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A Contemporary Vernacular Housing Development Design

Clare speaking about how vernacular architecture can inspire good quality modern housing design using interesting case studies from her book:

As Clare has spent so much time researching what makes a great housing scheme for her book, the team was excited to have the opportunity to have a go at designing a contemporary vernacular housing scheme ourselves!  Earlier this year Clare Nash Architecture Ltd (CNA) was approached by a developer looking to build eight houses on the site of an old farmyard in Cambridgeshire.  The intention was that young families looking to move out of the city could settle down here.  Although the extent of CNA’s involvement was just to produce a quick sketch scheme, it was a terrific chance to design collaboratively and apply some of the principles of contemporary vernacular design.

contemporary vernacular housing development

Overview of proposal

Daylighting, visibility and privacy

Daylight is top priority for any architect, and in a scheme based around a courtyard such as this one, it is important to make sure that everyone gets their fair share.  Some occupants benefit from south-facing gardens, so in the interest of fairness it is important to be creative with the shape of the other homes so at least part of their gardens benefit from bright sunlight.

The CNA team liked the idea of openable walls, like the Tekapo Shed by C Nott Architects in New Zealand, so that the building can adapt to the weather, and play with the boundary between inside and outside.  We experimented with a few ways of using glazing to maximise natural lighting, yet maintaining a sense of privacy.  We were keen to achieve a “Goldilocks” level of visibility, not so little that residents don’t interact with each other and don’t feel secure, and not so much that they feel encroached upon and under surveillance.

contemporary vernacular housing corner window

Corner window idea

contemporary vernacular housing angled shutters

Angled shutters idea

“Bang for your buck”

Creating value for money is not synonymous with scrimping on the quality of materials and craftsmanship; it can often be a matter of thoughtful and careful design. Embracing the industrial nature of the site and keeping to a tight material palette is a good way of creating a striking aesthetic, yet at the same time keeping costs down.  Another feature that increases the appeal and value of the proposal is that each house is unique in some way, yet they all have a coherent identity and it is clear they belong to the same scheme.  This affords each house a sense of individuality, allows future occupants a choice of features in their homes, and enhances the character of the development, making it stand out from the rows of “cookie cutter” houses we have become used to seeing.

contemporary vernacular housing sketch plan

Each house would have a feature that makes it unique

Material palette

Identity and character are ways in which a neighbourhood defines itself within its context, and also how it can set itself apart and be distinctive. Brick, dark timber, and clay tiles are traditional, inexpensive materials used a lot in this part of the world.  They are also easy to reclaim and reuse, and to update for use with a more contemporary aesthetic.  This simple material palette set out our intentions for the scheme: a friendly, familiar character that offers the benefits of a modern lifestyle in a rural setting.

contemporary vernacular housing green courtyard sketch

View into the internal courtyard space

Access and movement around the site

How people move around a housing scheme is a crucial design element.  This is one of the greatest contributing factors to the sense of community within the scheme, as circulation dictates how people interact with one another.  The scheme is based around a central green courtyard, which is distinctly public.  Trees ensure that houses facing each other do not directly overlook each other, and shade the shared space below.  This courtyard is a pedestrian area, although there is room for cars to drive up to the house entrances if this is necessary, cars would usually be parked in garages close to the site entrance.  The houses each have their own private back gardens, and these can be accessed through alleyways leading off the main square, signalling the transition between public and private outdoor space.

housing scheme sketch alleyway

Central alleyways idea

housing scheme sketch alleyway

Possibility of live/work

The dream of settling down in the countryside becomes dampened somewhat if you still have to commute to the city to work.  The possibility of working remotely has meant that “non-office” ways of working are becoming more usual (just as we do at Clare Nash Architecture Ltd!).  The housing scheme we proposed offers offices along with the houses to create a live/work scenario, in anticipation of the lifestyle that suits young families today.

open garages with offices above

Garages with space for offices above

“Sense of place”

The notion of “sense of place” is a key theme running through Clare’s book and was a key factor for her in choosing case studies.  Although it can be difficult to define, a strong sense of place is the result of a strong identity, relationship to surroundings, and ultimately the behaviour of a place’s inhabitants.  An absence of this sense leads to an eerie, quite uncomfortable feeling – the opposite of “home”.  At the end of the day, it is people and communities who create a “sense of place”, but this does not absolve architecture and design of responsibility for this!  Working on even short projects such as this, and helping to research the case studies in Clare’s book, has brought home how even the smallest of design decisions can have a huge impact on how people behave, and their mental wellbeing.

 

CNA Away Day (Part I: NewhallBe Housing)

It’s not all work and no play at Clare Nash Architecture Ltd (CNA)!  This summer the team had an “away day” in which we visited the NewhallBe housing Project near Harlow and the new extension to the Tate Modern by Herzog & de Meuron Architects.

We were all extremely interested in seeing the Newhall Be housing designed by Alison Brooks Architects.  Having assisted Clare in researching and editing her book, Katie and I were keen to experience an exemplary housing scheme off the page.  The team caught the train to Harlow and then the bus to Newhall, passing by typical utilitarian New Town architecture set on the unforgiving flatness of the East Anglian landscape.

Essex barn Newhall

Traditional Essex barn

When we got off the bus we walked down a pleasant pedestrian/cycle route into fields, away from the bustle of the main road.  One of the first buildings we came across was a traditional Essex barn, reminiscent of rural Dutch architecture with its striking black boarding and half-hipped roof.  Alison Brooks has said that barns like this were her inspiration for the materiality and form of the Newhall Be housing, so this was a nice piece of foreshadowing on our approach.

Newhall Be housing

Alison Brooks’ Newhall Be housing

Newhall Be Alison Brooks

Upon entering the Newhall development we found Brooks’ houses very quickly – each “neighbourhood” designed by a different architect is very distinct, and the Newhall Be houses are instantly recognisable by their distinctive dark cladding and angular roof shapes.  It was a Wednesday lunchtime, so most people were at work, and there was a real sense of stillness about the whole site.  It felt almost like looking around a film set, or perhaps a model village.  Although there are lots of street-facing full-height windows and doors, most houses had their blinds drawn.  There is plenty of green planting around the site, and this did mitigate the “empty” feeling somewhat.  Although none of the houses have back gardens, people had made use of their balconies and patios as spaces to bring in some colour and greenery.  There is also a large playing field very close by, which serves as a common green space for everybody.

Alison Brooks Newhall Be housing   Alsion Brooks Newhall Be housing

Newhall Be (and the wider Newhall project) could be described as an updated version of the New Town philosophy.  It meets people’s needs and thus creates a quite urban feeling in a rural setting, rather than imposing a twee imitation of a traditional village onto bright young professionals.  It doesn’t fight the difficulties that arise in creating a community from scratch, and in accepting these challenges it has produced a new type of community.  People are able to maintain their “metropolitan” outlooks and behaviours, while still living in a small suburban neighbourhood.  Using vernacular architectural styles and methods of place-making as inspiration, rather than a rigid template, Newhall Be offers something that feels modern, yet also familiar.  I would just like to go back on a warm summer’s evening and see it come to life a little more!

October 1, 2016
CNA Away Day (Part I: NewhallBe Housing)

‘Non-Office’ Working – Designing Collaboratively

'non-office' working‘Non-office’ working

People are often very interested by the ‘non-office’ working approach at Clare Nash Architecture Ltd (CNA).  Rather than working from a fixed location (and dealing with all the associated overheads), the CNA team work remotely, with weekly meetings to share updates and assign tasks.  These meetings often run back-to-back with site visits or client consultations for time efficiency, and take place in cafes or coffee shops in whatever location happens to be most convenient that week, be it Oxford, Banbury, or further afield.  We feel there are many advantages to this way of working: it allows a great degree of flexibility, the variety of locations we work in gives us inspiration and keeps us fresh, and there is no daily commute!  Meeting up as a team for just a few hours a week means our meetings have to be focussed and efficient.  Therefore when we do get together in the same room we can each bring bags of energy and ideas, and we have found it the perfect atmosphere for intensive brainstorming sessions.

Creative energy

Earlier this year the CNA team had a great opportunity to apply some of the principles behind the inspiring housing schemes in Clare’s book to a design of our own.  The proposal was for a housing development in Cambridgeshire on the site of an old farmyard.  The development would be intended for young families, moving out of the city to a more rural location to settle down.

The proposal required a sketch scheme to be drawn up in a very short space of time, and therefore a different design process to our usual way of working.  Normally CNA proposals are the outcome of conversations with our clients, followed by carefully thought out designs tailored to their personal requirements.  Only one or two team members will be working on a particular set of drawings at any given time.  In this case however we were working to produce a more general design, and very quickly, which called for a giant collaborative brainstorm!  Getting our coloured pens and tracing paper out over the table together meant we could bounce ideas off each other and come up with something we were all happy with at a very fast pace, not to mention having fun at the same time!

contemporary vernacular housing development

An overview of our imagined scheme in Cambridgeshire

Although CNA will not be taking this project further forward, due to the rate of delivery required by the developer, our sketch proposal stands as a great example of the benefits (and enjoyment) that come from short but intensive collaborative design.

September 1, 2016
‘Non-Office’ Working – Designing Collaboratively

Barn use classes & ‘agricultural unit’ clarification

Barn use classesBarn use classes

I have received queries recently about certain elements of permitted development for barns. The first is about how existing barn use classes affect the permitted development. A current project helps to explain this. Two neighbouring barns, each is to be converted for residential use, have slightly different prior approval permissions.  The difference is actually quite minor, and lies in the barns’ original use classes.  One barn conversion is permitted under Class P (change of use from a storage or distribution centre to a dwelling house), and the other falls into Class Q (agricultural buildings to dwelling houses).  Both of these Change of Use Classes have a cap on the area of building that can be converted – for Class P it is 500m2 and for Class Q it is 450m2.

This brings me onto the second query on this subject, which was to do with a Class Q conversion. The official wording states:

Agricultural buildings under 450sq m are permitted to change to Class C3 dwellinghouses, together with some building operations necessary to facilitate the conversion. This is subject to meeting certain criteria, including no more than 3 dwellings within an agricultural unit.

So what constitutes an “agricultural unit”?

The General Permitted Development Order defines an agricultural unit as:

agricultural land which is occupied as a unit for the purposes of agriculture, including— 

(a) any dwelling or other building on that land occupied for the purpose of farming the land by the person who occupies the unit, or 

(b) any dwelling on that land occupied by a farmworker.

This is quite an open definition, the main gist of which seems to come down to whether the buildings and land in question are all a part of the same business enterprise.  For some projects this definition is very straightforward, whereas for others it can be a little more complicated and the boundary of the agricultural unit may not be so clear.  In case of doubt it is best to consult a local authority planning officer.

written by Julia Phillips – architectural assistant at Clare Nash Architecture

June 3, 2016
Barn use classes & ‘agricultural unit’ clarification

More inspiring contemporary vernacular housing schemes

contemporary vernacular housing

Mole Architecture – Passivhaus standard housing association homes in Norfolk

Contemporary vernacular housing schemes visited recently

Since the previous post on inspiring housing schemes I have visited several more schemes. I find the visits very useful for my own projects as well as being inspiring schemes for my book. All of the schemes are pioneering in various ways, which means they are testing new technologies, materials and methods of design. They are then real life examples of how well these new ideas work in practice. By interviewing the residents and architects I can find out what really worked and what didn’t. Recently I have visited a German straw bale co-housing development (all self built), an interesting housing scheme in central Paris, two certified passivhaus schemes in Norfolk which use local materials, a co-housing scheme near the lake district and another community oriented scheme in Wales complete with a green biodiverse roof.

contemporary_vernacular_housing_sieben_linden   Contemporary vernacular housing - Sieben Linden

Sieben Linden, Germany – Dirk Scharmer

This is a community self-build village in northern Germany. The majority of buildings are built using straw bales. They have managed to change German building regulations in favour of straw bale buildings. The people who live in this community also sign up to sharing duties such as vegetable growing, media and cooking. So in this way it has a lot in common with the co-housing schemes in this country such as Lancaster (see below).

 

Contemporary vernacular housing - Eden Bio   edouard_francois_bike_shed   edouard_francois_contemporary_housing

Paris, Eden Bio – Maison Edouard François

This is a small development not far from the Pére Lachaise cemetery in Paris. As with all of Edouard François’ work, the emphasis is on landscape and incorporating (even engulfing) buildings within it. Several tonnes of organic soil were added to the area to ensure the vines that have quickly covered the balconies grow strong and fast. The theme continues with greenhouse style bike sheds at each end of the development. There is much reference to context in terms of materials, even producing more local style housing to the edges of the development to ensure it fits in. It is somehow very French and very Parisian. Sadly as I visited in March, the leaves were not yet showing on the vines.

 

parsons_whittley_norfolk   parsons_whittley_norfolk

Burnham Overy Staithe, Norfolk, Parsons Whittley Architects

This is a housing association project in the small village of Burnham Overy Staithe in north Norfolk. Like many in this area of Norfolk, the village is 75% second home ownership and it was therefore important to ensure that local people could still afford to live there. The project manages to combine a very vernacular appearance of flint and brick with very high energy efficiency meeting Passivhaus standards. The design takes inspiration from local fishermen’s cottages and the housing sits very well in its surroundings. The tenants are also pleased to live in something that is of such high quality and does not look like social housing.  The project has won many awards.

 

Contemporary vernacular housing_mole architects

roofs_across_fields

Mole Architects homes (on the right) ‘roofs across fields’

Fulmodeston, Norfolk, Mole Architects

This is another housing association project in north Norfolk, that also meets Passivhaus standards. It sits on the edge of Fulmodeston, surrounded by fields. By drawing on local barn like forms and materials, the new housing is modern while retaining a regional identity. I was enthused to hear how the non-architect residents understood and liked this aesthetic as well. There are low fences between the gardens to encourage interaction and to create the feeling of ‘barns in the landscape’ rather than domestic closed board fence suburbia. A lovely thing about Norfolk is how the rows of houses peep out over the fields. Or, as Matt Wood of Ruralise calls it, ‘Roofs Across Fields’. A distinctive feature in the flat lands of Norfolk.

 

Lancaster co-housing   Lancaster co-housing across the river

Lancaster Co-housing – EcoArc

This will appear in my book because building co-operatively is a vernacular way of building. It is also a Passivhaus which is also a vernacular way of building as (in Elrond Burrell’s blog on the subject, it is responding to the climate we have today with the materials available locally. It is interesting to discover how well the buildings have turned out, how much the occupants love them and how all the technology has worked as designed. This is down to a lengthy design process, with much input at an early stage from the residents and the design team. Many developers are in a rush to produce housing and as their end user is unknown they do not take this time to get it right. The difference in the end product is obvious.

 

gillard_associates_turf_roof   Sustainable housing in Wales

Great House Farm, St Fagans, Cardiff, Wales – Gillard Associates 

This development on the outskirts of Cardiff is set in an old farm yard. One of the existing outbuildings has been renovated and on the opposite side of the yard is the green turfed roof of 6 new-build dwellings, all achieving better than Sustainable Code for Homes Level 4 (when it still existed). This is a very unusual scheme for Cardiff and sits well in it’s context of an old farmyard (and thankfully looks entirely different from the suburbia on the other side). Open ended gardens and open garages ensure easy interaction between residents and I witnessed a lovely community unusual for such a recent development. The fabric first approach (high levels of insulation and reduced thermal bridging) combined with the MVHR and heat pumps ensure fresh air and an even temperature all year round.

 

hermann_kaufmann_robert_froewis   hermann_kaufmann_unterfeldstrasse

Vorarlberg, Austria – Hermann Kaufmann architects

Beautifully crafted timber buildings that sit against a mountain backdrop. This region is famous for progressive modern architecture with a regional identity. The buildings offer a wonderful indoor atmosphere due to the breathable timber construction and in the social housing, also due to the MVHR which ensures warm fresh air circulates continuously. Vorarlberg has a long history of high quality craftsmanship, the future of which looks sadly to be heading into decline. The pressure on young people to go to university and the reduction in fees in Austria, mean that less and less people are training in craft.  I visited a ‘mehrfamilienhaus’ (a single built form divided into homes or flats). In this case it is was built by 2 brothers and the third brother took one of the flats in the second half of the building. This often happens due to land being passed down through families, who each want to build their own house on the land. I also visited a three-storey social housing project built using timber frame and larch cladding. The quality of the materials, the space, the views and the detailing were fabulous. As was the thermal efficiency and indoor fresh air climate created by the MVHR system. Social housing or not, I would bend over backwards to live in housing as high quality as this.

October 12, 2015