A Conversation with Guy Battle - July, 2009

Guy Battle is one of the founding partners of Battle McCarthy Consulting Engineers, a multi-disciplinary practice that specializes in the design and delivery of sustainable solutions for the built environment. Guy has worked on a wide range of international projects and is credited with developing an innovative approach to sustainable environmental master planning. Brian Libby, blog author and BetterBricks contributor, had a chance to catch up with Guy before a lecture in Portland, Oregon. 

Brian Libby: When you were visiting Portland in 2005, you said you thought within five to ten years the U.S. would switch positions with Europe in leading sustainable design and building. So today, is that the case?

Guy Battle: The thing about America is when it gets its act together and gets into gear, there's not many things that can stop this sort of mad, massive machine. Today I was doing reviews of projects, and I think that even within the past four years since I talked to you last, after just looking at these projects today, [there have been] massive changes.

Yesterday I was reviewing the Oregon Sustainability Center design. There is no way that building would have been built or even discussed four years ago. Dennis Wilde and his team are really pushing it. These guys have really been researching what's been happening in Europe. In terms of a mental switch, it's massively important. It's a recognition that, 'We Americans are not leading in this area.' Which is quite hard for Americans. To recognize that someone else has been leading the charge on this has been really important.

The thing I like most in the process is the early interaction with the architects - where you start with a piece of white paper, and yet it's always really scary.

Libby: Kind of like the auto industry.

Battle: Yes, all of this comes together. We have a saying in England: You can be waiting for a bus, and then the next time you look up five buses come along at the same time. It's that sort of thing. Barack Obama's been elected, and there's been a stimulus package. The recession has been good for this, I believe, because it means people have got time to think. The US Green Building Council, and the Cascadia Chapter particularly, have been pushing this Living Building Challenge, which I think is just fantastic.

The Living Building Challenge, the objectives they've encompassed are up there with what Europe and the UK, which I think is leading it still. It's saying, "We have to be doing it." Within the UK, we've got to achieve zero carbon buildup and zero energy by 2020. The challenges here in the US are for 2030. So you're somewhat behind.

But having said that, the Sustainability Center project is really up there with the best that I've been working on. I was really impressed by the rigor of the analysis and the architecture that was coming out was beginning to test the accepted norms.

Libby: How do you see that as an example of America's progress in sustainability? Or do you see it more as particular regions of the country?

Battle: I think there's no doubt about it that North America, has developed centers of excellence. The great morass is still out there wondering what or how to do it. But there are some great successes out there. That's been a massive change. We didn't have those same centers of excellence out there four years ago. I could sense that they were coming. 

The recession gives us an enormous opportunity to just take some time out and rethink.

The great danger, though, especially here, is this whole issue of greenwash- now you can't move without engineers and architects saying they do sustainable design. When you get down into it, a lot of them are only saying it. That's a challenge, especially with clients. They need to sift through architects and engineers who can still deliver and are not just saying they can. But at least everyone is talking about climate change.

Libby: Where are you seeing these centers of excellence?

Battle: There's firms, and there's areas. I've been really impressed over these couple of days with the attitude in the Northwest. There seems to be much more openness. Now, admittedly the climate is kinder. But the opportunities are really being explored. We've had some great conversations about daylighting and natural ventilation. Natural ventilation four or five years ago, people were saying, "No way." Now they're even talking about it for laboratories, which is fantastic.

Libby: How has the integrated design process changed how you and other team members work together?

Battle: Since I set up the practice with Chris McCarthy, we've always recognized having as many disciplines under one roof as possible. It is really the only way to generate this. Because you've got to get everyone's input, working together, all with a common attitude, a common culture of excellence and sustainability.

Libby: How do the US and UK systems contribute to that?

GSW Headquarters, Berlin, GermanyBattle: It's easier in the UK because while there are specialists, there tends to be less specialization. By that I mean, you take an engineering practice and there are quite a few services engineers and MEP engineers who are multidisciplinary. They're all together. And sustainability has always existed within those practices. It hasn't been a specialist consultancy.

In this country, it's that much harder because the industry appears to be so fragmented. There's this new group of people who have come up over the past seven or eight years that are called sustainability consultants, mostly for facilitating LEED I'm told. One of the problems with those individuals is that they are quite often just people who have earned the LEED qualification. They've had no real experience of delivering it. But put that aside for a moment. The challenge then over here is that you have so many different specialties.

The role of the conductor, the architect, is to get everyone playing to the same piece of music and then to actually all go in the same direction. It really is so much harder in this country than it has been in the UK. In the UK you need the architect, you need the structural engineer, the MEP engineer, and the cost consultant. And really that's all you need. Everyone has enough information around their subjects to do what they need. But here we need at least double that, it seems. You need a specialist on ecology, acoustics, daylight, energy use. 

Libby: What about the responsibility for overseeing materials?

Battle: In the UK the materials are handled quite often by a combination of architect and structural engineer and services engineer who tend to be the LEED equivalent. Because we have BREEAM [British English Environmental Assessment Method],it's been the service engineers who have done BREEAM. So we've had to learn all about sustainable tools. So we bring that to the table.

The other thing I think we've seen a big change in is just the analysis tools that are now available. 15 years ago the tools by comparison to now were clunky. Clunky CFD, clunky thermo analysis. Yes, we had them, but they weren't particularly fine tuned. Now we're finding that there are analysis tools that allow for quicker, smarter assessment of projects. And that has also raised the ability of teams to deliver on this vision.

Libby: Are there certain projects either recently or in your career that represent breakthroughs like this, or have felt like important stepping stones?

Battle: Yes. I guess the first was one I did personally before I set up the office, eighteen years ago when I was at Arup. We did a project called Tomigaya with [architect] Richard Rogers. It's basically a building that was designed to be a zero-energy building. It was designed all around the wind: the whole shape, form. That made me really explore the link between architecture and the environment. I saw there was a real opportunity within the discipline of architecture to create a new architectural form that is much more responsive to the environment.

And we're seeing that now. On the Oregon Sustainability Center there was some artistic interpretation of the [roof] teardrop. They were really beginning to get it with the roof and the sun. The rest of it was still lacking some rigor, but the top of the tower was really beginning to respond to the sun-path diagram.

Libby: How do you see today's projects fitting into a larger sustainable design trend?

Battle: I think we're in just the beginning… where we'll look back in five years' time and realize that we're in the middle of a new architectural philosophy, architectural movement, which is environmental architecture, modern, whatever you want to call it. I've heard lots of definitions of it. Some call it a formless architecture, architecture that responds to environment.

Libby: It reminds of me of the phrase that Le Corbusier coined: "machines for living".

Ionica Headquarters, Cambridge, UK. A low energy, eco friendly headquarters for a telecommunications firm, included mixed mode ventilation (displacement underfloor) and first use of wind towers in the UK. Battle: Yeah. Machines for living is a kind of interesting term, isn't it? We look back and see it was really kind of sterile, wasn't it? You had this light bulb hanging in the middle of the space and this double skin. It was a celebration of the technology without realizing that people are fundamental to everything. Now there's an understanding that buildings have to create an environment for people to live in. I'm seeing that sort of movement.

Tomigaya 18 years ago was just the start of that. And then after setting up the practice [Battle McCarthy], the first building we did was called the St. Johns Innovation Centre. It was the first modern architecture in Europe to have wind towers for ventilation. It was a very simple stack effect, daylight, external shading-really basic. The architecture doesn't make you go, "Wow." It's not like a Morphosis building. But it's really honest.

Libby: It's interesting that your career was influenced by doing an ahead-of-its-time green building with Richard Rogers, because some of his most famous works like the Pompidou Center and Lloyd's of London have been described as having the insides of the building on the outside, and vice versa. It made the structure and mechanics of the building part of its identity; just as sustainable building does today.

Battle: You're absolutely right. The thing is Rogers was very experimental with structure. He was working very closely with Peter Rice at that time, and it was all about form following function. And the structure was used to express it. Now we're through that period where structure is expressed. We're expressing the environment, which is much more subtle.

LA Courthouse Conceptual Design, Los Angeles, USA. Battle McCarthy intends to make the LA Courthouse a landmark self-sustainable building. The new Courthouse will also utilise specialist steel structures to create a unique structure that is designed to withstand temperature, gravity, wind, earthquakes and potential bomb blasts. I guess along the way another building that was pretty seminal for us was the University of Rwanda with Ralph Johnson (of Perkins + Will). I did a lot of work with Ralph. We did the L.A. Courthouse. [An atrium with a soaring, curved solar wall optimizes daylight, provides natural ventilation and captures energy through high-tech cells imbedded in the glass.] That was all about the wind and the sun. You had to respond to the sun to keep it out, but the form really was designed to capture the wind. It's a large site and it also integrated the landscape. So that was also an important project.

Libby: How similar or different are some of these architects you've worked with like Rogers, Perkins + Will, Norman Foster or Daniel Libeskind? Is it a more similar process from project to project and architect to architect than people realize, or is it a matter of learning new dance steps every time?

Battle: Oh no, it's definitely learning to dance. Compare Rogers to Foster. There's a real contrast. Foster is really sort of, like, the product. He somehow really encapsulates things. Rogers is very left of center, and social. He's all about collaboration and discussion. You go to workshops and there's a process of evolution. Foster's projects are somehow more refined. You're working on a much tighter box in terms of your input. You have to learn to work with these guys, and you learn what pushes their buttons, what sets them going, how to seduce them. Because at the end of the day the engineer is in very basic terms…I often call myself a prostitute, inasmuch that it's not my building. I'm not the architect. At the end of the day, society celebrates the architect and architecture. But you need to learn to influence these guys, and you have to understand that the language is subtly different with each one, and push them certain directions, certain ways. A good engineer learns very quickly that you've got to sort of step back and move forward again with the right language and push, emotion and encouragement, through communication, through sketching, whatever the language might be.

Libby: In almost any field as one advances into a leadership role there is the personal risk of getting away from the work one enjoys-going to lots of meetings, always traveling, and so on. What is your skill set and what do you like the most about your job, and are you still able to do it?

House of Representatives, Nicosia, CyprusBattle: I guess I'm a designer first and foremost. The thing I like most in the process is the early interaction with the architects-where you start with a piece of white paper, and yet it's always really scary. You've got the brief, you've got the client saying, 'We want this.' Where the hell are we gonna start? It's kind of daunting. And every now and again there are blocks, you get literally designer blocks, where you just can't think. You can't break through. You're looking for that idea. You always come up with something, but it's that process of working with the other people on the design team, where we're sparking off each other-that sort of thing. I really enjoy that bit.

Meetings are a fundamental part of that, and the travel I can take or leave. But the trouble is I really enjoy going to different climates. If I were working in England all the time I'd get bored. I mean, it's cold in the summer, warm in the winter. You come over to New York, the South and the Northwest and there are different kinds of climate extremes. We've done work in some extreme places. We just finished up a new tower where it gets down to minus 27 degrees Centrigrade. It's a really cold place. That's an extreme. I love going to these different places and working with an architect who's willing to listen and see what it's going to grow out of it. Because it's always different. This new movement of architecture needs to be regional and about the place and climate.

Libby: You mentioned the economic downturn being good for green building because it necessitates more innovation and long-term thinking about building performance. But looking at Battle McCarthy's website, in the 'highrise' category particularly, a lot of projects are listed as being in the conceptual stage. How has the firm and its portfolio going forward been affected by the worldwide economic downturn?

Side HQ, Kuala Lumpus, Malaysia. Battle: Well, inevitably the economy has put some projects on hold. But having said that I think that the recession gives us an enormous opportunity to just take some time out and rethink. I think because there was such a boom over the past several years leading up to this time last year, everyone just sort of ran with it, and no one really spent the time to think about it. Now you've got that space, an enforced sabbatical. It's time to think and learn and bring those ideas to the table.

Libby: Battle McCarthy is identified as a sustainable firm. How does that help marketing for you?

Battle: Everyone is doing sustainability these days. It was much easier five years ago. Let's just take London, which is my home market. When we kicked off sixteen years ago, we were one of only about two or three firms doing it. Most of the major engineering firms in the early 1990s couldn't even spell the word sustainability, let alone know what it was all about. Five years ago the whole market just switched. Developers were demanding it. And now every single practice, without fail, has a sustainability section or sells it in some fashion. That knowledge used to be a sort of winning card. Now we can't win on that alone. We can win on delivery, because we've got so much more track record. But that doesn't always play out, so we have to look for new ways and new approaches.

I guess what we sell now is that interactive approach with the architects. It's that knowledge, a base of knowledge, saying that 'If you build a building with us, you'll be able to do a better building than if you work with this other practice. Even though they'll bring the sustainability, it's because of our knowledge and creativity within the practice that you'll end up doing better. It's about service.

Libby: What projects or places today have you excited?

Battle: I think there's actually some really interesting work happening out in the Middle East at the moment. With HOK we're doing some work for King Abdullah University in Saudi Arabia. And then you've got this Masdar [development in Abu Dhabi, 2003-2007, the headquarters will be the world's first large-scale, mixed-use "positive energy" building, producing more energy than it consumes.]. We're sort of involved in Masdar, but on the periphery, not on design. We're doing carbon management. But Foster's done this master plan for Masdar. And then Smith and Geary are doing a project there. Foster's also doing the headquarters.

Libby: Where do you see the most opportunity?

Bluewater Shopping Center, Kent, UK. The firm propsed an integrated design strategy for this large retail development in Kent. The aim was to create a street, which is naturally ventilateted yet moderates the extremes of the external climate. Battle: The challenge of climate change is not so much what's happening in countries like America and those across Europe. The amount that we build is relatively small. We have a turnover of new buildings at about two percent, three percent of the stock every year. But if you move over to the Middle East, or to Southeast Asia, China or other places, it's another story. If there's a place where we need this step change, I think it will be places like the Middle East and China. And it will be Africa. Africa's not economically there yet. But that's where we're going to see massive growth in people and populations and resulting demand for shelter and housing and commercial projects.

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