Interview with Andy Theobald at Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios

Our first interview of 2023 is with another of our members.  We have been speaking with Andy Theobald, Partner and Group Leader at Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios.

Who are you and what do you do?

I’m Andy Theobald. I’m an architect, a partner and group leader at FCBStudios. I’ve been with the practice since 1988 and oversee the output of one of six groups within the practice. In the HE sector, my group has recently completed a new Faculty of Arts Building for Warwick University, and we are currently working on a major new teaching and learning building for Portsmouth University.  The image shows a group portrait of the team behind the Faculty of Arts building at University of Warwick. Left to right in the photograph: Marcus Rothnie, Felix Summers (Buro Happold ) Andy Theobald, Penny Roberts ( University of Warwick), Alastair Dixon (University of Warwick ), David Harris, Laszlo Balazs. The photo is taken in front of Matthew Raw’s ‘Faith in the Miraculous’ artwork.

What is your proudest accomplishment?

I instantly think of projects like Warwick Faculty of Arts or Manchester School of Art, which was shortlisted for the Stirling Prize, where a large team of people have come together to deliver something really special. 

So, for me, what makes me proud is the teamwork behind the achievement. As the lead architect, I am only one part of a project. Whilst I might be leading the design work, nothing could be achieved without the rest of the architectural team – making decisions, speaking to consultants, working with the client and the communities who will use the building, drawing the buildings, designing details – all doing the right thing at the right time.  

As a group, we have shared sensibilities that we have built up over time. We trust each other to have the right response. We are driven by the shared pursuit and the excitement, the camaraderie, the intellectual challenge that comes with that.  

So, without the team, we couldn’t have created these buildings, and I’m always looking forward to working with the team on the next one.  

What is your favourite thing about your career?

It has been said that in architecture, every project is a prototype. No project is the same and no client is the same, so every project is a fresh start. That’s exciting for me. From engaging with the client team at the beginning of a project to tease out a brief to realising their vision and seeing the building in use. 

That process of taking problems, or challenges, and finding ways to resolve them in a way that seems like the natural outcome is, intellectually, what drives me. Inevitably, design pervades everything, and to be surrounded by likeminded people in the practice – from the senior partners to the year out students – with a joined up pursuit is what makes it happen. 

Describe University Design Forum in a sentence?

A valuable peer to peer network that shares experiences and best practice across designers, contractors and clients in Higher Education institutions. Through knowledge exchange, research and discussion on design quality, the group aims to support the creation of high quality academic and social environments for life in Universities.

What is your contribution to University Design Forum?

FCBStudios have been involved with the group since its inception when Richard Feilden was instrumental in its formation.  We are regular contributors to research projects and publications. More than a third of the practice’s work is in higher education, and to have that kind of a background knowledge to share, and resource at our fingertips, allows us to engage in an overview of the sector and to encourage debate

What does a good HE building mean to you – quote?

A good Higher Education building has to be judged from a number of different standpoints:   

Within the wider context of the university campus, every building makes an impact. Good buildings will draw people to the university, encourage staff and students to spend time on campus and activate the spaces around them. 

From the students perspective, a university (and its buildings) should act as an enabler  – a place that can open up possibilities, and realise potential. It is also a workplace, and a forum for academic staff to interface with the students, researchers, their peers and reflect that potential. 

Buildings need to be able to serve the University into the future. They need to be strong enough in character to be able to enable and manage change in both use and pedagogy, and withstand that with integrity. They also need to be mindful of resources, using them appropriately to lightly impact the planet, and also the university budget! 

Creating a good HE building means balancing all these requirements, to create one integrated whole that all its users will feel ownership of.  

Future of learning: green or bleak?

The future of learning is definitely green. It has to be, from an environmental point of view and Universities are well places to drive that forward and lead by example. 

A great learning environment is a combination of the building and the teaching. It’s one thing to provide the amazing environments but we can’t guarantee the contact time and quality of teaching: the teachers have to take it from there.   

Do you know your carbon footprint? 

We have been tracking our practice carbon footprint since 2006, to help us to lower the impact of our day-to-day practice activities and to keep carbon a part of our conversation and decision making. 

During this time, our records show that our annual carbon emissions halved from an average of 1.6 t per person to 0.8 t per person in 2019/20 – during the pandemic, and then halved again to 0.4t per person in 2020/21 in the following year. In that time, our recording processes have become more accurate and our appreciation of the issues across the practice have increased. We still have some way to go to reduce our carbon footprint to zero without using offsetting.  

Alongside our carbon footprint, we are also members of One Planet Living, looking at wider climate and social sustainability. The practice is committed to designing for and engaging with communities to support sustainable lifestyles and to accommodate different patterns of living, learning and working – for all.

Zero Carbon – 2035 or 2055? 

Zero Carbon needs to happen now.  

Every decision we make, as individuals, as designers, and clients, has to be made with the carbon impact in mind.  

However, this will require compromise. This ‘carbon conscious design’ comes with new constraints – whether that is restriction on how tall you can build with certain structural systems, how you arrange you windows to reduce solar gain, where you might source your materials. Technologies and materials are progressing quickly, but every building has to be designed and building within the abilities we have now.   

There will always be setbacks along the way – from insurance, cost, availability or simple lack of interest from clients (though it is our duty to win them round) and it is important to remember that the realities of offsetting are not as simple as they are sometimes made out to be.   

To achieve zero carbon by 2035, or even by 2055, attitudes and briefs will have to change. It needs bigger moves than just getting a building to be carbon neutral, and we all have to play our part. Otherwise, we simply won’t get there.  

Working from home or office?

Like everything, hybrid working is a balance. In what we do – the design work – there are incredibly important moments that cannot be replaced by virtual working. The intensity of the best design processes takes place around a table, where we meet in person and drawing and problem solving together.  

There is a place for virtual working. When you need to concentrate on a single task, or your work life balance requires it. But ultimately, people still yearn for a place where you can drink coffee together and talk about an idea, or exchange news. And that’s what we are good at – providing those spaces where that comes naturally. 

The execution of the idea though – that is often through intense digital means!

That’s all from Andy for now,  look out for our next interview coming soon …..