Wolf Mangelsdorf, Buro Happold’s Global Head of Design, Technology and Innovation has recently returned to London from New York.
His time there was beset by drama arriving just as Donald Trump was elected President in 2018, followed by the BlackLives Matter protests, Covid, lockdown and the storming of Capitol Hill by Trump’s supporters, which he watched live on daytime TV. London, he says, seems ‘ rather quiet’ by comparison.
But it’s giving him some space to think after four years away, what has changed and how, post-pandemic, the quality of life in cities needs to improve for everyone.
"The challenges are multi-layered. Cities are still growing so growth is a big one so is resiliency. And as cities grow, there’s also an issue around their liveability– what is the quality of life so people are able to lead a good life, not just find housing on the lowest level”.
The big shadow over all this are the carbon emissions that come from new build. He explains that an average building contains between 650 to 700kg of embodied carbon per square meter. A developer he met recently had shown him how he is planning to improve on this but had only reached 550kgCo2 per sq. meter. “The amount of work that’s needed to get to get to zero embodied carbon is phenomenal. We are nowhere near making a big dent in it”.
So how do engineers square the circle when it comes to building new? The simple answer is they can’t – not at the moment and not while the bulk of new buildings are constructed in glass, concrete and steel.
"There are clear steps we can take reducing the amount of electricity we need in buildings, electrifying them and producing the electricity in a sustainable way.The fact we are on a path where can achieve net zero carbon operationally has bought embodied carbon much more into focus” but there is no silver bullet. Even using materials in a different way, for example, timber comes at a cost. “Timber is not zero carbon either. It’s an industrial product – it’s been laminated, kiln dried, planed and it’s been transported”.
When Mangelsdorf joined Buro Happold in 2002 it was as lead engineer for Battersea Power Station, which opens this autumn. It’s a unique project in many ways but above all for the emotional attachment Londoners have for it, which he points out is the only reason it was saved.
"In terms of carbon, it probably shouldn’t be compared to traditional refurbishment projects but a highly efficient new build. This was a labour of love, requiring complex repurposing of a decades old iconic building fabric.
“We kept the external walls and redid them as sustainably as possible. Those reused primary structural elements from the exterior walls and internal masonry alone avoided thousands of tonnes of carbon being produced compared to them being built today. But there is an enormous amount of emotional attachment to it, and sustainability is a lot to do with the emotional attachment because if we have an emotional attachment to a building, we will keep it and look after it.”
This, he argues, puts more responsibility on architects to design buildings that resonate with the public and are ‘a bit more loose fit’ so they are capable of having a 200-year life span. The average life of a commercial building in Britain is just 40 years.
"We need to reuse as much as we can but a lot of the buildings we are throwing away at the moment were built in such a way that they didn’t have this ability to be adapted for something else in the future – they were too narrowly framed in terms of their usage and spatial configurations so it’s almost impossible to do something with them”.
Yet unlike many of his fellow professionals he is upbeat about the future.
"We do have agency – we have clients that employ us and most clients we work for have their own ESG ( environmental social and governance) targets and our clients take it incredibly seriously. They have no answers themselves …. we all have the goals, we all have the targets written in our sustainability statements, but no one at this moment in time has the full road map ahead –which is quite a good challenge to have.”
Wolf Mangelsdorf is judging this year's Activism Award. Buro Happold is supporting the Activism Award alongside SOM.
The Activism Award is free to enter. The closing date is August 25th.
Photo credit Charlie Round-Turner