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The benefits and drawbacks of pre-fabricating your dream home

Have you considered using pre-fabrication as a method for building your own home?

Germany has been at the forefront of pre-fabricating home design for over 50 years (https://www.weberhaus.co.uk/) and the benefits are very German; time efficient, quality guarantee, energy efficiency guarantees. These advantages are also useful to British self-builders. Anyone who has spent time on a UK building site in winter will testify to the stress caused by weather delays and the impractical nature of working knee deep in mud. With pre-fabrication there is no need to worry about weather conditions setting you back or indeed supplier delays, you can have your dream home within a few weeks.

If you are building on a site such as Gravenhill (self-build site in Bicester) then you might find pre-fabrication offers cost and time certainty in achieving the 24 month build deadline.

We are keen to work with self-builders looking at the pre-fabrication route. We are good at working closely with pre-fabricators to ensure that you get the design and the home that you really want and for the price that you can afford.

Pre-fabrication options

There are quite a few different pre-fabrication options now available in the UK. These can be quite confusing and hopefully the next few paragraphs will ease your understanding:

Hemp, lime and timber frame prefabricated panels

Greencore closed panel system using hemp, lime and timber frame to create a breathable construction

Complete pre-fabrication (or closed panel timber frame system)

Everything is manufactured off site and arrives on a lorry. It is a timber frame system, originally from Germany but now also found in the UK (Greencore Construction, Modcell), including; external cladding, doors and windows fitted, ducting and service voids. The heavy panels require a crane so this method not suitable for a poorly accessible site. Sometimes also these systems include foundations (e.g Danilith and Greencore Construction), other times this is contracted separately.

Super structure pre-fabrication (or open panel timber frame system)

Only the walls and roof structure are built off-site in a factory, external cladding is fitted on site, as are windows, doors, ducting, plumbing, electrics. These and the rest of the trades are managed by the self-builder.

SIPs (Structurally Insulated Panels)

An American idea that made its way over to the UK in the 50’s. These are panels that look like an insulation sandwich. Not really timber frame although the ‘bread’ is usually formed from OSB (made from waste timber) or plywood panels. Not so easily mortgageable (see below).

Oakframe construction

Large timber structure made off-site and then walls and roof are wrapped in SIPs or a more natural, breathable insulation and cladding layer. The oak frame is exposed internally creating a more traditional and characterful appearance. E.g Oakwrights and Carpenter Oak

Concrete insulated panel system

Heavy panels, requiring crane erection, with pre-fitted brick/render/timber/flint cladding. E.g Danilith

Insulated Concrete Formwork (ICF)

Speeds up on site masonry construction. Not pre-fab but some companies think it saves up to 25% of time on site compared to traditional masonry construction (HB&R mag link reference).

Mortgageable straw home

Inside one of the first straw bale homes to be mortgageable in the UK (by Modcell and White Design).

Mortgageability

A timber frame pre-fabricated home will ensure that you have access to any high street lender, if you want to use SIPs you will need a specialist lender with less competitive rates. If you can buy your plot in cash you can get a mortgage based on the value of the land which gives you access to much cheaper loans.

Sustainability benefits

Off-site construction results in less construction waste, any left over materials can be re-used in the factory instead of going to land fill. But this needs to be offset with how many miles the wall and roof panels have travelled. Though there are now companies manufacturing in the UK (Scotframe, Dwelle, Boutique Modern, Modcell and Greencore). Modcell use ‘flying factories’ to literally factory build within a few miles of your site using local farm buildings and straw. Very high standards of energy efficiency and airtightness can be achieved, this, combined with a heat recovery ventilation system, will ensure a warm, healthy, fresh air environment. Only the ‘complete pre-fabrication system’ will come with the heat recovery system installed, this will need to be designed and installed by professionals if using one of the other systems.

We at CNA are keen to work on pre-fabricated dwellings with strong sustainability credentials. We believe a breathable system is best (such as Modcell, Greencore, Oakwrights or Dwelle). Timber is a breathable material and it makes sense to use breathable insulations with it. There have been issues in America whereby poor airtightness detailing has caused SIPs panels to go mouldy in parts. Until everyone is really super hot on airtightness in the UK, we feel it is safer to use breathable materials (and it is better for the environment).

Modcell straw bale home

The thickness of walls inside a Modcell and White Design straw bale pre-fabricated home in Bristol

 

Benefits of pre-fabricating your dream home

Cost certainty and time saving on site (British weather is not an issue), guaranteed airtightness and energy efficiency, high quality design. If using a UK pre-fabricator, the embodied energy of producing your home will be very low and you will be creating a true eco-home. Costs are reducing as more pre-fabricators have factories in the UK and custom build sites such as igloo’s Trevenson Park in Cornwall are increasing the demand for pre-fabricated homes. Your finish date for a watertight shell will be a certainty and if you go for the full pre-fabrication method, your move in date will be certain as well. This is a great asset when paying rent or living in a caravan on site.

 

Downsides of pre-fabricating your dream home

It can cost more (but you have much more predictability about these costs, rather than waiting on site for problems to occur, or for bad weather or supplier delays). It is expensive to ship panels from the continent, but these days there are a few options for UK pre-fabricated homes (see above under sustainability).

Once the design is fixed, it is very difficult to change things on site, windows can’t be moved a bit to the left or right or sizes changed. Walls can’t be moved (unless the pre-fab element is just outer walls). Additionally some pre-fabrication types work best with certain external cladding such as timber, render, stone. This can be an issue where planning requirements dictate a certain material is used externally. This is why it is a good idea to have an architect involved to really understand what your dream home entails and how it is best realised. Pre-fabrication companies offer fantastic benefits, but sometimes their designs can restrict your aspirations, or they are a bit too ‘standardised’. An architect can push these boundaries with the pre-fabrication firm, ensuring you realise your dream home for a cost and timescale that works for you.

August 22, 2017

The benefits of using an architect on a Gravenhill self-build or elsewhere

self build benefits of architect

Thinking of building a Gravenhill Self-Build? Here’s how to save money and reduce stress…

It’s finally happening!  You’ve found your plot, bought a hard hat, and watched every episode of Grand Designs twice over.  You’re ready to build your own house, the way that you want.  You have a clear vision of how it will be, so why appoint an architect?  Doesn’t self-build mean you do everything yourself, controlling every aspect of the project down to the doorknobs?

Well, that’s one way of approaching this task, but an architect can actually be an invaluable guide through the Gravenhill self-build process.  A professional architect will help you to get the best quality home for your budget. They will identify potential pitfalls, and be an important point of contact for your project team, co-ordinating designs from many consultants – structural engineers, ventilation design, window manufacturers, etc, etc.  Even those self-builders with lots of experience in the construction industry benefit greatly from employing an architect to work on their build – for example this client, an engineer who has been working with CNA to realise his dream of an eco-house for his family.  He has said:

Just a quick note to say that we have had the below positive response from SNC Planning with regards to our proposals. And without your valued input through the process we wouldn’t be in this position, so thank you very much….the models and proposals have been excellent and really changed the way we’d been looking at some of the aspects of our design.

An architect will help self-builders to make the most of something like a Graven Hill Golden Brick package, turning the bare bones of a project into a bespoke home within tight budget and time constraints.

 

self build benefits of architect

Cost

Budget is the defining element of any project, and getting the most out of it can be the difference between a dream home and just an expensive pile of bricks.  An architect can find you the best value for money in terms of materials and labour, and also reduce the running costs of your building in the future through good design.  A product such as a Graven Hill Golden Brick is a good starting point for estimating the cost of a self-build, but, as anyone who has flown with a budget airline knows, what starts out as a clear and transparent set of costs can all too easily become a quagmire of optional extras and hidden fees and charges.  An architect can help you anticipate, reduce and avoid these potential costs, and help you to decide what is worth spending money on and what is not. One self-build interviewee stated that without an architect, she could not have afforded her dream home.

 

self build benefits of architect

Time

In the grand list of self-building headaches, time comes a close second to cost, and there is of course a huge overlap between the two.  In the case of a package such as a Golden Brick at Gravenhill (self-build site in Bicester), the issue of time is brought sharply to the fore with the looming 32 month deadline to get a home built.  An architect can speed up the process of design itself, as well as streamlining the planning and construction stages.  It is our job to always be thinking one step ahead and making sure that the design will cause minimal problems in getting through planning and building control, and also on-site.  Our industry knowledge can also speed up decision making for you, reducing or eliminating the need for you to spend days (or weeks!) researching products or legal requirements for the project.

 

Quality

Quality is something self-builders have a large amount of control over.  This can be both a blessing, as you do not have to compromise on things that are important to you, and a curse, as the responsibility for making the correct decisions can result in a great amount of pressure and stress.  An architect, especially one based locally, is your gateway to an established network of reliable and recommended tradespeople.  Over their years in the industry, we at CNA have done the groundwork of building invaluable relationships with tradespeople, suppliers, planners and building inspectors, that you can then take advantage of.

Getting the design right

Another major influencing factor in the quality of a build is the design itself.  This is undoubtedly where architects come into their own, and where their years (and years and years!) of training are most evident.  Your architect can interpret your individual needs and come up with solutions that suit your lifestyle that you may not have even considered yourself.  They can also work out ways of fitting your requirements into restrictions such as a strict Design Code that may apply to your plot.  A predefined material or formal palette does not mean your home cannot be a bespoke expression of you.  Good design means that your home will be comfortable, safe and secure, meaning you are less likely to need to spend money on changes in years to come.  Once your house is built you will truly be able to settle in and relax.  It may be a cliché, but happiness and wellbeing are priceless, and your home is a crucial part of building a healthy personal environment.

 

self build benefits of architect

Eco-design

A house that has a minimal impact on the environment is something we should all be striving for.  Eco-houses run more efficiently, more cheaply, are healthier for their inhabitants, and create less problems such as damp and poor air quality.  Good design ensures that an eco-house need not cost more than a conventional one, and environmentally friendly features can be tailored to your lifestyle and the way you will use the house.  In fact, an energy-efficient house should eventually free up spare cash in the long term (perhaps for more home improvements!), so getting this right at the beginning can mean you reap the benefits in terms of savings for years to come.  An architect who specialises in eco-design like Clare Nash can help you to meet and surpass minimum energy requirements, such as the Fabric Energy Efficiency standards Graven Hill self-builders must adhere to.

 

Decision making

Decision making can be a daunting and energy-sapping aspect of the design process.  An architect can guide and inform you, as well as providing specialist services such as visualisations of your design options.  These can help you to decide what you really want, and persuade planners and investors of the merits of your proposal.  You can discuss all aspects of the project with your architect before you embark on it.  This will give you the time, foreplanning, information and expert insight to put your mind more at rest than if you had to make important decisions alone.  Even just an hour discussing your your plans with a professional can make a marked difference to your approach and peace of mind.

 

self build benefits of architect

Project management

Housebuilding is a risky business.  With so many things to think about, juggle, and schedule, having an architect to manage the process for you can greatly reduce your risk of going over budget and over time, and hopefully preserve some of your sanity during what will be an incredibly busy time!  When it comes to your home you are considerably emotionally invested, and having somebody who can take an objective overview can help to keep the project balanced and in perspective.

 

An architect such as Clare Nash can work with self-builders to bring out the best of their ideas, enthusiasm and motivation, as well as streamlining a complex and tiring process.  If you are an interested self-builder, or a potential one, please do get in touch with Clare Nash Architecture Ltd for a friendly chat and to see what we can do for you.

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!

CNA visit to Straw Bale House by Sarah Wigglesworth Architects

Recently Clare Nash Architecture Ltd. (CNA) visited the famous Straw Bale House in North London designed by Sarah Wigglesworth and Jeremy Till. With sustainability and eco design at the centre of CNA’s design approach, we were excited to be given a tour by Jeremy himself who explained how their pioneering project came about.

The team met outside the house-come- office’s tall wicker gates at the very end of Stock Orchard Street in London. With the railway on one side and Victorian terraces on the other, a building on gabion stilts with sand bags on one elevation is not quite what you would expect to find at the end of the road!

Luckily it was a dry (if a little chilly!) day as the tour started outside, with Jeremy explaining how the design concept for the Straw Bale House was developed through Sarah and him sharing stories, before any drawings were even started. Once the design was established through drawings the next challenge was getting it through planning, which was perhaps aided by one of Jeremy’s anecdotes involving a party for local residents. The building is well known for being the first straw bale house to be granted planning permission in the UK, however there are many other materials at play here including sandbags and stone gabions which certainly challenged ideas on conventional building materials at the time. The talk outside lasted for about an hour discussing structure and sustainability.

Turning the corner around the house it was a pleasant surprise to find their garden, a surprisingly green and spacious area for central London. As lovers of fresh vegetables, it was great to see what crops they were growing in their garden and to hear the clucking of chickens too! Mid-construction decisions led to only having a back door which is now the front door and works well as it encourages you to walk through the garden before entering the house.

Walking inside and up the stairs I was not sure what to expect of a space which is both living and office, shared and private. However, the top of the stairs greeted us with a warm open plan living space that was cleverly divided into functional spaces; making sense of the unusual floor layout which was organised around an organically shaped larder inspired by Malawi cooking ovens. The use of natural wood and exposed white painted steelwork could have had a cool industrial feel to it but was complimented by splashes of warm orange furnishings and large amounts of glass allowing natural light to flood the space enhancing the feeling of homeliness. One of my favourite areas was the kitchen which was again homely and quirky too as each item seemed carefully considered, perhaps handcrafted, all the way down to the papier mache lampshade suspended over the table.

A fairly large group were on the tour with us but after admiring the first floor, we ascended the (perhaps not quite building regs approved!) staircase into the tower. Lining the stairs were shelves and shelves of books which seemed to change in levels of architectural relevance the further up you went. So at the bottom were architectural text books while at the top, nearing Jeremy’s office, were fiction books and novels. Having a library like this might get tiring in reality but as a visitor it was a very charming idea!

On our way out we popped into Sarah Wigglesworth’s attached (Quilted) office where she was working. It was an impressive space, both organised and bright and surprisingly quiet despite being on the railway track side- the sandbags must be doing their job!

Although the project is known for having challenged ideas of structure and materials in terms of sustainability, it was very interesting to hear Jeremey Till say that the construction methods and material composition are actually not that sustainable in the context of what is possible today. Technology has moved on since the house was originally built; even the double glazing is no longer as efficient as it could be!  Nonetheless, the choice and composition of the interior materials and spaces has a certain quality to it that, while you could probably Google ‘Sarah Wigglesworth House’ or something similar; would just not be the same as experiencing in reality.

 

 

 

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!

A Contemporary Vernacular Housing Development Design

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

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

contemporary vernacular housing development

Overview of proposal

Daylighting, visibility and privacy

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

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

contemporary vernacular housing corner window

Corner window idea

contemporary vernacular housing angled shutters

Angled shutters idea

“Bang for your buck”

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

contemporary vernacular housing sketch plan

Each house would have a feature that makes it unique

Material palette

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

contemporary vernacular housing green courtyard sketch

View into the internal courtyard space

Access and movement around the site

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

housing scheme sketch alleyway

Central alleyways idea

housing scheme sketch alleyway

Possibility of live/work

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

open garages with offices above

Garages with space for offices above

“Sense of place”

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

 

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.

August 30, 2016

Hemp, Lime and Timber Frame Prefabricated Panels

Greencore construction

 

 

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

Hemp, lime and timber frame prefabricated panelsGreencore 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).

Commercially viable…

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.

Lots of light in a hemp prefab house

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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