Essay

Roddy Langmuir reflects on Cullinan Studio’s approach for incorporating nature into its projects

Making room for nature

We’re inundated with information about planetary problems, so we are all aware of them. Over the last half century the environmental movement has scored isolated successes, but always on the margins, leaving us all unprepared for current challenges: climate change, biodiversity collapse and our fast-growing population’s disconnection from nature.

I grew up in the Cairngorm Mountains, the most southern area of subarctic tundra in the world, a natural wilderness, and I have watched climate change silently at work. Scotland’s skiing industry has virtually melted away with decades of warm winters.

In bygone days when we crapped in our backyards, there was a better awareness of how to live in a sustainable closed-loop of consumption and waste. But as the urban population rises, the planet’s life support systems are being exhausted to feed us, supply us with energy, and clean our air and water. Dependent on the natural world, most of us fail to understand the devastating impact our lifestyle has on the environment.

Professor Dasgupta’s recent report on the economics of biodiversity, commissioned by the UK Treasury, no less, confronts us with the sheer scale of the problem and the changes necessary to reset that relationship with nature. His key point is to urge the world’s governments to devise a different form of national accounting from GDP; balancing growth against the depletion of natural resources. Everything must change … and fast, but will they do it?

How we live, work, educate, our economics and the boundaries set to our collective responsibilities; all must change. It’s a paradigm shift and the construction industry has to be central to it. It’s an amazing time to be an architect because an incredible challenge has been set for us all.

Some background to the Cullinan practice: we are a cooperative, trying to find better ways to work together and collaborate more by sharing income, promoting diversity and  offering flexible working hours. It’s not just altruism but an effective business approach. We care, even if the industry we’re trapped in is set in its ways and has ravenous appetites.

To give an example, 40 years ago, Ted Cullinan sketched the Lambeth Community Care Centre. It was a new approach to health care, returning it to the community from big, faceless central hospitals. Naturally ventilated, with patients’ rooms opening onto a garden, Ted’s design followed an intuition that patients would get better, faster, and they did. Many architects and engineers have followed similar paths exploring low energy, natural design, but we need clients who understand, and they need money and support for their idealistic projects.

But more than low-energy design is needed to achieve sustainability. Twenty years ago we built the ingenious Archaeolink visitor centre in remote Aberdeenshire, exploiting new and old ideas to harness inter-seasonal heat storage below a mounded grass rug. But the hopelessly optimistic business plan wasn’t viable without subsidy. So, it is now derelict, returning to nature.

Five Cross-cutting Themes

Here are the results of a re-think we undertook in the practice:

  • Make more room for nature. Not just integrating buildings better into landscape, but interpreting nature in the broader sense, making buildings that follow nature’s principles.
  • Give a sense of ownership to the communities using the buildings;
  • Create health-giving buildings using non-toxic materials, fresh air, daylight, etc.
  • Adopt the principles of the circular economy through buildings that are zero net carbon, energy producing, flexible and recyclable
  • Frame outdoor spaces and streets that help nature thrive in the city.

We wanted to be able to explain to clients why, for example, designing a therapeutic environment for mental health patients in a children’s hospital, might influence the way we could design better homes. Or why an outdoor classroom for the Royal Horticultural Society with raised beds might be a model for the same thing in every primary school, educating all children about our dependence on nature for the air we breathe, our energy and food, and to clean up our waste.

Following are a few examples under each of the five themes.

1. Connection to Nature

Welcoming nature into indoor and outdoor rooms ­–a  disregarded two-foot-wide gravel strip outside our office is now our colleague Robin Nicholson’s guerrilla garden on the towpath, a place to sit outside in the sun at lunchtime and interact with commuters and walkers and tourists beside the canal. In summer, it becomes a front door to our events programme inside.

A similar urge to get urban populations down to the water’s edge steered a project in Chicago by Sasaki Associates. Once a hard industrial edge, it’s now a haven for nature, wildlife and citizens to enjoy the long-neglected river in the city.

For the National Forest in Leicestershire, we have imagined a treetop walkway with canopy classrooms, because education impacts best when conducted in the environment it explains. So, these hedgehog shaped grid-shell classrooms sit up in the tree canopy.

The Clore Education Centre for the Royal Horticultural Society in their gardens at Hyde Hall, has classrooms wrapping around a garden courtyard –nature empowers the next generation here.

At Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Garden, this gateway explores and explains the world of plants while demonstrating renewable energy techniques and biophillic design responses. Inside, beneath the canopy of engineered trees, you ‘feel’ you’re still in the garden. As Professor Dasgupta says, our industry needs to work with the biosphere rather against it.

2. Powerful Communities

You cannot create a community, but you can offer the tools and environment to strengthen one like residents of the Stonebridge Estate in northwest London and help them settle more easily into new surroundings by removing barriers to effective social spaces . Shared indoor and outdoor spaces, designed for well-being and inclusivity, will help new arrivals settle in

We’ve squeezed a community event space between two wings of flats presold to fund it. We brought all the functions together by integrating separate residential and commercial buildings, cross-funding the running costs of the community centre with rental from a supermarket and health centre. There’s a civic space out front and a garden at the back. The crossover of different uses brings higher footfall to each, and the flats above offset the initial capital cost and ensures a constant flow of customers. Alongside the community hub, shared gardens connect residents of 120 new homes. We re-opened a feeder canal and arranged the buildings to frame this shared outdoor space. Private and shared gardens are integrated rather than separated, as the social value is always most pronounced at thresholds between private and shared outdoor spaces.

At The Malings in Newcastle, designed by architects Ash Sakula, what look like shared gardens are mostly an aggregation of private front gardens with carefully controlled thresholds, so new residents can connect with neighbours. Low walls and planters are used to encourage conversations, developing a neighbourhood where people can meet and talk naturally, combatting feelings of loneliness. Bicycle stores and recycling areas are designed to promote informal encounters between the residents, as are communal allotments. There is even a feasting table where residents can hold parties and events; crucially, all these decisions were taken in full consultation with the residents.

3. Healthy Buildings

This is what you might call the feasting table at our Maggie’s Cancer Care Centre in Newcastle. The kitchen table is always a key part of the Maggie’s brief, and is a place where conversations between strangers can happen naturally – or not. The Maggie’s brief is full of ideas about the restorative effects of natural materials and integrated landscape spaces, but shouldn’t all hospitals be designed this way? And don’t we deserve healthy buildings everywhere, all the time, rather than just when we’re sick?

At Alder Hey children’s hospital our mental health project with landscape designers Turkington Martin, known as ‘Alder Hey in the park’, brings together a cluster of services to make consultations easier for patients with complex mental health issues. The Sunflower Centre is a separate twelve-bed residential building where young adults with serious conditions can staying up to two years. The concept of ‘nature deficit disorder’ raises the question, ‘how can you become a good custodian of the natural world as an adult, if you are detached from it as a child?’  Visual connections with nature are known to reduce blood pressure, stress, boredom, irritation and fatigue, while improving mental engagement and attentiveness.

We designed every space to create a therapeutic environment. Could this be a new blueprint for how the NHS works across departments integrating parks and recreation facilities to encourage active lifestyles, healthy diets and connection to nature? An NHS that has  responsibility to maintain the health of the community,- rather than treating people only when they are ill.

Here’s something different: a new centre for automotive  innovation for Warwick University, with Jaguar, Land Rover and Tata Motors, aiming to bring technical innovation to the car industry. Academia, industry and researchers all come together under a giant timber roof. The building is full of daylight and largely made of timber. Inside, movement pathways intersect through large workshop spaces, allowing researchers from different disciplines to collide, so encouraging conversation.

Inside and outside come together with cafes and exhibitions and student events spilling out in the open. This sort of building would normally be in a remote science park but instead it is embedded at the heart of Warwick University

4 Circular Economy

We must use as much as we can of what already exists, reconditioning materials and buildings and designing what happens instead of throwing building parts away. Architects can prove how clever they are by doing this. Refurbishing our own office in Islington, we achieved a 75% reduction of energy in use. We couldn’t afford to do everything we wanted but it was a start. At Chimney Pot Park in Salford, ShedKM created raised gardens over the backs of houses, and bringing light through the ‘chimney pots’ that give the scheme its name.

We haven’t lost our belief in the age-old principle that buildings should speak of how they’re made and even how they work. With the John Hope Gateway in Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Garden, rainwater is collected in a large tank on the roof of the WCs, and fills the cisterns in full view of the public entering the Botanic Garden. My partner, Colin Rice, built himself a ‘thrifty’ house on the Norfolk coast put together from a multitude of salvaged bits and bobs and sitting gently on recycled railway sleepers.

If we follow the idea that waste is simply a resource awaiting a new purpose, then why shouldn’t materials and products be leased by manufacturers for the lifetime of a building; and then re-purposed at the end of life? We could retrieve man-made waste by mining it, guided by easily available information.

Duncan Baker Brown’s waste house at the University of Brighton was an experiment in creating building entirely out of recycled components, including toothbrushes discarded after overnight first-class flights coming into Gatwick. And at Bere Architects’ project Lark Rise, there is an all-electric passive house that produces twice the energy it consumes, and exporting energy to the grid. It’s not hard to imagine a universal energy grid where most buildings are net producers, linked by smart systems to form de facto power stations.

We’re involved in new infrastructure projects ourselves, like this one working with a team of experts researching the creation of a low temperature heat network called GreenSCIES in Islington. It takes waste heat from the underground and many buildings that have a surplus of heat energy such as data centres and redistributes it to local homes and schools. It’s a fast developing scene with many opportunities for creative exploration and all this work shows how we can move to a ‘construction ecosystem’ modelled on nature’s cycles.

5 Future Streets

Future Streets are defined by bringing nature into the outdoor spaces used by people. As part of our Bristol Harborside Development, the master plan transformed a former gasworks site into a new city district with two pedestrian routes connecting to the centre of Bristol. One street takes you from the cathedral right down to the waterfront. The other completes the ‘Brunel Mile’ from Temple Meads Station to the SS Great Britain. Along the route there are places to pause, sit and enjoy trees, flowers, water and sky. Down at the waterfront, the river edge has to cope with a huge tidal range, so floating reed beds and hinged walkways help you get close to the water. Three natural pedestrian thoroughfares are linked to each other, allowing nature-rich public space to steer the entire development.

The ‘Future Street’ will fast-become future reality because cars will become something very different to what have always known. Pollution-free autonomous cars will be offered as a service for hire rather than as a product to possess, so street space now taken by parked cars will become available for other uses: food growing, play, leisure – use your imagination.  In Sydney, they’ve scaled this concept up in Place Design Group’s Future Street, including an exhibition to explain how the embedded green and smart infrastructure for a post autonomous vehicle world would actually work.

I’ll finish by mentioning James Corner’s competition-winning Camden Highline project. You may know the original High Line in New York that he helped to design, and now the same concept of a unique public green thread tying communities together is coming to London; an elevated park along a viaduct that speaks to the symbiosis of nature, culture, arts and community. If we can do this alongside a active railway line still in occasional use, you have to ask why can’t we transform our streets at ground level in a similar way?

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