New London Architecture

Five minutes with...Ingo Braun

Tuesday 03 May 2022

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David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly

David Taylor  
Hello, Ingo, and thank you very much for doing this. I'd love to talk to you about some of your key principles that you believe in as a practice - including embodied carbon- but principally through one of your projects, which is actually sited very close to where I grew up in Southampton, the Life Sciences Building for the University of Southampton. Could you loosely detail the project, and also some of the measures that you introduced there that fit with what I just mentioned in terms of your low energy approach?
 
Ingo Braun  
Right, yeah. Well, maybe before I get to the low energy approach, I could talk a bit about the project. 

We designed and constructed the Life Sciences Building for the University of Southampton already 15 years ago, but recently it had a bit of a revival for us. It is nearly entirely clad in untreated timber, and we last year shared its story at conferences, took academic clients including Oxford University there and use it as reference for how embodied carbon in the envelope can be minimised, and look great without cleaning or painting after more than 10 years. Its compact shape is also super relevant now, showing how a building envelope - its form factor - can be optimised while getting great daylight and allowing for natural ventilation.

 
It was bringing together two departments – medical science and life science. And it has a lot to do with life, all sorts of life in the building. But it was also on a really convoluted, difficult site; it became a very strange shape at some point in the concept design where we tried to address different orientations with types of cladding to identify them. And it got to a point where it was all too fragmented. So, we thought can we do it in with one plan, which would give the building a unique identity but could also deal with all the shapes of the different blocks of the building, or to the different floor-to-floor heights. Because it's a science building, which had laboratories, which would need very tall floors, and offices which don't need such tall floors. We could save space by making some of the floors shallower and have a split level arrangement. But how do you connect that all in the same way when you have windows at different levels? 

From that came this idea of a ribbon, almost like a barcode, which wraps around the building, and which adjusts horizontally to the individual needs of the areas of the building. Vertically, it can then have as many windows stacked above each other as you need, depending on the number of floors. And only then came this idea of a barcode, a ribbon made up of vertical slats. Maybe we could do that in timber, because timber facades sort of do that - they have vertical or horizontal boards. And it was only then that we thought: well - because this is 15 years ago - timber would be wonderful because it's also sustainable. And it has something to do with life. You know, it's a living product, it grew and grew; it wasn't just smelted or taken out of the earth. But that's when the problem started. And that's, I think, a really relevant problem to today, where we're looking much more actively for low carbon. When you really look at it, there's only one proven low-carbon material for cladding, and that's timber. Nothing else can really compete with it. 

So, back then, once we had that idea, very quickly the challenges started which we have today as well. Everyone has a view on timber cladding; mostly negative. How will it look after a few years? Will it burn? Is it robust enough? It will go grey, a grey building. In our official pictures of it that we have now, pictures from 10 years onwards, the building is fully grey. And it looks really nice!
David Taylor  
So: how do you get over some of those preconceptions from the industry?
 
Ingo Braun  
It took an incredible amount of research. You can't approach timber cladding like saying you are going to do aluminium cladding. And then very quickly you get proprietary products. With timber cladding there are many, many different ways of doing timber cladding, so you need to firstly understand the detailing: how do you avoid staining? I'm surprised that most buildings still get done with nails or screws on the outside. In this case, we went to a prefabricated detail where all the fixings are from the back. From the factory, they create a big panel, and if you go close, you don't see any fixings. And that meant it has aged incredibly well. We also then avoided in the design any projections where the timber could be differently exposed to sun and rain and age differently. So you get staining, which is often just a different speed of ageing. We had to then learn all that and we had to communicate that to the client first; then to the contractor, where everyone has doubts about that. Then to the fire engineer - we need to work with them – and that was way before Grenfell. And then to insurers, as well. So there's probably a reason why we didn't do a timber cladding since! It's been incredibly successful. It also went through an interesting story that people felt if it goes grey, we have a grey building, is that right? So we did initially introduce colour - coloured glass spandrel panels. We went so far to build very large models with colour and without the colour each time was grey timber and new timber. And only through those models, then people realized that the building is grey, but if it's well designed it can also be beautiful. And then we decided not to introduce any extra colour to the glazing.
 
David Taylor  
Yeah. So: you haven't actually used timber cladding since that scheme in Southampton?
 
Ingo Braun  
Yeah. But we will definitely be doing it now - there are various things in the concept stage. But the effort to do it right, and to convince people, I think probably scared us a bit from doing it again. That's sort of what I've recently been talking about, which is in a way a shock. And now the hurdles have become even bigger with building regulations potentially being updated.
 
David Taylor  
Yeah. And the fire aspect is quite strong, isn't it?
 
Ingo Braun  
It's very strong. Not necessarily rational, the debate. But it's a big issue, and we have to overcome it. I think that's the example on the whole low carbon discussion; that pretty much any element of the building from the structure to cladding to the interior products; we need to look at solutions, which we're not comfortable with, or we're used to. We have a much bigger effort of trying to overcome hurdles, and through knowledge. Because everyone, the client, the contractor, insurer, the users, everyone will have to use sometimes traditional materials, which they have preconceptions about, or sometimes new materials like hempcrete. So I think what we went through on one project on one element of one detail - the idea was also just to have the facade all the same, so we could put the effort in to get the detail right. If you have a number of facade systems, you have to split your energy; get them all right. But if you're only one facade system, you can put in one. But this extra effort, I think that's becoming the norm now for a while. Architecture – buildings – take years to be built and contractors take years to build up experience. I think we're currently going to have a few years of very tough life for everyone, where if we want to do low carbon buildings, we have to constantly challenge ourselves.
David Taylor  
Yeah. Well, I'm afraid we're almost up to time so we'll probably have to leave it on that slightly pessimistic note, unless you have any cause for optimism in this area across the industry, just quickly.
 
Ingo Braun  
Well, yes, it's probably a sign of the times and massive challenges we are facing, but the positive prospect is that just like the Life Sciences Building shows, if we do embrace the challenges that come with changing the way we build, it can be incredibly satisfying to see years from now that we got it right.
 
And the great thing is that the materials do exist. We just have to put the effort in. 
 
David Taylor  
Yes
 
Ingo Braun  
But only through overcoming inaction, which is a very sort of human... You know, when we were out in the savanna, we didn't have time to stick around long enough to see the rewards of something, of planning ahead, long-term. And we still, I think, struggle with that. These efforts: they don't have immediate rewards; the rewards will be earned in the future.  That's something we struggle with. Sorry for rambling on!
 
David Taylor  
That's okay!
 
Ingo Braun  
You didn't get many questions in!
 
David Taylor  
No, that's fine. It's not about me. It's about your answers. So thank you very much for sparing me some time and I do love that project and hope you can create some timber-clad schemes in the near future that are good at reducing embodied carbon – as of course all our projects need to be, going forward. 
 
Ingo Braun  
I'm sure we will. Yeah, definitely.
 
David Taylor  
Great. Thanks for your time. 
 
Ingo Braun  
Thank you. Thank you. 
 
David Taylor  
See you soon. Bye. 
 
Ingo Braun  
Bye 

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David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly



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