Interview with Mark Hallett: innovation, sustainability, place and technology

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10 minute read
Jo Morrison

Jo Morrison

Director of Digital Innovation & Research

Digital Placemaking

People on a quayside looking at a harbour buoy made into an interactive sound sculpture

Mark Hallett is the development director and head of custom build at sustainable property investor igloo Regeneration. Passionate about innovation and design, and specialising in place-based impact investing, Mark led the delivery of igloo’s Porth Teigr project, considered one of the most significant waterfront developments in the UK. Alongside his role at igloo, Mark holds non-executive roles on several boards, including Pobl Housing Association, Warwickshire Property and Development Group and Goram Homes.

In the latest of our Expert Interview Series focused on people, place, digital innovation and sustainability, Mark tells us more about igloo’s work and ethos, where he’s noticed the biggest changes of approach, and where he believes the UK built environment sector will see the most significant progress in the coming years.

Photos of Mark and Jo

igloo are pioneers in sustainable ways of doing business. Can you give a summary of how you integrate environmental and social factors into your development projects?

First and foremost, igloo is a purpose driven real estate development manager and we were the UK’s first real estate B Corp member. In their most recent audits, we were placed in the top sector worldwide.

Our purpose is people, place and planet. We mainly operate on brownfield sites in deprived areas near to major city centres across the UK – from Glasgow to Cornwall to central London. We undertake socially responsible development using a sustainable investment methodology that we call igloo’s Footprint® policy, which is the ethos and DNA across our portfolio of projects. 

The policy has tough targets that are independently audited by a Footprint® advisory board of world renowned experts in their fields. They ensure that we’re striving to create exemplary neighbourhoods on all of our projects, so they wouldn’t allow us to invest if we weren’t following the high social and sustainability standards we’ve set ourselves.

Why is this approach of value?

Over the two decades we’ve been operating, we have assembled empirical evidence that demonstrates that over the longer term, doing well by doing good is something we’ve consistently valued. We genuinely believe that by future-proofing our investments and our investors’ money, we can create higher value because of this approach. 

It also means we’re pushing on an open door with partners and stakeholders. We work predominantly in public private partnerships and our values overlap with public sector values, so it allows us to access publicly held land and develop it in a sustainable and socially responsible way.

Most developers don’t usually think about community wellbeing in the way that we do, nevermind worry about measuring it. We set out to build social capital in the communities we work in, and it is the software that must go with the hardware of development to make places and communities work.

From your experience of working at the intersection of people, place and sustainability, have you seen a change of approach from governments, business and/or civil society?

There has been a really big change in the last five or six years from governments, business and civil society with a greater emphasis on people, place and sustainability. The UK Government, Welsh Government and Scottish Government have all placed increasing emphasis on those objectives. The Welsh Government has undertaken particularly acclaimed work by creating the Well-being of Future Generations Act, and many other international policy makers are looking closely at the pioneering and innovative work the Welsh Government has carried-out in this area.

It’s great to see local authorities, RSLs (registered social landlords) and local authority asset-backed vehicles supporting those themes. igloo also undertakes considerable community engagement and it is rewarding to see how articulate communities are on those objectives.

Photo across Roath Lock to Porth Teigr development, and BBC Wales studios
Photo: Callum Blacoe

Please could you tell us more about the Porth Teigr project and how it promotes sustainability?

A few years ago, I developed a scheme in the heart of Cardiff Bay named Porth Teigr, which was a mixed use urban regeneration project. It comprised a wide mix of uses: 1,010 new homes, 1.2 million square feet of commercial space, extensive public realm improvements, local community facilities and visitor attractions. One of the first phases of that we termed the Media Capital; as part of that, we developed and funded a new drama production facility for the BBC – Roath Lock Studios – together with a centre for creative industries that supported potentially high growth fledgling companies working in the digital, creative and media sectors. Initially, we signed up to fairly traditional environmental standards of performance. As we applied our Footprint® principles throughout the design, remediating the heavily contaminated site, putting in extensive public transport links and actively designing walking and cycling routes into the public realm, we started to achieve some really high standards of environmental performance. When we measured it under the BREEAM assessments, Roath Lock Studios became the first ever BREEAM Outstanding industrial-category building in the world.

Calvium and igloo worked together on the Ideascape project in Cardiff Bay. It explored how place-based digital technologies could enhance people’s experience of the local area, and did so through a co-design approach. What was your motivation for commissioning the project – and what digital placemaking insights have you taken from it?

Virtually every family in South Wales has some link with Cardiff Docklands, and Teigr Bay was known around the world, so there’s a really valuable heritage to the site. That was something we wanted to reflect in the new community we were creating. At the time, I was developing an interest in the concept of mixing physical and digital spheres that Calvium are so good at.

I think sometimes we get so seduced by what we can do in the digital sphere, that you charge around doing things digitally just because you can do it. What I took away from this project is that collaborative working is important to imagine and understand the ways that different technologies can support people’s experience of places in meaningful ways – and in ways that they want and value. 

It also underpinned the need to be aware of when to use digital technologies and when to lose digital technologies as tools to support collaborative community engagement. Just because you have the technology, it doesn’t mean it’s going to aid collaborative working. Sometimes it just confuses it.

Community engagement is also often carried-out as a bit of a tick box exercise to support planning applications a few weeks before they need to be submitted. This project highlighted the importance of undertaking it at a very early stage so that it becomes a genuine part of the design process.

Person writing on a blackbourd out doors. Board is titled 'What do you think?'

What needs to change to ensure greater and faster sustainable development in the UK? (e.g. policies, legislation, training, finance…)

All of those things need a lot of work and a lot of change. ‘Form follows function’ is a famous principle of design in architecture and there has been (quite rightly) a focus on environmental sustainability, but I also use the mantra of ‘form follows finance’, because without sustainable finance you don’t have any function. 

There is an early stage change in the approach to funding, and there’s some really interesting work being done by a company in Bath called The Good Economy. They are promoting a methodology around place-based impact investments and working with patient capital – capital that’s prepared to look at the longer term and embed socially responsible and sustainable development into their investments.

The money people have come on board – the pension funds and long-term investors. They have started providing green finance and green bonds at competitive terms. If developers can provide a clear decision-making trail that is being independently audited, of the decisions they have made and the outcomes they are achieving, they are allowing those developers better forms of finance and lower interest rates. If you look at countries like Australia, the sale of green carbon credits has become a huge influence on the development industry. The UK is a little bit behind on that, but I think that’s where we’re going to see very significant progress over the next three to five years.

Who or what inspires you and why?

Keeping it to my day job, I have become inspired by the change of approach in the built environment sector. When I started out, people used to think of it as being led by tree huggers and hippies, but the way the industry has changed really inspires me to continue striving to do better.

My colleagues, too – particularly some of the younger team members who have been very clear about why they want to work for igloo and why our work is important to them. It is inspirational to see the next generation pushing us to go even further.

What do you see as the critical aspects of urban living that can enhance people’s relationships with their neighbourhoods?

My eldest daughter did a degree in Geography and part of her thesis was around the effect of the physical environment on people’s recovery in hospital, so this is something I have been interested in. It’s encapsulated in our Footprint® policy and although we have an advanced, empirical way of going about these things, what we try to do is just make beautiful neighbourhoods and rewild them. It’s not just about biodiversity net gain, which is the recently introduced UK Government policy; it’s about going much further and re-establishing the natural ecosystems that would have been there before these places were built and desecrated. 

Geranium flower with rose stem
Photo: Luke Galloway

That can have a huge effect on people’s lives. Things like the value that’s added by both green and blue space to people’s wellbeing is really important, and it can come down to even the specification of what paint you use in a house, for example thinking about people with allergies. These are all things that influence people’s relationship with where they live, and although the 15-minute neighbourhood has had its detractors, these things are important and something that we measure and embed from the earliest stages of our master plans as part of our neighbourhood creation approach.

When launching tech-enabled products into the public realm how can we fast-track innovation in ways that do not cause negative disruption and harm to members of the public?

If you adopt an innovative and disruptive system as part of your business plan, there is definitely a need for a pause period to reflect on the impacts of what you’re doing. It is also important to make sure that there is a strong human element to digital products as well – particularly with the current multi-dimensional debate about AI.

 

Thank you Mark for sharing your experience, inspiring insight and ideas with us!

 

Contact us to discuss how your placemaking goals can be supported by collaboration and digital partnership.

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