15 Minutes With: Waugh Thistleton Architects (Sustainability 3/5)

(Image credit: Waugh Thistleton Architects)

We were overjoyed to interview Dave Lomax, Associate Director at Waugh Thistleton Architects (WTA), a London based practice renowned for their pioneering use of timber in large-scale buildings.

Large-scale timber buildings provide sustainable benefits by storing large amounts of carbon, reducing energy consumption, and promoting renewable resources. With a focus on a holistic and thoughtful approach to carbon spend, WTA believes in creating structures with longevity, reuse of materials, and the ability to enrich the lives of those who inhabit them. Their projects include the residential sustainable design projects such as Dalston Works, and innovative commercial office spaces such as beautiful Black and White Building.

From chatting with Dave, the importance WTA places on intention, morality, and intersectional social factors in their approach to construction was truly food for thought.

FR: Tell me a bit about your role, and how your career at WTA?

Dave: I was brought into the practice to help deliver what would be the worlds largest structural timber project at the time, which was Dalston Works as I had experience on the delivery of larger scale projects. So the journey for me at WTA has been project architect – great practice and a great role, and here I am today on the senior management team as an Associate Director.

FR: So I guess you could say much of your experience has been big projects – big timber projects?

Dave: Yeah – its an interesting one to take up though, because in the practice we still do small things from time to time. But it is a question people ask – how big can it be? It’s interesting because that’s one of the only questions we get – ‘how tall’? ‘What’s the tallest building you can do in timber?’ and our question back is ‘why?’ is a very tall building in itself a sustainable one?

If you look at Dalston works, that’s about 10 storeys at it’s highest point – that’s sort of mid range of density for a big city like London. Our outlook is yes, we want to do big projects, because we want to make a big difference. If all we do is beautiful individual houses, then we aren’t really changing the world.

(Image Credit: The Black & White Building (TOG), Jake Curtis)

FR: It seems that the practice has quite a holistic approach to sustainability. I saw a phrase used a lot, ‘operational carbon’ – what it costs to run that building day to day from an environmental POV, and that those credentials aren’t as meaningful if the carbon cost of construction is huge. I thought that was an interesting waY to evaluate projects.

Dave: I think there’s an important nugget buried in there. Operational carbon is really important – all the things that happen when we turn on the lights, start cooking our dinner, turn the TV on etc. But actually the challenge for us in our particular industry is that our government has been saying for years, lets reduce that bit – the operational carbon.

We’ve got good policy in the UK now that says ‘do a good job’, and we are doing a good job. We have a grid that uses a lot less carbon than it used to to produce power, we’re weaning ourselves off fossil fuels. But, its all well and good saying ‘driving my electric car is really low carbon, but how much carbon does it make to build it? If we throw all those things in the bin, have we actually achieved a positive thing? What’s interesting is there’s almost no policy in the UK to say you need to think about what you make your buildings out of.

We know from work done by the World Resources Institute, nearly 10% of all global carbon emissions every year comes from steel and cement, and concrete – and all those things go into making buildings pretty much.

“If all we do is beautiful individual houses, then we aren’t really changing the world.”

(Image credits: Waugh Thistleton Architects, Dalston Works)

FR: In that sense then – what do you think is the best way to evaluate environmental impact in buildings? Is it the total carbon produced ever….?

Dave: I think one of the problems we’ve had in the UK and around the world is that people are always trying to measure these things, but in a way that’s completely agnostic to what you’re doing and where. The right solution for one building in one place, in one circumstance, might be very different for another. We don’t advocate for an approach where people in the past have done sustainable buildings and try and make sure everyone knows its sustainable by making it look sustainable. Often theres an assumption that to prove you’re doing a good thing, you have to look like you’re suffering – wearing a scratchy old shirt with holes in it.

The Black & White building – the story to that is you can have the very best things, but you can only have them if you do them in a conscientious way. If you do a big new art gallery and it enriches the lives of 1000’s of people, and it’s going to be there for 200 years – you should spend the appropriate amount of carbon. Measuring that the same way – a fit out of a restaurant with a shelf life of about 6 months, you have to say I’m not going to use things like MDF fitting out my shop or restaurant, becuase its very likely to end up in a landfill. You have to use something with more embodied carbon in it, that I know I can take to another place and use again.

FR: I guess that ends up being quite a complicated equation though – the fulfillment metric and what it brings to the community.

Dave: It is, and another flipside is when people describe developments as ‘zero carbon’, what they really mean is we’ve paid a lot of money to do something somewhere else, away from our nice shiny development.

(Image Credits: The Black & White Building (TOG), Jake Curtis)

“You can have the very best things, but you can only have them if you do them in a conscientious way.”

FR: What comes to mind talking about this dilemma is there’s a pretty high profile project in Saudi Arabia that’s had a lot of media attention called Neom. It’s being advertised as a development that is going to be carbon neutral, but then the projected build cost is the most insane amount of carbon tonnes…

Dave: I think that stuff is super difficult because the world is intersectional. When we look at projects like Neom we have to think intersectionally – it’s not just about the carbon or the money, it’s also about the displacement of indigenous communities – issues like that. That applies to our work as well – there’s no point us specifying wood, if that wood is an endangered species of tree that comes from a place where indigenous communities have had to give up their land for it to be sourced. So the conversation gets big.

FR: Yeah – it seems to make sense in individual metrics but when you look at the project as a whole it seems so discordant. I think that holistic approach, not just when it comes to environmental factors but more broadly, ‘is this doing good’? It seems at odds with quotas people are fixated on hitting. In terms of working with timber then, can you give me an overview of the benefits and also the broad downsides of using it as the primary material in large scale projects?

Dave: Big question – but those are the important ones aren’t they. A simple narrative is that we know that concrete, cement and steel are the things that are producing the most energy in order to make buildings. So if we can take those out and replace them with something that takes less energy to produce, that’s a good start.

If that thing we put in can also essentially be a machine for storing carbon – trees actively take carbon out of the atmosphere, but then we’re putting that carbon somewhere it will last or stay for a very long time. There’s a really simple metric we think about every time you build an apartment out of a concrete building you omit about 20 tonnes of carbon. Every time we use a timber frame, is we make that 20, but we store 20 tonnes of carbon in it.

Building with timber is a much nicer place to work – concrete produces a lot of dust and noise. Every bag of cement you see has a big red ‘X’ on the side, because it’s an irritant – and you’ve got people working on that site. We also need to build lots of homes, and we don’t want people to have to live next to those kind of sites either.

“That’s one of the only questions we get – ‘how tall’? ‘What’s the tallest building you can do in timber?’ and our question back is ‘why?”

(Image Credit: Waugh Thistleton Architects, Multiply)

FR: It’s great that you factor in the impact of the construction process and the human experience of that into your projects. In terms of working and living in timber buildings once constructed, have you seen any benefits to that?

Dave: There’s 2 examples I can share about that – one being Dalston Works. My boss used to take poeple round and always say there had never been any noise complaints in the building. I remember talking to the concierge and asking if it was true – he had been the concierge there for four years at that point, and said he’d only ever had one noise complaint between 2 apartments the whole time. So I think the reality of making buildings out of solid, properly engineered materials means we get much better acoustic environments by default. They also reduce peoples bills – they’re more air tight and insulated which means it costs people less to run their homes.

It’s hard to quantify, but we’ve also taken over 500 people to the black and white building and everyone just says it feels different, the sound is different. The presence of natural materials makes it warm – it also smells great because there’s so much wood. But you get it when you go and stand in those places – it just is better.

“There’s no point us specifying wood, if that wood is an endangered species of tree that comes from a place where indigenous communities have had to give up their land for it to be sourced. So the conversation gets big.”

(Image Credit: Waugh Thistleton Architects, Dalston Works)

FR: Yeah, it’s like something you can’t really quantify – like standing in a room full of plants – it’s hard to say your wellbeing is 20% increased, but it feels different. Why do you think not everybody uses sustainable materials and works in a sustainable way?

Dave: What people will say is risk – they don’t know what the outcomes will be, because they haven’t done it before. Another that people will say is money, because they perceive it as more expensive. But I think what we’ve learned over 20 years of building mass timber buildings, is that if we speak to people in the language of their business and their worries and aims, then we can have success in proving that those things wont be problematic.

By speaking of the benefits to them – for example, its true that a cubic metre of wood costs mor than a cubic metre of concrete – but it also gets built 20% faster. 5 years ago, we published a study of 100 different mass timber buildings that have been built in the UK – it has been done, a lot. These risks are a perception, not a reality.

“How much carbon does it make to build it? If we throw all those things in the bin, have we actually achieved a positive thing?”

(Image Credit: The Black & White Building (TOG), Jake Curtis)

You can explore the incredible sustainable design work done at Waugh Thistleton Architects on their website.

We execute all our projects at Formroom sustainably as possible – one of the ways we do this is by researching and constantly learning from innovators across design. To discuss more about sustainable design, or if you’re interested in taking part in the sustainability conversation, get in touch below.

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