Charlie Luxton interview: circular from the start

Green Architecture

The reuse, repurposing and recycling of buildings is not something to think of at the end of their life, but at their conception, argues circular-economy architect Charlie Luxton.

Architectural designer Charlie Luxton, who fronts TV programmes including Building the Dream and Homes by the Sea, is passionate about sustainable architecture and the environment, and his design company is led by this approach. He spoke to Circular about sustainable building, circularity in the sector and what needs to change to make it happen.

Circular (C): When and why did you first become interested in sustainability and sustainable design? 

There was always a “no waste” culture growing up – a very cold house, no wasting of any food. When I was eight, I moved to a farm, so I was exposed to nature and making things like dens, using pallets and haybales. I was constantly making structures – that’s how I got into architecture. In the 1980s, growing up, there was also the growing awareness of deforestation and whaling.

Then, when I was 18, I went to India. I was travelling around the country, and I remember very clearly getting a chai – a cup of tea – and some dahl. The tea came in a sun-baked clay mug, a little pot cup, and the dahl came on a pressed banana leaf plate with a bit of wood to scoop the food up with.

I ate it and then thought “well, what do I do with all of this?” Everyone was throwing it on the track: the cup cracked, and the banana leaf did the same thing, it was possibly eaten by a cow. It went back to nature. I’d had perfectly well prepared and presented food and drink, with absolutely no waste and complete “circularity”. It was a real moment that made me think: “wow! We can do the same with less.”

The whole way through architectural training, in the early 1990s, I was interested in sustainability and the reuse of materials. I used to make a lot of sculpture out of second-hand materials, and I paid my way through university by selling it. I spent a lot of time in scrapyards, basically just being mind-boggled about what people chose to throw away. So, my bed is made from leaf springs and scaffold bars. I’ve made all kinds of sculptures, furniture and buildings from all kinds of waste and second-hand materials.

I then worked in Ethiopia in eco-tourism. If you want a lesson in reuse and recycling, spend some time in Africa. Everything is remade and made good. So that was very good early learning – and I really try to bring all of that into what we do as an architecture practice today.

C: What is your definition of sustainable design? 

Charlie Luxton
Architectural designer Charlie Luxton calls for architects to think about how buildings can be recycled at end of life as they are designing them.

There are a few things to look at. It needs to be something that works well, is fit for purpose, is loved, and will have a long life. Within that, I think there is also “long life, loose-fit” – in other words designing something that could have multiple iterations of its use over 100 years, rather than making something so specific that it becomes a white elephant. From a conceptual point of view, that really is important – design has to be sustainable.

In construction, it’s also about having low embodied energy and using planet-friendly and life-friendly materials. I mean that in the widest possible context and in all choices: trying to reduce carbon emissions but also considering where your materials come from. For example, unless they are second-hand or reclaimed, we use no tropical hardwoods in any of our buildings. We also think about how they can be recycled at end of life as we are designing them.

The “final charge”, if you like, is energy in use. How much energy does it take to provide a comfortable and healthy environment? How can we keep that as small as possible?

C: How do you bring sustainability into your work?

You can start off with things like reclaimed stone and reclaimed brick and GGBS (ground granulated blast-furnace slag) and all those obvious things, but we are trying to step that up now and really explore how we reuse buildings rather than take them down – whether that is the foundations or as many walls as possible – or as much material from site.

Also, question the need for new buildings. Ask the question right at the beginning of the process: do we actually need this? Is there another way to do this? We have to challenge our presumptions about why we do actions, because it is actions that cause climate change.

C: How educated and aware are your clients about sustainability?

It’s a spectrum, as ever, but there are certainly enough people who have engaged and understood it and there can be a very good conversation about what we need to do and how we need to do it.

There are also people who say “we like the fact that you do sustainable stuff, so could you do it” – and then they get educated through the process.

A lot of what we now get our clients to understand is that sustainability is not just about using less energy, affordability and climate change – although that’s all important – it is also that low energy, well-insulated air-tight buildings are more comfortable, they are of a more even temperature; they are just nicer spaces to be in. So we are really trying to push the quality of internal environment for health and comfort. It’s a win-win.

C: How do you see the circular economy working in practice within the building sector?

I think there is a lot of talk. I haven’t seen that many great exemplars, yet. So, it is the start of a big journey.

There is a lot around reuse of concrete, reuse of some timbers, reuse of some steel – but not that much, certainly aggregates and slate and brick and so on is being reused.

But I think there needs to be another step, and a whole mindset change that needs to occur. The fundamental premise of reusing an existing structure and adapting an existing structure that we have already got, is absolutely critical.

Can we make as much out of this building as possible from second-hand materials?

We are doing a couple of projects now where we are trying to bring life back to old buildings. There are simple things like transforming the appearance of the building using limewash on the original brick and concrete, little things that in themselves are very sustainable actions. So, it is really thinking about all of that, rather than “let’s just put new cladding on the outside of the building.”

Where we go on reusing specific building elements is a bit of an unknown from my perspective. We’re about to launch on a project where that is an essential component of what we do. Can we make as much out of this building as possible from second-hand materials? It is quite a large-scale visitor centre, so we are at early days – but that is an essential concept. What is that process of designing it, given that concept?

C: What are your thoughts on digital passports for buildings, which contain information such as origin, composition, toxicity – to keep them in use for longer? 

Clearly it needs to happen, and it could be amazingly effective, but again it is another layer, and needs legislation, leadership and exemplar projects. Until there are some exemplar projects out there, to demonstrate at scale, it is very hard for people to conceptualise what this journey looks like. So, we need brilliant, like-minded thinking people to throw themselves into this and try to get something built. Built things capture imagination.

C: What about designing for deconstruction and end-of-life?

Design for end of life is absolutely critical. Questioning whether we build is absolutely critical. It’s a step-change in complexity in the job of architects and designers, which is already getting more and more difficult. It is what needs to happen, but it won’t happen unless there’s proper government intervention at some level around taxation and disposal costs.

The market will push it towards that undoubtedly, especially with energy costs where they are, but it is about upskilling an entire construction industry in a way that’s not been thought of before. That is a huge challenge, which also makes it an exciting opportunity.

C: The UK has a net zero strategy, but what journey does the building sector need to go on to help achieve it?

At the heart of all of this is a carbon-free energy source. It has got to be wind, nuclear, solar, storage, possibly carbon capture – although we’ve not seen massive strides or proof-of-concept in that one. Once you crack that, I think the rest of the industries can make net zero work, but they are all built on that assumption. We are not going to get to get there unless the government – whatever colour it is – is completely focused on delivering. I think it is all doable, but we need to be completely focused on what we want to achieve. And I don’t think we are yet.

At the heart of all of this is a carbon-free energy source.

Without leadership, it’s going to be incredibly difficult. Leadership has to come from everyone, not just government. It needs to come from industry – I think shareholders and pension companies need to push that agenda. And it’s about individuals taking responsibility for their actions.

C: Can we feel optimistic about the future?

I think there is an opportunity to have a mindset change about the things that we value, that could be really beneficial to human society.

There is another level of societal improvement – around fairness and kindness – that could create amazing places to live in. There needs to be a shift in the value sets that drive decision- making. In my opinion, that will result in a better, happier society, which makes me deeply optimistic. Whether we can change quickly enough to have a planet that resembles the one we are sitting on today, I don’t know.

I am genuinely excited about projects that we are working on. We’re trying to build in a circular way and encourage people to engage with landscapes and sustainability. It’s these exemplars in the circular building world that I’m really excited to be a part of.

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