Building the World of Tomorrow

hosted at Cambridge University 21 July 2015

100 pioneers and leaders from the construction industry came to the University of Cambridge organised Building the World of Tomorrow event on 21 July 2015. The afternoon comprised of a number of presentations designed to inspire and challenge the delegates.

Prof Paul Linden FRS commenced proceedings by explaining how architectural form is so important in governing natural ventilation flows. He showed a video of a simple but beautiful experiment where a building was subjected to a steady background flow (i.e. wind) with two downwind facing apertures. He showed that the ventilation was driven by the turbulent eddies and hence variations in pressure, and that the ventilation rate was also dependent on the length scale of separation of the openings. Importantly, Paul explained that the accurate modelling of these effects is currently impossible with computational fluid dynamics in building design environments, and hence why results from physical experiments have an important role to play in the design of naturally ventilated buildings.

Paul’s presentation was followed by Aaron Gillich who discussed the challenges of refurbishment, especially in the domestic sector. The experience from the USA is that it is the engagement with the local community which is crucial in getting people to upgrade their homes. The argument of lower energy bills is frankly not enough – it is clearly factor but on its own it is not sufficient to get people to go through the hassle of a refurbishment, or re-modelling exercise as it is sometimes known in the USA. Any program, such as the Green Deal, needs a lot of effort behind it which focuses on all of the benefits to home owners of upgrading their homes, not just the energy savings.

Prof Cam Middleton, the Laing O’Rourke Professor of Construction Engineering at the University of Cambridge then described some amazing advances in building monitoring, and the huge implications for our industry. One example Cam gave was in the area of sensors for stress and strain. Any structural element of a building can have a safety critical aspect, and hence there is grave concern about designing members or foundations if they are subsequently found to be insufficient. The net result is that some aspects of a building are based on overly conservative safety factors which drive up cost. One of Cam’s key messages was that the construction of buildings can be improved by being smarter in the way we approach the design. A lovely example given was with regards to the foundations in a bridge. If foundations are built in a way such that they can be readily expanded if subsequently it is found necessary, then the initial costs can be reduced significantly. With the right monitoring in place, there should be no increase in risk either – in fact, with the additional investment in the right monitoring one can easily envisage a better means of early detection of problems and hence safety can in fact be improved.

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Dr Dorte Rich Jorgensen from Atkins, and also a Royal Academy of Engineering Visiting Professor at Heriot Watt University, delivered the final presentation before tea. Dorte spoke about the lessons learned from London 2012. Dorte was the sustainability manager of the Atkins infrastructure team for the London 2012 scheme. It was truly inspiring to hear about not only the success of the project but the change in the design team itself. By change, Dorte means that people were changed – and this of course is an amazing legacy. The whole team now takes a completely different view of the challenges ahead in terms of their projects and are changed regarding their approach to sustainable design. A rather lovely anecdote given by Dorte was that the thirst for sustainable approaches is now not only something experienced by specialists, but more broadly amongst all members of the infrastructure design team.

After tea we were entertained and inspired by Dr David Pencheon, NHS England / Public Health England Sustainable Development Unit. David Pencheon really challenged the audience to think about the way we live. His perspective is of course from the NHS, but what he said is rather profound. Constructing sustainable buildings means making them appropriate for us to live and work  in sustainably. If we build buildings in a way to promote and support healthy living, then in addition to getting energy costs down, the impact on the health care system will be enormous and could easily dwarf the impact on energy. If we build buildings to promote healthier lifestyles, the savings we achieve in reducing the amount we end up spending on health care will be incredible. Building the world of tomorrow has to include creating buildings to make people healthier – there are obvious factors such as provision of bike storage, showers for people who cycle to work, a gym(?!), but on a city-scale how about cycle ways and sheltered walk ways for people to commute? We need to think differently about building our world.

Dr Mauro Overend from the Department of Engineering, University of Cambridge then gave an illuminating talk on Current Trends in High Performance & Adaptive Facades. Mauro explained some of the technologies being developed to ensure that the facades being used in modern buildings can not only meet the technical challenges with regards to low conductivity and low emissivity requirements, but also enable architects to create beautiful shapes. This is so important, because it is the delight of shapes to the eye which can make buildings attractive, and it is no good making fantastic performing buildings … if no-one then wants to occupy them! Mauro discussed advances in active facades, where the building itself can respond to the external environment.

Professor Julian Allwood from the Department of Engineering, University of Cambridge then gave a fantastically stimulating talk on Meeting the UK Government’s ‘Construction 2025’ ambitions for capital carbon emissions. Julian’s unique, passionate and persuasive style of presenting is almost enough in itself for it to be inspiring. But no, the message is even more engaging. Julian challenged the audience to think differently about the buildings being created now … plan for them to be obsolete. Well, rather than being that provocative(!), what Julian really asked was for people to think ahead, to think and plan for how parts of a building can be demounted in the future and re-used. The reduction in the amount of energy for re-use compared with recycling or from raw materials is staggering.

The penultimate talk of the afternoon was delivered by Stephen Passmore from the Ecological Sequestration Trust on Financing the sustainable development of cities. Ultimately it is the availability of finance which determines whether any project will go ahead or not, irrespective of its merits for sustainability or otherwise. Unfortunately, capital is limited and certainly so for some types of project. Stephen described the schemes available for developments, and how access is improving.

The final talk of the afternoon was delivered by Ross Palmer from Foster + Partners. The main thrust of his inspiring talk was that it is crucial to design buildings where people want them, and to design them so that people love the creation. If you design beautiful buildings in places where people want to go, you have the starting ingredient for a successful building! There are then important things to incorporate into the design so that the building is sustainable, such as the careful balance of shielding out heat gains from intense sun whilst allowing adequate levels of natural light, but the first challenge has to be to make the building a success for the occupants. Ross described some of the pioneering work at Masdar, and how careful consideration of traditional architecture in the Middle East can lead to not only incredibly stunning buildings and cityscapes but also places which are comfortable with relatively low energy systems.

The afternoon was truly inspiring for all and was completed by a wonderful meal in the Old Kitchens of Trinity College where conversations and challenges were continued over wine and the Beef Wellington. Breathing Buildings looks forward to supporting the event again next year – look out for the programme and register to come!

Dr Shaun D Fitzgerald

Royal Academy of Engineering Visiting Professor in Sustainable Buildings, Department of Engineering, University of Cambridge, Trumpington Street, Cambridge CB2 1PZ

CEO, Breathing Buildings, 15 Sturton Street, Cambridge CB1 2SN

Note: presentations from 21 July 2015 are available to view in pdf format. Please note that all presentations are copyright by the respective authors and their organisations.