#SustainableBusinessWeek — In Conversation With…Lily Nicholls at Co-DB

For 2 of our Collective projects, we brought in Co-DB — a group of designers, artists, makers and problem solvers to transform our disused buildings into the perfect, functional space for co-working. Their work spans full design and build services, facilitated design workshops, design education and action based research. They collaborate with their clients to draw out solutions. They’re always on a mission to enhance and enliven other people’s intuitive knowledge about their surroundings.

We decided to speak to Lily about how sustainable design fits into their wider remit, how they incorporated sustainable design into our co-working spaces, her thoughts on how good design can help mitigate climate change and their future projects centred around re-useable, affordable and adaptable materials…

“Our approach to sustainability is founded in a passion for efficiency and simplicity in design. What is the simplest way of achieving the clients aims? Less can be more — we are always looking for the simplest, most effective way of responding to a brief. We do not fetishise luxurious materials, but instead look for low cost ways to transform available resources.

We are inventive designers who also build our designs ourselves, at our workshop in the Lea Valley. We offer an efficient process where design and construction are in close dialogue — reducing waste throughout a project. For instance, we design with standard sizes of materials in mind, reducing unusable offcuts. We find creative ways to use any offcuts that are created. We offer this knowledge to our clients through a collaborative design process. We believe that everyone has an intuitive understanding of the built environment and how it could be adjusted to work better. We bring an understanding of how materials are sourced and put together to our clients, offering them an insight into the practicalities of making.

We embody a direct link to the production of furniture, creating specific and adaptable solutions which increase the lifespan of furniture. In today’s consumer society, it can be easy to feel trapped in a vast web of unethical supply chains over which we have little control. Buying a mass produced ‘nearest fit’ item of furniture will always be a cheap solution, but these items may not be the most space efficient, useful, or delightful solution. They may not be worth taking with you when you move, they may break easily and not be easy to mend. We create specific solutions that are more useful and space efficient than a ‘nearest fit’ product.”

Lily spoke about how they use the most efficient methods throughout the design process, minimising waste and maximising use;

“We transform leftover materials that could be deemed waste into design inspiration. At Barbican Blocks, we used different materials — soft/hard, smooth/scratchy, transparent/opaque, dull/reflective — to create play equipment for play school children. The blocks are unpacked and rearranged, creating a sensory play landscape full of contrast and discovery.”

This creative and innovative attitude to waste extends beyond their workshop, and into the industrial estate that they’re a part of. Around where they’re based, they’ve built up a network of different businesses, and more often than not, they’re inspired by their waste;

“A local company which distributes fresh fruit around London regularly throws away brightly coloured fruit crates, which we snap up to turn into items of storage furniture. A neighbour of ours is a joiner, who routinely strips out partially rotten sash windows, which we transform into display furniture. A local company regularly throws out bales of fabric scraps, another bright aluminium tins once full of cashews. These found materials form part of our design vocabulary, adding material richness and narrative meaning to our projects.”

Not only does this local network provide opportunities for them to transform waste, but it also allows them to share knowledge and use their services, reducing mileage and promoting a community of London makers;

“One of our neighbours is a spray finisher, another has a CNC workshop. By linking up with our neighbours, we can offer more to our clients and support small local businesses.”

After hearing about all their amazing efforts to incorporate sustainability into their work every step of the way, we wanted to know how these thoughts processes translated into the design of our previous space, Temperance and our current space, Auction Rooms…


Collective Temperance

“At Collective Temperance, we made the most of the amazing existing building — returning the ground floor to a beautifully clear and light series of interconnected spaces. This meant stripping out years of institutional partitioning — we used this waste to transform the street facade of the building, covering it in a herringbone pattern of materials. This new urban face gave the building a bold new identity which heralded the renewed life inside.

We designed furniture which was multipurpose and easy to move around. This allowed spaces to be used in multiple ways, using the same furniture. A standing height desk on wheels doubles up as a bar for events, trestles tabletops are packed away, and large wheelbarrow tables can be moved easily by one person. We were excited by Camden Collective’s nomadic nature, moving from building to building over the years. We provided furniture which could migrate with them, and be reconfigured and rearranged by Collective members to test out new ways of using old buildings.”

Auction Rooms

Collective Auction Rooms

At Collective Auction Rooms, we had another beautiful disused building to work with! This time — a large and undivided warehouse space, which needed subdivision. We worked through room layouts for the upper floors, to maximise density without compromising the generosity of circulation spaces — getting the most effective use out of the building. We then focussed our efforts on the communal ground floor spaces, bringing light and colour in. We identified simple spatial interventions that would transform the space with minimal resources. Rather than laying a new floor, we painted the existing concrete one in bright candy colours. We clad the walls in lightweight whitewashed spruce plywood, which can be removed and reused in future fit outs.

We used the mobile furniture created for temperance, adapting it where necessary. The giant egg shaped board room table was adapted to a smaller oval shape, to fit into a smaller space. We adapted the spatial quirks of Auction Rooms to suit its new use — an old goods lift shaft became a pair of phone booths, an old fire escape became a primary staircase. We made a feature of existing steel and services, picking them out in bright colours.”

Re-use and regeneration is at the heart of what we do at Camden Collective, so how did Co-DB align their design process with our ethos?

“We love to use what is already there, adding to and adapting it for contemporary uses. We believe that the urban environment accrues layers of meaning over time. In disused buildings these layers lay dormant, unappreciated. We are thrilled to help bring them back into use, adding density, variety and delight to the city.

Our design process is all about getting people involved — facilitating their intuitive understanding of the built environment. This process is particularly fun when working with existing buildings, as there is so much already there to respond to. Working with a blank slate requires a lot of design expertise as you have to visualise proposals in your imagination. With an existing building, the design process is more accessible — we can explore the building together, get excited about the possibilities, make intuitive readings of the space, and devise interventions collaboratively.”

Lily believes that sustainable design can help mitigate climate change and positively impact the environment;

“By designing sustainably, we can decrease our use of energy-hungry resources — through simplicity in design and choosing the right materials.

Design also involves appreciating your surroundings — looking at it in new ways and working out what you love about it, and how it could be adjusted to work better. The more people are empowered to believe that they can have an impact on the space around them — the more we can come together to enact positive change, and ask more of people in positions of power.”

Co-DB have exciting plans to incorporate sustainable design processes into their upcoming projects;

“For an upcoming graduate fashion show for LGFW at the Truman Brewery, we have created an exhibition stand using an adaptable ‘key clamp’ metal framework. This can be packed down, reused and reconfigured for future shows. The frame will be infilled with reclaimed sash windows from our industrial estate, and display surfaces made from the previous year’s exhibition stand. Scent diffusers embedded within the design will add a sensory dimension, transforming how the space is experienced with minimum resources and energy.

In the last year we launched Co-DB Play, bringing our collaborative approach to environments for children, young people and early years. We are currently working on a project with the New Economics Foundation to create a sustainable model for affordable parent led childcare. We love finding ways to empower children, however young, and their carers, to become the co-designers, actively engaging with the spaces they inhabit, through imagination and adaptation. Sustainability is central to this project, at all levels — from testing new modes of childcare, to choosing environmentally friendly and child-safe materials, and transforming these collaboratively into durable, specific and flexible furniture.”

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