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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!

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.