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Chris Stewart

Collective Architecture's Chris Stewart discusses his overlapping roles as architect and member of the Scottish Ecological Design Association in promoting green design to a wider audience.

EAA: Ostro Passivhaus Virtual Building Tour

May 3rd, 2022

Passivhaus can look like anything, be built from anything, the materials and structure you choose are your own. Not my words, but those of Paper Igloo Architecture, as part of the Edinburgh Architectural Association’s virtual building visit to their recently completed home. The house is very beautiful, but more alluring is to listen to Paper Igloo describe their approach to architecture and discard the myth that passivhaus requires you to live in a plastic bag with no openable windows. A passivhaus which is not passive (none completely are), requires the user to interact with their building and leads with the use of healthy natural materials. Passivhaus is but the construction method they used to hang their design decisions.

The tour starts with a wander down the driveway to the front door on a delightful spring evening. Jo and Alex from the Edinburgh Architectural Association (EAA) are greeted by a relaxed Mhairi and Martin who make up Paper Igloo, and begin by guiding the camera around the outside of the building. Immediately you are struck by the simplicity of the building’s form and use of material, a near perfect cube clad in diagonal Siberian Larch. Facades are punctuated by randomly positioned windows perhaps too generous for a building promoting energy efficiency. It all nestles gently into a sloping garden, the gradient of which allows the entrance deck to wrap around to the south facing side of the house. Orientation is always an important part of passivhaus and once your bearings have been made you become aware that the larger windows are positioned towards the sun. The garden is fed by the rainwater from the sedum roof through a soak-away made up of recycled stone dug up from the excavation of the foundations; the water eventually finding its way to the burn at the foot of the garden. The entire setting is a pleasure and together with the evening sunshine you get the feeling that our tour might end here, as we are all tempted to settle into the garden furniture and go no further.

Wrenching themselves from the outside we are led through the front door and are immediately struck by a second complimentary cubic form, a stained timber central core around which the home is organized. We follow Mhairi and Martin around the central core through a series of clever interlocking volumes while they describe how the house was built. It comes as a surprise to discover that the building is almost entirely self-build an experience which has helped to develop an appreciation of natural materials, not only to make sure the home is healthy to live in but also healthy to construct. The building took several years to build partly due to the focus on long term value; a fabric first approach ensuring those building elements hard to revisit, such as insulation levels built into walls and roofs were maximized while those which can be dwelled upon such as the kitchen, come later.

Technicalities are explained in simple terms as we are guided around the home, much of the language used by passivhaus designers can be unnecessarily inaccessible. The good ‘form factor’ of the cube is simply the common-sense use of a shape to enclose a large volume using a minimal amount of external surface area where energy can be lost. The window shapes and double height volumes balance much loved memories from Victorian architecture and the need to ensure energy efficiency. This is achieved through a ‘Passive House Planning Package or PhPP’; which is an excel spread sheet which brings together the various elements of the building and allow the designer and end user to choose where to place the priorities of their project. The outcome is a home which is warm, comfortable and keeps running costs to a minimum.

Passivhaus is very much about sensible construction and ensuring things are done correctly. A culture the construction industry is starting to embrace and one which honest builders have always understood. The commitment shown by Paper Igloo to this approach is refreshing, learning through their journey to the point they will only use passivhaus for their new build projects. They struggle to think anymore in terms of the Building Regulations and the low bar we have set ourselves, a bar which many in our industry see as a target to scrape below.

I am a passivhaus designer and familiar with many of these discussions and much of the jargon but understand more effort is needed to make Passivhaus principles more accessible. It is simply about considering context, being careful with orientation, using efficient form, respecting thermal performance, ensuring a level of airtightness, and making sure the building is constructed well. My own focus is on large scale passivhaus housing and I was both fascinated and inspired by conversation at the end of the tour, much of which will filter into my own field of architecture.

I must however conclude with a confession, my internet let me down badly that sunny spring evening and I was only able to enjoy the tour through a recording on a grey weekend morning, it was though a whole lot brighter at the end.

 

Thanks to Paper Igloo for allowing us all into your wonderful home and thanks to the Edinburgh Architectural Association (EAA) for organizing a great event. The recording of the virtual tour will be released soon by the EAA, watch this space.

 

New Glasgow Society & Glasgow Institute of Architects Hustings for Glasgow’s Built Environment

April 22nd, 2022

Hustings is a great word and is only ever used in the plural. This is because it needs more than one and we had six lined up, sitting at a very long table in a very grand room. All standing Councilors at the forthcoming Local Council elections and one rogue MSP, brimming with a passion for the Built Environment and keen to tell us their story.

 

The event was cleverly organised in three parts, the first an opportunity for each candidate to describe their credentials. These ranged from long standing service, insightful understanding, to youthful optimism. The second third centered on the candidates’ vision for Glasgow, and we were invited to imagine the M8 transformed into a linear park, to a City which properly maintained its unique buildings. And finally, the third, third when the audience were invited to grill the candidates.

 

The evening went quickly as we moved through our thirds and a host of important and fascinating topics were discussed. In the end I left the hustings with the strong feeling that there was a lot of common ground, and it was only when party political points poked above the parapet was clarity lost. Indeed, three of the major political parties all promised a form of Heritage Commission or Municipal Enterprise. It is therefore a definite that this will emerge, and our hope is that they get their heads together.

 

There was plenty of passion in the room when the wide ranging third, third finally got underway and I have listed my top three topics of discussion as follows:

Heritage: Top off the list, the anger at the demolition and threat of demolition of Glasgow’s extraordinary heritage boiled over. In particular the neglect of listed buildings left to crumble, with the perceived expectancy of a clear site simply left the City cheated and robbed. The discussions went deeper than just the listed and included the core fabric of the city, the abundance of empty properties, the importance of retrofit and its relationship to embodied energy fueled the debate.

Citizenship: The need for a City for Everyone and the importance of meaningful public consultation was made often and with a raised voice. This included more affordable housing, the availability of open space and the inclusion of active travel networks across Glasgow. We were asked to look out for improved levels of consultation as part of Planning Applications, and the opportunities for the general public to have a greater say especially in what gets built and what does not get demolished. Watch this space.

Planning: The panel brought some insightful points to the debate; I was impressed by their views on Planning process and how it is resourced. While those being grilled understood the need to train up fellow councilors on architectural issues and pointed out that legislation exists to resolve much of our concerns, less welcome was the news that the City is simply disempowered by lack of resource. This comes down to a finite budget and how it is allocated, fiscal reform while not promised was on the table. 

 

Sustainability filtered through every discussion and at every turn, and I left the event with perhaps not a spring in my step, but at least a glimmer in my hope. I have purposefully not mentioned any of the Parties attending, less as a desire to be impartial and more as a statement to reinforce the need to work together. Thanks to the New Glasgow Society and the Glasgow Institute of Architects, please refer to the links below to find out more about their events, and the mysterious panel.

www.newglasgowsociety.org

www.gia.org.uk

Chris is running for RIAS President and would be grateful for your support. The issues raised at the hustings and described above will form part of Chris’s manifesto for the presidency and he will be publishing further information over the next few weeks. More information on the election and Richard Atkins who is also standing is available at the following link:

www.rias.org.uk/about/news/2022-april-presidential-candidates-announced

 

 

COP26 Day Five

November 6th, 2021

Following in the footsteps of Greta Thunberg, I made my way to COP 26. Sounds impressive, but in reality I was just late for the march, and they had all gone. Seriously gone, the only signs that 20,000 Friday Futures activists had travelled through the area where some returning children with placards, and a lot of bikes chained up on the Kelvingrove fences. Sad that yet again I had missed the action I trudged down to COP26.

Cheered up by the camaraderie and enthusiasm of my fellow RIAS delegates, we sat down to a Nordic Pavilion discussion about the dual crisis of biodiversity and energy. It was fascinating to see how just 30 mins of discussion opened the opportunity to map the best locations to generate wind power both on the land and the sea could be integrated with a complimentary mapping of biodiversity. The dual urgent need to massively increase renewable energy can therefore be carried out with minimal disruption to our eco systems. Mapping and multi-disciplinary working are familiar to architects, and the immediate metaphors to our own workplace was striking. We chatted like mad through our masks as we wandered around the maze of stalls, why is everything we do so linear and confrontational.

Today we delved deeper into the COP underbelly and sat through some of the formal process, difficult to follow and highly procedural we persevered, if not just to understand how a meeting of 200 countries function, and how difficult it could be to come to an agreement. This contrasted with how a small panel of four could brainstorm an idea only to face a torturous route to reality. Are politicians the log jam, with this thought in our heads it was interesting to listen into a discussion organised by ICLEI (Local Governments for Sustainability), a circular economy debate between like-minded cities and how grassroot initiatives should be at the fore front of mainstream development. Heartening to see Glasgow lead this initiative, and I for one will do all I can to both help our dear green place and hold them / us to our commitments.

Time had come for my RIAS pals to catch their trains back to their cities, one last detour  to take in The Sustainable Glasgow Landing. Always a hive of activity with vertical gardens, a Beyond Zero Home and today a series of Brazilian films highlighting their threatened culture and environment. We made the train and I waved of my friends, to what is likely to be my last day at the official COP, we hand over the batten to a fresh crew next week.

It has been a fascinating week although I somehow have felt more detached within the COP26 circus tent, than outside. It has been a joy to meet up with my RIAS comrades on a daily basis and discuss what we can do. The issues are vast however we can all make a difference; our job will be to continue in a field which is far from without significance. Next step for me, today I am off to join the COP26 Coalition March from Kelvingrove Park, take a turn at the GIA COP26 Shop, then catch up on what I have missed.

 

The Sustainable Glasgow Landing https://www.thesustainableglasgowlanding.com/events

IGS Vertical Farm  https://www.intelligentgrowthsolutions.com/cop26

Beyond Zero Homes  www.beyondzerohomes.co.uk 

RIAS Inspiring Futures https://riasinspiringfutures.com

COP26 Day Four

November 4th, 2021

Finding it hard to face being locked in a windowless COP campus for a third day in a row, I thought I would venture out into the Fringes. The weather is fine and there is so much happening, a glance at the climate fringe calendar tells me there is something for everyone. I decided to head for East Glasgow and the Many Studios, the GIA Cop Shop and ACAN’s exhibition at the New Glasgow Society Gallery.

First stop the Many Studios, an independent organisation who run a creative hub and workplace at Ross Street in the Glasgow Barras and home to several ACAN COP26 events. Yesterday saw ‘Replicating Retrofit’, a locally driven retrofit movement; this evening we have ‘Cop or Flop’ a cabaret style evening of stand up comedy, roasting the state of the built environment. This afternoon however I sat down to a joint ACAN / SEDA event ‘Zero Carbon Homes: How can they be healthy too’. A fascinating debate around air quality and its impact on architecture.

Nearby on the High Street in an ecological shop front face off, the Glasgow Institute of Architects (GIA) COP shop and the New Glasgow Society Gallery stare across at each other. The GlA 'pop up' COP Shop at 274 High Street will be open for a fortnight to raise awareness about the impact that climate change will have on Glasgow, why we must all work together to combat it, and the role architecture plays in our environment. Across the road, the New Glasgow Society play host to the Architects Climate Action Network (ACAN) exhibition, Architecture of Crisis: Hopes and Visions in two parts. The first part will run from the 27thOctober to the 13th November and explain the work of ACAN. While from the 14th November until the 21st November, once cop has run its course, the exhibition will demonstrate a vision for a post COP26 world.

Back to formal COP26 duties tomorrow but I would recommend to everyone, please get involved, all the great events and exhibitions are not just fascinating, they could make all the difference.

 

COP26 Climate Fringe Events Calendar -  https://climatefringe.org/events-calendar-all/

ACAN COP25 events -  https://www.architectscan.org/cop26

Glasgow Institute of Architects - https://gia.org.uk

SEDA events - https://www.seda.uk.net/events

New Glasgow Society - https://www.newglasgowsociety.org

COP26 Day Three

November 4th, 2021

Groundhog Day, ten to the right, ten to the left, wait a bit, negative. Covid test, passport, and delegate letter in hand, I was berated by the stewards for bringing to much proof of existence, my UN blue lanyard was all that is required to enter sustainable heaven. Through the pearly gates I floated around the blue zone dragged down by the guilt of privilege.

A day of mixed emotions panned out ahead, unsure about what the ‘high heid yins’ were agreeing, I clocked in with my RIAS pals. Finance was the theme of the day; however, Peatlands was a hot topic of debate. Avoiding the nature tent, which was mobbed by homo sapiens desperate to pay homage to Mr Attenborough, I made for what has become my favourite watering hole, the Cryosphere Pavilion. A spot brimming with science, and I wallowed in a talk from the Peatlands and Land Quality Unit, to discover our Scottish Bog and Peatlands rival the Amazon Rainforest as a carbon sink and there is much we can protect, restore, and increase.

The next hour I spent dipping in and out of pavilions and talks ranging from African finance to Dutch rising sea wall technology, which having moved on from the thumb in the dike, to world leading engineering cannot cope with a rise greater than one meter (a real possibility) and are planning a move to Germany. Thinking about calling it a day I stumbled across some architecture at the Nordic Pavilion. A young Danish architect, an old Danish architect, a young observer and the elderly president of the U.I.A. we’re having a chat which summed up my day. On one half of the platform the two younger panellists shone with forward thinking ideas centred around collaboration, reuse of structure and net gain architecture while the other side dwelled on, can architects save the world, will we miss iconic buildings, are we supermen or even god. To be fair I think there was an element of provocation and the president of the U.I.A. made some very good points, however I left with the feeling that the era of the starchitect was still alive and kicking, or at least through their Ann Rand designer lens.

My day flitted from darkness to light and back again however I chose to leave with the brighter, youthful thoughts of a net gain architecture, in my head.  There is though still time for the darkness to return, I know not what happened in the ‘high heid yin’ tent apart from Biden has gone home and everything seems to have been agreed up front. I might just leave the telly switched off.