Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Gale & Snowden's Healthy Buildings in the Financial Times Weekend

On Saturday 03 June 2017, the Financial Times Weekend published a feature on Healthy Buildings with interview content from David Gale.

Architect:  Gale & Snowden Architects Ltd.
Photograph:  The Modern House


Below is the article by Carl Wilkinson in its entirety:

In his 2008 book In Defence of Food, Michael Pollan set out his “Eater’s Manifesto”. It included: “Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn't recognise as food” and “Avoid food products containing ingredients that are a) unfamiliar, b) unpronounceable, c) more than five in number”. We could apply the same rules to the materials we use in our homes.

While interest in healthy food has grown, we still live in homes built from materials that our great-grandparents would be hard-pressed to recognise and containing ingredients most of us could barely pronounce. Now, a handful of architects, designers and companies are questioning the impact of these materials on our health.

Three years ago, David Gale, director of Gale & Snowden Architects in Devon, co-founded the non-profit Building Biology Association — the UK affiliate of the Institute of Building Biology and Sustainability, founded in Germany in 1983. “At the heart of Building Biology,” he says, “lies the notion that nature is the golden principle that we should be designing our buildings to so that, for instance, air and water quality and electromagnetic radiation levels should match nature as closely as possible.”

Gale argues that as homes become more energy efficient, they can also become less healthy. “If you make a building more airtight, badly ventilated and have lots of toxic chemicals in it, you’re going to have problems.”

The research backs him up. A 2014 study by the University of Exeter Medical School found that the greener a home, the less healthy it could be. It concluded that “a unit increase in household Standard Assessment Procedure rating” — the measure of a home’s energy efficiency on a scale of zero to 100 — “was associated with a 2 per cent increased risk of current asthma, with the greatest risk in homes with SAP greater than 71”. New homes in the UK have an average rating of almost 80.

“We’re designing homes and schools where there are no windows that open,” says Amena Warner, head of clinical services for the charity Allergy UK. In a well-sealed environment, temperatures and humidity can rise to create the ideal environment for allergens such as the house dust mite and mould. As a result, Warner says occupants “might get allergic rhinitis — a blocked or runny nose — and they can also get asthma. We know that for the majority of children with asthma it’s driven by allergy.”

According to the housing charity Shelter, England needs to build at least 250,000 new homes each year. Yet could the rush to build be storing up health problems for the future? On the rental side of the market, more than 20 per cent of UK households now rent privately and landlords are incentivised to redecorate cheaply and fill their flats quickly. Many tenants experience what could be called “Queen syndrome”: everywhere smells of fresh paint.

Paint is one of the biggest culprits in an unhealthy home. Walls, ceilings and woodwork are covered with the stuff and home-makeover television shows have normalised the idea of redecorating a room or two over a DIY weekend. Yet, colour aside, how many of us give much thought to what we’re splashing on to our walls (and our skin)?

Paint requires just three ingredients: a pigment (the colour), a solvent (the bit that makes it a liquid), and a binder (which sticks the pigment to the wall). How paint is made has changed little in the past century; what has changed is the source of its components. “We have switched from naturally occurring ingredients to derivatives of the petrochemical industry,” says Edward Bulmer, an architectural historian and interior designer who sells his own brand of environmentally friendly paint.

Bulmer’s Damascene moment came in the early 2000s when he was commissioned to decorate a new part of Goodwood House, an estate in southern England. “I was asked to be very careful about what I used in my work and judge them by two criteria: their environmental impact and their toxicity,” he says. “I was proposing stone and plaster and furniture made from wood, horsehair and leather and curtains of wool. And then I met the paint and thought ‘what is it?’ If you turn a tin of paint round, you can’t tell anything about what’s in it, and if you don’t know the ingredients of something, you can’t judge it.”

Calls to major paint companies drew a blank; their technical departments were unable — or unwilling — to offer a list of ingredients. Instead, they sent data safety sheets. “They are a matter of compliance,” says Bulmer, “but they only tell you about a small minority of the worst ingredients. They don’t tell you about the main bulk of the paint.” So he decided to make his own.

Today, the average can of paint has an ingredient list as long as your arm — much of it toxic or carcinogenic. And given that up to 60 per cent of what goes on the wall then evaporates, if you don’t ventilate your home or allow the paint to off-gas — that is, to allow toxic gases to be dispelled — for long enough you are inhaling a large proportion of that.

Of course paint is not the only building material that can have a health impact. MDF — medium density fibreboard — is a favoured material among builders and carpenters looking to produce cupboards and shelving, and to box in pipes or baths. It can give a very smooth finish and is cheap and easy to work with. The downside is that it is made from extremely fine wood dust held together by copious amounts of glue, which contains formaldehyde.

“It’s the asbestos of tomorrow,” says Gale. “We knew back in the early 1900s that asbestos was dangerous but it wasn’t banned until 1999.” Formaldehyde can also be found in the backing of linoleum flooring, the glue in plywood and other composite materials.

Heating systems, too, can cause health issues. Small, hot radiators not only trap dust in and behind them, but create convection currents that disperse that dust around the room. Underfloor heating is an improvement as the lower temperature warms a room more evenly. Yet some heat is wasted (under sofas etc) and it still creates convection currents. Gale suggests a similar radiant system of pipes that can be fitted into a wall and plastered over, more evenly warming a room without the strong convection currents that disperse dust.

So what can be done? Ventilation is key. The average family of four produces 16 litres of moisture per week. The optimum relative humidity level is 50 to 55 per cent and to combat damp problems in poorly ventilated homes, dehumidifiers such as Meaco’s Low Energy 20L can help regulate levels.

As the UK government is committed to an 80 per cent reduction in carbon emissions by 2050, and new homes must have increased air-tightness to help meet this target, a longer term solution would be to ensure that all new-builds are fitted with more comprehensive ventilation systems.

The gold standard for Passivhaus and energy efficient buildings is Mechanical Ventilation with Heat Recovery. An MVHR system brings in fresh air from outside, using the heat from the stale outgoing air to warm it.

The pursuit of healthier building materials is starting to catch the attention of larger organisations too. Google linked up with the Healthy Building Network in the US last year to work on Portico, an online database of materials that lists all ingredients and rates how healthy they are. The aim is to enable designers, architects and developers to make informed decisions about the buildings that many of us will end up living and working in.

Yet for homeowners looking to redecorate, Gale has his own basic manifesto. “As a general rule,” he says, “the more natural the better.”


Architect:  Gale & Snowden Architects Ltd.
Photograph:  The Modern House

To find out more about Gale & Snowden and healthy buildings, please visit our website.

For more information on Building Biology please visit Building Biology Association.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

We are looking for new team members!

Gale & Snowden Architects is seeking inspiring individuals to join our team.





We are currently looking for Architects, Architectural Technologists and Part 2 Architectural Assistants with 2-3 years experience, to work on a variety of exciting low energy, healthy and ecological projects.  We are a long established practice with a multidisciplinary team that specialises in integrated ecological and healthy design.  We are looking for caring individuals who are committed to producing excellent architecture and enhancing our environment.   


Please visit our website for further information, or please get in touch by telephone or email and send CVs for the attention of Maria Gale here.


26 Passivhaus apartments in Exeter

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

G&S to present at The Green Register's Bite-Size Session: An architect and client's approach to holistic, healthy and sustainable design

Gale & Snowden is set to join forces with one of our clients, away from the building site, to present a combined experience of designing and self-building a new family home incorporating some of the most challenging building standards including Passivhaus and Buiding Biology.



'Sherwood', a four bedroom house, is nearing completion in the Devonshire countryside.  The project includes:
  • Permaculture landscape design with forest garden, reed bed sewage system and aquaculture design
  • Passivhaus design with PV renewable energy generation on site, wood burner with back boiler to generate heating and hot water
  • Healthy design strategies: best practice daylight, high comfort levels throughout, optimum air quality to SBM 2015 (standard for Bau Biology testing), optimum water quality, specification of natural and local materials where practical, focus on suppliers that provide a full content declaration of their products, low VOC materials and paints throughout, no PVC, hygienic easy cleanable finishes, use of hygroscopic materials to regulate internal humidity, radiative wall heating systems for comfort and to minimise spillage of dust, Low EMF wiring, specification of glazing that has minimum impact on the light spectrum, low energy artificial lighting design that supports the natural circadian rhythm etc.
The Green Register is continuing its series of Bite-Size Sessions in Bristol with this presentation on 18th April 2017.  Further information and booking details are available now via The Green Register.

Gale & Snowden Director, Tomas Gärtner, and client, Hugh Saxby, will be sharing their experience of the journey from a designer's, specifier's, and end-user's perspective.






Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Progress on-site for more Council homes in the South West

Work on two social housing schemes is progressing well on-site and the next generation of council-owned homes are being realised for two Local Authorities in the South West.

Work commenced in September on 26 new flats in adjacent to Rennes Tower, Pinhoe, Exeter which signify the latest and largest housing development that Gale & Snowden Architects has undertaken with Exeter City Council (ECC).  The Passivhaus scheme, incorporating Building Biology principles, marks almost ten years of teamwork, delivering low energy, healthy homes for Council tenants. The design represents the latest step in Gale & Snowden’s evolutionary approach to Passivhaus aimed at reducing costs, simplifying and speeding up construction, enhancing collaboration with the contractor, and optimising building performance for future climate scenarios.

The four-storey development on Vaughan Road is being built by CG Fry with whom G&S worked on Reed Walk and Bevan House, two previous ECC housing schemes which were completed in 2015 and 2013 respectively.  Once complete, it will take the tally of G&S Passivhaus social housing units in Exeter over the 100 mark!


Aerial image courtesy of Beton Bauen Limited

26 Passivhaus flats for Exeter City Council
Gale & Snowden Architects Ltd.

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Meanwhile, up the M5, five sites in Lawrence Weston, Bristol are being developed with Bristol City Council.  As part of the second wave of Bristol’s New Build Council House programme, the scheme takes previously undeveloped, council-owned sites and provides a mix of family houses and bungalows of various sizes to meet local demand.

Using a simple palette of robust materials, the design and detailing is common throughout the units to create a contemporary take on the local vernacular and provide a cohesive aesthetic between the sites.  

Passivhaus terraced housing for Bristol City Council
Gale & Snowden Architects Ltd.

Passivhaus terraced housing for Bristol City Council
Gale & Snowden Architects Ltd.


Building on Gale & Snowden's previous experience with Passivhaus, both of these projects for Exeter and Bristol City Councils explore an alternative construction methodology based around monolithic clay external walls.  These large format blocks and thin bed mortar system allow for increased speed of construction and, once the homes are finished, the hygroscopic properties of the clay blocks buffer and moderate humidity levels providing a stable, healthy internal environment.

Both schemes are due for completion in 2017.  Please follow us on Twitter for site progress updates.



Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Gale & Snowden at the IBN Building Biology Consultants Conference

Last week, Gale & Snowden Architects were lucky enough to be invited to the IBN Building Biology Consultants Conference, held at Verden, Germany. 

Being the only consultancy in the UK that is registered with the IBN as an IBN consultant, Gale & Snowden Architects were pleased to be part of the occasion. We met some wonderful people, learnt a great deal, and G&S representatives David and Tomas presented to the delegates on Saturday morning.



Gale & Snowden's presentation included the practice's approach to ecological design and our work with the IBN Building Biology Institute for a new leisure building in the centre of Exeter, planned to be the first Passivhaus Certified and Building Biology compliant leisure building in the world. One of the highlights of the conference was seeing the five-storey straw bale building where the conference was being held - Marvellous! 

Thank you to our friends at the IBN for organising the Conference and making us feel so welcome.

Visit our website to find out more about Gale & Snowden's ecological approach to design, or follow us on twitter @galeandsnowden for the latest updates.



Thursday, 21 July 2016

Overheating and Climate Change Adaptation - Design for Resilience and Troubleshooting

As temperatures earlier this week reached upwards of 30ºC in Bideford and Exeter - with even higher temperatures elsewhere - the importance of designing buildings for summer comfort, and to avoid overheating, becomes more apparent. 

The highest UK temperature on Tuesday was recorded in Oxfordshire peaking at 33.5°C, and although this is by no means as hot as other parts of the world, the UK is not used to elevated temperatures and sustained bouts of heat. The high temperatures, unsurprisingly, resulted in widespread disruption of services, productivity, and sleep patterns.

As the UK typically experiences mild winters and summers, our built environment and its residents have little resilience to cope with, and adapt to, any extremes in temperature. The recent heatwave only lasted a couple of days, however the trend over the past ten years has shown that heat waves are becoming a regular occurrence in the UK. The trends suggest more prolonged heatwaves are likely to occur in the future.



Summer temperature change to 2080 

against a medium C02 emission scenario 

Yesterday's Guardian reported that June was the hottest recorded since 1880, and that:

"as the string of record-breaking global temperatures continues unabated, June 2016 marks the 14th consecutive month of record-breaking heat"

This report adds to the growing evidence of rising global temperatures and climate change currently occurring.

At Gale & Snowden, we are also seeing an increased trend of consultancy and troubleshooting projects  assessing overheating and comfort issues both in the home and in the workplace.   These are not old properties, instead more modern buildings - the more we insulate buildings, the more we have to ensure the design is correct in terms of orientation, glazing ratios, construction mass and ventilation strategies.

G&S were recently employed to troubleshoot two modern developments both located on the coast that had been overheating for more than 50% of the year - even with our mild summers.   Upon investigation there was seemingly no clear design for summer ventilation in terms of openings, construction mass or cross/stack ventilation; too much south facing glazing with little shading for summer solar gain were typically highlighted as areas to target.   We have found similar issues with offices that we have troubleshooted, here however, the added IT loads have exaggerated the issue.   

Whilst it’s a great idea to harvest solar gain in winter; designs have to be mindful of summer solar gain also.   

Another area where designs fall down is that the weather files used are typically based on past weather data, rather than likely future weather patterns.  G&S design using future weather files as developed by Exeter University's Prometheus project.

Global Mean Temperatures

Here a number of future weather scenarios have been generated each based on a range of different carbon emission scenarios.  Depending on the project, whether it be commercial or domestic, we will assess the risk to the user group (i.e. vulnerable elderly) or commercial risk to the building operation, and then decide on the most appropriate future weather files to use.  By doing so G&S can design in adaptability and resilience at the outset to the effects of overheating. 


Care Home Design for climate change and resilience to overheating

Gale & Snowden Architects offer two services that address the issue of climate change and overheating in the built environment.  Firstly, a climate change adaptation design consultancy service is offered where projects are analysed using future weather files, thermal modelling and carrying out climate change risk assessments.  This can address issues such as overheating, flooding, wind-driven rain, and water shortage.  The second service is a troubleshooting and fine-tuning service where buildings are assessed and tested using a wide range of instruments and tools, for example to test for overheating or poorly performing building services plant and controls.   See below for further details:



If you are experiencing overheating in any of your buildings and finding they are struggling to perform as intended then please contact us and we will do our best to help.