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Mount Anvil speaks to Future Cities Forum about sustainable building materials

Mount Anvil's Friary Park sustainability graphic (Mount Anvil and housing association Catalyst are working together to transform Acton's Friary Park estate in west London)

Following our recent sustainability event, Future Cities Forum wanted to further its research on how good design can mean fewer materials and therefore make construction more sustainable. This was a topic that we took to our forum member and developer Mount Anvil, in an interview with Mike Valmas, Head of Pre-Construction, Energy and Sustainability.

Mount Anvil has been working sustainably in the residential sector for a some time and we asked Mike to explain what constitutes a low-impact building. Mike explained:

‘If we’re talking materials it’s worth remembering a building isn’t sustainable solely through the materials used to build it – you have to consider its full life cycle. Known as a life cycle analysis, we’ll be looking at everything from demolition of existing structures to construction impact and material selection to operational energy.

‘The best place to start is by simplifying your build – by definition, if you’re reducing the number of materials used to build, you’re reducing the amount of embodied carbon. This is also true at the end of the building’s lifecycle, because if the building is simpler to deconstruct, you’re likely to reduce its environmental impact during demolition too.

‘Then there is the whole life carbon use of a building. Aside from embodied carbon in the materials you use, if you have less interfaces and less complex detail in the design of the building, you tend to find the fabric acts more efficiently in energy terms. The simpler you can make the construction detail the easier it is to achieve a high standard and less things that can go wrong. There will be less areas for air and energy to seep out.’

Mike went on to discuss whether creating lower-impact buildings is much simpler for the construction industry and developers than originally thought:

‘It needs a change of attitude and approach and where current legislation says that we don’t have to be building net zero carbon buildings then there can be a tendency to do the minimum. In fact, where possible we should strive to push beyond legislation, at the very least we should be futureproofing buildings by making them net zero carbon ready.

'And what about avoiding demolition? Is it at all possible to do that, particularly on the rush estates of the 1950s and 1960s?

It’s dangerous to generalise but often many of the mid-century developments are now coming to the end of their lives. The challenge is where the developments don’t meet current qualitative, space or thermal/energy performance standards. An assessment is required to test the viability of attempting retrofit and refurbishment– both sustainability-wise and financially. Where it’s not viable it’s not necessarily because they were built poorly, they’re just a product of their time and a lot has changed in the last 60-70 years. For example, standards we are now looking at are a lot more onerous than even those of ten years ago. That said, we will always assess the viability of alternative options ahead of demolition and new build.

'There is not one approach that fits all, each scenario needs to be assessed on its own merits. A balanced objective assessment is needed with the key outcome being highly energy efficient homes and creating the best place for the community to thrive.’

‘We have a couple of developments where following extensive structural surveys and analysis we managed to retain significant basements. Although much more upfront design work was required, it enabled us to make massive savings relating to embodied carbon. Both the demolition and the construction of a new structure would have required very high energy use.

‘On the reuse of materials, it goes without saying that there should be robust pre-demolition surveys detailing material quantum and a strategy for reuse and recycling to avoid land fill. Ultimately, even where it is not possible to retain or reuse and new build is the appropriate option, the consideration does not stop there. We should think about how we can make the proposed new building more sustainable in this regard. Working backwards, for example, how can we make the space flexible to accommodate changes in market conditions and uses? Additionally, the flexibility and robustness of material choices to facilitate easy elemental breakdown and - where possible - reuse as opposed to demolition is important.’

Future Cities Forum questioned how important it is to avoid the international sourcing of materials. Mike said:

‘Obviously, the utopia is to do all your sourcing from local suppliers who also source all their raw materials locally. But the reality can be different.

‘We think the best way to handle this challenge is by having awareness. If a strategy with clear targets for carbon impact is set at the outset, you can actively measure and consider this while specifying materials and products. Then if in the event international sourcing is unavoidable, you’re aware of its impact and can look to lower the impact elsewhere. Ultimately, you need to be measuring it to be able to actively manage it.’

With the 2030 deadline set for net zero carbon homes in the UK, Mike described how achievable he thought this could be:

‘Positive steps have been made to put sustainable construction higher up on the agenda now. There’s a lot of fantastic work being done by organisations such as the UK Green Building Council (UKGBC), London Energy Transformation Initiative (LETI), RIBA (2030) and CIBSE, who are all championing low carbon and low energy construction and providing examples of best practice and how this might be achieved. The consensus is we should be starting now to achieve this target.

‘As I said earlier, though, if it’s not possible, as a minimum we should be looking to future proof new developments to keep transitions easy and cost effective when legislation changes. At Mount Anvil, this is an important part of what we’re doing, because we’re currently working with a number of housing association partners in London who will still be managing this stock in 2030 and beyond. These are their homes until the end of their build lifecycle and so we always take a holistic approach with our partners from the outset, objectively assessing all options to enable informed decisions to be made.’

Mike concluded by talking about whether Mount Anvil is becoming a 'leader' in material usage and sustainable construction.

‘Leader is a bold statement, which we wouldn’t agree with, as we are humble in what we do and seek continual improvement via a learning and growth mindset. The approach starts internally. We believe the starting point to success is having sustainability as a core value inherent in everything we do including design, specification, procurement, and delivery. It isn’t just about top-down leadership but creating an environment where all our colleagues are passionate and just as responsible for it – it’s a massive part of our culture at Mount Anvil, and we call it 'high freedom, high responsibility'.

‘For us, the final piece is back to education and awareness. Learning means not only exploring new ways to do things but also looking back on what we have done in the past, assessing, reflecting, and identifying where we can learn.

Examples of this are carrying out life cycle analysis of completed schemes and using these to identify the changes that would have been required to make them net zero carbon. We’re grateful to work with so many partners that are aligned with our sustainability core values and are happy to carry out these post development analyses in partnership, as part of knowledge sharing activities.

‘In addition to this, we also have sustainability outreach programmes which target the schools local to our developments. The purpose of these is to raise awareness of the challenges we collectively face and ways that we can help, arming the younger generation with the knowledge they need to build a better future for London.’

CGI of Mount Anvil's Royal Eden Docks development in east London, between London City Airport and Canary Wharf


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