New London Architecture

Five minutes with…Andrew Leiper, Net Zero Carbon Leader, Max Fordham

Thursday 20 August 2020

David Taylor

David Taylor

Editor, NLQ

David Taylor: Hi Andrew! How are you doing?

Andrew Leiper: Yeah, I’m great thank you, although the weather’s not too great up here at the moment!

DT: Oh, whereabouts are you?

AL: Well I'm actually based in our Edinburgh office and work in London for a couple of days a week. In normal times I'm down every other week to visit projects and clients, so we're kind of like the outsourced arm! (laughs) 

DT: So I presume with that kind of footprint it's all ruthlessly sustainable and train-based? 

AL: Absolutely train-based, yep. There are the odd flights, but we're definitely cracking down and last month we had an office-wide embargo on any flying, anywhere, so there was a little bit more upfront planning involved to get some early morning meetings!

DT: So, I wanted to ask you about your role as net-zero carbon leader and really around the whole subject vis-a-vis how it's going, effectively, and whether or not the mission to move towards this environment has been to a degree side-lined, and hasn't grabbed as much in the way of newspaper headlines etc and people’s attention, because of COVID. Do you think that’s a viable theory?

AL: Well I think you could be right. I think that attention is definitely elsewhere, but by the same token, I see lots and hear lots of discussion about COVID making people take stock of where things are. You hear talk about this rebuilding back and rebuilding better and I think that is definitely at the forefront of a lot of people’s minds. I think COVID and the lockdown has shown what can be done; what can happen if we have a major shift in the way we live. And I think people might be more accepting of making some changes or changing the way they have been working.

DT: By that do you principally mean homing in on the need to travel?

AL: Well I think from a selfish point of view that's definitely been an angle, and for many people, I imagine. I would say far from talking less we’re probably talking more, in many instances. Travelling less is really an opportunity, and with remote working and video conferencing, I feel like I've been more in touch and I'm sure that’s shared with many people who feel more in touch with more clients, more collaborators, than we have been before. Communications have become a lot easier. And that sort of communication has become more acceptable. There are not so many face-to-face meetings, and face-to-face meetings take a day. Whereas, you work on many more channels and get a lot more done I think in that time.

DT:  Yeah. So you as a business have put your money where your mouth is in terms of your offices going net-zero carbon.  How has that been?

AL: I think it's been really good. In terms of becoming zero carbon as a practice, or as a set of offices I think is really just an attempt to show clients what can be done and show that we're taking it seriously. It allows us to go and talk to clients about it and educate them as well. It's allowed us to get it across to more architects’ practices, more clients’ offices and talk to them about what it means to be zero carbon. Most companies and most businesses operate out of existing premises; they're not building new build Passivhaus-level offices, so it's really: how can you either retrofit or how can you improve the premises you’re currently working out of? 

I think retrofit really is a big part of the conversation. We talk a little bit about new build, but we're also talking to many clients about what they can do with their existing buildings too.

DT: In terms of your own office, what's been the major change in the way that you've operated ?

AL:  Camden is a grade II-listed Victorian piano factory, so it's a difficult building to deal with, but we've spent quite a bit of money over the last few years upgrading the performance, insulating the roof, adding secondary glazing, and PVs on the roof and it's now performing the same as an average UK office in terms of performance, which is was quite an achievement for a listed Victorian building with single glazing. There's a range of performances that we are going to need to target for different building types and ages and I think we're doing we're doing as much as we can do with that building in London really.

It’s significantly improved over the last years, we spent a lot of money but we are obviously tenants within a building owned by the landlord. We use a green lease so we get mutual benefit out of the lease arrangement. But the occupant comfort, the comfort for everyone working in this office hopefully when we go back has been improved as well in the process. So there's a couple of reasons you can read in in a couple of ways.

DT: I was wondering about the general message to Joe Public about this area. Do you think Joe - and Josephine - Public are listening to the climate debate?

AL: I suspect it's 50/50. I think we work in a little bit of a bubble. We talk about it a lot and a lot of the collaborators we work with or work for are familiar with the subject, so I suspect that we feel there’s a lot more going on and there's a lot greater awareness than necessarily there is with Joe Public. My role and one of my personal missions – and I think we should all think in this way – is to really promote and raise awareness of it. Because, really, we've got 10 years till 2030 to avoid the worst-case effects of global climate change. We really all need to be advancing quite quickly now from this point on. So I think there are lot of people who find change uncomfortable or who are concerned about how this might impact on their own personal lives and maybe choose to either look away or just choose to not believe it.

DT: Why do you think it is so difficult for people to comprehend, the fact that the planet’s heating up and you know, we might all die…?

AL: I think when you see the COVID crisis, it’s something that’s immediate. It’s in your face, people are dying in hospitals as a result of it, so you know it's very clear that something now and immediate needs to happen about that. I think with global climate change it might be the rest of the century before really the worst effects are starting to become apparent. So I think it's less of a human time scale. But saying that, this summer there’s been record heat waves, in Siberia, the ice over the North Pole is pretty much at its smallest on our recent records and we've had crazy lightning storms in the last week as well. So you might see more extreme weather events becoming more common, and I think that might bump things up people’s agenda.

DT: Yeah. In terms of the ‘declare’ initiatives what were your thoughts on those? Do you think they've been reasonably successful?

AL: I think they were quite successful last year. I think they did a lot to get media coverage and the whole subject airtime and I don't know whether it's COVID or whether it's just the passage of time, but things have certainly faded a little bit. it's not immediately clear currently whether there has been much advance from the various architects and consultancies that were part of the declare movement. It would be good to get it back up the agenda, start talking about it a bit more as well, keep that going. It is certainly something I've spent a lot of time on and a lot of people in Max Fordham have gone out over the last year and spoken to a lot of our collaborators on the subject of net-zero carbon and ways that they might integrate and change the way they work to try and move towards that. We've been working quite hard to develop that and raise awareness within our collaborators.  It could do with re-energising I think at this point!

DT: Finally what's your message to our readers if you have one about this whole movement? What do you say to the architects, developers, planners, local authorities, other engineers about this drive?

AL: Okay well I would say a couple of things, actually. I'd say traditionally everyone's looked at the building services engineer as the champion of energy and I think that architects need to realise that in terms of operational energy and embodied energy and embodied carbon they have a massive impact, as do structural engineers. So I think the M&E engineers can carry on looking at energy, championing energy performance, but I think in terms of the way architects approach buildings, they need to really up their games, in terms of energy efficiency and performance.  

I had an interesting chat with somebody the other day. He was telling me that from a mechanical and electrical engineer’s perspective we are very heavily regulated. Our buildings have to perform at a certain level in terms of energy and carbon emissions, whereas what's the incentive for a structural engineer to reduce the embodied carbon within the structures they are designing? Really we need to have everyone in the team starting to think about embodied carbon and operational carbon and ways to mitigate that. So it really needs to come higher up everyone's agenda. I think in terms of the balance between all the other things that go into developing a brief I think embodied carbon and operational carbon needs to go up the agenda, so actually some decisions might fall down on the side of performance, maybe even at the expense of aesthetics.

DT: Well that's brilliant, Andrew, thank you very much. That was great.

AL Thank you very much David. I’ve been sweating about this all weekend!  (laughs) Thanks very much! Bye.

Max Fordham is launching a Net Zero Carbon guide in November this year.

David Taylor

David Taylor

Editor, NLQ

Net Zero


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