Challenging the boundaries of sustainable design innovation

4 min read


Adrian-CampbellAdrian Campbell of changebuilding describes how he learned about sustainable design and put those principles into action.

Green building design has always fascinated me. The first projects I was involved with in my career involved aspects of passive design and renewable material use, both of which were novel at the time. When I was working on the design for 30 St Mary Axe — or the Gherkin as many people know it — sustainability wasn’t really a term in common use. Wanting to develop a better, more sophisticated understanding of the latest building ideas and more able to persuade clients of the value of new design approaches and apply them to projects, I signed up to do Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership’s course in Interdisciplinary Design for the Built Environment (IDBE). The course enabled me to think really deeply about those topics and learn from some of the best, foresighted speakers in the industry.

The interdisciplinary working techniques and sustainability concepts I was able to immerse myself in at Cambridge were really important as I continued my career. The collaborative interaction between architects and other team members, something now considered essential, was far from common practice when I took the course, but was and remains integral to my working practice.

Reviewing the social construct: putting learning into practice

After the course I went to work in Cape Town and again, put sustainability and design concepts into practice. A colleague later recalled his first impressions of me as unlike other engineers “just doing sums in the corner” because I immediately considered broad aspects of the project.  I was introducing a new way of engaging with architects and other team members and was able to approach projects from different viewpoints — something I’ve continued to do throughout my career.

Photyovoltaic panels on the roof of the BP headquarters building in Cape Town

While in Cape Town, I worked on an office block project for key client BP, at a time before there was any national environmental assessment method for buildings.

Taking a fresh approach, I suggested we write a new client brief exploring sustainability 'in the round', referencing other emerging ideas about building environmental performance, and that we review the social context of construction in its broadest sense. We reviewed many different risks such as future climate and social issues like HIV.

Some initially questioned my approach but I found it worked and felt this was the whole context of what engineering simply had to consider. This might now be called ‘resilience’ but at the time I just understood that this was really important.

It was pretty revolutionary but BP got an office of the quality they wanted, with energy consumption reduced by two thirds. Back then this was pretty staggering and got picked up as a new project specification in the country by others. It proved there were better ways of dealing with environmental performance, linking landscaping with building design, and improving construction methods. Even today that office block still has one of the biggest building integrated solar arrays in Cape Town. This approach helped alter perceptions of what was possible, influenced by the broad understanding of the integrated nature of design. The IDBE had given me the understanding of what could be done, and I thought, "yes, let’s do that."

Incidentally, this project blueprint was something that team in BP took back to the UK, where people were surprised by the progressive approach to building design coming out of South Africa.

The boundaries of innovation

Back in London, I led engineering design for Arup on one of Europe’s most amazing low carbon city block projects, called Low2No in Helsinki. This incorporated a broad appreciation of carbon and its position within sustainability thinking including new economics evaluations using carbon, advanced energy efficiency methods and, importantly, the influence of building and urban design on user consumption. I had a broad contextual understanding of the spectrum of different issues and was again able to join those up, explore the boundaries of innovation and clearly identify what we could take forward. This included reviewing the national fire code, how that might influence the acceptance of multi-storey timber design and also set a new benchmark for offsite pre-cast concrete.  It was stimulating to be a structural engineer talking about a whole host of design issues which were innovative and well outside the typical structural role.

Low2no, Helsinki
A rendering of the Low2No sustainable city block development in ~helsinki

Working as a structural engineer and a design leader, I have introduced new concepts such as ‘embodied carbon assessment’, ‘offsite’ methods and now 'multi-storey timber' into projects. This has hopefully helped move the industry forwards and demonstrated how sustainable practice can be applied to projects. It’s now quite topical. I find it interesting that the awareness of what was coming down the tracks influenced how I needed to adapt my skills and learning to innovate accordingly.

I’ve always pushed to get the very best out of projects; though one may have a vision of what future design is supposed to look like, the actual delivery is challenging. There is a need to understand what would work and figure out who you would need to collaborate with from within the industry to make that happen. I’ve found that by aligning the key elements you can deliver new projects in new ways for the benefit of the client and broader society.

Confidence and leadership ethos

I now work as an independent freelance consultant helping drive change within the industry. My methods are influenced by an understanding that by collaborating across the industry we can deliver buildings of both high performance and lower impact. My experience over the past five or six years, working on multi-storey timber projects has demonstrated how renewable materials like cross-laminated timber (CLT) can be used in many different sectors and not just housing.  I understand the need to glue the supply chain back together.

I am currently looking at ways to present new solutions to the housing crisis both technically and through skills delivery, and how I can feed back my understanding into training and learning for others. I’ve returned to the IDBE to lecture on innovation, sustainability and my professional experiences and I suppose it’s come full circle as I share that with the current students.

Adrian Campbell is the founder and director of sustainable building design company changebuilding. He has been working on sustainable building projects for well over 25 years and has a broad range of experience that reflects his insight into the subject which has led him to work on many different types of projects around the world. He advised the Engineering Council of the UK’s on their principals of sustainability and was one of the key authors of Arup’s  approach to sustainable building design in 2007 and also the recent revision aligned to the UN Sustainable Development Goals.