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Q&A with sustainability champion, Ronan Connelly

Ronan works across a variety of sectors, specialising in the design and delivery of some of BDP’s most complex and large-scale infrastructure projects.


What does sustainability mean to you and your role at BDP?

This is quite a tough question as sustainability encompasses so many things, so I've tried to approach it as simply as possible.

By asking simple questions such as “is this required, does it add anything?” or “what’s the simplest path to the end result?”, I try not to overcomplicate things. While the subject is very complex, maybe simple responses are all that’s required - especially when it comes to elements within our gift.

At BDP, I strive to promote this simple and logical response to sustainability. Far too often, architects create issues that don't need to exist, then endeavour to look like the hero by approaching the problem with a complex solution. I try to avoid that situation in the first instance.

What is your approach to sustainability when embarking on a new project?

I often start by asking questions like "do we need to build anything new in the first instance?" and "can we reconfigure or adapt existing assets to achieve the same outcome?"

The primary route to being more sustainable is to do as little as possible while getting the maximum back (this relates to materials, labour and energy). Drawing on the above questions, I use these to guide me through any project.

In many cases, these difficult questions are avoided as they may not be what the client wants to hear or might not make the best business sense. Trying to be more sustainable requires you to challenge preconceived notions constantly, but ultimately these uncomfortable conversations are better to be had now rather than when it’s too late.

What do you see as the biggest challenge to delivering sustainable design within your role? How do you overcome challenges faced?

Cost and risk. Often a sustainable approach is received with hesitation as it’s perceived as costly or innovative and therefore too risky to implement. I believe things are heading in the right direction and sustainability is receiving more coverage. However, we still have a significant way to go.

Far too often, I hear “this is what we have always done…” but we know this just won’t wash anymore. We need to move the conversation forward, bringing all parties with us, including clients, builders and insurers.

What tools/resources do you think would help you?

Metrics and data. If we can demonstrate that a sustainability approach doesn’t cost a significant amount more and that the benefits hugely outweigh the investment, then clients will be persuaded to take the perceived risk. This will requires significant investment in development and research to prove the point, with data on existing buildings being captured and fed back into the system.

How are architects best equipped to forward a net zero future?

Architects have quite a way to go regarding achieving net zero. Upskilling isn’t necessarily the major issue, it’s more about shifting attitudes. Unfortunately, it's within the architect's nature to want to build more. However, if we are going to address the climate crisis, we need to stop using ‘stuff’. This means reducing the amount we build, or at least trying to limit the amount of new materials that go into a project, and considering the existing fabric.

Who do you take inspiration from in the sustainability space (any notable speakers, industry experts, websites or initiatives?)

I find Lacaton & Vassal’s approach to sustainability intriguing. They maintain a ‘never demolish, always transform’ philosophy and, although it’s quite a strong stance, I think it’s particularly thought provoking.

I don’t think the ‘never demolish’ mantra is applicable to every single case and I believe that sometimes it’s necessary to remove a piece to let another shine. However, I do think this consideration should be at the forefront of every project.

From a materials perspective, there are some particularly interesting studies being done with natural materials and reuse, including experiments with rammed earth, hemp and timber structures.

Are there any areas of innovation in the profession that have caught your attention lately?

There are some interesting products being made from compressed earth in the realm of brick design. The appearance of these innovative products isn’t particularly new or ground-breaking. However, they achieve significantly lower embodied carbon emissions per brick compared to the average breezeblock by using extracted earth, small amounts of cement and no firing process.

Can you talk about a recent project you have worked on where we have used nature or nature-based solutions to help tackle the climate challenge?

We have been working on a treatment centre which focuses on ensuring patients and staff are always connected to the landscape. Our team has integrated courtyards, loggias and gardens to allow daylight to penetrate deep into the interior and the design ensures that all inhabited rooms, including theatres, have access to natural daylight. 

The design functions to ground patients and help them maintain an awareness of their surroundings, while also essentially humanising what is often an overwhelming experience. 

Reflecting on the project, we have successfully revolutionised this multifunctional space by flipping the typical hospital approach on its head and putting nature at the forefront. 

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