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Pastiche Free Zone

Contemporary Vernacular Architecture should never be about ‘Pastiche’, here’s why…

Pastiche free zone - Mole Architects

Above: Broadland Housing by Mole Architects

What is Pastiche?

There is much stigma around the term, but what exactly does ‘Pastiche’ mean? To put it simply, pastiche in Architecture refers to the imitation of style or character of other buildings. The term is not negative however it often has negative connotations, with the belief that the use of ‘pastiche’ within architecture produces unauthentic reproductions of the past.

Why do housebuilders use ‘Pastiche’?

There is something comforting about old things, this goes with old buildings too – it is a common fact that people like historic buildings. They have some sort of warmth about them (even if they can be very cold!), a sense of mystery and unknown, provoking us to use our imagination to conceive what was, how it was used and how it was built. Form, details, and embellishment presented within the architecture convey care and skill, speaking of another time and telling stories which teach us about our history, cultivating pride in our past and heritage. The problem is that:

 

British volume housebuilders offer their own warped version, at scale, arguing that we all like the ‘traditional’. But this is wrong…. We all like vernacular architecture because it speaks to us of our home, of our place or our people. But the same brick box applied numerous times whether you are in Norfolk or Devon has nothing to do with ‘traditional’. (quote from Clare’s book)

 

Not only this, but architects in Holland (FARO architekten) initiated a taste test to establish what people want from housing design:

 

The ‘Smaaktest’ 6 (taste test) …. discovered that both architects and ordinary people agreed that this new third way [Contemporary Vernacular Architecture] was better than a pastiche of the past or the complete disassociation found in Modernist design. (quote from Clare’s book)

 

Why housing design should learn from but not imitate the past

We can’t recreate the past

All these wonderful things about historic buildings however, cannot be authentically reproduced. We cannot truly recreate or replicate what has already been done, and attempts to do so can often end up as untruthful and unconvincing imitations of the past leading to a superficial echoing of historic character.

 

Contemporary architecture can learn from vernacular principles without resorting to pastiche, creating high-quality buildings that ‘fit’ in the same way that vernacular architecture does but reflecting a very different time. (quote from Clare’s book)

 

HHbR Copper Lane cohousing terrace

Above: Copper Lane by HHbR

Originality does not mean outlandish

It is true that it is almost impossible to design something completely unique that has not been done before. However, architecture does not insist on absolute newness or creating a bold statement, it just needs to have a sense of originality. We should always be learning from vernacular and historic architecture, and they should undoubtedly influence our judgement but should not impend our innovation and inspiration for new ideas and design. It is important to consider that one day, the building which we design will be old too, and in the future will represent and speak of our time today.

Lessons from our past

It is quite incredible what our ancestors have accomplished architecturally and we can learn a great deal from them. For many architects, it is hard to imagine a world without CAD, emails or even without a tape measure. Some of our greatest and oldest buildings, were built without any of these.

Clare’s Book

In Clare’s new book, ‘Contemporary Vernacular Design – How British housing can rediscover it’s soul’, she discusses how architecture ‘should learn from the past’, emphasising that successful contemporary vernacular does not use vernacular architecture for aesthetic inspiration only (as these can end up as naïve attempts to replicate originals), but also from the traditions used, whilst keeping in mind that new designs should deal with the kind of homes we need today, which will continue to evolve as our needs and available resources change.

CNA

At CNA we aim to learn from our surroundings and context, from the traditions, history and cultures to the physical environment (important views, materials and building methods used, textures, massing and landscape etc.), preserving our heritage where possible, however adapting designs to evolving ways of life and technologies.

Co-housing series 3: Working Together

Co-housing doesn’t have to mean living in each other’s pockets – it’s about the spirit of co-operation

HHbR Copper Lane cohousing terrace

The communal terrace at HHbR’s Copper Lane co-housing scheme

This is the third part of the Co-housing blog series, based on Clare’s book.  Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

A Whole More than the Sum of its Parts

1-6 Copper Lane in London, designed by Henley Halebrown Rorrison, blurs the boundary between co-housing and non-co-housing a little more.  By allowing residents to be flexible about the extent to which they want to share, this scheme is well-adapted to a contemporary urban lifestyle.  Trying to create the feel of a traditional village in the heart of a metropolis like London would not make sense; a housing development that can be occupied in various different ways is a much more suitable solution.

Each home has two front doors: one private entrance and one accessed through the communal hall.  This places control in the residents’ hands and allows them to be as private or public as they want to be in the moment.  If you are feeling sociable, or lonely, you can seek interaction, but if you are having a bad day it isn’t forced upon you.

Copper Lane is an example of neighbourliness, rather than community.  Through cooperation a group of people benefit from lower living costs and higher quality spaces – especially the garden space.  At the same time they are not tied to the site and have the freedom to leave London and settle somewhere else, as many people like to do later in life.  This is a clever and elegant way of reconciling the typical urban “bubble” with co-housing ideals and principles.

HHbR Copper Lane private entrance

A private entrance at Copper Lane

 

Embracing Individuality

Ashley Vale cohousing

Ashley Vale Co-housing

The Yard at Ashley Vale, Bristol, provides a sharp contrast to the Copper Lane scheme.  It ticks multiple boxes for rejecting the conventional developer model of providing housing by being not only co-housing but also self-build.  There is no unifying style of housing, as each self-builder came up with their own design, leading to a cheerful mish-mash of form, colour and materials throughout the site.  The houses are also in different stages of completion, so the overall feeling is organic and natural.  It is plainly evident that those who choose to live here, even those who are not the original self-builders, really care about their environment and where they live.  Having common beliefs, such as those concerning environmental sustainability and sharing economy, does not mean that these residents want to live in duplicates of the same house.  Each home at Ashley Vale is truly an expression of identity and aspiration, a clear antidote to “brick box” developer housing.

Ashley Vale cohousing

A variety of forms and materials at Ashley Vale

Ashley Vale cohousing

 

I take great inspiration from these housing schemes and the people who have realised them.  21st century living does not have to be the prescribed format it often seems to be, and feelings of “home” can be created even in the least conventional of circumstances (with a little help from your friends!).

Co-housing series 2: Sharing Resources

Sharing resources creates both financial and environmental benefits in co-housing

 

White Design LILAC cohousing

White Design’s LILAC scheme

This is the second part of the Co-housing blog series, based on Clare’s book.  Read Part 1 here.

Mutual Home Ownership

This model refers to sharing resources of the financial kind, in that you can afford a better quality home, space and lifestyle than you could as an individual. LILAC (Low Impact Living Affordable Community), designed by White Design, is, like Springhill, a co-housing scheme where many facilities are shared and a close-knit community has been created.  Residents set up a sophisticated Mutual Home Ownership Society (MHOS), into which they each pay a percentage of their net income to pay for a joint mortgage that covers the scheme as a whole.  The MHOS acts as a safety net for lower earners, meaning were their incomes to drop for some reason they would not have to leave the community.

Economic security is just as essential to a feeling of “home” as physical security, and this can be a greatly compelling reason for people to become involved in co-housing projects.

 

Saving Money with Reduced Space Requirements

Lancaster cohousing terraces

Eco Arc’s Lancaster Co-housing terrace arrangement

Co-housing means that residents’ requirements for their own homes are significantly reduced compared to conventional housing.  For example, in the Lancaster Co-housing scheme by Eco Arc shared facilities such as offices and guest bedrooms, and equipment such as washing machines and gardening tools, mean that the individual homes can be much smaller than average.  This is a great way of increasing density, improving thermal performance, and reducing costs.

The housing at Lancaster is arranged in terraces.  This is not only a typology that is popular locally, but also an energy- and space-efficient way of building.  The terraces also sit well within the levels of the landscape, meaning that many of the homes are “upside-down”, with kitchen and living areas upstairs, taking advantage of the spectacular views over the River Lune.  A side-effect of this arrangement is that you cannot tell who is at home as you walk along the level of the front entrances.  I imagine this affords the residents a little privacy and breathing space within such a close community where people are so involved in each other’s lives.

Sharing Equipment

By sharing tools, equipment, clothes, other not-very-often used items, residents not only reduce financial costs, but also their environmental impact (less waste).

Lancaster cohousing shared gardening tools

Shared gardening tools at Lancaster Co-housing

Co-housing series 1: Designing a Community

At Home but Not Alone

disconnected neighboursIn my previous blog, “5 Designs that Challenge our British Perceptions of Home”, I touched on the idea of home as an extension, or even more than that, a fundamental piece of our identity. “Home” is comprised of two main influential factors, one we control and one we do not: both where we come from and where we choose to live.  This is why perceptions of home are generated by lifestyle, which today is unrecognisable from 100, 50, or even 20 years ago.  The way we socialise, find our life partners, and interact in general has been completely revolutionised by a new, technology-driven, way of life.

In a world that grows more connected by the second, it is a cruel irony that loneliness is on the rise.  It has become normal to speak to somebody on the other side of the world at the touch of a button, but not to know your next-door neighbour’s name.  However, when researching her book, Clare found many people keen to buck this trend and live communally.  Whether as a reaction against this rise in real-world social isolation, or simply an economic necessity, lots of groups of people around the UK are turning (or returning) to co-housing as their preferred way of living.

Just as with the concept of “home”, the notion of “co-housing” has a multitude of meanings, and Clare investigated a range of housing schemes across the spectrum from those where some facilities are shared to those where residents’ lives are completely intertwined.  The main principle that all the schemes have in common is that shared space means more usable space for all the residents.

Clare Nash talking about the benefits of community in housing design

 

Springhill Co-housing

Springhill cohousing Architype

Architype’s Springhill Co-housing

Springhill Co-housing, designed by Architype, was the UK’s first new-build co-housing project.  High quality construction and landscaping make this an attractive place to live for a broad range of people, both young and old.  Cooking, childcare, gardening and administration are shared by everyone, and the general atmosphere is that of a traditional village.  A sustainable community has been created through both architectural and non-architectural methods.  For example, the housing terraces are deliberately connected and clustered around jointly maintained public land, forcing frequent neighbourly interaction.  Communal meals cooked by residents on a rota system 3 times a week is a very effective way of gluing a fairly diverse community together.  Architectural features such as a common house and open-plan kitchen space support and facilitate this important ritual.  At Springhill, Architype recognised that it is the community that is “home”, and they have rightly made this as durable and sustainable as possible.

Springhill communal kitchen

The communal kitchen at Springhill

This is the first part of the Co-housing blog series, based on Clare’s book.  Part 2 coming soon….

Clare Nash speaking about Contemporary Vernacular Design

Clare Nash talking about landscaping and place-making and their importance in contemporary vernacular design:

Clare Nash Talk on Vernacular Design

Clare Nash speaking about Contemporary Vernacular Design

“A manifesto for change!”

2017 has been very busy and exciting so far at Clare Nash Architecture Ltd., including two talks given by Clare about her book “Contemporary Vernacular Design: How British Architecture can Rediscover its Soul”.

Clare Nash book launch Oxford Brookes   Piers Taylor Clare Nash book launch contemporary vernacular

Book Launch at Oxford Brookes University

It was fantastic to see such a wide range of interest in the audience at the book launch hosted by Oxford Brookes – thank you to all the students, teachers, clients, friends and others who came along!

The launch began with an introductory talk by Piers Taylor (presenter of The House That £100k Built, The World’s Most Extraordinary Homes, and founder of Invisible Studio).  Piers, like Clare, is determined to see a better standard of housing and placemaking in the UK, and wrote the foreword for Clare’s book.  The talks by Piers and Clare provoked some interesting discussions among the audience.  They debated the nature and popular perception of vernacular architecture and its relationship to place, and considered the role of government, regulation and planning in delivering the housing we desperately need.  The topics were far too in-depth for a short Q&A session, but there was plenty of food for thought!

Piers Taylor explaining Contemporary Vernacular Housing Design:

Matt Gaskin, Head of Architecture at Oxford Brookes, summed up the evening by describing the publication of Clare’s book as “timely and brave”, for addressing the issue of healthy, comfortable, affordable housing in the UK. Many other designers choose to shy away from asking the type of difficult questions that she does. Matt reiterated Piers Taylor’s description of Clare’s book: “A manifesto for change” – let’s make it one!

Clare Nash HTA Contemporary Vernacular

HTA Talk

Clare was also hosted by HTA Design, whose housing scheme in Portland features as a case study in her book.  The audience of architects and designers were interested in Clare’s research process, and what had attracted her to the case studies she had chosen.

The interest and engagement at Clare’s book talks has been hugely motivating and energising for the CNA team.  Improving the quality of housing we deliver is, and will continue to be, a challenge, but it is one we can take on, as individuals and as an industry.  As Clare says in her book:

“We can do better, we have done better; let’s use the examples in this book and just do better.”
August 30, 2017
Clare Nash speaking about Contemporary Vernacular Design

What can the UK learn about housing from examples around the world?

Katie Reilly takes inspiration from Chapter 5 of Clare’s book

vernacular housing bolivia

Centro Lak’a Uta in Bolivia: a case study in Clare’s book

The UK’s climate can be challenging to cope with due to the daily surprise of rain or shine (mostly rain!) but imagine building in an environment of extreme temperature differences, even between day and night!

In some parts of the world, ancient traditions are still practised and very much influence people’s everyday lives today, from religion to social norms. When considering designing a contemporary vernacular in areas of active rich cultural history such as those in Chapter 5 of ‘Contemporary Vernacular Design: How British housing can rediscover its soul’, it is important to take the time to understand what is important to these communities in terms of housing apart from the structure itself. What religious needs do they have? How are the communities living arrangements structured? Do they prefer to cook inside or outside? What are their social norms? e.g. the relationship between men and women or entertaining? What is their typical livelihood and does this affect their living arrangements? How do all these elements affect a community’s interaction with their housing?

While it is true that for the first time in history more than half of the world’s population live in urban environments, there is still a percentage that do not for a variety of reasons; their livelihood being one of them. As often found in traditional construction, structural and environmental techniques have been refined over many years to suit specific cultural and contextual needs. However, changing global dynamics like climate change and aspiring to Western ideals can put pressure on traditional ways of life, including housing. Therefore, in order for rural dwellers to retain their cultural heritage and practices their existing housing construction may need to be adapted and a new contemporary vernacular formed that better responds to evolving contexts consequence of these changing global demands.

vernacular house sago leaf bamboo

A vernacular house in Papua New Guinea with sago-leaf roof and bamboo walls

vernacular papua new guinea climate control

Clare’s book explores several case studies where time has been taken to identify the questions posed above and, in some cases, using this information to systematically analyse existing construction methods and materials. Elements in each case study that respond positively structurally and environmentally to their local climate, landscape and community needs have been have been highlighted. For example, adapting traditional adobe construction by adding steel formulates a contemporary vernacular that is better equipped in responding to earthquake prone areas thus supporting the future of its inhabitants. Understanding that certain materials like adobe can be interpreted as poorer can be difficult for outsiders to a community to comprehend as it has positive attributes for responding to extreme climates such as great strength and thermal mass. Therefore, how can a programme integrate a material thought of as such be translated into housing that is flexible in supporting more Western ideals and local ideas of wealth?

Australia passive design

Passive design principles, as used by Lindsay Johnston in Australia

passive design principles shade tree

Something that is clear from Chapter 5’s case studies is the importance of the future of housing projects in areas such as those described. A housing programme would be an injustice to the community if it did not consider the building’s longevity and how it will impact the lives of its inhabitants. Arguably, some of the most successful projects are those that include the community in the building process as these widen participants’ skillset and allow a sense of ownership to develop, enabling locals to continue to construct the new housing vernacular in the future. Programmes like these can provide employment opportunities and integrate new housing types into their appropriate contexts.

Clare’s book inquires how British housing can rediscover its soul. The case studies explore how using vernacular techniques for environment and structure (like adobe, sun orientation and cross ventilation) over more western ones (such as brick/concrete and air conditioning units) can enrich housing in so many ways. Be it culturally, for well-being, reducing energy consumption and most importantly, encouraging people to live as they would like to. The book is not saying that in Britain we must build in adobe, avoid using modern technologies and live on zero energy (although low energy is something to strive for!); rather in taking the time to understand the context, the community, history and local traditions of a place, Britain too can enrich their housing design and make it locally relevant and nationally proud again.

by Katie Reilly

CNA team members get constructive in the woods!

This July, Clare, Katie and Julia took part in Studio in the Woods, a “long weekend of making” run by Piers Taylor, who wrote the foreword to Clare’s book.  The workshop took place close to the architecture world’s worst-kept secret, Piers’ Invisible Studio, nestled in a stunning Wiltshire forest, a stone’s throw from the city of Bath.  Over 4 days the 80 participants split into 5 groups that designed and built a series of structures throughout the woodland, all using locally sourced timber, and with the challenge of not using any screws!  The three CNA-ers were each in a different group, and so each gained a different experience and approach to making.  The main thing we had in common was that we all had a huge amount of fun, food, and fresh air!

 

studio in the woods erect architecture

studio in the woods erect architectur

Photograph by Amy Crellin

studio in the woods erect architectur

Clare’s group – The Accidental Stegosaurus

Clare joined the group led by Barbara Kaucky and Susanne Tutsch of Erect Architecture.  Inspired by two trees that had fallen into one another, the group constructed a walkway supported by criss-crossing timbers.  The result was a striking, yet also highly functional piece of art/architecture, that certainly impressed the visiting critics, Ted Cullinan, Niall McLaughlin and Peter Clegg!

 

studio in the woods measuring daylight studio in the woods measuring daylight studio in the woods measuring daylight

Katie’s group – The Sky Oculus

Katie was in a group overseen by one of the Studio in the Woods co-founders, Kate Darby, along with Gianni Botsford.  Their interest lies in something they call “constructed analysis”, using structure as a tool to measure something.  In this case, the group was measuring a patch of daylight in the canopy of the forest, in particular from Katie’s perspective!  Katie stood under an opening in the trees and directed the other group participants how to manoeuvre the supporting structural members into place (Katie is very good at project management!).  The result was not only a sensitive response to the forest surroundings, but also a new way of understanding the place.

 

studio in the woods construction studio in the woods construction studio in the woods construction

Julia’s group – The Sacred Tree

Julia’s group mentors were Fergus Feilden and Akos Juhasz.  The group found an old twisted tree – in fact, the oldest tree in the forest – that they wanted to celebrate, and also protect.  They did this through wrapping the tree in a screen of slender timbers that concealed and then revealed different elements of the tree as you moved around it.

 

studio in the woods gridshell

Gridshell by group led by Piers Taylor and Meredith Bowles

studio in the woods playful

Playful structures by group led by Je Ahn, Lee Ivett and Lynton Pepper

studio in the woods playful

It is so important that as architects we get out from behind our computer screens and use our hands to make things!  An understanding of construction is something that cannot be purely book-learnt, and it is about so much more than the practicalities of attaching some pieces of wood together.  Clare, Katie and Julia came away with the enjoyment and satisfaction of having made something, and went to work on Monday morning with fresh motivation and enthusiasm for what we do here at CNA!

5 Designs that Challenge our British Perceptions of “Home”

While researching abroad, Clare discovered that no matter what culture you live in, our needs from a home are quite similar. However British perceptions of home are known to be fairly conservative, especially in comparison with more contemporary living styles seen in Europe.

Clare speaking about how the front garden can be the garden and other inspiring housing schemes that challenge British perceptions of home:

Below are 5 case studies taken from Clare’s book highlighting some interesting challenges to these views, with better quality housing as the result.

 

Last year, the RIBA ran an exhibition called “At Home in Britain: Designing the House of Tomorrow”, that explored how three common types of home (cottages, terraces and flats) can be reimagined for modern living.  The challenge of updating these familiar housing types involves a response not only to a housing crisis, but also a crisis of identity.  Home is not just where we are, but who we are.

As our lifestyles change, so do our perceptions of “home”.  In her new book, Contemporary Vernacular Design, How British Housing can Rediscover its Soul, Clare Nash investigates a number of housing designs that take a familiar concept or design feature and adapt or update it to meet current needs and desires.

So what are British perceptions of home and how do the below housing schemes challenge them?

Open-ended gardens

Why does a garden have to be enclosed on all sides?

Gillard Associates’ Great House Farm is a terrace of homes with open-ended gardens, joined by a communal green space beyond.  The chance encounters and easy interactions created by removing a barrier have generated a lovely sense of community.

Why do garages all have to be individual and accessed by separate drives?

This requirement for privacy and ownership by the British public creates the unattractive sea of tarmac we see in most new-build housing schemes today. But it needn’t be like this. The open and shared garages at this housing scheme, offer opportunities for people to get to know each other, to strengthen the community, something we know reduces crime and improves happiness and wellbeing. It also provides more efficient use of space, something badly needed with our growing population.

challenging British perceptions of Home

Gillard Associates’ Great House Farm

The front garden is the garden

Outdoor space is often considered secondary to the indoor space of the “home”, and many modern forms of housing do not have the option of a garden, especially in urban environments.  Mole Architects’ Broadland houses in Fulmodeston only have front gardens, with little “sentinel” bike sheds acting as gatehouses facing the street.  Bringing the main outdoor space to the front of the house is a simple and subtle way of not only respecting traditional local house layouts, but also challenging any distrust or reclusiveness that could damage the social aspects of the scheme.

contemporary vernacular housing

Mole Architects’ Broadland Housing in Fulmodeston

broadland housing gatehouse

Communal green space improves security & combats loneliness

Patel Taylor have used outdoor space in their Courtyard Housing in Barking as a way of overcoming the stigma associated with bungalows, especially for the elderly.  Each house has its own south-facing private courtyard – a small space for the residents to stamp their own identity on and enjoy.  In the centre of the scheme is also a communal green space, visible from the private courtyards and resident’s living rooms.  This combats loneliness and brings a sense of space to an area of quite high density. It also increases security due to easy surveillance opportunities.

patel taylor courtyard housing

Patel Taylor’s Courtyard Housing

Challenging traditional housing form

Faced with the challenge of designing something urban yet homely, Mæ Architects took the concept of the typical semi-detached house and tinkered with it in their housing scheme “The Guts” in Manchester.  To achieve density and room for parking, the houses are turned 90 degrees, spanning the length rather than the width of the plots.  These create the ‘back to back’ terraces seen below, themselves providing not only parking but also roof terraces. Not usually a feature of social housing, the roof terraces add something special, normally only possible for the self-builder. A direct result of thinking outside of the box and challenging British traditions.

Mae The Guts

Mæ Architects’ “The Guts”

No more plastic chimneys please

Our over the top conservatism has sadly created a world where planners require chimneys and developers provide plastic ones, a huge waste of resources and only adding to the superficial nature of new-build box homes that litter the edges of suburbia. We are missing an opportunity to improve well-being. At “the Triangle” in Swindon, Glenn Howells Architects took the instantly familiar typical terraced house and gave it a huge eco-upgrade.  The chimneys are used to reduce overheating and provide fresh air using the chimney for passive stack ventilation (where heat rises and causes the air to circulate). There is no doubt that real chimneys (not plastic) do improve the appearance of homes, particularly terraces, but it is daft to include them purely for aesthetic reasons. The Triangle scheme offers the benefits aesthetics and improved health. One of the residents interviewed for Clare’s book said that his asthma had almost disappeared living in a fresh air environment.

In addition, a low-impact, high-performance building fabric (Tradical Hemcrete® and lime render), combined with enlarged windows and ceiling heights, has produced a recipe for terraces with a “classic” appearance and a high level of comfort and satisfaction.  Outdoor space is again a major factor in the success of the scheme.  The landscaping strategy by Studio Engleback includes sustainable drainage, water harvesting and food production, raising the value of the housing both financial and social terms.

The Triangle Glenn Howells

Glenn Howells Architects’ “The Triangle”

All these schemes have used familiar representations of “home” as their starting points, but reinterpreted them through a contemporary lens.  This is the essence of Contemporary Vernacular architecture, and something the team at Clare Nash Architecture Ltd hope to see much more of in the future!

AECB Conference 2016

Anne Thorne Architects straw bale house

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

AECB conference 2016 straw bale houseA 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

Greencore 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.

Vernacular self-build today

DSCF7269DSCF7386I presented a talk at Oxford Brookes University today on the subject of my masters (How Vernacular Technologies can be used in Modern Sustainable Housing Design) and how I apply it to my work today.

Does vernacular self-build have a future?

I spoke about how vernacular building is a time rich product and it has been written that as such it is no longer sustainable. In developed countries it is only the rich who have the money to pay others to self build to their design, in developing countries, only the Campesino’s (farmers) have the time, while everyone aspires to the modern, climatically unsuitable brick buildings.

Poorer quality homes built today vs vernacular self-build

Ironically we live in far poorer housing stock now than we did when we had the time to build for ourselves (stone/cob country cottage versus thin walled brick facade suburban house; earth dwelling versus high rise concrete flats), albeit with all mod cons (indoor WC, power showers, televisions, computers etc).

Over-complicated technologies

I noticed when reviewing my masters case studies that a lot of the issues were associated with technologies, emphasising the need for good passive design, minimising the need for add on technology.

Self-finish custom-build creates less waste

I also noticed that many of the user issues were to do with personal preference over fittings. One example I gave was at the Swindon case study by Habhousing (Kevin McCloud’s venture) with Glenn Howells architects and Stride Treglown landscaping. Small baths were fitted to save water use, however one father of 3 said he would have preferred a larger bath so that all 3 children can be bathed simultaneously and he will probably retrofit a new bath. Though this appears trivial, multiplied over a housing development it has waste implications. Had the occupants had final choice over these fittings, there would surely be less need for retrofit. In the self-build scheme in Stroud (Springhill Co-housing) by Architype, the community came up with a common design that was then subtly altered to individuals tastes in terms of fittings, room layouts etc.

This kind of semi-self-build seems to me to be a partial answer to the problem of self-build affordability, while still ensuring better quality homes with community and infrastructure. The biggest asset to the Swindon and Stroud schemes in my mind is the community and quality of design. These qualities would have been very high on the agenda of a vernacular builder, whether he was conscious of it or not.