Three people standing against a red earth backdrop
Architects George Massoud, Summer Islam and Paloma Gormley, of Material Cultures. Image: provided

Typical of most countries, 40 per cent of the UK’s carbon emissions are derived from the construction industry – and 11 per cent of that comes from the manufacture of materials. If we’re serious about preventing ecological breakdown, we know we need to change the way we build and what we build with. But how do we do it?

Enter Material Cultures, a non-profit organisation laying the foundations for a new, post carbon model of housing and architecture. 

Led by directors Summer Islam, Paloma Gormley and George Massoud, the team has pioneered new regenerative building materials and construction methods; they’ve developed sustainable, circular, and aesthetically desirable housing (Flat House at Margent Farm in Cambridgeshire); and they’re working with academic institutions and construction technologists to redefine architectural culture for the post-carbon world./

The Phoenix project 

The Phoenix project – a 700-home sustainable development in Lewes, Sussex, England – is their latest project, about to be submitted to the planning department.

It will be a negative carbon development constructed mainly from locally sourced, grown and made timber products.

“We work by a principle called build & design, in which we establish how we want to build before we ask architects to draw detailed designs, ensuring our aims for high-quality, intrinsically sustainable buildings are achieved,” they say in their latest newsletter. 

“This means working closely with engineers to understand how best to use structural timber – a material that is as strong as steel and concrete, but with a fraction of the embodied carbon. We also plan to build with timber cassettes, much of which will be sourced from Sussex woodlands – allowing us to kickstart a local industry and provide training and jobs for local apprentices on site.”

The housing estate will occupy a 7.8 hectare former industrial site that has been derelict for many years on the edge of the town, on the bank of a river. It is designed, following extensive public consultation, to be a case study in placemaking, opening up the riverside to the west of the town, with a series of public squares connecting to a Pleasant riverside path and pedestrian bridge, community canteen, event hall, taproom, fitness centre, workspace and makers’ studios, much of which will be housed within repurposed industrial structures.

Shared courtyards, parks, green corridors and rooftop gardens will enable social interaction, promote communal living and provide habitats for local wildlife.

The masterplan for the Phoenix comprises 18 different housing blocks designed by 12 different architects. This rich mix gives the neighbourhood diversity, character and housing choice, allowing a truly mixed-income neighbourhood. 

The homes are primarily apartments – not apartments as we have come to know them in the UK, but solid, natural, double-aspect homes where air circulates well and natural daylight illuminates the space.

Rooftop garden of the Phoenix Project. Image: provided

Energy and transport

For energy, the estate will make use of a neighbourhood-wide renewable energy system and grid, feeding highly efficient buildings. Electricity will be generated through rooftop solar photovoltaics and off-site renewable energy facilities. Heating will be supplied by ground and water source heat pumps.

The overall strategy embodies a passive house approach, being informed by site-specific climatic analysis for passive, low-energy comfort conditioning, ventilation and daylighting, that utilises analyses of temperature, humidity, solar energy and other factors that affect design.

On the edge of the site will stand the Mobility Hub, which is designed to keep motor vehicles out of the development, keeping the streets safe for walking, cycling and for children to play. Space traditionally used for private driveways can instead be put to communal use: shared courtyards, playgrounds and rain gardens.

The Hub will contain parking spaces, an electric car share, car hire and car club, electric bike service and shuttle bus, vehicle servicing and repair, and a ‘last-mile’ freight facility – carrying goods into the neighbourhood. Services such as car hire will be operated by an app, allowing residents to book vehicles whenever needed, reducing the need to own a private car (aided by the fact that most daily needs can be met within a short walk).

Local timber and material reuse

The new buildings will all be made from structural timber (with the exception of the Mobility Hub). Engineered timber offers the structural strength of ‘traditional’ materials, such as concrete and steel, but with lower embodied carbon. Timber sourced from sustainable, well-managed forests is regenerative – it sequesters carbon, giving timber structure buildings a negative carbon impact overall.

The practice also intends to, as the architect Duncan Baker-Brown has put it, ‘mine the Anthropocene’: that is, reuse materials that have already been created and therefore retain and capture their embodied carbon. In addition to retention of  three industrial heritage structures and their office, Phoenix House, they say, “We are conducting an audit to reveal what site materials can be reused in building structures, such as steel trusses and cladding, brick walls and buttressing, and what can be recycled for ‘cut and fill’ (to level and landscape the site) or reconstituted as bricks.”

Design philosophy

Their new book, Material Reform, enlarges this approach. It is a pocket-sized guide to shaping the built environment for a post-carbon future. Through a series of essays, interwoven with photography by Jess Gough, architects Paloma Gormley, Summer Islam and George Massoud explain what is wrong with contemporary architecture, how it got there, and how it needs to change by rethinking our relationship with materials and the land from which we extract them.

They argue that we need a new model of architecture that is “regenerative, sustainable and better for all”.

“Our current modus operandi can’t support the kinds of futures we envision for ourselves and those to come. As architects, builders, and citizens, we must urgently rethink our relationship to the land and to each other to produce new forms of material practice, culture, and economy in solidarity with people and our landscapes,” says Paloma Gormley.

“The building practices dominating contemporary architecture are rooted in the exploitation of people and the degradation of our landscapes. How can architecture, construction and the built environment shift away from a degenerative practice by rethinking our relationship to the land for the benefit of all life?” asks Massoud.

“We believe that in order to effect significant change, we need to engage with a larger audience, working across disparate industries and at multiple scales. We hope this book will invite more practitioners to engage with the urgency of our social and environmental crisis and the ways in which construction can drive positive change,” answers Summer Islam.

Material Reform is available from

David Thorpe

David Thorpe is the author of ‘One Planet’ Cities: Sustaining Humanity within Planetary Limits and Director of the One Planet Centre Community Interest Company in the UK. More by David Thorpe

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