paul Toyne

Practice Sustainability Leader
Grimshaw Architects

David Taylor: Hello! Nice to sort-of-meet-you, over the line. I'm interested in you, particularly because of your background, really, and how diverse it is in terms of being a campaigner, and also the fact that you've worked for a number of different firms within the built environment sector. I notice from a potted biography you’ve got Lendlease on there, WSP, and Balfour Beatty; so developer, engineer, contractor, and now architect. So, in a sense you’ve completed the set. I suppose my first question is: what have you found different this time, being in an architecture practice? And what led you this way?

Paul Toyne: Well, interestingly when I first joined Lendlease in 2007 - this was for the construction side of their business and I was their first ever head of sustainability back then – I said design is at the heart of everything we do.  And I still stand by that, actually. And what I've noticed – and not just at Grimshaw but across architecture at the moment – there is a real desire and interest to drive sustainability, so that we can deliver the kind of outcomes that are needed. 

You know, great architecture, fantastic place-making, those benefits around health and wellbeing, and touching lightly in terms of an environmental footprint. So, I've been impressed by that. If you go back 20 years in fact to when I was working for the WWF and lobbying around the need to use sustainably managed forest timber products in architecture and at RIBA, it was a different situation. I think the level of awareness around some of these environmental issues throughout architecture was, I think, very low. So thankfully that has improved. 

DT: Do you feel you are pushing at an open door now to a certain extent? I mean, I read in the newspapers yesterday about Boris Johnson's trailed speech this week supposedly before the Covid stuff – well, his secondary Covid stuff – about all the green initiatives that were about to be talked about and unveiled. Do you think we're turning a corner?

PT: Well, I don't think it's an open door yet. And the reason for that is that we've got to disrupt the business model, if you like, and when you consider the pull from the investment community at the moment, which is extremely encouraging, and again they've been very late to the party in actually looking at investment decisions through environmental social and governance filters. But that tide has changed and once you get a flow of capital that has conditions to it that seeks to stimulate and drive environmental and social improvement then that affects everything. And that means the client community, developers and even what we see in the public sector, that interest in understanding how they can meet that criteria for that funding drives the kind of decisions that then go into the early stages of concept design, all the way through then into the delivery of design and construction. And then into the operation and maintenance of that building or that asset.

So, it's not an open door; the change is still very slow, but with the investment community coming on board with certain criteria I think there's… well, the opportunity is there and quite frankly it needs to happen. 

DT: How do you see your role within the practice and do you think that architects are in a sense best placed to take forward this messaging and this movement?

PT: Well, first of all I think everybody has a role to play in the design construction value chain. But you know we take our instructions from the client and so the client has to have that level of awareness. But the client takes advice from others and I think there is a role for architects to take back some of that agency and be stronger with their advice. So my role in Grimshaw is to help provide that advice. 

So, what we do need is some practicalities here around how we can design for great architecture and places and including urban design. Some practicalities around how we can do that, around how you can best build, but also thinking about the long term operational maintenance of these buildings and the infrastructure, and all the way through to disposal because that's important. And actually, it may not be disposal; it may be re-purposing and making sure we design for flexibility, which is something that Grimshaw and other architects have been trying to do or trying to influence for many years but it’s been very unfashionable. But now fashions change and hopefully that trend with a circular economy is back - the need to re-purpose buildings so we get more out of them.

DT:  I noticed from your potted CV as well you also work in an advisory role with people like Volvo - that's the one that jumped out at me. Was that in terms of electric vehicles?

PT: That was with Volvo Construction, their construction equipment business where they make excavator loaders. I was advising them on innovations and how to bring to market all electric construction equipment to help meet the necessary requirement to deliver low carbon design and construction, because carbon emissions associated with our construction aren't just through the products that we use. It's also the construction processes. And when you look at large infrastructure projects which involve tunneling and road building, etc, we need to decarbonize them as well. So the kind of advice and support I was giving was in that area.
DT: Lastly because time is kind of running out, I notice talk of this butterfly that's been named after you! I tried to do some research about it and I came up with something that you discovered in 1998 in Ecuador. Is that the butterfly? the Pronophila Isobelae named after the person…

PT: No…

DT: No? It’s a different one?  OK! is there a Toyne butterfly? 

PT: I discovered that butterfly, and I did that through a series of scientific expeditions. In fact, I discovered several butterflies – that one was auctioned to raise money for the conservation of the protection of the habitat for that butterfly…

DT: You auctioned a butterfly? What do you mean? You auctioned the naming?

PT: The naming of it, yes; a grandmother won the competition for her granddaughter called Isobel. So, if you Google ‘Isobel's butterfly’ you’ll see some photographs and some video from the newsreel of the time. Many years later Isobel contacted me and I helped her find her butterfly in the wild in Ecuador.

However, it is true that an entomologist at Gainesville, University of Florida, did name one of the butterflies I found after the discoverer, which was me. So, I do have a butterfly: Splendeuptychia toynei, which is a Satyrinae butterfly which is found in the cloud forest of southern Ecuador, that is named after me.
DT:  When did you…how do you discover a butterfly? You're walking along and you just see one that looks very rare, he says simplistically? (laughs)

PT: Well, no, (laughs) I studied rare and endangered species of parrots, but how do I get from parrots to architecture and buildings?  But anyway, I was, so I ran a series of expeditions that looked at a study of the ecology of the parrots, as well as environmental impact assessments of their habitat and broader biodiversity assessments. We ran a campaign successfully to get rid of an Anglo-Norwegian mining company that was destroying a protected area, which was home to butterflies and parrots. And whilst I was there to complete the scientific evidence in what was a hotspot for biodiversity, we looked at collecting specimens of amphibians and butterflies and plant species. And that was then sent all around the world to experts at places like the herbarium at Kew Gardens, for example, for plants. It was in fact in the University over in Florida where the entomologist there realised it was a new butterfly. When I captured it, I didn’t know it was a new butterfly.

But there is an important point to make here. We are probably destroying more habitats that have numerous species that have yet to be discovered, and we simply don't know the wonders of the world that we live in.

DT: Yes. That's tragic, isn't it?

Well thank for your time. It’s fascinating, and you’re the only person who's discovered a butterfly in this series of interviews that I've done, amazingly! (laughs)

PT: (laughs) Remarkable! That is surprising. 

DT: Lovely talking to you, and good luck with it all! 

PT: Cheers! Thanks David. Bye. 
Paul Toyne examining a Red Faced Parrot nest in 1994


David Taylor

David Taylor

Editor, NLQ

Paul Toyne

Practice Sustainability Leader
Grimshaw Architects



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