Duncan is a part-time Principal Lecturer and Climate Literacy Champion based at the University of Brighton. He is a qualified Chartered RIBA Architect who has practised, researched, and taught around issues of sustainable design, the Circular Economy and closed-loop systems for over 25 years.
My career path and journey to teaching
When I was younger I wanted to be either a gamekeeper or work for Greenpeace. My mum said that she thought one day the only natural spaces in the UK would be the nature reserves, which slightly terrified me, so I was always aware of environmental issues.
I was always really good at art – my uncle was an architect and it was him that got me interested in architecture – I worked with him at his practice in London.
After I’d studied a postgrad in London I came down to Brighton where I was given the space to do what I wanted, which in 1990 was to look at sustainable design and the way I could merge the environmental activist in me with the designer. Brighton uni has allowed me to do that for 30 years, so it’s been incredible.
In 1993 me and another student from Brighton entered the RIBA’s House of the Future competition which we won, and I was invited back to teach in Brighton in 1994. Architecture is on one level a vocational pursuit but there’s no better way than being involved in an academic environment where you are doing research as you’re having to explain your ideas in a very rigorous way. And with teaching, having students asking questions really keeps you on your toes!
How I combine my professional life with teaching
I’ve always enjoyed collaborating. My practice worked on the Greenwich Millennium Village for a few years, we were teaching and also running the Innovation Task Force for the Greenwich Peninsula envisioning what urban sustainability would look like.
In 2008 we took part in a Channel 4 TV show called the House that Kevin Built which was a live version of Grand Designs. We had to design and construct a prefabricated house made primarily out of organic carbon locking materials in only six days. It was the UK’s first A* rated low energy dwelling and it was 90% carbon locking materials. But the frustrating thing was students weren’t involved, so we had this idea to do a rebuild of it at the University of Brighton as a school project.
We changed it and with totally different material sources and the emphasis of it. The design and construction process involved professionals and students as young as fifteen – with over 360 students, plus over 750 school kids. Whatever module they were doing around design, technology, construction, professional practices, they were achieving their module credits by being involved with the design and construction of this live project, which the Guardian newspaper named the Waste House. It is a two-story teaching facility on campus which is also an ongoing research project and laboratory.
I’m really passionate about social justice and climate justice
I’ve just come back from COP27 where I was speaking, and that was the number one issue there which is why we had success with the ‘loss and damage’ funding decision for climate change impact on the Global South.
Understanding the real social and environmental impact that your decisions as a designer make, is what I’m really passionate about. When you think about where things come from – you need to find out if child/ forced labour is involved in the extraction of the copper you are going to use for example.
Advice I’d give to prospective students
You’ll be working quite hard and a lot of the way we teach at Brighton is studio orientated, so you’ll be working with a lot of people. Designing buildings is complex and hugely exciting but you need to learn to work as part of a team.
The great thing about architecture is that you could be designing a door knob or a city -the scale of projects can really be very diverse! And you can bring your own passions that might be outside the built environment into it – for me it’s been 35 years of doing lots of different jobs under the banner of architecture. I couldn’t decide what I wanted to do as I liked art, design, science, nature and architecture is a big enough umbrella – you can bring lots to it.
What I love about teaching is that it’s intellectual exercise that keeps you fit – you realise how unfit you are in that world after a day or two teaching!