An Interview with Peter Clegg, Feilden Clegg Bradely Studios

By Brian Libby for NEEA's BetterBricks

Peter Clegg is a senior partner with the London architecture firm Feilden Clegg Bradley, having established the practice with Richard Feilden in 1978. Educated at Cambridge University and Yale University, he is a visiting professor at the University of Bath previously taught at the University of Oregon. Clegg remains actively involved in a spectrum of research, design and education.

His firm’s designs has been recognized with numerous awards including in 2008 the prestigious RIBA Stirling Prize. Clegg was senior partner in charge of the architectural developments at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and the new Central Office for the National Trust in Swindon. Current projects include the Leventis Art Gallery in Cyprus, several new schools and colleges, a new business school for Manchester Metropolitan University and a substantial Higher Education scheme at Broadcasting Place for Leeds Metropolitan University.

Clegg was also the primary author of Feilden Clegg Bradley: The Environmental Handbook. Published in 2007, the book chronicles the firm’s experience over the last three decades, while also serving as a primer on leading-edge sustainable design acumen. He has served as a member of the National Trust's Architecture Panel and is a founder member of the British Council for School Environments.

Recently Peter Clegg visited the Pacific Northwest for BetterBricks-sponsored talks in Portland and Seattle. He spoke with BetterBricks at the University of Oregon’s White Stag Block shortly before delivering his Portland lecture.

BetterBricks: What do you do best? What is your primary skill set?

Peter Clegg: I guess I like the complexity of my job most. I do a wide variety of things. I get involved in the design of a number of projects through my office. I get involved in design criticism of other projects through a government organization that is there to actually raise the quality of design. And I get involved in charitable work in Africa, building schools.

My practice does a lot of work in Uganda. I was just out there three weeks ago opening a new school building that we built in four weeks—actually they built it in four weeks. I attended a graduation ceremony there. It’s just a great counterpoint to what we’re doing in the UK because a lot of our work in the UK is schools-based. To build a school in the UK you need 25 million pounds, it takes three or four years, it’s a huge kind of hassle right from start to finish in a way. You build a school in Uganda it costs you 50 thousand pounds and they just build it. It’s great. So there’s that aspect of my work that enriches my life. And I enjoy the teaching work that I do.

This (lecture) is in a sense an offshoot of the teaching work, because I used to teach at the University of Oregon. That’s how I know Charlie Brown of the Energy Studies and Buildings Lab. And I’ve maintained contact with my friends and colleagues in the Pacific Northwest. It’s great to come along and exchange ideas. That’s what this trip is all about, really. Although you feel guilty about the carbon footprint and the carbon in the air miles, you kind of feel this two-way inspirational communication is something that we have to keep a place for in the world even though we have to cut down our air travel.

And traveling around the US or the world to discuss the challenges of climate change and energy-efficient design is arguably part of an architect’s responsibility.

We have to get more involved, particularly in terms of energy and sustainability. Our carbon footprint, a lot of it is down to how we use energy in our buildings. And we can really dramatically reduce that if we put our minds to it. But the critical thing is engaging occupants of buildings and making them understand that they have a role to play just as the professionals have a role to play. We can design really low-energy buildings, but they often don’t perform as we designed because people actually are not using them properly, or perhaps we design them in too complex a way. But the critical thing is to get people engaged in the process, and the business, of reducing CO2 emissions. That does mean more awareness and lifestyle changes.

There’s a great movement happening here in the Pacific Northwest that is perhaps more encouraging than what’s happening in the rest of the US. And it’s closeer to where I think we are in Europe in terms of a general awareness of environmental issues. And in fact, some of the work being done by ESBL on daylighting analysis is very interesting to me and is actually ahead of us (in Europe).. Maybe I can pass on some of that experience to other areas. It’s good to have that kind of exchange of information.

What do you make of the new building labeling efforts going on in the UK and how has it affected your practice?

I think it’s absolutely essential. It’s amazing: we’re already seeing results. What we have to do for all public buildings now—there has to be what’s known as a Display Energy Certificate, which means in the foyer of that building, for everyone to see, is a very clear statement about the energy use of that building, both in terms of its carbon footprint, the kilograms of carbon emitted per square meter per year by the building, and also how good that figure is in terms of an A to G rating. For us it simulates the kind of energy performance rating you get when you buy a refrigerator or a television set. If it’s ‘A’, it’s very good. If it’s ‘G’, it’s useless. It’s embarrassing for the government for its newest building to have a ‘G’ certificate, but that’s what it’s actually got. And so the government is looking at its own energy performance, and everybody is looking at energy performance.

It does mean that when that figure has to be filled in on a year-by-year basis, someone is looking at whether it goes up or down. It’s kind of education by embarrassment, really. So I think it has changed public perception. It’s changed the way architects and engineers start thinking about things. I can now boast about a building we built ten years ago and it's got a 'B' rating. That’s great. Ten years ago it was really ahead of its game. On the other hand, I’ve designed a building which has got a ‘G’ rating, and I want to know why. We discovered why, which is that the maintenance of the filters in the air supply system wasn’t working. It makes you want to go and understand what’s wrong, or to pat yourself on the back if you get things right.

It also goes back to the fact that increasingly architects have a responsibility to keep track of their designs and how they work out after the building is completed.

You can’t just walk away. Our experience tells us that the easiest time to save energy in a building is during the second year of occupation. By then you discover a lot of problems. You’re going through the commissioning and the detailed analysis. You’ve had all those discussions with the occupants to try to get them to understand how the building works and how they can reduce the carbon footprint of what they’re doing. If you stay with the building for two or three years, you can usually make a step change in people’s performance as well as the building’s. But you’ve got to stay with it.

I’ve just learned some results from a building we did five years ago. Suddenly the performance has gone sky-high, and we don’t know why. We haven’t figured it out yet. But we will go back and figure it out and talk to the people and actually work to make sure we get that high performance next year.

Could you also talk about the increasing role of research in design? An architect or integrated design team’s responsibility is related more today to scientific information than it used to be.

I always think of architecture as halfway between art and science. In a sense, research is considered relatively slow and precise. Quite often the design process is messy and often counter-intuitive. You’re shooting off in different directions and trying things out, going at a very fast speed compared to research which is slow and considered. In a sense diametrically opposite disciplines, but they’re both absolutely essential to good quality sustainable buildings.

First, I think it’s very important for us to have people with different mindsets on the same team. You have one person who is actually intuitive and throws out ideas, and other people who test those ideas and considers them carefully. You could say one is more of an artistic mindset, the other a more engineering mindset. It’s often important to be able to work between those two opposing principles. What’s always fascinated me is we’re treading this tightrope between art and science. The artistic side makes you create wild, intuitive hypothesis, and the more disciplined research side allows you to formally test and document.

We’ve always done a lot of research either with academic institutions or engineers in order to test our ideas thoroughly. The best way of testing your idea is actually building a building and testing it – learning from it. One thing I keep getting my practice to do better is to record the research. Quite often we’ll find something out and get as far as you need to do to prove whether you’re right or wrong, but then we don’t record and document, which is part of the academic research discipline. It’s a way of presenting it to the rest of the profession.

For instance, we recently developed a tool that allows us to quickly look at an intuitive idea–we wanted the window patterns on the façade of a building to look as though the façade had been ingrained by water running down it. When the water starts in a sliver and then spreads out, you get different patterns coming out on a façade. We wanted a building to look like that. But we also wanted the right number of windows to provide a view, to provide daylighting, and to avoid solar overheating. We knew that this is a multifaceted building. To get this patterning in the façade to work, we developed a computer program that would look at all those variables and very quickly give us a lot of iterations from which we could select a design concept that suited our initial idea and met the performance needs of the building.

Thomas Hacker, who got his start in the great architect Louis Kahn’s office, told me he remembers Kahn saying that private architectural practice was a place to teach, and the classroom was a place to practice design. How do you see the relationship between teaching and practicing?

I’ve always believed that education and research and architecture should be fully intertwined. I like the idea of a practice becoming a school of architecture. Why don’t we think about all that freedom you have at a school of architecture and bring it into a practice? You have to focus it more because you’ve got to be disciplined by time constraints and making money and all those kinds of things, but the kind of freedom of thinking at a school of architecture and the disciplined research is something that needs to happen in a practice. In other words, you have to be practicing all the time in your practice.

As the profession becomes more science and research-based, how do you still achieve that soulful quality of great design that architects like Kahn represent?

Kahn would have the pre-eminent architect to deal with an energy crisis. He really would. Although he despised pipes and wires with great vitriol, he also, in some ways, celebrated the way you got daylight into buildings and materiality in materials like concrete versus timber and how they play off each other. I think there’s a whole range of work that has come up from California to Oregon to Vancouver, things like the work of Patkau Architects, have a very Kahnian material quality in their approach to daylight. He’s someone I always cite in these critical issues of daylight and ventilation, which is also celebrated in his work, and how to approach the mass of building.

One of the things we preach in the UK and over here is the integration of thermal mass into buildings, which is certainly something in the UK climate we are completely wedded to. We don’t like lightweight buildings.

It seems like the public at large, or maybe even the building industry too, doesn’t completely understand the importance of radiant temperature and thermal mass in achieving comfort.

I think that’s one of the problems we have. I don’t think we’re training the current generation of architects as well as I was trained and Charlie Brown was trained. I think somehow we have lost that connection between practice, teaching and research. Which I think is a great shame, and I’m committed to trying to reform those links.

Are there differences you see in how designers approach energy efficient design in the UK versus the US?

I think of the Pacific Northwest as being at the forefront of thinking in terms of environmental design in the US. And the Northwest is relatively close—interestingly close—in climate to the UK. We’re pretty close in terms of energy commitments. What we have in the UK that’s different is a much stronger regulatory framework. And we have acknowledged long term commitment to reducing carbon emissions. There’s an overriding one that says 80% reduction by 2050. There are ones that say all new homes must be carbon neutral by 2016, and all new buildings must be carbon neutral by 2019. All those are incredibly tough targets to meet. Closer to home, we’re talking about all new schools having to have between 10 to 20 percent of their energy come from renewable sources onside. We’re meeting ever more stringent targets in the knowledge that they’ll get even more stringent. Having made these commitments, the profession is really feeling the pressure as a whole. Whereas here, I get the sense that there are some architects and engineers who are leading the way, and the rest of the 90 percent are waiting around to see what happens.

Your talk is part of the Transformational lecture series and called “Transformational Architecture”. What does the word mean to you?

It is an interesting word, particularly because most of our work at the moment is in schools. In England we’re rebuilding a lot of our schools, and one of the buzz terms is “transformational change” in education that is led by the design of the schools. It’s a very significant brief to be getting as an architect: “Create us a school that transform the education that we can provide.”

It’s almost design as social engineering.

Absolutely, but in the best possible way. We’re looking at ways you can get away from the 60-square-meter classroom. Why do all kids have to be taught in groups of thirty? Is it something to do with how far you can see the blackboard? There isn’t a clear rationale for a thirty-person class. Why aren’t we teaching some subjects in groups of 100 and some subjects in groups of one or two? Within this new thinking about education, we could by allowing flexibility within the design of the building you can encourage transformation in the way education is delivered. There are some really exciting concepts about how school design can impact education.

At the other end of the spectrum, are there any particular leading-edge technologies in energy-efficient design that have caught your attention?

There are things that are interesting me at the moment. Screening technology is one. We’re designing an art gallery with apartments above it, which kind of helps the development finance the art gallery. It’s in Cyprus, which is a new climate for us. We haven’t designed for a Mediterranean climate, where light is intense and where there is a scarcity of water. One of the things we’re doing is designing a beautiful solar screening system for all the windows. It’s a punched bronze-finished aluminum panel that lets in about 15 percent of the daylight. The pattern of it, when seen from a distance, is taken from a photograph of an olive grove, which is actually a huge part of the flora in Cyprus. It gives you a beautiful, dappled light through very large areas of glazing. It always has excited me how you emit light into buildings and what you emit and how you emit it. It gives us so much flexibility in how you control the mood of the building with where the light comes from.

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