When did you move to Lewes, and why?
In 1990. I’d been living in Nunhead, South London and my girlfriend Kate (now wife) was living near Tunbridge Wells. I’d been studying Architecture part-time at what was then North London Poly, and also working in a practice. I decided I wanted to study full-time – and for various reasons ended up at the University of Brighton. We moved to Lewes by accident, because we couldn’t find a flat in Brighton. We rented the black tile house in Western Road (next to the loos) for six months. I knew nothing of Lewes, to the extent that first Bonfire night, I was working from home and saw a faint shimmer at the curtain; drawing it back, I found Vikings with burning crosses.
Today we live in the sustainable house we built – SparrowHouse, on the Nevill. The idea was to prove that green could be cheap – the build cost £147,000. We didn’t use normal materials, and we didn’t use many. All the insulation is sheep’s wool; the timber frame, and sweet chestnut cladding locally sourced; the white walls and ceilings, clay.
You run BBM Sustainable Design?
I do, with long-term partner Ian McKay; we met at uni. Today the business is based in Cooksbridge Station House. Ian and I got together to enter RIBA’s House of the Future competition, which we won, in 1993. Sustainability has always been an uncool thing to be preoccupied with; we’ve always been preoccupied with it. And together we won six competitions from the mid-90s to the noughties, including the Greenwich Millennium Village. The best thing about that, in the long run, was getting legendary Ralph Erskine – a British architect who’d long decamped to Sweden, and was then in his 80s – on board. His masterplan included new wetlands for wildfowl that today provide their wonderful microclimate.
How do you see the future?
Three quarters of people in the UK now live in local authority areas that have declared a climate and ecological emergency. All because of Greta! And nowhere does this matter more than in the construction industry. Construction uses half the harvested raw materials, and accounts for half our carbon emissions. It generates 60% of our total waste annually. If we can sort out the way we procure, inhabit and restore (not demolish) buildings, we’ll have a real impact. It’s why we built the Waste House in Brighton: Europe’s first building made from over 90% material other people threw away. We recently added tiles made from oyster shells from English’s restaurant, which gets through about 1,000 oyster shells a week.
For the last 25 years people have been writing sustainability strategies and shelving them. Now plans are actually being implemented; sustainability is becoming economically attractive. We are moving towards a circular economy: designing things for perpetual use, not throwing them away. I’m really sad about the things we’re losing – watching the Amazon and Arctic burn, watching Australia burn.... But I’m determinedly rolling up my sleeves and doing something. We have to. We’ve got kids.