Ethical Design

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with Sean Mahoney, director and lead architect of studioMAS. 

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The team at SCAPE was thrilled to sit down with Sean Mahoney, director and lead architect at studioMAS to discuss green building concepts within a commercial setting. Having recently published The Ridge, home of Deliotte South Africa, which received a 6 star Green Star rating and was a picture of enginuity and thoughtful design, we knew Sean was the guru we needed in our corner to tackle this topic. 

Q: What drew you to green conscious architecture and this focused approach? And what brought you to this point where the V&A Waterfront and Growthpoint said, ‘right, this is the firm that we’re wanting to work with for our tenant and this future-forward space’?

I studied at the University of Natal, in Durban, in the sort of late 80s, and there were two amazing lecturers there at the time who inspired me. Rodney Harver, and Dr. Derek Wang- who taught physics.  Rodney was very involved in the townships and building with natural materials, and how you could try and build more sustainably. I think he was a little bit of an influencer, and had been doing it from a young age… It’s something that I was always very interested in, in nature.

Growing up, I was always bird-watching or playing in the river, or building things in nature. I grew up in a little small village in the veld, before it was built up and engulfed with golf courses and housing estates. It was amazing. 

In terms of ‘consciousness in work’ we’ve been doing it in different ways. The Ridge is actually  the first green star building we’ve done and it was incredibly different approach wise to how myself and partner design, it has lots of rules and red tape. But, I’ve been thinking environmentally from, well from day 1 in my architecture. But, a lot of good architects are as well, not just us- where you get the orientation right, you get the insulation right, you get the overlaps right then you’re thinking in the right way. 

We’ve always been putting in rainwater harvesting tanks and always been putting on lithium ways in trying to use less energy. So it’s something we’ve been doing for a very long time. This was  actually the first time where it was The V&A who made the rating a requirement, because there is a commercial value to the Green Star rating, and that part I do understand. 

The way it worked on The Ridge project was that there was a RFP, which stands for Requests for Proposals. It goes into the market (it went to a whole lot of developers, V&A being one). They appointed us, and we then drew a scheme. Other architects did other schemes on different sites, ours was site-specific. I have to say, the ones who really champion the Green Star ethic, are in my opinion, The Waterfront. Because they really do push hard, and they’re the ones who said “we’ll give you all of 4 star, minimum 5 star, and potentially 6 star”, because there’s a cost as you push that bar high. 

What was really so fascinating is… We brought in a green star consultant right at the end, once we had designed the whole thing, and well, low and behold –it was a  6 Star Green Star rating already, with no input, without anyone telling us what to do! We had a 6 Green Star building just by using common sense and thinking. 

We spent about six months before being appointed, where we’d meet on a Friday afternoon for every few weeks with Arup and the client, and we’d just talk about what makes a good building? What is a good office building? What does it entail and what makes people happy? What makes it interact with nature more, and all that base kind of stuff. There was no pressure of time, we could just talk, and think, and let it percolate, and out of those discussions certain things came up –this thinking led to us creating (organically) a 6 Star Build. 

Q: Let’s talk materials for a build of this nature, the Timber? 

Sean: We’re very interested in timber façade buildings, because it’s sustainable, it’s green, it’s local (or most of it is local) and we wanted precast involved on the project. As much precast work as possible. Our vision was actually  to do the whole structure in precast slabs because there’s less waste, there’s better quality, and you can do it faster. 

Then The Waterfront (and quite rightly so) said ‘we’re not going to be pioneers in a timber facade building, and do precast on a very complex design-there’s just too much risk of things going wrong. We’re going to go with a conventional structure, and you can have the facade as your exercise.’ You know, as you move, you nudge the bar up each time so that the next architects who come along (and now there’s a bit more knowledge to doing facades) might say ‘let’s go in with precast slabs’, and then maybe one day, in ten years’ time, the whole structure is timber. Because, that’s what they do in Europe, they build columns, beams, floors, everything out of wood. I think there’s an eleven or twelve storey building in Norway now, all out of timber. So you can do it . There’s nothing all that special about it, it’s about just doing the right thing, and every now and again you do need a lot of technical input on adhesives, or specific products so that you understand the whole food chain of how it’s made.

Q: Who are your inspirations when it comes to architecture in the green building arena? 

S: That’s an interesting question indeed. I think Mick Pearce, he did that building in Harare, Zimbabwe, quite a while ago. It’s  based on the Termite hill. He does some very good work with SA, and good work with Australia as well. 

Q: What are some building materials and exciting new products you’re using, or thinking of using for upcoming projects? 

A: I still love the good ol’ common brick.

It’s clay, it’s from the earth, it’s been around for thousands of years, and it’s an uncomplicated and easy, it’s not a very sexy material- people don’t look at the brick with much opinion, I mean we need energy to bake that. They generally use gas in Joburg, and the old ones are very environmentally unfriendly-they used coal, but if you look at the gas one’s you know, – the  Corobrik’s -they’re good. They’re better off than other materials-but by far the best material right now, which we’re mostly inspired by is wood. CLT -it ticks every box, I just wish we had the ability to treat that wood on the outside. So the CLT is local pine, good ol’ local pine growing here locally. We’ve got these fields growing pines. They’ve got these plantations, which are very good. The treatment on The Ridge, if you look at the outside, has got (what looks like) timber decking-that’s Accoya. Now that’s unfortunately Imported. It’s the same species as pine-it’s grown in New Zealand, shipped to Spain, treated and then sent back to Cape Town-so that part of the outside layer is currently not green, and we need to build that up- that industry- ‘cause it’s just about commercial viability in that business. There’s got to be enough market needs. 

So wood by far, and then we like any material. We like materials we look to and think ‘what inspires us’? The first place we look is local. What’s the greenest material to where you are? In The Ridge, the obvious one is stone. We took all the stone out the basement, we reused that stone. It’s a very expensive material labour-wise, but it’s there, and we didn’t have to go to a quarry and truck it, it was right there onsite. So your greenest material is material that you can get right (That’s how the early man set his build, the early settlers built this way). So, we always look at the site first, and we try and get materials that aren’t required to be painted or finished, or have new ‘makeup’ on them every five years or so. Whereas with stone, wood and materials that  don’t require a finish, they age beautifully, and naturally. 

So another great thing to build with, and what I have done in my office in Joburg, is where you ‘University of Cape Town -style’, simple plaster on the outside and you plant creepers on it, that’s it, and that gives you insulation, the leaves give you shade, they cool down at the start of summer. Boston Ivy loses its leaves, but gives heat in winter. I use it a lot because people from Cape Town get it. When you ask people to think of UCT, they think about the creepers, they don’t talk about the architecture-they think about these beautiful creepy old buildings, so that is super green, and it’s a building material. I think of that Boston Ivy as a sort of building material! 

It’s my finish to a building you know, I’ve done a lot of buildings and teaky creeper, Boston Ivy, and those type of buildings get better and better each year, not worse. And yes, there’s a little bit of maintenance, but you get to celebrate the seasons, and you get to celebrate the nature of spring, autumn, summer-seeing the building change, and that connects you to nature. And in places we push it by getting involved, we place black boxes into facades, and bringing biodiversity into the actual building site of different species-not just plants, because if you get the landscape right, the other kingdoms of nature will come.

Q: Seasonality is a big thing for buildings? 

Seasonality is a big thing for me. You’d dress appropriately for the weather. I mean, the Deloitte building works, it’s that corporate mentality which is completely flawed, which needs to be completely rebooted and rewired, and that is quite a difficult thing to change, because those corporates are driving to work in an air-conditioned car, which has always got the same temperature, if it’s too hot or too cold, they can make it perfect- as they want. They wear the same kind of clothes to work and they want the office to be 21 degrees, 365 days of the year, and that’s highly problematic because you’re not celebrating the season -So, we’re trying to encourage people, that on a hot day, why can’t you change your clothes. Change what you wear so that you can take on a higher temperature band. On cold days, wear a jersey, don’t try and keep the building’s temperature, and fight what’s happening in nature. In heat waves and cold you need aircon just to take the edge off, but do you really need an airconditioned building to control the air 365 days a year?

So the system, the building is designed to try and take out just a piece of warmth, of cold and heat to operate passively for a vast amount of the year, and for that to happen staff need to dress appropriately and understand and just open the windows, they need to, and often we see that not happening. So it’s been a hard drive getting people to open windows. 

It’s a perfect day and I drive past, and I see all the windows closed, while we can constantly adapt. And Arup had been doing it at The Waterfront, and we see the windows start to open now, which is what the whole building is about. So it’s getting there. It’s a process. 

Q: Ok, post-covid? Are needs changing from the client and end user?

S: This is interesting, because we’re not really done with covid yet are we, we’re just coming out of it  so in the course of this year we’ll be able to say covid’s over. And it’s slow-I don’t think we can truly see the full result of it ‘cos I see traffic’s starting to go back up again, it’s not the same levels as pre-it’s probably at 80%.

The big corporate office building-I don’t think we fully understand yet what it’s going to be. When they came in, Deloitte said to us-if they had known what would come from covid-they would never have signed the lease on such a big building. That’s what they said to us during the middle of covid, but then again when I spoke to them recently, they’re making all staff come back to the office 4 days a week. So I don’t know, it’s a difficult one just now. I have a suspicion that it’s going to go back very close to how it used to be-what it was before, unfortunately. 

A: Any design innovations that you’ve seen in a local or international setting that you’ve been inspired by?

S: You know I’m quite old school, and it’s quite an interesting question that, because I’m not someone who  follows a million architects and closely – I suppose the architects that we do look at have been there for a very long time, and they have buildings which are, timeless! So everyone looks at the façade of Deloitte, and that’s sort of a detailed façade, but they think it’s just architectural and some architect might want to copy that without understanding that there’s a very specific reason why it is how it is, it’s not because I like the look of it, it’s there for a functional reason. So, I have inspiration that’s really inspired by nature. And we find so often that looking at nature’s inspiration by planting creepers on buildings, or looking at it in an abstract way that’s designing a column like a tree, doing things where you’re using inspiration from nature in some way because everyone loves nature-they might not respect it-but you know, when people go on holiday they tend to go out into nature or weekends, so we’ve got that inherently in us. So, architects that still inspire me are people like Jeffrey Bawa and Keith Marion, (inaudible), Heatherwick Studio, they’re doing some very very awesome work (See Page   for 1000 Trees project in this issue). They did the Silos at Zeitz MOCAA in The Waterfront- and do eccentric work, using nature as an inspiration.

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