"The best way of making a building sustainable is by making people love it."

Seán Harrington Architects have designed a range of different building projects in Dublin and other places in Ireland, always with social and environmental values in the back of their heads. Seán Harrington, the principal architect of the firm, tells me about their approach to architectur, and I visit one of their buildings to see the result.

On York street, right in Dublin’s city centre, you will find a building that is a bit different from the rest. The edifice that was finished here in 2008 was built as social housing, but was also designed to be as sustainable as possible – taking into account both the health of the environment and the residents. As we enter the building, we find a quiet, enclosed communal garden. We walk through, then take the elevator to the roof terrace. From here we can see the solar panels that provide hot water to the residents, as well as the sedum roofs that work to buffer rainfall and attract insects. The York street housing might now be SHA’s best-known project. However, they also worked at other greener-than-normal buildings in Dublin, including a couple of affordable sustainable housing units near Merrion Square, and an amphitheatre made of pallets in the Granby pop-up Park.

You are doing architecture a bit differently from what is conventional. What do you want to reach with your approach?

What is interesting about designing in Ireland at the moment, is that the building regulations for energy conservation are quite strict compared to the rest of the EU. That has forced us to learn about energy-efficient building and to introduce energy saving measures for our clients. In addition, we know that the building regulations will become stricter every year. Because of this, our aim is not to comply with the current rules, but to exceed them, so that our buildings will be future-proof for new regulations. This approach was working very well until the economic crash. In that period many projects stopped and we could not invest in training any more. Luckily, the situation has improved again since last year: it is possible to keep up by reading and studying, but doing projects in practice is the best way of learning new ways of building.

Aside from energy conservation, sustainability obviously has many other elements, that are not necessarily part of building regulations. Water conservation, for example, is very important for us. During rain storms, when there is an overflow of water onto the streets, we try to absorb as much water as possible with our buildings. We do this mostly with green roofs or by collecting rainwater, that is used for irrigation or washing cars. We also make sure there is a lot of greenery. That does a lot for the visual appeal of a place and the mental health of the residents. It promotes biodiversity as well: you can really see wildlife is being attracted by green roofs and gardens. We have two places where we focused a lot on biodiversity, the York street project and a parish centre in Malahide, and is striking to see the numbers of butterflies and insects being attracted here in the summertime.

We are also very careful about the materials we use. We avoid MDF (medium-density fireboard) because it releases toxic chemicals when you apply it; we try to use soft wood instead of hard woods; and we work with local materials from Ireland as much as possible. And when a building reaches the end of its life, we ensure that it can be dismantled easily. However, the best way of making a building sustainable is by making people love it. Buildings contain a lot of embodied energy that is put into constructing them, so if you can avoid demolishing and rebuilding you gain a lot for the environment. Today buildings are often replaced every 30 or 40 years. The old Georgian buildings in Dublin, however, have been in use for over a hundred years, because they are adaptable, but also because people like them. If you build something in such a way that people love it, they will take care of it, and a building can last for hundreds of years.

You often make a point of involving the community in the design of a project. How did that happen in, for example, the York street housing?

Normally when you build social housing, you don’t know the people who are going to live in your houses. The city council just has some units built and assigns them to those people who are highest on the waiting list. In the York street case, however, an existing building was knocked down, and the residents were rehoused into the new flats. We knew who we were building for. The city council wanted us to do an experiment and consult the residents, so we met with them every two weeks in a community centre. We asked them what they wanted, and showed them what the possibilities were and why we designed things in certain ways. It worked very well: we were still the designers, but we have been able to find out what was important to the residents and we have certainly involved that in our plans. When they moved in in the end, the building already felt like their place, because they knew it so well. When I met many of the residents again later they would always tell me what they enjoyed about the houses and what they would have liked to be different. It has been very helpful to have these feedbacks over a longer time period.

Green roofs at the York street housing. © Esther Brakkee

Do you work mostly for the city council?

Up until about 2006, we used to work mostly for the public sector, that is, for Dublin city council and local authorities in other parts of Ireland. In those years the economy was growing fast and there were good tax revenues coming in. When the public finance became less strong, we started working mainly in the private sector. Now, as the economy is recovering a bit, we are doing more public work again. Our approach does not really differ when we design social housing or public space as opposed to a private building. However, in public projects it is often easier to introduce innovative ideas. In those projects the architect is usually very leading in the design, whereas in private projects it can be more difficult to convince people of something that makes the building better, but costs a bit more.

Is it difficult to combine being a for-profit company with these environmental and social visions?

We do different kinds of projects with our team. Some of them are making money, and that gives space for those projects that we do for other reasons. A good example is Granby park, a pop-up park in Dublin that we designed a part of. We did that for free – which means that it costs us money, because we have to pay the people who spend time on it. But that kind of projects often have other positive impacts. They generate a lot of publicity: we have even been asked to exhibit Granby park in Berlin now, so it has given us a lot of international attention.

Is sustainable building important in Dublin, apart from the energy conservation rules?

The primary barrier to sustainable building in Dublin is the cost. Green buildings generally cost a little bit more to build, even if the running costs may be lower. Aside from that, sustainable buildings often require more management, of communal heating systems for example, or other communal facilities. It needs time and some budget to get that management working properly.

Even so, I think people are becoming more conscious of why sustainable building is important. Interestingly, the main drivers in Ireland do not relate directly to being friendly for the environment. Firstly, it is just very attractive to people if you can reduce the running costs of a building, as they can save hundreds of euros a year on energy costs. Another motivation behind green building is how Irish people think about climate change. This winter has been very mild, it seems to be becoming more rainy every year, there is more extreme weather and there are more significant floods. I think people are now beginning to see the link to how they live themselves. That is part of the explanation why green building is on the rise at the moment.


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