Who cares about Sustainability?

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Thanks to everyone who took part:

Martin Townsend, Director of Sustainability, BRE Global Limited  •  Christopher Hay, National Sales Manager, Cosentino UK  •  Tony Matters, Creative Director, Faber  •  Peter Swallow, Senior Project Architect, Grimshaw  •  Phil Gray, Associate, Head of Sustainability, BDP  •  Jane Lawrence, Head of Interiors, Knight Dragon Developments  •  Una Barac, Executive Director, Artelior  •  Tim Bowder-Ridger, CEO, Conran and Partners


It could be argued that sustainability appears on the agenda when we are; legally obliged to act, when it saves money (or some other commercial imperative) or when we feel it is good for the planet. Often, it is very much in that order!
High profile environmental campaigns – not least the war on plastic – have perhaps started a discussion that will genuinely impact on the choices made by clients and designers. We all know the value of spending a little more on quality products, and perhaps now the architectural and design community stands a better chance when helping their clients make the ‘right’ choices.
Our latest Round Table assesses some of the pressures that the design community is under when the key objective is to land the job but still aim to provide a sustainable solution.
So, suitably surrounded by our sponsor Cosentino’s beautiful and sustainable products – who have been generous enough to take over their Old Street showroom for this Roundtable – we begin by discussing the real meaning of sustainability from our esteemed panel’s eyes.

Martin: One of the interesting challenges I find when talking with clients is that the word sustainability actually has a fairly binary effect – it either turns people off or it gets them excited. But when you start to unpick it and you start to say, ‘If you get the design of this space right, it can be a more productive space. You can create a space that has a really good health and wellbeing impact. So you’re looking at things such as circadian rhythms in terms of the lighting, you’re looking at VOC’s in terms of the materials you use – and actually that can really get people interested in the space, but not by using the word sustainability. Then you can start bringing in other elements, such as efficiency and durability. I think the word sustainability can sometimes be a barrier to actually getting people involved. When you start talking about the impacts on people, that’s when I think the conversation can get quite interesting.

Phil: I’ll be honest, the fact that the word sustainability is part of my job title has troubled me for the last six years! It means everything and nothing. I think Martin’s right – there has been a shift towards the human focus, the human-scale, although it is still very much underpinned by economics. People are actually now realising that it is more about what you can get out of people, that people are happy at work, they’re taking fewer sick days, their tenure is longer, they recommend the company to their friends…and I think some savvy commercial entities have fully grasped that.

Martin: That’s a really good point. If you look at a building, 90% of the costs are people related. So when you bring that into the equation and you say that keeping the workforce happy and productive is part of that cost equation of the building – it’s not about the capital costs, it should be about the lifetime cost.

Phil: The problem is that sustainability is not just about the environment, it’s also about social.

Tim: There are so many different elements to it. The way you talk about these things varies massively depending on the audience. For example, in the Asian market they have a culture where everything is knocked down and replaced every 25 years. You don’t have that layering that you have in London. Jane led a project together some years ago, for the Great Eastern Hotel, and we’re only just refurbishing it now. For a hotel, only refurbishing the rooms after more than 18 years is real sustainability – in that context it is about longevity and the economic benefits for the owners there. When we tackle that same subject in Japan, it’s a very, very different conversation. Two years ago we completed the first LEED Gold project in Japan. It’s a massive masterplan project. The willingness of clients to engage with us on an architectural level has always been a bit further ahead there – mainly because of planning permissions, so it is a commercial thing. If you go to India, for example, you can just forget that. In Hong Kong, every shop has an open front with air conditioning blasting – so you’re air conditioning Hong Kong! Of course, Hong Kong is getting hotter and hotter because all the units on the roofs are chucking out hot air. The variants are incredible. I think we have to be very careful to not just talk about our local market because what we do is quite specific, to a local market.

With this global view in mind, we ask the rest of the panel about their experiences when it comes to longevity of design in the hotel sector.

Chris: It does very much depend upon the area of the hotel. Refurbishments normally occur between seven and 15 years. You normally find that public areas are changed much more regularly because there is more heavy traffic, but then, when it comes to the guest rooms, you find that they’ll stretch it for as long as they can before they need to change things – and even then the bathroom will be pretty much the last thing to get changed. From our perspective, if they put in the right material from the beginning, the longevity you’ll get will extend the life of the space.
Tim: With the Great Eastern, we’ve left the original tiling in the bathroom – because it was specified right and still looks right.

Martin: One interesting thing that we have started to see in hospitality is products been treated as services. So rather than actually buy a carpet, you lease a carpet. Rather than buy a lighting system, you buy a level of lighting. So you’re effectively saying to a provider, here’s my requirement – I’ll pay for the service. When it comes to the conversation about sustainability, it isn’t just about the products – it’s also about the business model.

In Hong Kong, every shop has an open front with air conditioning blasting – so you’re air conditioning Hong Kong! Of course, Hong Kong is getting hotter and hotter because all the units on the roofs are chucking out hot air

Peter: I think that people still see sustainability as a sacrifice. You’re doing something for the greater good – therefore it’s going to come back to hurt you. Actually, through these business models, isn’t there a way to shift people’s understanding of what sustainability means, so it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to lose out in some way?

Tim: Quite the opposite. On an interior design level, and this is something we’ve always tried to do, if you specify genuine materials, they can be there forever. Also, you should always strive to create the right design that has a timeless appeal – and not just do something for the sake of fashion.

Jane: I read an article where an architect was talking about recycling and sustainability. He said that if we specified gold and silver as our cladding materials, they would inevitably be recycled because they have a value. It’s trying to get people to understand the value of materials, isn’t it?

Una: I agree with what Chris was saying a little earlier about how long it takes for a typical hotel refurbishment – in our experience it is between seven and 15 years, although we have seen projects that are refurbished within five years. These tend to be soft refurbs in heavy footfall areas in cities such as London and New York, which have heavy occupancies. When it comes to materials, they carry the embedded energy within them and therefore are often not really sustainable – or certainly are more or less so, depending on what you’re using. Ultimately though, the big things are the air conditioning units and the chillers. By their nature, hotels are not the greenest of building typologies. We can all sit here and happily debate this subject – but when we go to our hotel rooms on a business trip or a holiday we want different temperatures, different settings – which means a non-sustainable system. It is the MEP in hotels that is the big sustainability tick or minus. Ultimately, we all want the right settings in our rooms, so our hoteliers are providing us with what we want – which are not very sustainable buildings.

Jane: We want the right aesthetic too.

So is the same true from a workplace perspective?

Peter: From that point of view, it is perceived comfort. Everybody has a different perception of what is comfortable. That’s something that has to be at the forefront of any conversation about how you facilitate the services of a building. The biggest challenge I’ve had is quantifying how to do that. Not so much the settings for rooms or getting into the technical side of things, but what people perceive as value to them – the things that will make the come back and use those spaces time and time again. This is something I’ve seen in a lot of educational facilities. One of the problems they have is that you now have students who have laptops and WiFi and comfortable living environments – so how do you get them to actually come to the university buildings when they don’t need to be in a specialised learning environment. That is a real challenge for that sector. Also, the way that the culture is changing rapidly in workplaces in the city, people have more dynamic work/life balance, they’re not always in the office, they don’t need a dedicated space, there’s hot desking – this changes the way you think about environments and having controlled spaces, and when you’re not in a space from 9-to-5 you have a loose perception of what comfort is because you can move, you can find spaces and you know where you need to work, anywhere in the city. You start to create a mental map of your city and where is comfortable for you to work. That ability to not have a rigid working world that we came from in the 20th century will start to impact on how we plan spaces from an environmental point of view in the future. Going pack to the hotel market, I was fortunate enough to go to the recent Circular Economy event. One of the pitches from a start-up company there was to take products such as soaps and towels from hotels and put them to use in the community. This was something I hadn’t thought about before. It really opened my eyes as to how hotels might be able to give themselves an edge against competition.

Una: Repurposing is something we are hearing about right now. The big hotel chains and brands are making a big effort to reduce their carbon footprint. They are, of course, encouraging travel so it is Catch 22 for them.
Jane: When I was designing hotels and BREEAM was still in it’s infancy, I did feel that there was a level of tokenism – it was a ticking boxes scenario. I don’t know whether it’s moved on. Maybe this offsetting will make a difference. It can’t all be sustainable though, can it? There’s a balance between aesthetics, comfort etc…

Martin: I think that’s a really valid point. If you look at hospitality and, specifically, at a bedroom, what’s the relationship between the person occupying that space and their health and wellbeing? If it’s a good experience and it leaves them feeling healthy, they’ll come back. We are now becoming much more sophisticated in the way that we’re looking at buildings.

Jane: I agree – it is a bigger picture thing. We need the big moves to affect the small moves.
Phil: Giving people that ability to feel like they’re empowered has a huge psychological impact – that ability to control your local environment and start to have a global impact.

So what about the restaurant and bar sector when it comes to sustainability? Are they as accepting and forward thinking about the subject?

Tony: To be honest, and this is a real challenge for us, the vast majority of our clients couldn’t give two hoots about sustainability – unless you can package it up in some way that there is a benefit to them. There is this ‘localism’ thing going on, which does suit a more sustainable approach. Also, if you’re working for a brand, which is looking at a 20-25 year project, then they will invest in a base layer of durable, sustainable projects – although the manufacture of things isn’t really on their radar. It’s more about commercial sustainability – about creating something that will do more than the usual five-year cycle when it comes to restaurants.

Jane: Yet they worry about the provenance of the food.


Clearly, this issue has come a long way in a relatively short space of time – and still has a long, long way to go. Businesses and their needs are constantly changing and evolving and, by pushing the socio-economic benefits of durable, sustainable products, materials and systems, the offer will become all the more attractive. This is a subject that truly matters to younger generations – and while it might not yet be something embraced around the globe, hopefully – in time – it will be.


Top Row (L-R)
Martin Townsend, Director of Sustainability, BRE Global Limited
Martin has a diverse professional background, covering all aspects of the built environment, from advising UK ministers when he was an advisor in government, to his time as a regulator in the Environment Agency, and working as a civil engineer. He joined BRE as Director of BREEAM in 2008 to drive BREEAM forward in the UK and internationally. He works closely with the construction industry, driving sustainability issues right across the social, economic and environmental agenda.

Christopher Hay, National Sales Manager, Cosentino UK
Chris heads up the commercial department of Cosentino UK, a company whose portfolio of products covers all aspects of surface applications, from Dekton façades to Silestone Vanities. With 17 years’ industry experience under his belt, Chris has witnessed the increased demand for design-led materials to offer the added value of sustainability and is a keen advocate that specifying the right product early on will help ensure  this happens.

Tony Matters, Creative Director, Faber
Tony is Founder and Creative Director of Faber, a specialist interior design and branding agency for the F&B sector, working for leading chefs, restaurateurs, hotels and retailers across the UK. He has 20 years’ experience working with global brands and independent businesses, with a particular focus on F&B design.

Peter Swallow, Senior Project Architect, Grimshaw
Peter has over 10 years’ experience, delivering projects across the United Kingdom, Australia and the Middle East. He aspires to surpass client expectations, through the application of biometrics and sustainable design methodologies to maximise energy efficiency and enhance human wellbeing. Peter is also a member of Grimshaw’s Project Sustainability Group, providing in-house support and training to ensure sustainable decision-making is embedded throughout all phases of a project’s lifecycle.

Bottom Row (L-R)
Phil Gray, Associate, Head of Sustainability, BDP
Philip is Head of Sustainability at BDP. The group sits within BDP’s Environmental Design Studio, which includes engineers, lighting designers and acousticians. He has successfully delivered a wide range of projects for public and commercial clients across the UK. He is currently spearheading BDP’s post-occupancy evaluation work-stream through engagement with past clients to develop a portfolio of projects and data that can be used to substantiate or improve BDP’s design quality.

Jane Lawrence, Head of Interiors, Knight Dragon Developments
Jane is Head of Interiors at Knight Dragon Developments and is working on the regeneration of Greenwich Peninsula. She was a Director at The Manser Practice until 2015 – and prior to that a `director at Conran + Partners. During her 16 years with C+P she was responsible for interiors projects in the residential, museum and hospitality sectors.
Jane is a regular contributor to design debates for a number of periodicals, is a speaker at conferences, including The Sleep Conference, and an Associate Lecturer at UAL and UEL.

Una Barac, Executive Director, Artelior
Una runs her own architecture and interior design studio, Artelior. She has made a name for herself through her innovative design work across Europe – from leading the design team for the ‘Shaded White’ bedroom, which won a Sleep Hotel Best Room Design award, to the recent award winning MGallery by Sofitel Resort & Spa in Sarajevo. Over the last 15 years, Una has focused her work on the hospitality sector, working with noted clients and brands including Four Seasons, Park Plaza, Hilton and InterContinental Hotel Group.

Tim Bowder-Ridger, CEO, Conran and Partners
Tim is an architect who is passionate about creating authentic experiences centered around cultural spirit and personality. He brings his knowledge of the hospitality and residential sectors to design buildings and spaces that reflect local as well as international lifestyle needs and desires. As Senior Partner, he leads the design direction of the practice as a whole, as well as being responsible for the finance and operations of the business. He directly leads on a number of strategic projects, large and small, at home and abroad.