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.
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.
Alison Brooks’ Newhall Be housing
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.
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
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.
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!
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
Fran’s strawbale house
The AECB conference 2016 was held at the UK’s greenest building – The University of East Anglia Enterprise Centre designed by Architype. The most exciting thing for me was that the walls are clad in thatch (a vernacular material) and that all materials were sourced as locally as possible. When designing buildings, there is a lot of focus on keeping energy bills low, but not so much on keeping embodied energy low. Embodied energy is the energy required to manufacture and then deliver the product. Today we can import materials from anywhere, in stark contrast to the vernacular builders of the past who would have been limited to their local area. The latter is far more sustainable, but often overlooked as a necessary part of eco-building. The Enterprise Centre also achieves Passivhaus levels of comfort and air quality. It is a beautiful building, proving that eco design need not be ‘wacky’, it can fit well if it is well designed.
I learnt a lot from Bill Butcher of Green Building Store’s talk about their latest deep (meaning very eco) retrofit of a house in Cumberworth, West Yorkshire. The owners had been paying £3000 a year just on heating (not including wood burning stoves) and were freezing, on this exposed Yorkshire hillside. Having come into some inheritance, they decided if they wanted to stay put, something had to be done. So they enlisted GBS who have achieved a 67% reduction in their heating requirements. GBS used a combination of capillary active Tectem insulation, fibreglass and a new product called Diathonite, all internally. The airtightness result (2 air changes instead of 1) was not as good as they were aiming for. Bill said this was because they should have treated the partition wall as an external wall.
David Gale and Tomas Gartner from Gale and Snowden Architects launched the new Building Biology course in the UK. This teaches practitioners how to mitigate the effects on human health caused by radiation, dust, off-gassing from synthetic materials such as MDF and plastics and alternative materials to use in construction that will not create problems. Our indoor environments have a huge impact on our health including allergies such as asthma.
Fran’s straw bale house
A great highlight of the AECB conference 2016 was a visit to Fran Bradshaw (of Anne Thorne Architects), house in Norfolk. It is Contemporary Vernacular Design at its best, with locally sourced materials (even the reeds for the thatch which due to poor water quality in the UK, often has to come from abroad), and a design that is a contemporary interpretation of a thatched cottage. Using renewable and low embodied energy materials (timber frame, straw bale walls, roof insulated with thatch, cellulose (recycled newspaper) and wood fibre board) it is also an eco-house in the truest sense. The house also very nearly achieved Passivhaus, showing how energy efficient this way of building can be. it is a brilliant example of how to achieve a beautiful house and an eco-house. All of the AECB visitors agreed, this is the way forward.
I can’t wait to build my own straw bale eco-house!
Hemp prefabricated construction
I also attended a seminar by Greencore Construction on hemp and timber frame prefabricated construction. This was very fortuitous and perfect timing as my blog about a CNA visit to one of their houses describes.
Gary Wilburn, Director at HPW gave a talk about some of their larger projects, including a Peppa Pig tourist attraction and a shopping centre with restaurants at Rushden Lakes. While a bit controversial at an event about eco-building (do we really need another shopping centre/tourist attraction to enjoy these natural environments?), Gary’s message about methods of persuasion to clients not yet sold on the benefits of building sustainably was a good one. After all, these types of commercial projects are going to happen whatever we at the AECB might prefer. At least if there is a green architect whispering in the client’s ear, things such as miles of extra cycle paths, wind-catchers providing passive ventilation and removing the need for air-conditioning, use of renewable energy sources and renewable materials as well as wildflower roofs will mitigate the overall environmental impact.
August 30, 2016
Hemp, lime and timber frame prefabricated panels are an exciting way of creating eco-homes. I recently visited a ecohouse (that doesn’t look ‘eco’) completed in August 2016 and built by Greencore construction and was given a guided tour by Julia Bennett and Ian Pritchett.
Prefab or craft, can you have both?
Having written a book on Contemporary Vernacular Design, I am very keen to retain craft skills as much as possible. However, as part of my book research, I interviewed architects Alan Dickson of Rural Design and Neil Stevens of Dualchas, both situated on the Isle of Skye and both producing beautiful contemporary vernacular dwellings, well suited to the tough conditions in the Highlands. What was intriguing to me was that both firms provide their own pre-fabricated dwelling options (coming under R-House and Hebridean Homes respectively) in addition to their usual bespoke dwelling design. These still look beautiful, and as Alan Dickson explained; there are 101 ways to get timber cladding wrong and one way to get it right, pre-fabrication is a way to get it consistently right. These prefab houses look beautiful and crafted.
Inspired by this, I have been keen to explore pre-fabricated construction to reduce time and worry on site (especially with Passivhaus builds). Which is why I was so pleased to attend the Greencore seminar at the recent AECB conference in July 2016. (strange how you have to go all the way to Norwich to discover what you need is only on your doorstep in Abingdon!)
Having provided the hemp construction system for The Triangle, Swindon (link), which was not prefabricated and built on-site during the cold and wet winter of 2010-11, Ian Pritchett could see that prefab, where panels are built in a dry factory, had to be the way forward (having been a doubter himself).
The natural prefab panels
Greencore offer a timber framed, hemp-lime filled, factory-made panelised system. But this is not SIPS – which is high in embodied energy, not breathable and studies in America have highlighted issues with poor airtightness detailing causing internal rotting. The hemp and lime lock up carbon and are both renewable and breathable offering a superior living environment. Greencore offer a bespoke design, working with architects at an early stage to ensure that design and construction are in synergy and there will be no surprises on site (or at least they are vastly mitigated – there are always surprises on site).
Ian is keen to point out that although you can use clay or lime plasters internally to complete the full breathability of the wall (and therefore a lovely atmosphere as well as very low environmental impact). You can also use standard plasterboard and emulsion paints and that these more commercially viable materials will still offer a pleasant living environment when combined with an MVHR system. I was surprised to discover a lack of fresh paint smell and assumed eco-paints had been used, but no, standard emulsions and an MVHR ventilation system delivering constant fresh air allowed smells to disperse very quickly.
The house is simple in design, with an attractive L shape, lovely open plan spaces, lots of light and beautiful vaulted ceilings with large rooflights in the bedrooms and bathrooms.
Simpler to achieve Passivhaus detailing…
Unlike the wide masonry cavity wall Passivhaus construction that I have previously used, the hemp-lime timber frame construction is easier to build in many ways. Windows are best situated in the middle of the insulation to retain best thermal performance and this can be achieved by sitting them on plywood boxes in masonry cavity construction, however stone reveals are not possible and aesthetically clients are not so keen on the deeper external reveals. The hemp-lime system allows you to position the windows centrally without ply-boxes as that is where the timber frame is situated. However, to fulfil client expectations (and this house is a commercial project), Greencore have used pure-nit boards to cantilever the windows closer to the external face of the wall. Purenit® boards, though more expensive than plywood offers much better thermal performance.
Using PHPP (Passivhaus Planning Package) software as standard they are able to predict heating requirements and always beat the predictions of the software on site. This means that the performance of hemp-lime beats the predictions of the PHPP and the heating demand is lower once built than was predicted by the software. This is very advantageous and defies the industry norm of as-built energy performance being lower than predicted in SAP (the industry standard for assessing energy performance of building as required by building regulations for all new buildings).
I am looking forward to working with Greencore on future projects.
August 30, 2016
My new Contemporary Vernacular Housing Book is out in November!
After two years of visiting case studies in the UK and Europe, my Contemporary Vernacular Housing Book has finally gone into production with RIBA Publishing. These two years were challenging because the research involved visiting case studies, interviewing residents, architects and developers or housing associations as well as writing and editing. During this time I was also running a busy practice and teaching a day a week at Oxford Brookes University. The book also contains 5 case studies from further afield, researched as part of my masters thesis. Julia Phillips (architectural assistant at CNA) helped me with editing and organisation of the book and Katie Reilly (architectural assistant at CNA) gave me useful feedback prior to submitting the manuscript when I was too tired to read another word!
The research has been hugely rewarding and I have met some wonderful architects as well as inspiring housing associations and developers. This research informs our work at the practice and is very much a part of our ethos.
I am also excited to announce that architect Piers Taylor (of £100k house: The Final Fix TV series and founder of the Invisible Studio Architects), is currently writing the foreword.
August 20, 2016
Barn 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
Clare Nash’s first housing book talk 24/11/15
I was pleased to give my first book talk to the RIBA East Midlands Housing Group and the Northamptonshire Society of Architects. I will be giving more talks all over the UK in future months and it was really useful to receive feedback from my audience on ways to improve.
November 25, 2015
I recently received a phone call for Grand Designs asking if I wanted to be an expert judge on their panel. How fun to be a Grand Designs architect, I thought! They wanted me to appear on a new programme about eco-self-build projects happening in Bicester. They were interested in me as I am a female architect with a specialism in sustainability. They came and did a screen test which went very well. I received very good feedback following the screen test. Unfortunately they decided that the panel would be too architect heavy with two architects on it in the end. But how nice to be asked!
The programme will be about 10 self-builders who are building on the 1000 new self-build plots, at Gravenhill, south of Bicester that Cherwell District Council are offering. My job as an expert panelist would have been to make a shortlist of 10 from 20 potential self-builders for the 10 Grand Designs allocated plots.
October 25, 2015
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.
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).
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.
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.
Mole Architects homes (on the right) ‘roofs across fields’
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.
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.
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.
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
At the RIBA Role Models launch event at Portland Place, London, June 2015
Why an RIBA Role Model?
I became interested in becoming an RIBA role model for two reasons. One, because I am a female architect and I have noticed for some years that there are very few of us! And two, because I studied Part 2 part time, a route that is not well publicised but makes studying architecture more feasible and less daunting financially.
Here is a link to my RIBA Role Model Profile
The only female architect in the office
I was fortunate to work in a roughly 50/50 male/female office for 5 years (after previously working for a practice of 14 staff where the only other female was the receptionist) and really enjoyed having female senior architects to look up to. Previously all my architectural role models were male (and most still are). There is nothing wrong with that. I have received a lot of support from everyone in the industry whether male or female. To me, it is a wonderful place to be, full of highly intelligent creative, witty people. But when you are sat in a boardroom with 10 other men, all of them at least 10 years your senior, but you are the architect and expected to chair the meeting, it is rather nice to have support from a female colleague who understands what that is like. Women, even those with high intelligence, lots of qualifications and experience, suffer from imposter syndrome (when you wonder when people might find out that you don’t really know what you are doing!). They talk themselves down, where men would usually talk themselves up. This can lead to higher stress levels and high levels of conscientiousness. The first one is unhelpful but can be relieved from feeling you are not alone, the latter one is a highly valued skill in any employee.
None of this of course, has prevented me from being an architect and starting my own practice. I am passionate about architecture and can’t imagine doing anything else. This is what has got me through, but also I have been very fortunate in the quality of experience I have had. I have never experienced sexism directly, but unfortunately know of many others who have.
While writing my book I have had the privilege of meeting some of my architect heroes which has been fabulous, but perhaps disappointing that more couldn’t have been female heroes on my bucket list.
Why do women drop out of architecture school?
I also have the privilege of teaching technology to architecture BA students. At BA level there are roughly 50% female students, this drops off to 20-30% at Part 2 level and even less qualify at Part 3. It made me think that something is happening in that year out that is putting off female students, but not male ones. I hope by being a role model I can encourage more female students to continue to pursue architecture which is a wonderful career.
Architecture has to be long hours and inflexible?
Architecture is famous for long hours and inflexible working patterns. However I have been fortunate to see another side to that. While working at a large practice and studying for Part 2, I worked 3 days in the office term time and 5 in the holidays. I was running 3 jobs on site, the experience of which fed into my course (technology was no bother whatsoever). It was usual for me to check emails when at university and if there was anything urgent from the builder, I could ring the office to send things for me. It made me realise that flexible working was possible in architecture. I was also famous in the office for leaving on time. It was rare for me to work late unless there was a very important deadline. I was concerned this would make me appear uncommitted. But I knew that my life outside of architecture (triathlon, gardening, gigs) left me refreshed for the following day. Because I wanted my life so much, I was very efficient in the day times to ensure I could have both – architecture and a life.
It is now part of my practice culture that people work flexibly for me. In the winter I enjoy a run or a trip to the allotment in the afternoon in daylight and work in the dark evenings to catch up. Why shouldn’t my employees also be able to do this?
Part 2 Part Time
As I have mentioned above, studying part time gave me the opportunity to gain really valuable experience while studying. I studied for an extra year (Part 2 is 3 or 4 years studied part time, I chose 3), but I went straight through to Part 3 as I already had enough experience, so it actually saved me a year of practical experience. It also meant that when I lost my job in the recession, I had enough experience to set up my own practice, something that would not have been possible for me, had I studied Part 2 full time. Because I worked full time in the university holidays, my salary was enough that I could pay all of my living expenses and pay my own university fees. University fees are much cheaper when you study part time, even taking into account the cost of the extra year. I therefore only have a small student loan from when I studied my BA full time. This may not be the right route for everyone but at least if more people know about it, they have a choice and at least financial reasons should not put them off architecture.
Here is a link to my RIBA Role Model Profile
August 2, 2015