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Footprint+ Lessons

Footprint+ Lessons

It may have started as a sunny day on Tuesday, but as I raced South the weather became more and more dramatic. It continued that way throughout the week, hot, sunny and beautiful one moment, torrential rain the next, calm and then gale force winds. It’s almost as though Footprint+ had asked the atmosphere for a climate change demonstration, to set the scene for the conference.

We were covered and catered in the set up on Hove Lawns however, and the vibe inside was actually electric. There were designers, council members, contractors, politicians, project managers, developers, insurers, communications specialists, academics, funders, all with the same goal, to share knowledge, and have conversations that can change things.

There were lots of structural engineers there, my friendly competitors who are always great to catch up with. I feel that the collaboration I see across firms in this area is really special, the only way we move forward as an industry is to share our solutions, so that everyone can build on them.

The talks covered all bases, there was a hugely diverse line up of topics. Whether it be Part Z (my first port of call!), ESG funding, MMC, energy, communities and housing, and insurance. As an engineer I tended to be drawn to talks based around materials, retrofit and the circular economy. 

I heard many interesting and incredible things about the decarbonisation of steel, graphene concrete, and Cambridge electric concrete, there is a lot of investment and human energy going into trying to improve these hard to abate industries.

It seems to me that we are a long way off seeing any of this at scale though, and so we really need to be using what we have and adapting and extending it with naturally occurring circular materials, such as timber, bamboo, stone etc. in the meantime. As engineers we need to seriously up-skill in these areas, remember our traditional forms of construction, take example from those across the globe doing it well, this is how we reduce carbon now in our designs, and gain the skills we need to realise what the most suitable low carbon material for each structural challenge in future.

Retrofit was a huge buzz word all week. Changes to EPC requirements mean that this will be a huge market in the next few years. Circular economy principles and markets were debated - how do we shake up the whole procurement chain? Re-using existing buildings, in their current form, or in a completely different one with the same members, were both shown to be a realistic options. How we should source materials locally, train local labour and re-use, re-use, re-use!

The sun came out on Thursday morning, and so I had a nice walk along the beach to be calm and relaxed before giving my talk. On our panel Alexia from Landsec showed how a timber extension to an existing RC frame in her portfolio beats even 2030 embodied carbon targets, and so she set a brief for the panel, a commercial, inner city refurbishment project. Andrew Waugh then spoke about how this can be done with timber in terms of massing, grid, aesthetic, showed examples of embodied carbon comparisons and grid studies. I described the lightweight and off-site benefits and the challenges to overcome early in design, such as connections, fire, acoustics, vibration, and the coordination with M&E systems. We finished with Steve from Midgroup, a main contractor and timber convert, talking about buildability, protection, deliveries, but most importantly how happy and calm his workforce have been on a recent project, and the respect and awe the public have had for the build, in stark contrast to vandalisms and break ins that are common.

The energy from the whole week, the adrenaline from speaking, and all of the new information whirring around in my head was exhausting. I left early on Thursday and missed a talk which I was very much looking forward to, on the use of stone and timber together, I hope there will be more opportunities to hear this in future.

Collapsing in my train seat with a sandwich, I looked up and spotted one of the lovely sun flowers that Footprint we’re giving to attendees. Sparking a conversation, I learnt all about plastics, new lignin plastics (from trees!), which products can and can’t be recycled, new circular systems being proposed in theme parks. 

That sums up the whole conference nicely I think, education, unexpected conversations, new ideas, and sunflowers.