Victoria Fillingham, an Environmental Engineer and a new talent on our digital team, talks to us about sustainable buildings, ballet – and building a solar home.

Q. A career in construction?

A. My best friend’s Dad, Steve, is an architect. When we were little and on playdates, I’d see his models and think how amazing they were (while being urged not to touch them because they were very delicate!) That – and my doll’s house – were the earliest prompts for my interest.

By 14 I had set on my course. I was lucky that I had the right mix of skills – I was very comfortable with maths and numbers but also a creative person too.

Q.You have a strong academic background?

A:  Yes, I did an undergraduate degree in Architecture and Environmental Engineering at the University of Nottingham (a four-year course) followed by my Doctorate in Construction Management and Engineering (five years) at the University of Reading.

After graduating from Nottingham and spending a year working in practice, witnessing first-hand the issues with the construction industry, I decided a new challenge was needed.

Family links at Reading University introduced me to the Technologies for Sustainable Built Environments (TSBE) Centre, with research offering an exciting new direction.

Q. Nearly a decade of studying – an enthusiastic essay writer? 

A. I really enjoy learning new skills and new ways of looking at things. Combining an architecture undergraduate programme with an engineering programme was very heavy in terms of workload. But Nottingham was a beautiful place to study, with such a green campus and perfect in that I was far enough away from home (Reading) but not too far away to escape back at weekends.

I loved seeing both sides of the profession – the aesthetical, creative side and the more practical engineering side. It gave me an holistic view about how to create something both beautiful and functional.

Q. At Nottingham, you were part of the Saint-Gobain Nottingham H.O.U.S.E. (Home Optimising the Use of Solar Energy) project? A real-life Grand Design!

A. Yes, as part of our studies, a group of students were challenged to design and build a self-sufficient house powered by the sun. Our brief was to achieve a balance between the architecture and engineering aspects. A team of 20 of us worked on it and built it over a six month period. We designed it, built it off-site and took it to EcoBuild for a trial run.

It was designed to compete in the Solar Decathlon 2010 – an international competition which aims to advance the knowledge of sustainable homes. More than 20 houses were entered, which had been designed and built by universities from all over the world.

It is a fully functioning home, compliant with all UK building regulations and it was designed to the world’s most stringent design codes – the Passivhaus; UK Code for Sustainable Homes Level 6 (zero carbon); Lifetime Homes Compliant and Secured by Design compliant;  It was the first time all of these codes were combined in a house of this type. It had a timber frame and no radiators. All the heating came from the insulation capturing internal heat or from the solar thermals on the roof.

After the Solar Decathlon competition, the Nottingham H.O.U.S.E  was moved to its permanent site in Greener Close, becoming part of the Creative Energy Homes project which promotes innovative design ideas and construction methods. There are seven homes altogether and they function as live ‘laboratories’ to investigate the relationship between the occupants and building performance.

Q. Wow. What an incredible achievement! Did you get to live in it?

A. Yes, it was a special thing to be part of. Although we didn’t live in it, we put it through its paces by hosting drinks receptions and dinner parties, bringing public awareness to the potential of putting renewable energy technologies at the heart of design. There is currently a group of students occupying the H.O.U.S.E, testing the adaptability of passive strategies.

Q:  DIY not a problem then?

A:  Well, I know how to use a drill and I’d say I’m pretty handy – flatpack is not a problem.

Q. So your doctorate was your entry in earnest into the world of digital construction / Building Information Modelling (BIM)?

A: Yes – although I prefer to talk about information rather than BIM – information is the glue that holds it all together.

I was sponsored by Faithful + Gould (now part of SNC Lavalin) which was trying to understand what BIM – then a relatively ‘new’ concept – meant for their organisations and for their various workstreams.

My thesis was titled Assessing Information Management as a Tool for the Ongoing Maintenance and Operation of Built Assets.

 The central focus of the project was to investigate the potential of BIM for the complete life-cycle of an asset, and not just in the design and construction phases. Too much emphasis was given to the creation phases, even though 85 per cent of all lifecycle costs are accumulated during the operational phase of an asset. We wanted to examine the barriers.

Q. You ran your own business for a while. How was going-it-alone?

A. Through my doctoral project I gained a lot of contacts in the industry. I worked for myself for 18 months and was getting bigger demands and bigger projects to work on. As a way of working it had many benefits but also drawbacks.

 Q: You’ve held BIM workshops with Mervyn Richards, one of the pioneers of digital construction in the UK?

A: Yes, he of the famous wedge! (the Bew / Richards BIM maturity diagram).

My general emphasis though is not on the technology but rather on trying to break down the asset lifecycle and focus on how information can be used throughout operation to get the best out of the asset.

My ethos is ‘starting with the end in mind’ – and ensuring it’s a fully collaborative process.

Q: Teaching has been a bit of a theme throughout your career?

A: It’s something I really enjoy. When I was at Nottingham, I was part of a group which went out into local primary schools to promote STEM subjects and encourage more girls to think about them. It involved lots of Lego and straw bridges and it was a lot of fun. Capturing enthusiasm at a young stage is so important if we are to change the make-up of the sector.

I also used to teach ballet.

 Q: Tell us about the ballet?

A: I’ve danced since I was three. I was selected for the Royal Ballet School Junior Associates programme and, aged 10, I got to dance with the Kirov at the Royal Opera House in Sleeping Beauty – an experience I will never forget. I also somehow managed to squeeze in competing with the dance squad at uni. Now I train once or twice a week at the Central School of Dance.

 Q: A good start at PCSG?

A: Yes I’ve been here just two months  but I’m already part of some fascinating projects, including the Innovate-UK backed project with Steve Thompson – to deliver digitally connected supply chains.

 Q: Where does the industry go from here in terms of the digital revolution?

A: I think we need to use the right language that doesn’t confuse people and do away with some of the misconceptions around the ‘BIM’ word. Generally, they just want to understand what information they need to save time and money and be more efficient.

It’s also a cultural shift that’s important – those at the top of the profession haven’t been accustomed to the digital approach and we need to ensure that their knowledge is being supplemented with diverse teams of people of different ages and with different and new skills lower down the chain.

To learn more about how PCSG supports organisations to optimise their maintenance and operational strategies for their property estates through a digital, data-driven approach, contact our Business Development Director, Olly.Thomas@pcsg.co.uk

ENDS