Nick Searl, partner of Argent and Argent Related, and Daniel Hajjar, managing principal of HOK London and Dubai, talk collaboration, communication and the climate emergency
Architects are ivory-tower idealists and developers are profit-driven pariahs… or so the cliché goes. But in this interview for The Developer podcast, they agree on at least one thing – the need for radical change:
“The whole notion of how we deliver projects has got to change, right from the very outset of planning permission through to the bricks and mortar on site,” says Daniel Hajjar, managing principal of global architecture firm HOK’s London and Dubai offices. “If we don’t do that, we’ll end up defaulting to business as usual.”
“I’ve been involved now for 30 years in this industry,” says Nick Searl, partner at developers Argent and Argent Related. “It hasn’t really changed that much in that time. We’re still putting concrete foundations in, concrete cores, steel or concrete frames, and then we’re covering it in glass or some kind of masonry.”
We’re sitting in a Fitzrovia office boardroom and a conversation that started about an Archiboo competition for start-ups has expanded to cover the property industry’s present and future directions of travel.
After a year of Extinction Rebellion protests and #ArchitectsDeclare, at the heart of the debate is the climate emergency. There’s a sense the dirty secrets of the development and construction industry will be exposed.
“Half of all materials used in the UK are used in construction; 60% of all waste in the UK is from construction,” Searl says. “These are massive figures. I think people are going to become more aware of those statistics.”
“It’s hard to shift an entire industry around overnight. It takes time, it really does, because there’s a whole supply chain that’s been set up”
“I do sense a shift starting to happen,” Searl says. “Not just in our industry but more broadly and I think that’s the point. It’s a societal shift that’s going to start impacting us.”
Driving this shift in mindset is top-down pressure from investors seeking socially and environmentally responsible opportunities and the end user – or “customers of our customers”, as Searl calls them – wanting buildings that reflect sustainable values.
Hajjar says clients are changing, too – private equity firms are starting to commission architecture themselves, rather than working with a traditional developer. “It’s a trend that we think will accelerate.”
But innovation is really not happening on any meaningful scale or at speed, even with Passivhaus having won the Stirling Prize in 2019. Indeed, the Conservatives are rolling back energy-efficiency standards with the proposed Future Homes 2020 changes to Part L.
Searl says he believes on-site skill shortages, more than climate change, are encouraging investment in prefabrication.
“It’s actually that crisis that might drive us down another route – where we actually cut down the need for so much site-based expertise. That’s when timber buildings start to come into their own. If it’s pre-manufactured, you can do it with a very small workforce and that cuts out a lot of risk.”
“You build differently if you have to look after it. So what if you lease all the materials in a building?”
But Hajjar says building regulations are not keeping up with new ways of building. “They’ll get there, but unfortunately, it takes a crisis or an unfortunate event in order to change regulation.
“It’s hard to shift an entire industry around overnight. It takes time, it really does, because there’s a whole supply chain that’s been set up.”
Searl says things like the circular economy are being talked about, and that wasn’t on the agenda even 12 months ago: “We did a workshop with the GLA (Greater London Authority) using one of our projects as a case study to develop their thinking about policies for the circular economy because they want to bring it forward.”
One of the things that came out of the workshop was the importance of changing the financial model of development. Searl says: “If you think about the ownership of an object, such as a lightbulb, the person selling me a lightbulb doesn’t want it to last too long because they want to sell me another one. However, if I were leasing it from them, it’s actually in their interest to make it last, because it’s an income-producing asset.”
He adds: “You build differently if you have to look after it. So what if you lease all the materials in a building – what if you lease the steel and give it back to the person you leased it from after 30 years?”
“To produce a brick requires a gallon of gasoline. To recycle it, obviously not. I do think there’s an economic case to be made”
Hajjar says: “There’s a number of carpet companies that do that now. When you don’t want it any more, you call them up and it’s recycled into a new carpet.
“To produce a brick it requires a gallon of gasoline. To recycle it, obviously not. I do think there’s an economic case to be made.”
Searl says that in a tough competitive market, everyone is looking for an advantage. “Your environmental credentials actually could give you a commercial advantage. It’s all being driven by profit but it’s driving good behaviours.”
But he admits that while some developers now see the value in environmental design, there are still a large number of short-termist real-estate developers looking to make a quick buck.
“There is no doubt that developers in the UK have a generally poor reputation for a reason,” says Searl. “There are five or six large-scale developers who do the right thing, but that’s actually not representative of the majority of the industry across the UK.”
“If we can’t come together, it’s going to be pretty difficult to marry the common good going forward”
As for the architects, the blame culture of development is a hindrance to modernisation and innovation. Says Hajjar: “No matter what you do, there’s an issue of liability. We do have a duty to the public to produce safe buildings and public spaces.”
Searl and Hajjar both believe that it will take developers and architects working together with construction to clean up an industry that will inevitably be exposed for its pollution and waste.
“We have a responsibility jointly as custodians of the environment,” says Hajjar. “If we’re going to create what’s best… it’s going to have to be this union of the design profession and the development industry that really come together.”
“If we can’t come together, it’s going to be pretty difficult to marry the common good going forward,” Hajjar adds.
“I do think that it makes a lot of sense, but how it will be configured economically or financially is going to be the challenge.”
This year’s Festival of Place is happening on 7 July 2020 – go to www.festivalofplace.co.uk for updates on tickets and speakers.
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