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Big interview: Ditch the 'green bling' and create buildings that use less energy, says Forum for Built Environment chairman

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Written by: Admin | Posted 08 April 2015 16:07

Bristol should move away from the “green bling” of solar panels and build offices that use less energy instead, according to a leading light in the construction industry.

Peter Harris, director of engineering firm Silcock Dawson based in Colston Tower, believes that approach would make Bristol greener for longer.

“Bristol is the European Green Capital, which is fantastic,” says Peter, who is the current chairman of the Great Western branch of the Forum for the Built Environment.

While he is firm believer in creating a greener future for his children and grandchildren, Peter’s not so sure Bristol is going about it the right way by requiring that new buildings generate 20 per cent of their energy from renewable sources.

“I think sometimes we look at green bling, as oppose to really looking at how we develop our buildings,” he says.

“ I look at creating buildings which have an ability to moderate their own climate and have less reliance on energy naturally as oppose to putting on solar panels to generate electricity.

“The problem with putting on solar panels is they have a life cycle and have to be removed and renewed after 25 years. They are a planning requirement in the city at the moment, but there’s no legislation in place that says after 25 years you’ve got to replace them.

“My view is that you put the same amount of money into the fabric and instead of saying you have to have a 20 per cent energy from renewables, you say the building has to have a 20 per cent reduction in carbon emissions.

“That way, that 20 per cent reduction stays with the building for its whole life, not just 25 years of a 100 year life.

“We’re creating a legacy for our kids and their kids and that has to look at how we manage our carbon resources better and the way we do that is by moderating their own climate.

“We create a building which meets the needs of the people who are going to occupy it without compromising the needs of future generations and that’s a real challenge to our industry. I see that as the way we should be looking forward to create something we are proud of that lasts the test of time.”

But that approach would require a change in mind set from people who use the offices.

“We’ve got to get used to doing things differently like not having buildings with ceilings,” he says. “If you don’t have a ceiling the concrete mass absorbs the heat over a period of time so temperature is moderated, then it cools overnight.

“There’s no fans, you can’t turn it up and down, it is a building moderating its own climate. We have to become used to working in an environment that is less controlled than it is now. People won’t be able to turn the temperature up or down two degrees.”

At 59, Peter has been around the city’s construction industry for more than a few years so it’s no surprise he has a few opinions on how things could be done better.

He sees the residents parking schemes as hampering businesses in Clifton, for example.

“We’ve got clients in Clifton who are destroyed by this,” he says. “The first opportunity they get, they will move. Has it made life better for residents? I don’t know. But it has made it harder for businesses.”

And wonders whether the long-awaited arena will benefit local businesses as much as it should.

“From an FBE point of view, we were disappointed there were no Bristol architects on the short list for the arena,” he says.

“They were all fantastic architects but I had a message from George (Ferguson) asking for my rates the other day but I thought, we’re paying for this but where is the Bristol involvement?”

He’s concerned at the amount of student accommodation coming popping up in the city centre, at the expense of office space.

“There doesn’t seem to be much grade A office activity and what there is has let pretty quickly,” he says. “But we seem to be building an awful lot of student accommodation and I can only think site yields are at the right levels for that right now but I do feel we are missing an opportunity by giving over a whole tranche of the city to students.

“I’m not knocking student accommodation but from a business rates point of view it’s not that good.”

One things Peter is a big advocate for is building relationships. That’s why he’s been a member of the forum since 1983, and why he encourages the rising stars in his own company to follow his example.

“I’ve got relationships which go back to 1983 with people and I know them really well,” he says. “It’s easy when everything’s going really well. But when things are not going so well, it means you have the strength of relationships with people you have known for 20 or 30 years to ring them up and say ‘we’ve got a bloody problem, how are we going to sort this out’. It means things are resolved on that level, rather than getting the letter or email that drops in and you think ‘oh flipping heck’.

“I know personally the chief executives and chairman of a lot of organisations in Bristol and I’ve known them since they were at the same junior level as I was. That is invaluable.”

The forum is an organisation that brings together different professionals within the construction industry, from designers through to developers, main contractors and suppliers but mostly the first tier rather than smaller tradesmen.

This month, Peter hands over the role of chairman to Eric Livingston, a partner specialising in construction at the law firms Thrings, based off Victoria Street.

Eric is a little less forthcoming in his views but just as passionate about the benefits of the organisation.

“It’s not the classic hand-shake networking at a breakfast meeting,” he says. “It’s more of a slower build resulting in really strong peer to peer relationships.”

The forum holds a few big events, the black tie Brunel Dinner in November, the slightly lighter AGM dinner and than the merry-making Christmas lunch.

“The Brunel Dinner is the event to be at within the industry in this area,” says Eric. “We sold 400 covers in just five days last time.”

As he looks forward to his tenure, Eric wants to take the reach beyond the city centre with more site visits to projects around the vibrant fringes of Bristol, and perhaps work more closely with the Women in Property networking group.

“One thing I’ve got in mind is taking consultation from membership and those who come to events to get feel for what organisation would like to do,” he says. “I would like to communicate more effectively, perhaps using social media more.”

Looking to the future more widely, Eric sees changes in its character but plenty of potential.

“There will be a drift of professional services firms down the hill from Clifton, particularly since residents parking was introduced,” he says.

“There’s a shift in the city centre too. While the student accommodation and residential properties move into the city centre, the new developments for office space is more focused on the Temple Meads area.

“It’s important to get Temple Meads to work and to connect to the rest of the city. The Finzels Reach bridge will help, but those linkages are crucial.”

Just like the connections made through networking groups such as the Forum for the Built Environment, they will pay back the investment over time.


Name: Eric Livingston,

Age: 42

Title: Partner at Thrings, specialising in construction, and vice chairman of the Great Western Forum for the Built Environment, becoming chairman later this month

First job: Kitchen porter at the local hospital in Southport on Sundays and holidays

Education: Law at Bristol University

Working day: Nominally 9-5 but some breakfast meetings but more likely later finish, 7 or 7.30pm and sometimes later. At the moment we have some work with American clients so we’re working to their time. Work does continue at home. Electronic working keeps us flexible. I’ve got a young family so if that means I can leave to see them or go to parents’ evening that’s fine.

Downtime: My children are five and seven so they are big part of it. They really like cycling at Canford Park, though my little boy is just learning on stabilisers. I’m an Everton fan and we took the kids for the first time recently. It was a challenge to get them up there and get them shouting for Everton!

TV: Typically a BBC 9pm drama, perhaps a thriller, Line of Duty last year was very good. We watched Wolf Hall which was quite hard to follow!


Name: Peter Harris

Age: 59

Title: Director at engineering firm Silcock Dawson, chairman of the Great Western Forum for the Built Environment

First job: Worked for Hales’ Cakes in Clevedon in summer breaks at school and college unloading hot buns off the end of ovens. I was on the apply and cherry pies. You put one aside and eat it when it was cool enough, then put another aside to cool

Education: Engineering at Bristol Polytechnic, which is now UWE

Working day: I’m an early bird so I like to be in before 8 but away by 6pm at the latest. I believe in work life balance and try to instil in my guys that I’m not judging you by the number of hours you do behind a desk but by the quality of what you do in that time. My day involves managing the office and numbers but because we are not massive all the directors are hands on and run our own projects, which keeps us hands on and honest.

Downtime: We bought a house five years ago and I think I’ve spent five years doing it up, My daughter bought a house last year and I think I’ll be doing that up next! I like photography, cycling and golf but mostly business golf, I resigned my club membership last year. My wife and I are season ticket holders at Bath Rugby Club and go across for the home games. We support Bath because we live in Somerset.

Music: I’ve got close to 1,000 (vinyl) albums. My favourite is Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd. But can happily listen to Madame Butterfly too.

TV: The first series of Broadchurch was brilliant, the second was very good.



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