Oliver Steele, director at Steele Associates, is a licensed builder and registered architect, with Steele Associates recently winning the Sustainability Awards Best of the Best prize for its 88 Angel Street project.

Architecture and Design spoke to Steele about how his builder and architect training influences his work, how different sectors view sustainability differently, and why we need a new economic model to account for environmental impact.

You have academic and trade-based qualifications. How does that influence your work, compared to if you just had the one qualification?

I’ve learned a lot about design from building things, and a lot about building from designing things. The divide between architects and builders has always struck me as an artifice resulting from the 20th century industrialisation and division of labour approach to buildings. This was an inevitable evolution of the industry, but not the only or even the best method. 

When I’m in the concept design stage, I’ll often have a thought about a specific construction detail and how that will breathe life into the overall form. Then when I’m building I constantly review and refine elements of the design to make sure we get the best outcome. I must admit that sometimes I get lost in one or the other mindset and get on site to look at my own drawings and curse, ‘Bloody architects! How do they think we’re going to make this work?’

You recently won the Sustainability Awards. How do you think the industry views sustainability now?

With infinite diversity. Generalising, I’d say that the creative, professional players such as architects, some engineers and designers are dead keen on sustainability, be it as a modus operandi or a seat on the bandwagon. It’s in their enlightened self-interest to be that way.

The highly financially exposed players such as builders, developers and financers are more conservative and tend to see sustainability as a risk to financial stability, which is nonsensical in the big picture, but makes perfect sense when you’re looking at your one tree in the whole wood. Again this is driven by self-interest, as is all group behavior.

Our aim is to help the conservative players to see that, counter-intuitively, the only way to ensure financial stability is to take sustainability very seriously, very quickly.

What is the biggest influence on sustainable design these days?

Climate change is fairly universally accepted as the most pressing risk, and other concerns like habitat loss, pollution, and biodiversity are a little closer to the backburner while the earth is being tossed around in the flaming wok of global warming.

So there’s a big focus on reducing carbon emissions in material and building production, and in occupation. This is the correct priority in my view, but we do need to be mindful of the pollution impacts of such things as rigid foam insulation, thermal mass materials, and electronic components.

If you could see one thing change in the industry in regards to sustainable design, what would it be?

Simple: Update our flawed economic model to account for environmental impact, rather than treat the environment as an ‘externality’ to the system. This is the crux of the problem we face. We’re using an old economic model developed in a time when it was inconceivable that the earth’s resources could become effectively finite. So obvious, yet such a big change to so many vested interests it’s a tough ask.

Why is sustainability important to you?

Because of all the people ever to be born onto the earth, I’m amongst the luckiest in terms of time and place. I’ve always felt a deep-seated need to make the most of the investment made in me by doing all I can to ensure similar opportunities exist in future. 

What is your philosophy when it comes to sustainable design?

Remain open to new ideas and concepts. Test everything against the knowledge you have; mesh, replace and expand as best you can. Technology and context change constantly, so the response needs to as well. I’m currently falling in love with Passivhaus. It makes so much sense in city living when well-oriented glazing and shading isn’t always possible, where relying on open windows for ventilation means noise and dust, and thermal mass means high embodied energy.

What other project were you impressed by at the Sustainability Awards?

Many. Junglefy’s breathing wall that uses soil microbes to filter air; C+Cs house with an edible fishpond; Archiblox’s house built in six weeks; the innovative student housing – what wasn’t I impressed by? So inspiring and encouraging to be part of such groundswell. Makes me feel like we can do this thing!