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RIBA London Practice of the Month May 2024: Material Works Architecture

RIBA London's Practice of the Month for May 2024 is Material Works Architecture who put sustainable retrofit techniques at the core of their projects, with a focus on developing measured designs that limit both embodied and operational carbon.

01 May 2024

This month, RIBA London spoke to Dickon Hayward, director of Material Works Architecture - an architecture practice based in London dedicated to the creation of well crafted buildings that bring joy to users and balance aesthetics and function.

Following the successful completion of several private commissions, Material Works have since completed a portfolio of larger projects that look at the redevelopment of existing buildings to create contemporary workspaces.

Alongside project work we actively research low impact materials and cradle to cradle construction techniques to help develop a design language that directly addresses climate concerns. We are now working on a diverse portfolio of projects ranging from residential refurbishments to rural passive houses, workspace retrofits and a large scale mixed-use urban development.

What do you think is the most important issue for architects to focus on right now, and what are you doing as a practice to tackle it?

Without doubt our era will be defined by our reaction to the climate crisis. Not just in how we can create buildings that require less embodied and operational energy, but also how we can develop an architectural language and aesthetic that celebrates and encourages the required changes.

In many ways it feels like we have to unlearn architectural techniques of the recent past. The abstract modernism, that has dominated for the last century, is anathema to re-use and the circular economy. It relies on high energy materials bonded together with non degradable chemicals and costs the planet both at production and end of use.

A new language needs to be developed using carbon negative materials and existing waste streams that is easily demountable for future re-use or biodegradable. It’s a language with much more material grain, expressed connections, and visible fixings.

It’s a far cry from the sleek towers that dominate our sky-line, and an exciting prospect for a new approach.

Retrofit of County Hall for Sustainable Workspaces ©Fred Howarth

Are you part of the RIBA 2030 challenge? If so, how has been your experience so far?

Yes, we have adopted the 2030 challenge and base all new projects around these goals. The targets offer a broad but concise resource that forms a base to our projects as well as a useful guide for sharing with clients to explain the range of factors involved in sustainable design.

Collating performance data on completed projects is becoming increasingly important to the practice so we can clearly understand the impact of design decisions in a real way. Measuring operational energy has been with us for a while and we’ve had some success hitting 2030 targets, including a recent deep retrofit where we managed to lower operational energy to 35 kWh/m2/y.

In addition to this we’re now actively analysing embodied carbon during design development. Having the means to assess the carbon implication using carbon calculating software has been transformative in the ways we approach projects; in particular fit-out where simple decisions can have a significant impact on the foot-print. On a recent project we saved a ton of carbon simply by changing the paint specification.

Deep retrofit of Victorian building fabric @Material Works Architecture

What resources do you think would be beneficial for practices that are in the process of becoming more sustainable?

An increasing part of our designs at Material Works involves sourcing reclaimed materials, finishes, and fittings. From reclaimed bricks, to light fittings, and even sanitary-ware, we are increasingly looking first to use reclaimed before considering new.

The process of sourcing reclaimed material is time consuming and often exasperated if contractors are slow to place orders as stock can quickly disappear, meaning you need to start the search all over gain.

There is an increasing number of websites and start-ups to help with this, but until there is a convenient central database it will still be far easier to specify new. The creation of a central database, along with a mandatory requirement for vendors to connect to it would make if far easier for architects to find what they need, and greatly increase the use of reclaimed materials.

Alongside this could be a system to certify and categorise re-claimed materials to reduce risk associated with their specification and help alleviate client and insurer concerns.

Reclaimed worktop and metal sheet cladding used in new joinery @Material Works Architecture

What innovations within the construction industry are you most excited about ?

We have an ongoing relationship with Sustainable Ventures designing workspaces for their community of climate-tech start-ups.

As part of this work we’ve been privileged to work alongside some innovative companies pushing the boundaries of material innovations. This included developing Mycelium acoustic baffles and internal finishes formed from food waste streams with Biohm. We’re also very excited by the recent addition to one of our projects of a prototype living moss wall finish developed by Alive Labs.

Working with innovative prototypes has its complications and requires a patient and forgiving client - standard certifications and testing are often down the line. But as designers, these collaborations are uniquely inspirational and force us to think about materials in different ways. Working on low energy materials formed from natural products rather than high energy processes and bonding leads to unexpected appearances which challenge perceptions and point to a new aesthetic language.

Mycelium acoustic baffle developed with Biohm @Material Works Architecture

What’s the most exciting project you’ve got coming up and why?

We’re fortunate to have been commissioned to design a new house on a significant historical site in the English countryside. It’s a relatively large project and offers us an opportunity to put into practice a lot of the ideas we’ve been discussing around the office.

The majority of our work to date has involved retrofitting existing buildings - something we’re proud of and are keen to develop an expertise in. However, the chance to work on a new low carbon structure, and consider how we can articulate more fundamental building elements with the same focus on materiality and reclamation that we have incorporated in retrofit work, presents an exciting new challenge.

The project is slated to use reclaimed masonry alongside locally sourced materials and craft techniques. This will be combined with state of the art energy systems and fabric first emphasis to limit heat-loss. The combination of an open site and free design will allow us to carefully thermally model and orientate the design to best benefit from passive design principles.

About Material Works

Get the latest from Material Works and their work via their instagram account.

Proposals for new country house @Material Works Architecture

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