We thought it would be nice to sit down and have a chat about their values, ideas and thoughts on the future of design for the industry and the planet.
Your values align so much with our own.
Can you explain how your ethos to design and build architecture that facilitates and elevates the lives we lead today came about?
The first-order benefits of hemp as a building material are great. It’s a phenomenal carbon sink, has excellent structural, thermal, and moisture control properties. The list goes on! The second and third-order benefits are equally attractive to us, many of which stem from hemp being versatile as a material and a crop.
As a society, we are increasingly looking for natural, non-synthetic materials in the products in our lives. Buildings, especially our homes, will absolutely follow this. In the UK, we have a long tradition of using locally available natural materials for building: Bath limestone, Norfolk clay brick, or lime renders and thatch roofs. We have an affinity for these natural materials that speak to a sense of tradition and permanence that is especially appealing for our homes. Hemp can be used in architectural finishes and insulation or structural hempcrete so it can function as a modern form of traditional, locally available material, combining a natural outward appearance with the contemporary benefits of net-zero carbon.
As a crop farmable in the UK, it is quick and easy to grow and enhances soil health so it can be farmed in rotation, supporting UK farming. This reduces the haulage distances for processing and delivery as a material, further driving down the carbon cost. In addition, it could be grown and used locally throughout the UK.
Why did you want to get involved with Hemspan and the projects we’re starting?
Hemspan is a really interesting prospect, both for the product and the company’s vision, which is closely aligned with our own – in this case, using applied design and innovative technology to address some of the major social and environmental issues of our time.
Hemp is an astonishingly under-utilised material that has massive potential to address one of the major contributing factors of the climate crisis and positively disrupt an industry (our industry!) that is urgently in need of it. To further develop that material into a generation of high-performance eco-homes – homes that can even offer a new model for UK housing and address the housing crisis in this country – is hugely exciting.
What do you see are the biggest problems in the construction industry at the moment?
Unquestionably, the number one issue is the carbon impact of conventional construction. The entire industry requires an overhaul and to be made sustainable for the long term. The urgency of the climate crisis and the timeline needed for a meaningful response rightfully makes this the critical issue.
That said, the response of the industry to reducing its carbon output taps into a wider, more deep-rooted issue of how the AEC industry in the UK view’s our buildings, what buildings should provide for us and how we procure, design and construct them.
Buildings are too often seen as complex, costly objects tangled in regulations and building code. That perception inhibits design and innovation and undervalues the positive impacts and opportunities buildings offer to people, cities and the environment. Much of our industry has become very reactionary in nature, responding to minimum standards imposed upon it rather than positively driving them from within, and being slow to develop and adopt new technology, methods of designing, constructing and even financing.
The good news is that a lot of potential solutions to these problems already exist or are emerging at pace as part of the drive for net carbon zero. Hemspan is an excellent example of this. Coupled with people being increasingly well educated and quite reasonably asking for greener buildings that better suit our needs, the industry is primed for innovation and disruption.
As we’ve already said, our values and goals are perfectly matched; to create buildings that elevate lives and are sustainable and kind to the planet.
How do you think the development of hemp as a building material will shape the future of construction?
At Pixel, we share a genuinely optimistic view in the power of good design to innovate and improve the world we live in. These can be tackling specific issues at a global scale, such as the climate crisis, or it can be finding small ways to benefit a family or a single person home, making everyday activities at home easy, relaxing or joyful.
Most of us spend the overwhelming majority of our time inside buildings, whether at home, at work, or at school. Hence, our buildings have a tremendous impact on our daily experiences – Do the buildings we live in help or hinder day-to-day life? Do they make us feel calm or anxious? Do they connect us? Do they inspire joy? At its best, design can resolve these questions for us.
Pixel developed as a way for us to collaborate and bring this optimism, this ethos, to real-world projects.
You’re an international company. Do you see different levels of enthusiasm and take-up to the climate change/ sustainable design cause in other countries?
Which country do you feel is trailblazing and setting the bar at the moment?
Ten years ago, there had certainly been mixed levels of engagement with sustainable building, but now there’s a groundswell of adoption, certainly in Asia where I work, but there is a long way to go.
Looking at it globally, what’s interesting is the diversity of responses from different countries: the tech-based response of Passive House from Germany; development of mass timber housing and mid-to-high rise in Canada and Denmark; or green urban planning in Singapore that has seen the incorporation of sky gardens, parks and green spaces into dense downtown commercial districts to improve the climate and create a more relaxing, happy urban environment.
There is no one solution. It will take an amalgam of all of these responses in concert to address the issue. We’re ever-optimistic, though.
Who do you find inspirational in the world?
Jacqueline Novogratz is a quietly understated phenomenon.