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· Helen Evans

The Air We Breathe - Let’s Make It Clean and Green

We must take meaningful action on air quality if we are to make our cities and buildings healthier and more productive.

Outdoor air quality: Green Buffering 

Cullinan Studio is one of four teams shortlisted to compete for a community cluster building at Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in Liverpool - envisaged to connect with nature through its design. We have long subscribed to the theory that connection to greenery has a significant positive impact on our wellbeing (past projects incorporating greenery for wellbeing include our Maggies Centre in Newcastle and Lambeth Community Care Centre amongst others).

Our own canal path guerrilla garden, championed by Robin Nicholson and Hannah Durham, which was awarded Islington in Bloom's Silver Gilt Award for 'Best Forgotten Corner' 2017.

Last month we hosted a talk on the subject of plants in the urban environment - with speakers including our Carol Costello and friends of the practice Jeremy Barrell, Rosamund Portus and Chris McCarthy. The event was introduced by our Robin Nicholson, who has written a more detailed blog about the talk

A key strand of the discussion centred around how vegetation can assist with mitigating the high levels of air pollution.  London is in the midst of a wellbeing crisis - compounded by unacceptably high levels of air pollution - a subject which has recently captured the attention of the UK government.

This summer our practice contributed to the Global Currents Think Tank at the London School of Architecture, which focused on the theme of air quality in the urban environment.  Our research led us to revisit our previous masterplan for Rosendale Primary School and analyse the impact of air pollution on the design, using data gathered by Kings College London.  

Illustrations from Cullinan Studio's analysis of air pollution impact on Rosendale Primary School, part of our in-practice research for the Global Currents Think Tank at the LSA, 2017.

Given that children are particularly vulnerable to exposure to air pollution, we asked how the design of the school’s main entrance could further respond to two alternative future scenarios. How could the building and its surroundings adapt to an increasingly polluted world? And how would this design differ if the source of pollution were eliminated? Our research was displayed at the LSA summer exhibition at Somerset House, described through two future scenarios in the form of utopic/dystopic collages of the school entrance, which catalogue potential architectural and environmental interventions in response to each scenario.

Future Scenario 1 (left): The Shielding School (Mitigation) considered defensive strategies to mitigate against an increasingly polluted environment. Future Scenario 2 (right): The Breathing School (Source Elimination) explored how the entrance and streetscape could respond if external air pollution was eliminated in future.

Whilst government policy will determine how soon source elimination will be delivered, we must turn our efforts to dealing with the high levels of emissions that we are currently faced with.  From ‘green buffering’ at street level to hydroponic systems that utilise the root system of plants to filter air year-round (such as the ingenious AborSystem hydroponic tree planting system being developed by Battle McCarthy and Green Blue) - the consensus amongst industry experts is that vegetation can significantly improve the quality of the air we breathe on our city streets, in addition to many other significant health benefits relating to our contact with plants.

However, that is not the end of the story when it comes to air quality and wellbeing.  Air pollution inside the home can be up to 650 times worse than outdoor conditions. 

Indoor Air: Designing Airtight Buildings for Clean Air

I recently attended a talk hosted by New London Architecture on the subject of indoor air quality. Here, sustainability expert speaker Alex Baines (of the Design Buro) delivered a fantastic presentation that summarised best practice design for indoor environments from a sustainability and air quality stand point. Beginning with Passivhaus principles - designing airtight and thermally comfortable buildings where indoor air is filtered through an MVHR system to remove toxins from the outside environment – Baines called for a holistic approach to the building design along the lines of the Well Standard.  His comprehensive list of criteria to be considered for better air quality ranged from carefully considered construction details for reduced thermal bridging (thus combatting mould), to ensuring that products containing VOCs (that emit noxious gases) are never specified.

The talk was serendipitously timed as it coincided with my second week of Passivhaus training with the AECB and joined up some recent thoughts on air quality and well being.  I came away convinced that we should design airtight, comfortable buildings in tandem with introducing as much greenery into our external environment as possible. Greenery is important to clean up our streets and also to help improve wellbeing in our cities through increased contact with nature, however it should not be used simply to mitigate poorly designed and detailed buildings and inadequate ventilation systems. The path to a better future is both green and clean, and it will take a holistic approach to sustainable design to get us there.

This drawing by our Abigail Portus envisages an alternative healthy streetscape for a school on Edgeware Road in the Marylebone 'Low Emission Neighbourhood'. The drawing was made in 2016 as part of her student work for the Global Currents Think Tank at the London School of Architecture.

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