Practice Profile: Ackroyd Lowrie


In founding their own practice, Oliver Lowrie and Jon Ackroyd were able to pursue their passion for future cities, while applying lessons learned in their shared background as sustainability specialists. They tell ADF’s Laura Shadwell what drives them, and why the practice puts tech at the top of the agenda

Both having worked previously at Architype, a leading practice specialising in sustainable and Passivhaus design, Oliver Lowrie and Jon Ackroyd founded Ackroyd Lowrie in 2016 in a quest to apply the principles of low energy design to city-scale projects. This has led to a wide-ranging portfolio across many sectors, including masterplanning. 

“I think that the scale of climate emergency that we’re engaging with is so big that it’s an oversimplification to look at one building at a time,” asserts Lowrie, explaining their rationale. Both architects believe that the industry needs to be transformed in order to rise to the challenge, and that architects must harness innovative technologies such as AI and VR – or risk becoming obsolete in the wake of their emergence. 

‘Being the change’ 

Ackroyd Lowrie specialises in urban regeneration and masterplanning, and aims to create residential, commercial and educational developments that “put people at the heart of the design process.” The practice, which has grown fairly organically, was founded on the principle that it would “shape the cities of the future.” Now employing around 30 people, its design ethos centres around harnessing technology, in the pursuit of great design with sustainability at its core. 

As well as residential-led urban regeneration projects, the team has a specialism in designing film and photographic studios. Their Alva Coachworks project, the creative re-use of a Victorian tram shed into a high end film studio, was Highly Commended in the AJ Retrofit Awards.

The founders believe that cross-sector collaboration is crucial in shaping future cities, and have been hosting events where politicians, planners, consultants and developers can come together to form consensus on policy. Known as ‘The Breakfast Club Briefings,’ these are designed to place Ackroyd Lowrie at the centre of thinking around shaping the future of cities, as well as raising the profile of the practice among the politicians and planners who have the ability to create this change. 

Key decision makers and those with direct links to effecting change are often in attendance; recently including Brandon Lewis MP, the former Lord Chancellor and Minister for Housing and Planning, as well as senior individuals from councils and other bodies. This is an example in action of Jon and Oliver’s philosophy that if you want to change the system on a macro level (rather than just one building at a time), then it is crucial that there is a dialogue between leaders, politicians, planners and developers. Ackroyd adds, “We need to be the change we want to see, and try to reach out and influence key people. The Breakfast Club Briefings provide the platform to achieve this and move the conversation forward into action.”

Their passion for cities, and identifying how to create routes to what they see as a sustainable future, has been a real driving force for the practice’s specialism in sustainable retrofit, including integrating landscape design. “We’re interested in greening cities by working with lots of different landscape schemes to increase biodiversity and improve projects,” explains Ackroyd.

The firm has also placed focus on education within the practice – upskilling their team, and developing designers of the future. Its initiative, the ‘AL Academy’ – inspired by the academy Sir Alex Ferguson built at Manchester United – aims to “tackle the challenges of employing students out of university, as well as introducing students from the East London Boroughs surrounding our studio in Tower Hamlets, to a career in architecture and tackling the challenges they face,” explains Lowrie.

Architypal lessons

Architype proved to be a great foundation for Jon and Oliver in forming their new practice. While at their previous firm, Ackroyd was heavily involved with a lot of research work as part of the Government-funded research initiative Innovate UK (formerly the Technology Strategy Board). As part of the scheme, he did post-occupancy evaluation of a recently completed building to test how it actually performed in use. He says it proved a highly instructive process, and informed much of Ackroyd Lowrie’s philosophy on design and technology. 

Reflecting on their time at Architype, coupled with this research, Jon and Oliver got to thinking that while it’s all very well to reveal problems once a building is in use – some remedial measures are possible at that stage – certain fundamentals are very hard to fix, and the capital has been spent.

So, to address the question of how to prototype and test buildings before they are built and those chances to get it right are missed, they turned to employing Virtual Reality (VR) which replicates the Building Information Modelling (BIM) model used on projects, so clients could immerse themselves in the final design. Ackroyd states that “this type of engagement has been really successful, particularly with end user clients, and ‘multi-headed’ user clients, such as the NHS.”

Putting technology to the test

A successful example of a VR-assisted design now in operation is a dialysis ward that Ackroyd Lowrie designed at Mile End Hospital in east London. In the project to extend and reconfigure the Bancroft Unit – created as the first ‘self-administering’ dialysis ward in the UK, staff wanted to understand how they would be best able to work around the patients, such as factors like bed spacing. Ackroyd Lowrie set up a scenario using multiple VR headsets in the existing facility that enabled staff to visualise the adapted space in a really effective way. 

Creating buildings that don’t require fundamental change is a sustainable goal in itself. “The most unsustainable thing you can do is to build something wrong, and then have to go back and change it,” says Lowrie. That was another legacy from what we had learned at Architype – the importance of trying to get buildings right first time.”

Another interesting project that Ackroyd Lowrie has recently been involved with is Yonder, where a creative retrofit of a warehouse in Walthamstow has resulted in a modern and dynamic hub to work, exercise, eat and relax. Yonder combines a series of co-working spaces including flexible desks, maker’s workshops and R&D prototyping, with indoor climbing, and a central café that is used day and night by the local community. 

The adaptive reuse design follows an amphitheatre layout, and was modelled extensively in VR to provide interesting sightlines throughout the triple height space. A low energy ventilation system served a new water cooling and heat recovery need; it was developed to specifically address the climate conditions needed for climbers as well as remove the chalk dust they use from the air. Yonder has been hailed as a new benchmark for its use of space, light and climate control, while also creating over 100 jobs. 

Recognising the benefits that technology can bring to building design, Ackroyd Lowrie is keen to grasp the challenge of grappling with the AI technologies that are coming onto the market. While these are both “fascinating and terrifying,” say the duo, they believe it’s vital for architects to engage with them. “We’ve got a ‘hackathon’ happening over the next couple of months, where we’re testing different AI tools, seeing how they can work within our workflow, to optimise performance and improve sustainable design,” adds Ackroyd.

AI & diversity for designing future cities

Along with the use of AI to “leapfrog and create efficiencies for better cities,” Ackroyd Lowrie as a firm is also a big advocate of encouraging and embracing greater diversity within its staff to benefit the practice’s work. Jon and Oliver agree that if you’re going to design the cities of the future appropriately – and make urban environments that are suitable for everyone that uses them – you need to have a deeper understanding of the people that are going to live in them. Ackroyd admits candidly, “If you’re all from a white middle class background, that isn’t going to be a true representation of everyone that will be living there.” 

The pair say that the end goal – assembling the ‘perfect’ mix of designers together within the practice – is the “magic sauce” for designing future cities. They see it as the fundamental ingredient to designing cityscapes that accurately reflects communities.