Five minutes with Dr Francesco Pomponi, Associate Professor of Sustainability Research, School of Engineering and the Built Environment

Francesco Pomponi

How long have you worked at Edinburgh Napier University?

I joined the University in February 2017 from the University of Cambridge, where I’d been a postdoctoral research associate at the Centre for Sustainable Development. I was offered a Vice-Chancellor’s Research Fellowship here, and having a full-time research post with academic freedom really appealed to me. I was made Associate Professor in August 2019.

What research are you conducting?

I won a grant from the Engineering Physical Sciences Research Council to evaluate the ‘upfront’ impact on the environment of materials used in building structures in the UK. We’re evaluating the life cycle of reinforced concrete, structural steel sections and timber, from ‘cradle to gate’ – so from extraction and manufacture and transportation, all the way through to the end of the building’s life and the reuse of materials or whether they end up in landfill. This will be a first step to establishing reference building models for the carbon footprint of materials, so that the building design community can use them to move towards a zero-carbon future.

I’ve also been funded by the Royal Academy of Engineering through the Global Challenges Research Fund to design and construct refugee shelters for people fleeing natural disasters or conflicts. Refugee camps are supposed to be temporary, but 90% of refugees stay permanently and are often housed in soulless, environmentally unsound containers or tents. I’ve put together a team of experts from Jordan, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and South Africa including architects, construction managers and experts in logistics. We’ve been working on a low-carbon prototype made of lightweight fast-growing timber, with a pre-packed shell structure that could be delivered through the humanitarian supply chain. We were hoping to develop the prototype and start testing in different countries this year, but Covid is unfortunately making things difficult.

What sparked your interest in environmental sustainability?

It’s been a combination of unintended events! I joined the family glazing firm after studying industrial engineering and doing a masters in engineering management. I spent six years working on construction sites in Italy, before attempting to set up business in the Middle East in Abu Dhabi and Dubai where we were bidding for huge jobs; glass skyscrapers, 1000-room hotels. I began to feel really unhappy; the environmental impacts were huge and wasteful and the construction companies were only in it for profit. I realised I didn’t want to be a businessman but wanted to do something else in this field.

I then had a major accident at work, when a huge 270 kilo piece of glass fell on top of me, breaking my leg in several places. I spent six months in a wheelchair. I quit my job, finished my Masters degree and secured a research residency at Cranfield University, where I really fell in love with research. I applied for a PhD at Brighton on the sustainability of glazed facades; I was probably the most qualified candidate internationally!

What frustrations do you have in the wider context of your research?

Humans always seem to want simplistic answers to problems. Take building structures; there’s a lot of discussion in the building community about switching en masse to construction in timber because it’s ‘green’ and biodegradable; yet I’ve done some research and it seems there won’t be enough timber globally to supply a huge surge in demand. We are just burden shifting; we will damage ecosystems. We need to consider the reality of sudden changes.

What advice do you have for somebody embarking on a research career?

Your PhD will stick to you for the rest of your life – choose the topic very carefully! Find something that truly interests you, with the right advisor and the right institution; if necessary postpone, but do something you’re happy to be associated with forever!