AJ small projects proposes social sustainability approach to architecture

St Margaret's church The Architects’ Journal Small Project Awards, affectionately known as the AJ Small Projects, celebrate their 27th year. The Marley sponsored awards aim to support smaller, independent architectural practices and celebrate projects realised at relatively modest costs. Each completed project must have a maximum contract value of £299,000. This year saw 170 entries, narrowed down to 20 shortlisted designs.

We spoke to the 2022 winner of the social sustainability prize, Darren Bray, founder of Studio BAD. Darren had left a comfortable position as lead architect in a thriving private studio to explore the idea of reuse, regeneration and the reimagination of buildings and spaces: “We are interested in two things, one is social architecture and the social impact of architecture. The other is our passion for the reuse and reimagination of existing buildings”. The winning project, for client Portsmouth Diocese, was St Margaret’s Church in Southsea Portsmouth, and is a testament to how this approach can transform a building that was declared unfit for use into a usable space for the community. Darren explains: “In this project, social impact and technical sustainability meshed together. The result is what we call, social sustainability.”

What is social sustainability?

Darren takes us back to the beginning to find out more about social sustainability: “I always had a crazy idea that as architects, we could run sustainable businesses by doing pieces of work that question whether you actually have to build anything at all.”

I ask how would this work in an age where we look at implementing the fabric first approach and low carbon technologies to build future net zero carbon buildings? “We have all these new buildings going up that only just meet current Building Regulations. These are built using new materials. Buildings like St. Margaret’s Church have been around for 150-200 years and were built using very little carbon. Achieving a 100% fabric upgrade may not matter in that context. It could also be financially crippling and difficult to obtain relevant permissions for.”

He continues: “If we are to address carbon emissions in the built environment, the construction industry has to go beyond just ticking boxes to look sustainable. Existing buildings play a big part here. We often see older buildings, such as department stores, demolished and replaced with new residential developments. This is often done because it is perceived to be the easier solution. But look at the regeneration of the department store in Brixton. We can deliver projects that are not these fantastic, big budget sustainable buildings but are scalable and will sustain communities for next 10, 15 or 20 years.”

St Margaret’s Church Project, deep listening and the puzzle of existing buildings, small budget, and sustainability

And this is precisely what St Margaret’s Church Project achieved. To successfully reimagine the space, Darren said Studio BAD did what he believes is the absolute key; deep listening to the client; “In each week there is very little that is consistent in our lives – whether it is politics, geopolitics, famine, war, climate change. And so, we think very hard about client needs. The heating was what needed to be resolved for the church to be able to welcome the keen congregation back. We knew that we could not upgrade the fabric of the whole space. This was not financially feasible for the client. And we also knew the two principles close to Portsmouth Diocese's heart were sustainability and renewable solutions. We just weren’t sure what that would look like. We used an energy consultant early in the project, which was critical to finding a way forward.”

Mesh Energy consulted on the project and created a high level feasibility report for various heating solutions. The final proposal was for high polish flooring with underfloor heating. A bivalent heating system was deployed to deliver most of the heat required via air source heat pumps. This helped to heat the entrance’s first 1.5m of space and allowed for the church's doors to open. Once the visitors flocked back, a café and shop were added. A children's activity centre followed this. Darren concludes: “We are now slowly addressing the thermal upgrades. Sure, it was not very glamorous for an architect to say we would deal with the heating first and then deal with the actual architecture. But what we did achieve is that the space is now used all year round.”

Studio BAD is now in talks with the Portsmouth Diocese to apply the incremental approach to their portfolio to sustain their buildings and provide the community with usable, welcoming spaces.

What is next for Studio BAD?

We asked Darren if winning the AJ Small Awards impacted the practice? “Yes. We were humbled to receive the award in the first place. I think it was brave for AJ to give the award to a project that isn’t glamorous architecture. And the award is not important just for us. It is important for the client. They are now getting the recognition they deserve as well.”. We were interested in what Darren has planned for the immediate future; “We have been approached by Gosport Borough Council, who are interested in regenerating the post war high street by reusing the existing spaces. And we also presented to a church in Portsmouth that welcomes refugees from all over the world, Iran, Syria, and Ukraine, and offers them sanctuary. A lot of exciting projects ahead of us.”

Darren’s down to earth approach to sustainability is infectious. I asked him what message he would like to get out there; “I get we must build beautiful, but our buildings have to have a meaning, address the challenges of our age. If we don’t, then our children will have to be creative problem solvers who will have to deal with challenges I could not imagine when I left college. I would like architects to wake up and realise that they could make money by solving the problems in existing buildings.”

At Marley we are proud to continue supporting new practices with innovative, creative ideas and can help with small projects that have large ideas. 

Category: Architecture