Conversation with David Barr Architects

This is a conversation with David Barr, founder and co-director of David Barr Architects, a small architecture office in Fremantle, designing predominantly residential and multi-residential homes, as well as a recent more into the commercial sector.

David began his career as an independent practice on a small Alternation and Additions project in Fremantle which won him his first architecture award and set the tone for what has been considerable success in the 10 years thereafter. The practice has continued to develop into one of Western Australia’s premier small architecture offices and has maintained design integrity throughout.

Gen Y – Step House in White Gum Vally was a big moment for the practice.  It received a considerable amount of press after receiving a stack of awards including:

National Commendation: National Architecture Awards – Sustainable Architecture

Winner: National Sustainability Awards –  Best of the Best

Winner: National Sustainability Awards – Multiple Dwelling

Winner: AIA Architecture Award: Residential Architecture – Multiple Housing

Winner: AIA Architecture Award: Sustainable Architecture

The practice is continuing to push into interesting design ground in recent years, and given their success in a sustainable building, I thought it would interesting to sit down with David to discuss the practice and its role in the climate crisis. Here is an excerpt from the conversation we had. 

PM 

I know you signed with the Architects Declare movement last year. Do you think as an architect you have the ability to move the needle on climate change?

DB

Yeah, I think everyone has the ability to make change. I think it can start small and grow over time. Everyone needs to react to it because it is a problem and it’s only going to get worse. 

Part of it is about awareness which is why I think Architects Declare is important. As a starting point, it’s about making architects aware of all the issues. 

I don’t think anyone is pretending they know everything. 

A body like that starts to promote opportunities for how we, as an office practicing, can reduce our carbon footprint, also how we can start to educate our clients in that process as well

It is often challenging when you are trying to convince clients that in order to build more sustainably, it may cost more money. It can be a bitter pill to swallow for clients who are trying to create a family home on a relatively small budget.

That said, there are always small incremental things that everyone can do. For example, in our projects, we make sure the materials that are demolished in alteration and additions projects get recycled in the appropriate way. That’s something we specify in our documentation and we reinforce it during the construction process.

Also, thinking about the embodied carbon in the material of what we select in the design process. If we are using concrete, can we use ecomax concrete or fly-ash concrete that has been recycled in the past has less of a carbon footprint.

We have in the past also contracted independent energy assessors to measure the carbon footprint both in its embodies and in its operational energy. 

But, there is a spectrum of interest from the clients in terms of wanting sustainable building practices. There is definitely a role for architects to demonstrate why these things are important and how it can actually save them money in the long run in terms of the operational cost of a house.

PM

How accurate do you think your understanding is of the embodied energy of the materials you are using? 

DB

We have, in the past used a consultant to assist and tell us what the science is which has given us the ability to really understand the understand what the embodied and operational energy of the building were. Such was the case for the GenY housing project. 

We are always learning and it is a science that is quite complex. For us, it’s about digesting enough information to say we have made inroads into reducing the ‘business as usual’ impacts. 

PM

In terms of materials do you lean more heavily on low embodied carbon materials such as timber rather than concrete in the design phase?  

DB

Up to now, it’s been a balance for us… I mean its a good point… For example, GenY house is an all-timber structure, which actually reduces its rating in a Nather’s assessment. We had this conundrum where we had an LCA telling us that the carbon footprint was significantly less but then we had a BCA required Nathers assessment telling us that we weren’t performing as well as you could be if you had a concrete suspended slab. The thing that gets you the building license at the moment is the Nathers assessment, not the LCA.

Suppliers are also getting more involved in the production of sustainable building materials. The concrete company Holcin has its standard range of concrete but they also have a product called Ecomax concrete which has less embodied carbon.  That’s an incremental shift which I think is positive and I think it’s in the right direction.

I think concrete plays a really important role in construction. It also has other benefits such as thermal mass, acoustics, and a range of other things which I think are still important.

The approach might also be that if you are to use concrete how might you offset that carbon in other ways within the building. Moving towards carbon zero footprint on dwellings might require a carbon offset- that might be planting trees or pledging to funds that offset the carbon.  

PM

The Bloomberg building is supposed to be the most sustainable building ever built, and yet Spencer de Grey, head of design at Foster + Partners acknowledges that we are going to need to do considerably more if we are to keep the global ambient temperature rise to below a catastrophic three to five degrees. He says that the Bloomberg building is a three-degree building.[1] Do you think something needs to change? 

DB

Yeah, I was at a recent Architects Declare forum with Peter Newman presenting – he was talking about the same thing. Action needs to happen very quickly in order to, stop initially, and then try to reverse the effects of climate change.

Bill Gates is talking about going carbon negative all the way back to 1978 when he first started Microsoft. To me, that has to be the next step. To be able to depart the earth knowing that you have eliminated your carbon footprint would be a nice legacy.   

Image: Gen Y – Step House. David Barr Architects

References:

  1. Phineas Harper, Dezeen, October 12, 2018. https://www.dezeen.com/2018/10/12/opinion-foster-partners-bloomberg-sustainability-climate-change-phineas-harper/
Peter Milligan

I am an Master of Architecture student, with an undergraduate degree in applied science from the University of Western Australia. I'm interested in the way these two fields, architecture and science, might intersect as the challenge of global warming demands new approaches to how we build and how we analyse our building practices.