“Architects need to look to the past to protect the future”: A closer look at sustainable design with Rob Phillips, Cartwright Pickard

Rob Phillips is an architect with Cartwright Pickard, and the person leading on the designs for Island – our Net Zero workspace in Manchester.

While much of Island’s narrative focuses on the future, designing a sustainable environment that caters to the evolving nature of work, Rob reflects on the past to explore how historical lessons and insights can inform and shape the designs of tomorrow.  

Island has been an absolute pleasure to work on. Now in its final stages, we’ve been involved since the very beginning, starting at the competition stage where we presented our designs to HBD.

Fast forward to today and our collaboration has helped create a stunning example of a Net Zero workspace for Manchester, but where did the concept come from?

Drawing on the past to protect our future

We’re always searching for a unique hook or angle, and during our design stage we embraced the designs of William Morris – a man famed for his contribution to and revival of British textile arts and production.

Having made his mark on London, Morris opened his first and only outlet outside of the capital in Manchester – describing the city as ‘an obvious choice’. Coincidentally that shop was located on John Dalton Street – right opposite the plot that is now Island.

As we delved deeper into his work, we uncovered lots of meaningful connections. Morris’s influence on design and craftsmanship provided rich inspiration for our project and his commitment to beauty, utility, and quality in every aspect of his work resonated with our own design principles.

The discovery not only enhanced our creative process but also added a historical depth and cultural significance to Island’s concept.

We should all be happy humans at work

One of the core propositions at Island is that the building is designed with “Happy Humans” in mind – a concept that remarkably aligns with William Morris’s passionate pursuits.

Morris was a staunch advocate for “more enjoyable work,” opposing factory-style labour, instead championing handcrafted artistry and the value of skilled artisans. It’s not that Morris opposed automation. Instead, he envisioned a future where happy humans would lead the charge with passion and creativity in the workplace – using advancements in manufacturing and development to enhance their work rather than diminish it.

We’ve embraced that at Island, designing a workspace that prioritises wellbeing, with areas that encourage collaboration, innovation, and comfort. As the building nears completion, our goal is to foster a workplace where people feel inspired, valued, and empowered to achieve their best.

Locally sourced materials

We have also embraced Morris’s passion for people through our choice of materials and construction methods. Every brick used at Island was handmade in the Lake District, while the entire façade has been pre-cast offsite, using modern construction techniques but supported by skilled artisans and craftsmen. The Cor-Ten steel, too, has been expertly welded and fitted by local metalworkers, ensuring that every aspect of the building reflects a dedication to quality and human artistry.

This artistry can be seen across the site and, in particular, the perforated screens that directly reference Morris’ works, with their ornate design.

A work-life balance

Beyond the aesthetics, we brought another area of Morris’s work to Island. He authored a book titled A Factory As It Might Be, in which he explored the concept of blurring the boundaries between work and life.

This early vision of work-life balance is similar to what HBD is doing at Island – designing an environment that fosters both professional productivity and personal wellbeing with thoughtfully designed spaces that cater to different needs.

Green then and green now

Morris even envisioned creating offices that were green and sustainable, designed to avoid polluting the air or water. This forward-thinking approach to environmental responsibility aligns with Island’s sustainability credentials – be that the use of eco-friendly materials, energy-efficient systems, and green spaces like a rooftop garden.

Morris’s vision of a workplace that is both productive and environmentally conscious is more relevant than ever, and we are proud to embody these principles at Island. By prioritising sustainability, we aim to create a legacy of responsible development that honours Morris’s ideals and sets a new standard for future workspaces.

Whether it’s Island or any future project, we must push boundaries and learn from both the distant past and recent experiences.

Island serves as a test bed, particularly because its development began during the pandemic – a time when our approach to work underwent a rapid transformation, with demand for cold, corporate office environments replaced with an appetite for more inviting, hospitality-led spaces.

Island stands at the vanguard of this new era, and I’m thrilled that we’ve been able to integrate learnings from the past while shaping a workspace for the future.