Portrait of resilience #1: meet Hackney’s Daniel Pope

As part of the Climate Refresh series, Eastlondonlines has interviewed four local environmental champions to ask how they stay positive in a time of apathy and anxiety. First up, the architect Daniel Pope

Name:Daniel Pope
Occupation:architect and ceramic materials researcher
Top Tip:“Stop looking randomly for sustainability problems to fix and think first about the places and activities you love.”

Tell us about the sustainability challenge you’re working on:

I’m currently looking at a huge problem we have in the UK related to how we insulate our existing housing stock. In London, brick makes up most of the residential buildings we see all around us, which means solid wall terraces with no cavity space. These types of structures, while great in terms of durability, are really poor when it comes to insulating, and as a result, poor insulation is contributing to 14 per cent of UK carbon emissions. It’s bad for the planet and it’s expensive for people so really insulating our homes should be one of the government’s top priorities.

Do you remember when you first took an interest in sustainability?:

I was always interested in clay, I think it’s a beautiful material and I’m really drawn to materials that are locally abundant. In London, before it was a metropolitan city, it was a landscape of dug-up brick fields, with most buildings using the local clay to create simple homes.

Studying at the Bartlett School of Architecture, I kept coming back to this idea of how to revive that type of localised material practice and as part of my research I looked at solutions to insulate brick buildings. I realised most retrofit projects relied on toxic petrochemicals to over-clad bricks, with render then being applied to seal everything in. The problem with this method is, it traps moisture inside, causing rising damp, black mould, and of course it has negative impacts on the health of residents. On top of that, the approach massively shortens the lifespan of buildings from 150-250 years to closer to 20. So for me it was a gaping problem and that’s when the concept of sustainability really came into the mix. 

How are you working to solve this environmental problem?: 

When I first started thinking about solutions to the retrofit problem, I began by revisiting the existing material culture of the area and realised we were still sitting on this huge stockpile of London clay. Not only that, but big developers were constantly digging out and extracting the material for construction, sending the majority of it to be dumped in landfill. I just thought, why aren’t we using that durable, breathable, natural material? So my current project explores ways you can create new insulated solutions by wrapping existing houses in a layer of cavity-filled, 3D-printed clay bricks.

We 3D scan the existing architecture and use robots to print clay bricks that perfectly wrap around the structures. This allows us to create an insulating veneer that also preserves the character details of the buildings, like skirting around external window and door frames or, on older buildings, ornate stone carvings. The challenge is really providing over-cladding in a sustainable material, whilst not destroying the personality of historic cityscapes. I like to think it’s conservation, insulation and innovation wrapped up in a warm hug.

Dan producing proof of concept bricks at Here East, Hackney Wick, Pic: Kate Balding

How do you experience climate fatigue or anxiety?:

It’s funny, the anxiety is something I mainly feel outside of work and sometimes I think seriously about whether I would want kids. But when I’m working, I find I actually do well within constraints and I like to have a reason why I’m doing something. So, in that sense, the fear has also been a source of motivation.

Of course, there are days where I feel like I can’t keep up, that we aren’t working fast enough, but focusing on a small area where I can apply my interests to make a difference, that helps keep the momentum. That and mentorship. I’ve had the most incredible mentor in Sabine Zetteler who saw something in me and by spotlighting my work it provided a huge boost to carry on. She reminds me that people and communities have an incredible capacity to bring you up, and I try to do the same by encouraging others into the sustainability space. 

Any parting advice for how to get through climate fatigue or anxiety?:

This might sound controversial, but in a way, I think we need to step away from the sustainability-first approach. As an architect I love design. That’s what gets my creative juices flowing, and whilst I’m fully behind sustainability, I understand why, for most people, it’s just not what gets them up in the morning. So I think my advice would be to stop randomly looking for sustainability problems to fix and think first about the places and activities you love. Then, from there, you can work out ways to bring sustainability in to make that hobby, job or community even better. I think that’s how you get through fatigue, make a difference and find a way to remain inspired.   

I also think we can’t cling on to the idea of “getting back” to something lost. Part of life is that things change, and that also means we can discover new and interesting ways of doing things, better ways of doing things. For me, there’s so much excitement in that and where society can go. In architecture maybe it’s new material practices, extending community co-design, or bringing artists into architectural vision boards. You can do all this while still honouring roots and heritage but you gain all this freedom to explore.

The process of 3D printing clay bricks for retrofit out of London clay.
Pics: Kate Balding

Want to learn more about local responses to the climate crisis? See the rest of the Climate Refresh series here.

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