The Queen of Concrete

1 Nov 2020

Published in: Selfbuild and Design, November 2020

Elaine Toogood is Head of Architecture at The Concrete Centre – the UK’s hub for material, design and construction guidance related to the use of concrete. She has nearly 25 years’ experience as an architect across a range of design projects including several self-build homes.

In her current role she provides architectural advice, project guidance and technical support related to the use of concrete – mainly through webinars, events and publications. Elaine’s particular expertise is sustainable and visual concrete, and flood resilient design. 
Do you have any tips for people building their own home?
My dad was in the army and so we moved around a lot, which means I had numerous childhood homes all over the world. From a contemporary ground floor apartment in Hong Kong, to a semi-detached house in Germany built in the 60’s. Each had to be left in the state you moved in, so we got really good at making them our homes just using our belongings. It gave me an early understanding of how very different homes and cultures could be, and the impact that the design of a building can have on the way you live in it.

What inspired you to become an architect?
I remember the precise moment that I decided that I was going to join the profession, which was during a construction lesson on my degree course about the three-way tolerances you needed to consider for fixing a concrete cladding panel. In hindsight it seems I was destined to end up specialising in concrete.

What attracted you to work in concrete?
Concrete is an amazing material. It is so versatile and as an architect concrete offers huge opportunities for creativity with different textures, colours and forms. But even when hidden it can bring positive benefits to a building – longevity, low maintenance, thermal mass, sound insulation, fire resistance.

I was also impressed by the concrete industry’s commitment to sustainability and innovation of the material. Carbon capturing, self-healing, water permeable and bio-receptive concretes are just some of the innovative new kinds of concrete in various stage of development that have the potential to revolutionise our built environment. It is a very exciting time.

What’s the most enjoyable part of your job?
I’ve had the privilege of working on so many amazing projects – from London Bridge station and other major developments to one off houses – and I love being able to help people. It’s so rewarding to be told that that the advice and technical support you gave was genuinely useful. I’m always on the lookout for projects with great uses of concrete for our events and publications. I really enjoy giving design and construction teams a means of sharing their experiences to help inspire others – myself included. 

What advice are you most frequently asked for?
People regularly come to me asking how they can reduce the carbon footprint of a building using concrete. The solution I offer is the simplest of all: talking to people! There is a huge array of low carbon concretes available today that don’t have a significant impact on cost or build programmes.

These are really easy to specify but it’s often the case that people are simply unaware of the choices – you just need to ask your supplier, and I think more people are now doing this. We’re lucky in the UK that the concrete industry has long been committed to sustainability. This is especially important since almost all the concrete used here is made here from local, responsibly sourced materials. 

What are some of your favourite contemporary homes? 
Outhouse by Loyn and Co has to be one of my favourites, particularly the way it is embedded into the landscape and designed to age gracefully. The architects really explored the opportunities that the concrete could provide with great attention to detail – both creatively and practically. Underhill House is another favourite, nestled into its setting. It was actually the first Passivhaus-approved dwelling in England and is a great example of building in energy efficiency using the fabric of the building.

There have been some other really exciting homes built recently using offsite concrete construction. Hill Top House by Adrian James architects ingeniously slots a readymade concrete structure into an existing terrace, while the front and back facades were designed to suit the adjacent context as required. But I must admit to being partial to board marked concrete and that puts Pear Tree House, by Edgley Design, high on my list.

Have you noticed any recent trends?
Most new UK houses use a concrete structure – the blockwork in a cavity wall for example – you just don’t often see it. But there has been a growing trend to expose concrete on the inside of houses – including polished floors and exposed feature walls.  I think apart from the aesthetic appeal, this is due to a growing awareness of concrete’s thermal mass benefits. By this I mean the way it can naturally keep a space at a comfortable temperature by absorbing and releasing heat slowly to improve the energy efficiency of the building.  

And do you have any predictions about trends for the future?
During lockdown access to nature and outside spaces has become more precious.  Combined with a growing awareness of the impact of buildings on our health and wellbeing and more home working, this will hopefully make us think more carefully about the performance quality of new homes.  

This is particularly key as we continue to adapt to climate change, where we need to ensure our buildings are more resilient, help to look after us, save energy and are appropriately designed to cope with future weather conditions.  

Describe your current home
I am lucky enough to live in two homes, my place in Deptford, London where I have lived for 20 years – an old corner shop built in the late 1800’s – and my partner’s bungalow in Whitstable. Both still need a lot of work! In Whitstable we ripped out the central heating when it broke down and are currently propping up part of the roof where it is rotten through. We plan to cope like that until we get planning permission to knock the whole thing down and rebuild.

What are your plans for the future?
Our Whitstable rebuild! The existing bungalow is timber frame and impractical to retrofit efficiently. I have planned out the replacement property so that we can build it in stages. Something modest – but very energy efficient – and in concrete of course! The plot has a great aspect which means we can optimise the passive solar benefits using thermal mass and solar panels on the roof. I expect we will be quite hands on, and I’m looking forward to casting my own board-marked concrete walls. 

Do you have any tips for people building their own home?

  • For me it’s all about forward planning. Build in sufficient contingency for time and money. As my Dad always said, when you start excavating you often come across something unexpected, but it is never extra money or manpower! 
  • Spend sufficient time early on getting the design worked out – drawings are much cheaper to change than walls.  Get the orientation right. You can make a significant difference to the energy bills and comfort of a home just through its positioning. 
  • A house should last for a very, very long time and we know that our weather patterns are changing. Take into account current and future environmental conditions to make sure your house will be comfortable and safe for the long term. It is far easier and cost effective to build in some resilience measures now than have to think about them later. This can include measures you can embed to keep your building cool enough in future warmer weather, such as through shading, thermal mass and ventilation.
  • Establish the flood risk to your property now but also in 50 years’ time – you might be surprised. You don’t have to be close to a river or the sea to be at risk. Surface water flooding can damage even hill top properties.

Written by - Elaine Toogood, head of architecture at The Concrete Centre