Building Foundations: Maria Smith, Director

Maria 4

Director at Webb Yates Engineers since 2015, Maria Smith is an architect and engineer and leads our transdisciplinary group focused on reducing the energy use and carbon emissions associated with the built environment.

Which Webb Yates Engineers project that you’ve worked on are you most proud of and why?

I’m hugely proud of the Hoover Building retrofit. Not only did we create 66 new homes within a stunning art-deco icon by playing the Tetris game of our lives, but the structure was built from lovely carbon sequestering timber.

The embodied carbon in the refurbishment came in just shy of 2000 tonnes of CO2e which works out as 355 kg CO2e/m2. This would meet the RIBA 2030 Climate Challenge target for 2025. The difference between the Hoover Building refurbishment and building a low embodied carbon new-build of the same area saves 1369 tonnes CO2e, the equivalent of 820 return flights to New York or 32,786 trees growing for ten years!

I’m also extremely proud of our design for Ilford Market and Hydroponic Farm. I’m very excited to realise this demountable timber frame with no below-ground foundations that even integrates food production.

Why did you choose architecture/engineering as a career?

As the oldest of four girls I spent a lot of time when I was younger designing imaginary extensions to our house so that I could have my own room. I built a shed from scratch when I was 13. Unfortunately, due to budget constraints, it wasn’t tall enough to stand up in, but it was big enough for me to hang out in in peace and important enough to me to cement my notion of growing up to become an architect. Soon after the shed was completed, we got a computer at home and spreadsheets were a revelation! I studied architecture first, qualifying in 2010 but my longing for spreadsheets just wasn’t quite satiated so in 2016 I started an engineering degree with the Open University. I qualified this year and while it obliterated my social life – taking up all my weekends for three years – it’s been a tremendous experience and I was ridiculously pleased with myself when I submitted my first calc pack to building control recently!

What would you be doing if you weren’t an architect or engineer?

When I was little, I wanted to plant trees by the motorway. I really need to get on that…

Which product or building has most inspired you and why?

I’ve recently come across a cob earth and hemp straw construction system that both sequesters carbon (in the hemp straw) and provides thermal mass (via the earth) but without the carbon emissions associated with thermally massive materials like concrete. It’s an example of a vernacular technique being studied and adapted with current engineering in order to help mitigate the climate crisis. Nice work, mud!

What is the most difficult challenge you’ve overcome at Webb Yates Engineers?

The biggest challenge I’ve faced in recent years is re-evaluating my practise, and my role in the industry in the face of the environmental crisis. With buildings and construction contributing almost 40% of carbon emissions, our industry has to change dramatically. This doesn’t only change the materials we’re building with or even just the kinds of projects we build, it also changes how we work, and how we work together. It can feel destabilising but it’s also hugely important and an exciting opportunity. Through curating the Oslo Architecture Triennale, sitting on the steering group of Architects Declare and recently being elected to RIBA Council, I’m hoping to help shift the industry towards a regenerative and thereby genuinely sustainable practice.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

If I could do my architecture and engineering education again today, I would do the MEng Structural Engineering and Architecture at the University of Sheffield or the MEng Engineering & Architectural Design at UCL that combines structures and services engineering with architecture. Then for Part 2 I go to the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales and do their MArch in Sustainable Architecture. Or I’d tell myself to spend less time designing imaginary planets inhabited only by women and do more violin practicing!

What is your favourite place?

My favourite place is the second desk of the second violin section in the Forest Philharmonic Orchestra.

Finally, tell us a (clean!) joke!

What’s with the fascination with concrete? Why wait two weeks to get hard when you’ve already got wood?!