Interview with Simon Sturgis

The architect-turned-environmental specialist’s unparalleled knowledge has made him an advisor to the UK Parliament, Google, the Greater London Authority, British Land, Landsec, Heathrow Expansion, Grosvenor and Gatwick Airport. He has produced industry guidance for the RICS, RIBA and UKGBC.

“In the 1950s energy was cheap. There was no real consideration of climate crisis,” explains Simon. “Today, tackling climate change is the biggest environmental challenge we face”.

Simon’s work on embodied carbon began around 2008, during the financial crisis: “things were changing,” he explains. Simon was a practicing commercial and residential architect at the time and began taking on property refurbishments.

“The way it went was that the client would want something sparkling new. An entire building’s façade would still have 20 or 30 years of life left, but it would be skipped. This was standard practice and still is”.

To Simon it seemed wasteful to strip away materials that could still be used: “We wanted to keep hold of this redundant stuff but it had no financial or commercial value.

“So, we questioned whether it had a value in energy terms; it did”. It was Albert Einstein’s theory that mass and energy are intimately related and that materials have an equivalent value to energy E = mc2, which spurred Simon and the team’s thinking: “We simply continued along those lines which led to the concept of embodied carbon”.

Simon and his team wrote a report for RICS called Redefining Zero in 2010 in which they listed their findings. This led on to doing some research for British Land who were keen to investigate the reuse and recycling of materials and start a fund to develop a methodology: “I’m not sure how, but we wrote it in alignment with the EU standards”.

Simon believes there is no easy answer when it comes to decarbonising the built environment and knowing what materials are most sustainable: “You must do your sums and whole life carbon assessment. Then, comparative assessment can work out what’s best in carbon terms. Everyone should be doing that without being forced. If they did, we would have more low carbon products to choose from”.

The questions to consider, however, are how do you minimize wastage and not throw away good materials? A glass façade will not last more than 30 or 40 years - so why use glass? Concrete or stainless steel have a higher carbon content in production terms but will last longer. It is also possible to recycle steel and concrete frames.

Biomaterials are gaining interest, from bamboo to straw to wool insulation for lofts. “Timber too,” adds Simon. “The Tudors built with timber framework and that Co2 has been locked away for 500 years – great”. But as Simon points out, there are issues around timber such as fire insurance and how it’s put together: “What’s in the glue, for example, and if everyone builds using timber, are we planting enough trees? or are we contributing to global deforestation?”

According to Simon RIBA targets, GLA targets and the LETI Embodied Carbon Primer will put increasing pressure on architects, specifiers and clients to consider their carbon emissions: “We will all be under pressure. Government regulations and legislation ‘Part Z’ will eventually come into effect as well. The truth is that a lot that can be done without cost, but we need to move much faster. The break is really down to politicians”.

In light of climate change and the built environment - responsible today for almost 40 percent of global emissions - does Simon feel optimistic about the planet’s future? “Yes,” he replies, matter-of-factly. “You have to be”. Ultimately, he compares this period in history to the industrial revolution when Britain went from being agricultural to industrial.  

From an architectural point of view, Simon says it will be very interesting to see how buildings evolve. “Cutting down on overall emissions in the built environment will produce very different buildings from what we know today in the next 20 or 30 years. We are at the beginning of needing to come up with an entirely new architecture”.