Interview: Fred Labbé, Expedition Engineering

Fred, a civil engineer specialising in sustainable water infrastructure and environmental design, is overseeing the flood defence strategy at the Phoenix

Can you tell us a little bit about Expedition? 

Expedition Engineering is just over 20 years old. We started as a structural and civil engineering practice and our work includes the London 2012 Olympic Velodrome, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre in Athens, the WWF Living Planet Centre in Surrey as well the transformation of existing buildings such as Las Arenas in Barcelona.

In addition to core engineering services, Expedition provides strategy and infrastructure planning as part of a master planning service. We are known for our ability to develop practical approaches to sustainable development including low carbon energy solutions, green infrastructure design and circular economy strategies. We are motivated by the role that development and infrastructure can play in delivering quality of life benefits and driving social value. This is a service offer which has been and is steadily growing.

Some of our key projects in this area include the sustainable water strategy for the London 2012 and Rio 2016 Olympics, the Little Haldens project with Human Nature, the Bridgewater Triangle as part of the Olympic Legacy transformation, Albert Island in the Docklands, Riverside Sunderland, as well as a number of development framework for local authorities or international concept masterplans.

Expedition is part of the Useful Simple Trust, an employee-owned organisation and a family of professional design practices driving change. Our experienced and committed engineers, architects, designers and strategists work side-by-side, and with our clients and users, to deliver valuable outcomes with positive impact. We are a B Corp and are registered as a social enterprise.

What about your own specialism?

I studied water engineering in Strasbourg in France, and did a masters in environmental design at the Bartlett School of Architecture in London which broadened my skills on sustainable design, energy and carbon, daylight and health and wellbeing.

But my key skills, and enjoyment are in water. Anything to do with water, flood defences, sustainable drainage, water efficiency, water recycling, aquaponic and closed-loop systems. I particularly enjoy integrating the water cycle and climate resilience considerations with the landscape, placemaking and ecology.

I like looking for integrated design solutions that offer multiple benefits and tackling the complexity of water systems. There’s always complexity about the way water flows, the dynamics of a flood, the timing and variations of water availability and demand, the impact of climate change, water quality and its relation to ecology, the role water can play in the public realm or the significance of a view over water.

How have you found working on the Phoenix Project?

What’s been really rewarding about working on the Phoenix Project has been the interaction we’ve had. From the very beginning, there’s an alignment between what we are proposing, what the masterplanning team is trying to achieve and what Human Nature wants from the site.

We also have developed a good working relationship with the Environmental Agency and East Sussex County Council, looking at fluvial flooding and sustainable stormwater management. We’ve been able to develop a strategy to keep people and homes safe, worked on the connection to the river, and integrated the water system within the landscape strategy with a focus on ecology and placemaking. 

I’ve greatly enjoyed all interactions with the people of Lewes too. Flooding in Lewes happened severely, and quite recently. People remember it very accurately and sometimes quite painfully. That was very evident in the discussions we had at the Design Festival and in workshops. Flooding is a very serious matter. It can bring significant damage to physical infrastructure and property, trauma and sometimes loss of life. The people of Lewes are very knowledgeable about flooding and were able to share a lot of very useful information about how the flooding in 2000 happened. They had some very relevant and interesting questions. I really enjoyed those interactions. I also felt that 99% of the people we spoke to were on board with what we were proposing, and I look forward to continue working with some of them.

How are you involved with water management within the neighbourhood?

We’ve been working with Periscope, the landscape architects for many years. We greatly enjoy working with them, we speak the same language and want to achieve the same outcomes.

In terms of stormwater management and fluvial flooding, what we have really tried to do is take an integrated approach and come up with a scheme that provides multiple benefits. It’s not only about stormwater storage water, but it’s holding water in a way that also enhances biodiversity, contributes to placemaking and the landscape design. It’s about rain gardens along the street corridors, green roofs, water retention ponds in some of the courtyards and harvesting rainwater for urban farming.

Obviously, site levels are very important. Water flows by gravity. We are also currently working on optimising site levels to balance ‘cut and fill’ and achieve climate resilience and efficient stormwater management. We want to minimise taking away excavation materials and demolition materials, including crushed concrete from buildings and existing surfaces. We also want water to safely pond in a control manner without flooding the buildings in extreme events considering how climate change may increase rainfall.