Patrick Bellew Interview

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Founding director of Atelier Ten, Patrick Bellew is a Chartered Building Services Engineer with more than twenty years' experience in the design of high performance buildings and their systems. His success in integrating innovative technologies with noteworthy architecture has been acknowledged by the Royal Institute of British Architects, who have made him an Honorary Fellow, one of only three in his field. We had the privilege to catch up with Patrick before a presentation and conduct the following interview.


Patrick Bellew

BetterBricks: What and/or who has inspired you in both your career path and your commitment to sustainable design?

Bellew: The early part of my career was very much influenced by Professor Ted Happold, who was the founder of Buro Happold and was a Professor at my University from 1977. I was also influenced by Professor Derek Clements Croome, who ran the Environmental Design Module at Bath University back in the late 70's, early 80's.

Ted was a structural engineer, but was a great believer in the application of a pragmatic approach, and the qualities of reductive design for making great buildings. Derek was a very different animal, inspired by philosophy as much as engineering and a firm believer in the application of biomimicry to the development of architectural design.

I came out of Bath University in 1981, having spent four years exposed to these two amazing educators, and joined Buro Happold, which was at that time a small office in Bath. Working with a very small group of structural engineers at Buro Happold, I quickly realized that the difference between structural engineering and environmental engineering was in the way that they applied their tools and attempted to minimize and be the most economical they could be. At that time, in the field of mechanical design, there were no real guidelines for minimizing the size of plant or equipment; one never got sued for putting in equipment that was too large. There was a very limited dialogue between architecture and mechanical engineering at that time, but there was a very strong dialogue between the architect and structural engineer. That has changed a great deal in the time that I have been practicing as an engineer.

The Blue Bird Store and Restaurant in LondonThe other major inspiration on my career has been my wife, Lois. She has been a committed environmentalist since I met her, and her concerns for ecological matters have always been the key part of our conversations and discussions throughout our life together.

It was really by combining the pragmatic influences that I learned at university with her belief in the importance of minimizing building impacts, that allowed me to recognize the possible role of the mechanical designer in the production of more sustainable buildings.

Two architects that I have worked with in the UK from the very early stages of my career included Peter Clegg and Richard Feilden, of Feilden Clegg Bradley; in particular Peter was a major influence on my thinking about environmental design from the outset. He is just one of many architects that I have been fortunate enough to work with, who have been inspirational during collaboration and with whom I have enjoyed a fruitful and interesting career. I think there is no doubt that the writings of people like Amory Lovins and George Monbiot, and to some extent William McDonough, have also been an inspiration as the environmental movement has accelerated it's pace and the application of these design principals have become much more the norm.

BetterBricks: You've explored considerably the use of environmental technologies in regard to heating and cooling. How do you convince your clients to adopt these strategies and coordinate with other team members, e.g. engineers?

Bellew: We have explored and developed high performance building technologies overmany years with greater and lesser degrees of success with our clients. In every project, we attempt to bring in a degree of environmental thinking; usually phrasing it in terms of 'no-brainers' that one ought to do as a matter of course on the building. The next level are things that are slightly more of a stretch to reach, and then on to the more complex things that require a major shift in thinking about how buildings perform. We have been fortunate, however, to work with many clients for whom a push towards more sustainable design has been at the core of the selection process of their design team. In the early days, this type of client tended to be either owner/occupiers of buildings, such as universities and schools, or they would come from the government sector or cultural buildings such as art museums, schools again or public buildings of any kind. These were people who both owned and operated the buildings and, as it's now phrased, the triple bottom line applied to very well. This means that they were paying the fuel bills, and so the benefits of investment in energy reduction were clearly demonstrable throughout the life of the building. It has been far more difficult to persuade the developers of commercial buildings, who are not paying their own fuel bills, to come to the party and build high performance, sustainable buildings.

This has changed somewhat in recent years, particularly the last two years in the UK, where the corporate social responsibility demands of the potential building tenants have moved our commercial sector much more towards the development of high performance buildings. I would say this has certainly been helped by the emergence of benchmarking rating systems. In the UK this is BREEAM, and in the US this is LEED. The impact of these benchmarking systems has been really significant in encouraging developers to achieve higher standards for their buildings, and recognize that they have a better chance of leasing a building that's deemed to be high quality, than leasing a building that's either not certified or of a lower quality. In a way this is exactly what the benchmarking systems set out to achieve in the first place. They are frequently derided by the nay-sayers as being a painful process, involving too much paper pushing, and many other negatives. However, I think they add extraordinary value in providing a level playing field for comparison of designs and design qualities.

Plaza at PPL Center in Allentown, PA
Plaza at PPL Center in Pennsylvania

Our experiences in the US in recent years have very much paralleled this situation in the UK. Our earlier projects were almost exclusively with universities and one or two enlightened developers, such as Liberty Property Trust out of Philadelphia. The universities were beginning to recognize the benefits of reducing their energy consumption and their infrastructure costs when developing new buildings, if they built them to a higher standard. At the same time, or soon after, the property development sector recognized that there were some pretty big changes on the horizon and started to respond. I wouldn't say that they are all the way there yet, but certainly a good start is being made in certain parts of the country.

To respond to the second part of the question, about how to coordinate with other team members; the truth is that sometimes it's very straight forward, and sometimes it's not. Despite the fact that it is widely recognized that the architecture of the building is a key component of the way that buildings perform, and despite the fact that all the architects that we work with seek to incorporate environmental design measures into their buildings, there still remains a reluctance on the part of many architects to compromise architectural or aesthetic considerations for a technical one, no matter how carefully they are explained!

As the calculation tools have become more user friendly and particularly more graphical in the way that they represent energy flows within buildings, we have found it increasingly viable to speak with the architects at a graphical level, get them to understand the consequences of their decisions, and start to move towards making better buildings. For the most part however, the collaborative relationship within design teams, whether it be architects or structural engineers, has been exciting and for the most part fruitful.

Nonetheless, a realistic look back at many of our projects would suggest that most clients prepare a little bit in their ambitions, but moving them to more innovative environmental ideas still remains extremely difficult. I do think that sometimes we over analyze the things that we are doing.

In the earlier part of my career, we used to do what we called "stealth" engineering where we would simply install something, such as heat recovery, as standard on all the ventilation systems in the building, having satisfied ourselves that the energy efficiency gained was worth having. We wouldn't necessarily do the detailed life cycle cost analysis to show that the client would realize a benefit over the long term, because we knew it would be so. The minute that you put it up as an additional item in the "green column" of the analysis, it is then a hostage to fortune and to budget cuts, whereas we would rather see it as being an intrinsic part of a good building. So these days, we do a combination of things that we just do as standard, and we then look for areas where we can "push the boat out" to make for buildings that move the debate about green design forward.

BetterBricks: Are you familiar with the Architecture 2030 Challenge? How would you characterize the best approach or strategies to get to net-zero carbon buildings?

Bellew: I have some knowledge of the 2030 Challenge documentation, and I think that it contains a very strong message. In the UK, our government is looking to mandate a more ambitious time line to carbon neutral buildings, aiming for the domestic sector to be carbon neutral by 2016 and the commercial sector to be carbon neutral by 2019.

There is some debate about the meaning of carbon neutral, and a particular debate is developing about the fact that the carbon neutrality of the project is intended to be established without the ability to import energy from green sources offsite, or by using certified renewable energy credits. As you can imagine, this makes life rather challenging! There is also some debate about the definition of zero carbon and the tax breaks that are being allocated to zero carbon buildings; one supposes the treasury tries to make it difficult to achieve them in order to minimize the number of tax concessions they have to give!

I wouldn't take issue with any of the points raised in the 2030 Challenge headlines, except to highlight that one thing we are very interested in looking into is how we can make the construction of new buildings somehow link to the energy reduction in the existing building stock. To me it always seems crazy to spend a million dollars on a photovoltaic array to take a building from a 60% carbon reduction to a 64% carbon reduction, when the same amount of carbon could be saved by spending $250,000 on an adjoining building or nearby housing estate. How do we put in place mechanisms to allow the money to flow from one sector to another, and avoid wasting the green dollar on uneconomic renewable energy systems, when there are much softer targets nearby? I know this is a really difficult problem to solve, but it seems to me to be one that our legislature needs to get its head around in order to allow it to become part of the planning system.

In the UK, the town of Brighton has recently introduced a system that allows developers to realize the best building performance possible by incorporating economically feasible renewable sources into the design. Any short fall from the required 10-20% renewable energy target, in effect any residual carbon emissions can be paid off via a one-off development charge. This then goes into a community fund and is used to provide zero cost installation for existing residential home owners. Installing solar panels, insulation, double-glazing and the like to dramatically improve the energy performance. Personally, I think that this is one of the biggest tools in the box beyond design for very high performance buildings.

It would be a very long interview if I were to try and deal with how you go about getting to zero carbon buildings! I think the process of demand minimization and then the installation of very high performance building systems is clearly the key, but how we deal with delivering electrical renewable energy in particular on these projects is still a very challenging question.

BetterBricks: What have you learned from your experience incorporating biomimicry principles into buildings? Any advice for architects? Or engineers?

Bellew: In my lecture I cover my favorite bit of biomimicry, which is the nest of the termite. I talk a little bit about the magnetic termite and the barossa termite. These creatures have an amazing way of constructing their nests, and in particular they use a thermal storage system contained in the ground and the earth tube that brings air into the nest. They also use evaporation of water to provide cooling in these same heat stores to produce an air conditioning effect without actually running any chillers. We have used these principals many times on our buildings to integrate subterranean thermal storage into air conditioning pre-heat and pre-cooling systems to minimize the demands on the air handling plant in the building, providing comfortable conditions with very low energy consumption. So I believe very strongly in the principal of biomimicry as a way of mirroring design techniques. However, I think there is a limit to the extent to which it can be applied. Nonetheless, I have found it extremely useful in getting across to clients the benefits of certain types of systems, and establishing a clear understanding that it's physical principles that we are working with and not smoke and mirrors!

BetterBricks: What do you see as future energy trends in the sustainable building market? What about future business opportunities?

Bellew: I think there is no doubt that the renewable energy market will follow a broad range of applications in the years to come. The question is, which one will give us the biggest benefit? I have always been a big fan of earth energy systems, and how we have applied a wide range of earth energy techniques to buildings in recent years to minimize demands and reduce or eliminate the need for air conditioning.

To me this seems to be one very logical place for us to start from. I would have to say that I am not a great believer in the application of building based wind technologies. Recent trials underway in the UK suggest that the performance of building integrated turbines are rarely as good as one would hope, largely because of the very disturbed air surrounding the buildings. The move towards biomass based heating and combined heat and power systems in the UK is gaining some momentum, and I think in a balanced, green energy world, should such a thing exist, we will be looking at a proportion of our building energy demands being met from biomass equipment. The argument about the macro economic and social economic implications of this continues to rage, and as an engineer I am not sure I have all the answers regarding what the right solution is, but I do think in the right application, biofuels have a role to play.

We have installed many solar hot-water heating systems as an integral part of both residential and office schemes, and it seems to me that this is one of the simpler technologies that we should be using a lot more. PV is altogether a more difficult question, but there are an increasing number of examples of economies that have benefited greatly from setting tariffs to generate a strong PV industry at the same time as offsetting a small proportion of building energy loads. I would certainly say that they have a role to play in the future of high performance buildings. When it comes down to it, however, the real gains that are to be made have to be in the way that architecture and engineering work together to produce buildings that are just altogether leaner and greener, and have to rely a lot less on these new technologies to meet their energy demands.

One area of design that really doesn't get enough attention in this regard, I believe, is the importance of daylighting. The more one works on projects, both in the commercial and retail sectors, the more one realizes the amount of energy we actually waste on lighting buildings when there is perfectly good daylight outside. Even in buildings that have huge amounts of glass, and on days that are not very sunny, one still sees massive amounts of lighting on. This is because lighting control systems are not adequately developed or invested in to produce the energy savings that go with good daylighting. It seems to me that there are many areas here that we can get our house in order before we move to a great and anxious debate over how big the solar panels should be.

On the positive side, there is no doubt that the future business opportunities in this area are considerable. As more and more corporations and large businesses take up their corporate social responsibility statements and start to try to make them real, they rapidly realize that it is their real estate they have to look to, to quickly promote the improvements that they are claiming. They will also be looking to occupy new buildings that have better environmental credentials than the buildings that they currently occupy. It seems to me that this is the key lever in the development of high performance buildings in the future. The future trends in this building market are all about clients demanding more, and design teams working in a more integrated way to deliver the solutions that they need.

A particular interest to us in the US market has been the emergence of the sustainable design consultant in the design team. This is the space that Atelier Ten occupies in the US, although in the UK we also work as MEP (Mechanical, Electrical and Plumbing) engineers. It seems to me that the US market is very open to the idea of a designer working with the architect, helping to develop the best possible building envelope and response to orientation, massing and form, but at the same time also working with the MEP engineers to integrate high performance systems into these building envelopes. The influence will spread right down the supply chain; I am talking now about designers, but it also extends right through from material suppliers, contractors, water engineers, water treatment engineers. Everyone who is involved in some inflow or outflow from our buildings will have a part to play in building a more sustainable future for the construction industry.

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