Sean Clifton (Jestico+Whiles): Green design in an era of inflation & plague

Robert McLean

#cee, #proptech, #development a #architecture

Urban Créme HotelSean Clifton took the interview at a high table at one end of the single, long room that accommodates the Jestico+Whiles studio. He’s led the Smichov-based practice since 2001, when the company was busy with a pair of major projects, including a hotel for Vienna Group’s first Prague hotel just down in Anděl. Much has changed in the city since then, not least the hotel market. As it happens, one of the topics of interview involves the 7th hotel project in Prague – the renovation of a former post office on Opletalova street near the Masaryk station.

Inflation has also had the unprecedented effect of speeding up construction work, says Clifton at a time when hotel operators aren’t exactly under pressure to open ASAP. “As prices of materials started to go up, contractors started suddenly working really quickly because they needed to finish projects.” While certain materials are so hard to procure that new build projects are being delayed, most of the supplies and labor needed for renovation projects are not in short supply. In short, the hotel was completed months sooner than anticipated – and sooner than Clifton’s team could complete the interior design plans. The cumulative effect of these weird conditions has brought about a rather novel atmosphere of improvisation.

Clifton explains that the investor’s hotels always have a color-based theme and because the building was originally a bank (before being converted for postal uses), the color for the new 4-star hotel will be gold. “We wanted to have gold touches on the furniture,” says Clifton, introducing some of the new challenges of the post-pandemic era. “In some cases, we’re using gold paint but for a lot of the furniture we’re using gold laminates which are quite expensive. But these things are not available as it turns out. You can’t get it. It was a standard thing that you’d normally order and it would be there next week.” As with steel, bricks and certain types of insulation, ordering furniture is one thing – taking delivery is quite another.

Sean Clifton

Faced with the simple-sounding task of sourcing acceptable gold-colored, fancy-looking room number door plates, Clifton’s team hit on the DIY solution of printing them on its in-house 3D printer. In fact, the machine can be heard buzzing away, hard at work just a few meters from where we’re speaking. “We’ve had to change specifiers to use what we can find in stock,” says Clifton, who doesn’t sound like he’s complaining. “In some ways, I really enjoy it because it allows us to be more eclectic than we would have been had we not had that opportunity.”

But these day-to-day complications will hopefully prove to be temporary oddities. Of more permanent concern to Clifton is the role architects should play in pushing investors towards a sustainable way of doing investing. For one thing, he claims, the idea that greener equals poorer is a misnomer. Referencing a hotel in Zanzibar (Zuri) he worked on where the developer bought into the team’s proposal of a radically sustainable design. “We were told what their daily rate would be,” says Clifton. “The reality is they charge four times that, something that was achieved through design.” Closer to home, he references the Sakura residential project by Realism (previously T.E. Development) which features 1.2 kilometers of gardens on the façade. Completed in 2019, prices achieved for the flats long before completion were a futuristic CZK 110,000 per square meter. “If you can think a little bit out of the box as a developer, you can sell things for much more money,” says Clifton.

This doesn’t just mean designing buildings to be as energy efficient as possible, but reducing their embedded carbon content by choosing materials more carefully. “There’s a sustainable concrete we use that’s 50% cork and it’s as strong as normal concrete. If you source the cement in a sustainable way, then you can actually change what you get quite dramatically.”

“We passionately believe in it and we have to sell it to people,” says Clifton. “But it will only really be driven by demand so it’s actually about reeducating people that are buying things so that they want to be in a sustainable office and live in a sustainable home.” He admits that in practice, it’s difficult to turn down work from clients with only marginal concern about green issues. The flip side of this, however, is the chance to engage with such investors and try to nudge them in the direction of sustainability by pointing out ways it could prove even more profitable. “If that’s their approach we can always make it more sustainable than it would have been had we not done the project.”

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