Show Me A Change Maker: Derek Clement-Croome

Derek Clements-Croome’s impressive career has focused on designing buildings for people. A leading voice in the developing understanding and education around environmental engineering, he worked in the building design and contracting industry before entering university life. Firstplanit sat with him to discuss his dynamic perspective on this exciting field.

Interview - Derek Clement-Croome

Firstplanit: Your work has focused on progressing things to be better in the world. What has your aim been throughout your career? I know that that sounds like a giant question.   

Derek Clement-Croome: It is a giant question. In my own case, I left school when I was 16 and didn’t go to university at the normal age. This threw me into the melting pot of the heating and ventilating industry in Birmingham. I was a 16-year-old not knowing anything. It was a really quick learning experience. I did go to university later, but in those early days, there was a big distinction between the architect and the engineer. The engineers were more like servants to the architect.  

There was a lot of emphasis on thermal comfort. But I realised even then that I didn’t know enough about it. Comfort is a very neutral, almost background, sort of state. And our industry is full of things about thermal comfort. I started turning my thinking towards how we feel in various environments. And this led on throughout my career, so the health and wellbeing of the person and how we savour the environment around us has been an important issue. If buildings are for people, then we really must understand how people react to the environment.   

FP: I think that’s really central to our shared experience – do you have good example of a building being for people? I’m sure there are multiple terrible examples.   

DC-C: Well, there’s the new Noumea Cultural Centre in Caledonia, in the Pacific, designed by the Renzo Piano Workshop, which is a naturally ventilated building that gets a lot of praise for its conditions. Then a more recent example is the Olympic building, which is a high-tech building but has been designed with some quite deep consideration of the human condition. I mean, it’s following the Deloitte Edge building in 2015 in a way, and both buildings in Amsterdam, respect the individual and the social dynamic for people in their workplace. The fact they need to make some personal decision about where they work in the workplace, and this is very important psychologically for people who do want a degree of personal control. 

"But if we want to understand how people tick, and how the environment affects their physical body and the human mind, we need a more perceptual model, a central sensory model"

FP: So why do you think sustainable solutions are critical? I guess this is all the more pressing, especially now.   

DC-C: Every human being makes an energy demand throughout their lifetime on the resources that the world can offer, and they produce waste, as well, of course. The danger is that human expectations rise so high that they can’t be met for everyone. Whether it is energy, water, waste or pollution, it’s important to consider the relationship between sustainability and health. Air pollution, for example, results from combustion and increases Co2 levels but lead particles from traffic fumes also causes early onset of Alzheimer’s disease. So, as we demand more, we are also harming our health, not just the environment.   

FP: So, what is your proudest project?   

DC-C: It’s not easy to say. Many sorts of interlinking fields, I suppose. Loosely, if I were to choose two examples, one would be in 1996 I set up the Government funded MSc course in Intelligent Buildings. It was a new course, exploring all the interconnecting things that make an intelligent building work, whether it’s in design or in practice.   

The other thing is – going back to where we first started – I believe that thermal comfort, is limiting. It’s a background. But if we want to understand how people tick, and how the environment affects their physical body and the human mind, we need a more perceptual model, a central multi-sensory model.   

I developed this model called Flourish, which is in my last book, and this takes a perceptual view of a person’s situation by looking at all the various environmental stimuli that are around and how we measure them. Some of them are not easy to measure, others are more objectively measured, to understand the impact on human feelings.   

Another dimension of the model is the economics because if people’s human energy is not being expended in a good way, the health and wellbeing suffers, and the work output suffers, productivity is lower, the interest in the work and engagement is lower. That’s not good for the person, the company and of course, and indirectly the National Health Service. Everybody’s different, but we can find common understandings and conclusions. This is important because only about a quarter or a third of people are fully engaged in their work. 

FP: That’s crazy. That’s a crazy statistic.

DC-C: I think this can improve by taking a more perceptual view of how the environment around us affects us. It’s not just about a comfortable temperature for the whole day. It’s also about looking at all those transient moments, simple, but important for the mind to give contrast and relax the brain.  

Windows connect us with the outside and with that to changing light through days and seasons – affecting us and our concentration- but ultimately relaxing us through micro-breaks and making those connections beyond our workplaces.   

So, I really think it’s important that we pay attention to transient moments as well as the background levels of heat, light and sound and hence to have a more dynamic feel for the environment.   

FP: That’s really insightful, thank you. So, who and where do you look to for inspiration?   

DC-C: I have many heroes and heroines. It would tend to be ones that have social utility, are modest and wise. Of people alive today. I would suggest David Attenborough, Peter Higgs( the person who found the Higgs particle) and the Dalai Lama.   

Of people who have passed on, I respect Hildegard of Bingen, a woman in the 12th century that ran a church in Germany. She was the Abbess, but she also wrote wonderful music, stories, poems. 

Then if you ask where I look to it is in the arts, the science of nature and in music These are all uplifting and stretch my abilities.  

FP: The separation of the arts and the sciences is not helpful, especially when it comes to creativity in things deemed more logical.    

So how has your industry developed since awareness of the impact of sustainability came into play? Because obviously, there’s been some big changes, and it sounds like you were ahead of the curve in thinking about these things.   

DC-C: Well, first of all, remember that the construction industry is much more slowly moving than other sectors like pharmaceuticals, medicine, automotive engineering, and aeronautical engineering.   

To actually build a building in London, a simple office building, will take about five years, it’s also very slow-moving in using modern ideas including technology. And there are so many people involved in the industry. There’s planning, design, then construction, installation. Then there’s the testing, the commissioning and the Post Occupancy Evaluation. We’ve got consultants, we’ve got contractors, we’ve got a client, we’ve got facilities managers and more. And all these people are educated in different ways. And they don’t always have a common language or vision, about things. It makes our industry quite interesting but also a little bit difficult often resulting in fractured decision-making.   

Cheap solutions break down more easily. You then have to pay a bigger price to get things working properly. To add to that if you deny human and social impact and values projects backfire later. I try to get people inspired and motivated to research and design with passion and with well considered knowledge. 

"I believe in a world economy and world circular knowledge"

FP: Okay, so how do you yourself inspire change with teams?

DC-C: Well, what I am doing is teach internationally as well as nationally, so I see other approaches. I write, but I collaborate with practice because I want to share and test out my thoughts with others. I want to learn from others. You know, I want to learn from a range of people that have experience in the building, not just doing the designs, doing the planning, but also the clients who are at the receiving end. This feeds into my work.

I play the violin. There’s – the instrument itself and the technique you do tend to play but then there is the room you’re in. And I observe in general human beings their minds, their technique, their tools, the space around them and how in music for example it responds to sound. Good acoustics are motivating for the player and audience, but poor ones are discouraging as they work against the sound impressions the mind desires.

FP: So it’s all about activity, surroundings and being present in a moment and I think that’s really interesting. 

Okay, so final question, and this one’s a little bit different. Do you see a place where digital solutions can actually create positive change?

DC-C: I’ve known Ankita (The mind behind Firstplanit) for a year or two, and I can feel how she’s trying to develop and do something a bit different.   

I think digitalisation is a servant, not the master. Digitalisation can bring the sharpest and most colourful creative thoughts about things with a solid basis. Digitalisation means you can do things quickly on a larger scale than just writing a book, for example. And this is wonderful. But the human mind is creative and imaginative, and these qualities contribute to great architecture, science and all those things we need for a better world. 

FP: Yeah, it’s that idea of access and making sure that it’s not just information, you know, ‘how to be sustainable’ is not kept in the grip of people who have had access to experts. It’s about levelling, that sustainable playing field, so to speak. 

DC-C: I believe in a world circular knowledge economy, where the older, experienced people with some wisdom share it with the younger people, and young people with dynamic fresh ideas share those with the older people.    

You can find more information on Derek Clements-Croome and is publications here.   

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