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Hedge Talks - Episode II: Simon Allford

Introduction: Simon Allford is one of the UK’s most eminent architects, having designed some of London’s most iconic and eye-catching buildings. Allford is a co-founder and director of architectural practice AHMM whose works include: Derwent London’s White Collar Factory and Tea Building, Brockton’s Post Building and The Crown Estate’s 10 New Burlington Street and 1 New Burlington Place development. Allford was also recently elected to be President of the Royal Institute of British Architecture (RIBA) and, above all, is a die-hard Sheffield Wednesday fan.

JR - We’ve just seen Glasgow host COP26, and sustainability is now firmly on everyone’s radar. From an architectural perspective, what is your take on the heightened focus for buildings to be designed and developed sustainably?  

SA - Yes, this is incredibly important and, while we’ve been talking about sustainability for a long time, the pandemic has given people significant time to reflect. This has resulted in individuals becoming far more environmentally aware and placing a far stronger emphasis on sustainability. From an architectural point of view, I’ve perceived a sea-change in attitudes towards environmental design. Pre-pandemic, developers were aspiring for BREEAM rated ‘very good’ or ‘excellent’ buildings. Nowadays, BREEAM ‘outstanding’ is merely a prerequisite of what a best-in-class building must achieve. Moreover, the attention has shifted onto two things: operational carbon and embodied carbon. Because the grid is now becoming cleaner, embodied emissions has shot up in importance and, in my view, is now over half of the ‘carbon problem’. Globally, the real estate industry is responsible for 38% of the world’s carbon, meaning as an industry we can make a huge environmental difference. However, it is important not to underestimate how difficult it will be to make this difference. For our industry to make the difference it wishes to make, substantial re-thinking is needed regarding how we build, where we build, whom funds are allocated to and what materials we use. Yes, this sustainability focused era will be very exciting; however, it also presents an enormous long-term challenge and we’re all on a very steep learning curve.

JR - Sticking with sustainability, are there any innovative new ways you’re working to curate buildings more sustainably?

SA - Interestingly, everything we’ve been doing at AHMM over the past few decades has centred around common sense. Natural ventilation, naturally long-lasting materials along with light, volume and character. The difference between then and now is that we’re thinking much more about where a certain material comes from and its’ carbon footprint. Questions such as, ‘can we use recycled steel or no-to-low cement concrete ahead of the less environmentally friendly alternatives?’ are of the utmost importance. We then look at where and how steel, for example, was made. For instance, seeing if a hydroelectric powered furnace was used. Along with this, we’ve got to measure the miles correctly in relation to where our materials are coming from. For example, if you just track a piece of glass from Italy to the UK you’re missing out on the likely additional miles that piece of glass has accrued over the timespan of its construction.

Certainly, new hybrid materials will arise. However, old materials such as stone and wood are two great examples that, although they pose some challenges, are naturally occurring and are far more sustainable than man-made alternatives. Personally, I don’t believe we have time to sit around and wait for ‘wonder-materials’ to emerge. We’ve got to be proactive and use the old, naturally occurring materials we know. From an architectural perspective, around 70% of a building’s carbon is within its frame - which is the first thing to go up and the last thing to come down. Therefore, making generous, well-built frames that can cope with adaptation over time is essential. Focusing on reuse and renew rather than rebuild is vital because the greenest building is the one that already exists.

Lastly, Biophilia (the greening of buildings) is incredibly important. We want to look down from the top of high-rise buildings and see that all the ground lost has been replaced by land in the sky via terraces and pocket parks. The biophilication of buildings is integral to turning good buildings into great ones. This isn’t about us making good buildings for architectural magazines, as much as I like them. It is about design that is far less vacuous and more sustainable.

JR - Focusing on design, you’ve been involved with some of London’s most iconic buildings - White Collar Factory being a personal favourite of mine. Which spaces (both at home and abroad) stand out as the most special or important projects you’ve been involved with?

SA - Abroad it would be the Roeterseiland campus at the University of Amsterdam (pictured above, Tim Soar). This is because we removed a huge chunk of building which enabled us to open up a fantastic vista through the city while retaining and redeveloping the rest of the existing campus buildings. This also enabled us to reconnect 500,000 square feet of previously disconnected real estate back to Amsterdam. By selective demolition we were able to transform far more than we had removed through the eventual reconnection of this space back to the city.

My fundamental view is good design brings people and the cities they inhabit closer together, allowing for a much more interconnected city. A good building can also be a viewed as a mini city in and of itself. You mention White Collar Factory (pictured below, Tim Soar), which is also a personal favourite of mine. If you look at that building, it lets people in. The space is comprised of two-old buildings, four new buildings and the public yard connecting the entire development. Importantly, the entrance hall is also a public space that serves the community as well as occupiers. Good buildings, to me, are buildings that can be enjoyed by all - even if you’ve not taken space within it you’re allowed to engage with the space. Here, the fusion of public space within a private realm is key.  

JR - Given your father was also an architect, it would be fair to say design and architecture has always been at the forefront of your life. When you were studying at Bartlett, who inspired you architecturally and what buildings caught your imagination?

SA - Yes, my father was an architect; however, when I was younger, I did keep my distance from his work. In my mid-teens, I hoped to be a footballer and later I looked at studying either English or history before studying architecture. Nonetheless, my father and I were always close although - while he was alive - I kept my distance from his mates as I didn’t want to be seen to be ‘hanging on’. However, now he’s passed away, I recognise how much he influenced me and am really happy to reference his own projects in my own mind, conversations or works - which I think is nice.

In terms of my inspiration, I’ve always been a modernist and I only refer to dead architects. My list of heroes is long: Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, Aalto - the true giants of architecture. Fortunately, there are always new people you can discover. I’ve been reading up on the Italian architect Gio Ponti after discovering these fantastic tiles he designed, which I went on to use in my own apartment!

If I have to pick out a specific building, Casa del Fascio in Como (also known as Palazzo Terragni), designed by Giuseppe Terragni, certainly comes to mind. I always joke to my team saying if we spent the rest of our careers trying to build a building as good as Casa del Fascio then I’d be quite happy. Fundamentally, it is just an incredibly good, generous building. However, once again, with buildings - it is always a journey of discovery.

JR - Finally, you’ve recently been elected President of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) - an organisation you’ve critiqued in the past. What are some of your plans to make this institution more relevant and productive in the years ahead? And, what would you like your legacy to be as President of the RIBA?

SA - You’re right, I have been critical and I remain critical. Fortunately, however, there have been several constitutional amendments that make it easier to enact change from within the RIBA and, as an organisation, we have acquired a significant amount of money meaning it is clear of debt and has large cash reserves. Therefore, this foundation will hopefully allow me to re-build the RIBA - both physically and theoretically - during my Presidency.

I’d like to build a communications network that allows members and fellows to connect with each other while simultaneously refurbishing 66 Portland Place to make it accessible and open. My aim is to turn the RIBA into a physical hub for debate and discourse, which I would label ‘The House of Architecture at The RIBA’. This allows the RIBA to transition into the platform that allows its many members, interest groups and fellows who use the space to share ideas, debate, provoke and listen to one another. The RIBA needs its intellectual powerhouse - the practitioners, academics and fellows - to drive the discourse which the institute will capture and then share.

I would also like to increase engagement from the RIBA to schoolchildren and the wider public. In my view a good profession is an accessible one and frankly architectural training is too long and too expensive, thus making it not very accessible to the breadth of the nation. An aim of mine, while President of the RIBA, would be to increase ways into the profession through apprenticeships, conversion courses and earn-as-you-learn schemes. Importantly, it shouldn’t be the RIBA offering these pathways but, instead, as an institute we should be supporting and enabling individual practices to offer them. Holistically, my philosophy for the RIBA is to turn it from an institution of inertia into an institution of ideas.

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