It’s hard, teaching sustainable design, as I do at Ryerson University in Toronto. The field is constantly evolving as we learn and as everyone becomes more focused on the climate emergency and carbon emissions. So whereas 20 years ago green building was all about reducing operating energy, now it’s all about carbon emissions of all kinds.
Most architects (and building codes) have not yet caught up with this, but Waugh Thistleton Architects were ahead of the pack, designing the first significant tower made of Cross-Laminated Timber (CLT). You couldn’t see any CLT in that building; the developer was worried that people would be nervous about it and they covered it up in drywall. But the world has changed in many ways, and in their new project at 6 Orsman Road in the Haggerston district of London, you can see everything. It all hangs out; it is really a textbook demonstration of modern low-carbon design. But first, a little primer on carbon.
The World Green Building Council has produced a wonderful document, Bringing Embodied Carbon Upfront, which describes the different forms of carbon that have to be considered in a building.
There’s the Operational Carbon, the emissions that come from running the building, and what most people (and unfortunately most architects) think is the only problem they need to worry about, which is why we still have concrete, steel and glass buildings.
But there is also the Upfront Carbon, the emissions caused by producing all the materials, moving them to the site, and assembling them into the building before it even opens. Some in the industry are beginning to worry about these, which is why we are seeing more wood construction, but it is still rare.
Then there is the Use Stage Embodied Carbon, which comes from upkeep, renovation, and moving things around (hardly anyone thinks about this at all).
And finally, the End of Life Carbon, emitted through demolition and deconstruction, waste processing and disposal. That’s so out there in the future that almost nobody really considers it.
Upfront Carbon Emissions
In 6 Orsman Road, Waugh Thistleton appears to have something to say about every form of carbon emissions. By building mostly out of CLT, they have dramatically reduced the upfront emissions; where the chemistry of making steel or concrete emits CO2 (adding up to about 14% of worldwide emissions), the wood in CLT stores carbon.
CLT is a two-way slab, and can be supported by columns without beams. However, the spans are limited and real estate developers like the flexibility of longer spans. One can solve this with big beams made from glue-laminated timber (glulam) as you can see here in a Toronto project. But Waugh Thistleton has also demonstrated flexibility and used steel. A major advantage is that you can punch the web full of holes and run the services straight through, making installation much easier and reducing the floor-to-floor height. It also looks really cool.
Use Stage Carbon
This is not your usual London office building, which usually have longer leases than North American buildings, although they have been getting shorter over the years.
Storey is British Land’s solution to flexible private workspace; flexible in terms of lease length, size of office, layout and design, and a suite of all-inclusive services. This nimble approach allows customers to create an office that is truly designed and built around their company’s needs. 6 Orsman Road has been designed to cater for businesses with 20+ employees and customers will benefit from Storey’s focus on private space and the ‘Storey spine system’, which offers a unique sustainable and re-configurable office model, enabling workspaces to easily adapt to changing office requirements.
In traditional buildings, when a tenant leaves, there is a lot of demolition, a lot of drywall in the garbage, a lot of rewiring. In 6 Orsman Road, all the services are exposed and accessible in the ceiling, and there are raised floors so that client-specific wiring can be changed easily. Making alterations is going to be a lot less disruptive, and I suspect will have a lot fewer use-stage carbon emissions.
End of Life Carbon
When it’s all over, the “innovative hybrid structure” of CLT and steel “can ultimately be demounted and repurposed.” You don’t have to use a jackhammer to take it apart, you can unbolt it and can reuse the pieces in many ways. As proof of this, I will note that I am writing this post on a dining room table made from Nail-Laminated Timber that I cut out of an old bowling alley in a building I was renovating when I was an architect. It saw 30 years of use as a floor and has since seen 30 years as a table. Try that with concrete.
There are other lessons to be learned from this building, from the photovoltaics on the roof to the healthy materials and biophilic design.
Throughout 6 Orsman Road a range of all-natural materials have been used, including clay finishes and marmoleum tiles, which when paired with natural daylight and air-purifying plants come together to create a working environment that actively boosts productivity and improves wellbeing. Studies by the World Health Organisation have found that the use of biophilic design can increase office productivity by 8% and wellbeing by 13%, and companies with timber interiors report higher staff retention, and fewer employee sick days.
It really covers all the bases, I could do an entire term of lectures just out of this one project; lessons about carbon, about materials, about healthy buildings, about acoustics, and even a bit of biophilia. And of course, about one of my favorite things, wood construction. As I noted in the title, this isn’t just a building, it’s a textbook.