On Design: Laira Piccinato

Laira is an award-winning architect, an accredited Passive House designer and a specialist in sustainable  design. She leads the HollandGreen vision to design ethical buildings and landscapes via practical sustainable solutions that realise beautiful and timeless design.

Photography by Martin Gardner

Tell me a little bit about your practice. HollandGreen is a multidisciplinary residential design studio of architects, interior designers and landscape designers. We have a collaborative approach that forges a strong bond with our clients, which is really creative, and we focus on giving an exceptional experience across the whole design  and build journey. The breadth and holistic nature of our experience across the three disciplines, all under one roof, makes us unique as a practice.

How would you sum up your design ethos? To create uniquely beautiful homes  with a timeless design quality and which are sustainable for future generations – ethical  design is really important to us. Each commission is a bespoke response to our clients’ individual needs and the characteristics of their property  and location, whether town or country. We are  working to meet the RIBA 2030 Sustainable Outcomes initiative, delivering projects that vastly reduce energy consumption and are ‘zero carbon’. We also support the UK charity Woodland Heritage, offsetting the carbon used in our projects by planting trees in British woodlands through donations.

On Design: Laira Piccinato

HollandGreen’s builds are both beautiful and sustainable

Tell me about the role of sustainability at Hollandgreen. It was already a big focus, but now it’s the bedrock of everything we’re  doing moving forwards. With the effects of climate change now at the forefront of everyone’s minds, it can no longer be something we focus  on ‘later’; the world seems to have finally had an ‘aha’ moment and it’s honestly a huge relief  to us as we’ve been working on pushing this agenda for a long time. I’m excited to be part of delivering the commitments we’re making as leaders in our industry.

A ‘Fabric First’ approach is always our starting point – ensuring walls, floors and roofs are designed to the highest standards with the most efficient insulation values we can feasibly achieve within budgetary and other constraints. We make sure that solar gains are mitigated, natural light  is maximised and energy is not lost so that we know we have a good design to start with, before considering what technology to employ.

Are clients increasingly more mindful about creating greener homes?  Yes absolutely. Whereas perhaps 10 years ago it might have been a challenge, now our clients  are coming to us with sustainability as one of  their main focuses. Many are well informed –  they have a good idea of what they want to achieve, and this makes for a great collaborative approach to designing.

Not withstanding our Fabric First approach, every project has some element of sustainable technology as standard – be that heat pumps, micro power generation and batteries to store that power, such as Tesla Power walls, or MVHR systems (that’s ‘mechanical ventilation with heat recovery’) delivering fresh filtered air into a building while retaining the energy used to heat it.  These are all standard practice for us, and our goal to meet the RIBA 2030 Sustainable Outcomes is a journey our clients are excited to be on with us. 

How does the notion of wellbeing tie in with sustainability? Without wellbeing, I don’t believe there is such a thing as sustainability. If a building is super insulated with all the bells and whistles of technology but people hate being in it, then we have failed as designers and the building has failed as a place where people want to be – ultimately it will get torn down and the efforts to make it energy efficient will have been futile. We need to design buildings that are inspirational, making people feel great physically and emotionally, while being super energy efficient  – only then will we have succeeded. And it’s not just humans we need to think about, we need to design with the wellbeing of the whole of the natural world in mind – not be in conflict with it. This may sound a utopian point of view, but I believe this is the type of thinking that’s needed.

Can you tell me about the kind of sustainable build practices that aren’t immediately obvious to homeowners? Homeowners are typically well informed on the technologies they may be able to employ because of media coverage. Then as designers we go into a deep dive with them on what is possible on their own projects. However, I think the Fabric First approach is something that isn’t always immediately obvious, and our clients welcome this. It’s the foundation to any good design –  from a sustainability point of view and also in terms of energy cost savings in the longer-term.

On Design: Laira Piccinato

When it comes to sourcing materials, fixtures and furniture pieces, how do you minimise the impact on the environment? If we can, we source our materials and products with artisans and craftspeople local to the project site. We’re honest enough to say this is not always easy, but our goal is to deliver sustainable solutions through the furniture and finishes as well as the building fabric, and of course this supports British and local businesses, too. We look at the manufacturer’s sustainability policies and always choose non-toxic and VOC (meaning solvents) free materials. One of my favourite materials is UK-provenance vegan leather across interior furnishings.

How do you see the future of sustainable homes? In big picture thinking, I see the future as newly built homes which are so energy efficient, they generate more energy than they consume and then export the surplus energy out onto the national grid. So as a country we create new housing stock that can be part of our nation’s power generation strategy. Where homes (and buildings in general) use much carbon and energy at the moment, as we go forward, new  ones built can become part of the solution – it’s  a really exciting prospect. If all new homes acted as mini power stations, imagine the impact that would have not only to our collective fight against climate change but also to the UK’s energy demand, it’s a win-win.