Michael Stacey RIBA FRSA is a widely recognised Professor of Architecture and Tectonics at Bartlett School of Architecture / University College London, and Convenor of Michael Stacey Architects. He’s also a leading international expert in the field of aluminium sustainability, whose building designs have been recognised with multiple awards – including the Shapemakers Award for the innovative use of aluminium. He will be coming to Australia later this year to present as part of DECO’s Aluminium Insights series in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Perth.

Here, Michael talks about his fascination with the early Renaissance, the qualities that make aluminium ideal for use in applications within architecture and the built environment – and how the material can assist in advancing transformational action that will protect the living conditions for generations to come.

Tell us a little about your background. What inspired you to get into the field of architecture and academia, and what is your current focus?

I was inspired to study architecture as it combined my interests in art, history, science, maths, and offered a vocational path to serve humankind well by informing the built environment. My interest in materials and technology comes from being brought up in Swansea, South Wales, which at the time was an anode for ‘heavy industry’, as well as being a very beautiful coastal city. I visited Italy before studying architecture having worked on IBM Mainframe computers. I found Florence very inspiring, but I have never drawn a Neoclassical building in my career. It was the dynamism of the early Renaissance that fascinated me and especially the work of Filippo Brunelleschi, whose projects include the dome of Florence Cathedral.

I have undertaken research into architecture and engineering including the relationship between materials, technology, and design. I also teach architecture and engineering to pass on knowledge and skills to the next generation and hopefully contribute more widely to a better built environment.

Has sustainability always been an important part of your career path and academic pursuit?

Sustainability has always been part of my career, having studied architecture shortly after the 1973 energy crisis. At Liverpool School of Architecture, we were encouraged to study and design low energy architecture, which included a very memorable visit to St George’s Secondary School, Wallasey, Merseyside (designed by Emslie A. Morgan in 1961), which was totally passively heated, as well as the newly established Centre of Alternative Technology in Machynlleth, Wales.

It is the slow pace of change that has surprised me and how long it has taken for sustainability to become mainstream. However, as operational energy has been reduced in buildings, the embodied energy and embodied carbon has become of much greater significance in this century. The Towards Sustainable Cities research undertaken for the International Aluminium Institute with Kieran Timberlake (architects from Philadelphia who designed the new American Embassy in London) provided an excellent opportunity to study the in-use carbon benefits of specifying aluminium.

You are a leading international expert in the field of aluminium sustainability, and your building designs have been recognised by national and international awards – including the Shapemakers Award for the innovative use of aluminium. Tell us about your interest in aluminium as a building material, especially in the context of sustainable architecture and construction practices?

I’ve always been interested in new and newer technology. Aluminium has now been used in construction for over 127 years, since 1885. The earliest recorded extant use of aluminium within the realm of architectural construction is a painted ceiling in the Church of St Edmund, King and Martyr, Fenny Bentley near Ashbourne in Derbyshire. My first job in London was working for Foster Associates, with Norman and Wendy Foster on the aluminium clad Headquarters of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank (1985) and the Renault Centre, Swindon (1982). This practice – now Foster + Partners – spotted my combination of research and design skills.

The primary reason for the wide-spread adoption of aluminium for the components of human life – from Apple laptops to curtain walling – is its inherent flexibility, not necessarily its physical flexibility. In some applications its stiffness, provided by a high strength to weight ratio, is of vital importance. In many applications it is the flexibility of designing with aluminium that is key. Aluminium extrusions can adopt complex forms without additional costs, details can be built in that facilitate fabrication processes – such as a screw groove that ensures fixings remain correctly placed or screw ports that enable aluminium sections to be fixed together. Aluminium can be cast, extruded, roll-formed, press-moulded and spun. It can be readily drilled, machined, laser cut, waterjet cut and bonded or welded. It accepts finishes well, offering long term durability.

What are the key factors in the sustainable use of aluminium?

Aluminium can provide beauty and persistence. The versatility of aluminium and its alloys in production, fabrication and finishes delivers high quality and durable architecture that offer significant in-use carbon benefits. Aluminium can contribute towards the creation of sustainable cities – a key task now that over half of humanity lives in urban areas. Aluminium has become a vital yet background material of our contemporary cities. Based on data from 2020 the carbon footprint of UK cities is currently lower than rural areas, for London it is 3.2 tonnes CO2e per person annually, and the UK average is 6.2 tonnes CO2e per person annually, whereas the US average is 15 tonnes CO2e per person annually.

Aluminium has seven primary qualities that make it ideal for use in applications within architecture and the built environment. It is:

  • durable
  • recyclable
  • flexible
  • light and strong
  • efficient
  • economical
  • sympathetic

It is also very conductive, which in many architectural applications is detailed out by combining it with highly insulating materials. This quality is used to keep DECO’s aluminium deck cool in the hot Australian summers.

In 2012, you led the International Aluminium Institute’s ‘Towards Sustainable Cities’ research programme which focused on the benefits of aluminium in architecture and the built environment. What were the findings then, and how have things changed in that last decade?

The Towards Sustainable Cities (TSC) research programme sets out the in-use benefits of specifying aluminium for architecture and infrastructure. The five books publishing this research are available for free online, and are structured around those seven fundamental qualities of aluminium I mentioned earlier.

This research started with durability of aluminium in architecture and infrastructure as this is light metal’s most important contribution to the built environment. The research included the non-destructive testing of three projects where the finishes on aluminium are significantly beyond the original guaranteed timescales: the anodised aluminium windows of the New Bodleian Library, 1940 by Giles Gilbert Scott; the polyester powder coated (PPC) cladding system of Herman Miller, Chippenham, 1983 by Nicholas Grimshaw and Partners; and the bronze anodised curtain walling of I Finsbury Avenue, 1985 by Arup Associates. All were performing well and the full results of this testing are set out in Aluminium and Durability and in a peer reviewed paper by M. Stacey and C. Bayliss, Aluminium and Durability: reviewed by inspection and testing.

Our conclusions on durability include:

  • Aluminium based architecture and infrastructure is more durable than predicted.
  • Aluminium components within a maintained interior, such as a church or library, appear to have an infinite life expectancy.
  • Aluminium components exposed to weather including sun and rain have a life expectancy of over 120 years.
  • Service life of aluminium based windows cladding, and curtain walling should be increased from 40 years to at least 80 years.
  • Aluminium should no longer be thought about as a new material. It has a rich and successful track record in architecture and the built environment, with a performative role and a key place in material culture.

Durability is a key component of sustainability, and more research is needed particularly on all of the components used in curtain walling and window assemblies. Alongside further research on the holistic life cycle assessment of complete façade assemblies.

You’re an author of numerous publications, and the latest one – ‘Aluminium: a studio design guide’ – is about to come out. What is it about?

Aluminium: a studio design guide follows on from my book Concrete: a studio design. It is a visual poem to the use of aluminium in high quality architecture and engineering. It also provides clear and concise information on designing with aluminium. The final chapter is about sustainability and the role of aluminium in achieving Greta Thunberg's statement that: “We can create transformational action that will safeguard the living conditions for future generations”. Collectively, humankind has the means to create low carbon, carbon neutral and energy positive architecture, which tackles the risk of climate change.

Although sustainability is a key challenge of contemporary life, every generation of architecture and engineering students needs to learn how to design and that the world is mutable in their hands. Therefore, this new design guide includes an extensive collection of drawings of many of the projects illustrated. Chapter 2 is about Aluminium Pioneers to set out the history of aluminium in architecture and engineering and hopefully to inspire future pioneers. The book is intended to be accessible for a first-year student but detailed enough to be used in engineering and architectural practice.

Tell us a little about the lectures you’ll be hosting with DECO later this year.

I am looking forward to visiting Australia where I have contributed to build projects, but I am yet to visit. DECO has invited me to present as part of their ‘Aluminium Insights’ series which will be held in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Perth in August and September. The series will focus on aluminium and sustainability, and I’ll be sharing some of my research findings and quantifying evidence on how aluminium offers a sustainable advantage in the built environment.

See Professor Michael Stacey give his lecture Aluminium & Sustainability live at the Aluminium Insights CPD series. Register at www.aluminiuminsights.com.au.