Climate and placemaking: six key principles

Archio Community Land Trust

The built environment is a leading cause of climate breakdown, contributing about 40 per cent of the UK’s total carbon footprint. This estimate includes the materials used in construction of buildings as well as the energy needed to heat, cool and power them. But places also inform the lifestyle choices made by residents, impacting decisions about waste and recycling, transport and food. 

In an age of climate crisis, how we live is the most pressing of questions. We must design places that, from the outset, include bold measures to radically reduce and eliminate greenhouse gases in line with what is needed for a safe world. But it is more than that: we must build in ways that lead to better places and improve the health and the lives for those who live there.

Below are six key points that must be addressed when building new neighbourhoods, and how we intend to meet each challenge at the Phoenix Project in Lewes, East Sussex, where our ambition is to build one of Europe’s most sustainable housing developments. 

Schematic of Co-Mobility services at the Phoenix Project

Mobility
Almost 24 per cent of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2019 were from domestic transport. While the wheels are in motion in the switch towards electric cars, that alone will not be enough to meet global climate targets. We must effect a switch from car to foot, bike, bus and train, making these modes of movement safe, accessible and pleasurable. 

The five-minute neighbourhood is one of Human Nature’s key principles. Its concept is simple: creating places where most daily needs can be met within a short walk or cycle. This means that neighbourhoods must be diverse: containing offices, workshops, cafes, leisure facilities and health care, alongside different types of homes, all connected by green and safe streets. 

At the Phoenix Project, the co-mobility hub will facilitate this. Designed to receive and hold car and van traffic, it will provide a freight reception and distribution facility, electric vehicle hire, share and club service, as well as vehicle valeting, repair and charging service.

Paloma Gormley and George Massoud of Material Cultures at the Phoenix Project Design Festival

Built form
Construction materials have an enormous environmental impact – with concrete alone accounting for up to 8 per cent of global CO2 emissions. But there are more sustainable ways to build. As Material Cultures, a not-for-profit research organisation and one of our partners at the Phoenix Project, notes: softwood timber, stone, clay, lime, plant fibres and shiv can be grown and sourced across the UK and will be crucial in a low-carbon future. In Lewes, they are exploring the use of local materials such as chalk. 

The importance of retrofitting existing buildings and retaining embodied carbon is also crucial, but often overlooked. At the Phoenix Project, we intend to upcycle some of the former industrial buildings where possible, with the Foundry Gallery and the Old Soap Factory leading on to a new public square, the Foundry Yards. 

At Human Nature, we also have an underlying design philosophy called Raw+Craft, which, in short, is about committing proportionately more of the build budget than is usually given to the fabric and energy efficiency of the building. Having built well and left a beautiful raw finish, we believe that the occupants of houses know better than we how to craft and fit-out their living spaces and that they would far rather have a well-proportioned, well-made building with a series of rooms and environments they can shape and design.

Sharing
It’s no secret that, in order to live within the planet’s means, how much we consume – as well as what we consume – must change radically. In the remarkable places we build, we intend to engender a sense of community that allows for the sharing of space, facilities, services, products and knowledge. 

In practice, this can work in many ways – through the sharing of vehicles (as identified under Mobility) and, in shared living spaces, facilities such as laundry rooms, co-working spaces, equipment,  tools and gardens. These measures will not only have a positive impact on the environment, by using space and energy cleverly and slowing necessary consumption, they will also help reduce isolation and encourage social interaction between people of all ages, generating a neighbourly, civil place.

Energy
We must build places using resilient, adaptable and long-life materials, but also consider energy efficiency and air flow in the buildings – affordable warmth in winter and cool in the increasingly warm summer months. There are wider and considerable capacity challenges that must also be addressed as the UK moves to an all-electric, zero emissions economy. In short: how do we power a green future? 

At the Phoenix Project, our world-class environmental engineers Atelier Ten and supporting engineers are tasked with specifying how we address these challenges in both the energy system and building design. The company, which has worked on award-winning projects such as Gardens by the Bay in Singapore, is exploring groundwater generated heat as well as the radical use of community energy systems including off site solar farm and battery storage.

Patrick Bellew, Atelier Ten, gives a talk at the Phoenix Project Design Festival

Waste
British households create over 26m ​​tonnes of waste each year – an average of 400kg per person. Of the 26m tonnes of waste produced in the UK, 12m tonnes are recycled, and 14m tonnes are sent to landfill sites. Our recycling rate is about 45 per cent – well behind the likes of Germany, Austria, and South Korea, where rates are between 60 and 70 per cent

Although total food waste in the UK fell by the equivalent of 7 per cent per person over the past three years (up to 2020), households create 4.5m tonnes of food waste a year. Much more needs to be done to facilitate widespread changes. At the Phoenix Project, well managed shared spaces, which will include composting and recycling and other waste management facilities, upcycling and repair workshops, will enable it to move rapidly towards becoming a zero waste neighbourhood. 

Food
The environmental impacts of growing, producing, transporting and storing of our food is considerable, both in emissions and effects on biodiversity – sometimes called a ‘foodprint’. Therefore, using locally sourced ingredients from small producers practicing regenerative agriculture can have an enormously positive impact. Meanwhile, community living and, by extension, the sharing of food can not only reduce waste but improve wellbeing: research shows that the more often people eat with others, the more likely they are to feel happy and satisfied with their lives

At the Phoenix Project, we intend to facilitate the supply of high-quality local foods and drink. We will have an affordable Community Canteen, a green grocer and vegetable box scheme. Some of this food will be grown on site in our urban farm and on rooftops, but otherwise sourced locally from farms and smallholdings in the Downs and Weald working in pursuit of regenerative agriculture.