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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….

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 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.

 

CNA Away Day (Part I: NewhallBe Housing)

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

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

Essex barn Newhall

Traditional Essex barn

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

Newhall Be housing

Alison Brooks’ Newhall Be housing

Newhall Be Alison Brooks

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

Alison Brooks Newhall Be housing   Alsion Brooks Newhall Be housing

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

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

More inspiring contemporary vernacular housing schemes

contemporary vernacular housing

Mole Architecture – Passivhaus standard housing association homes in Norfolk

Contemporary vernacular housing schemes visited recently

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

contemporary_vernacular_housing_sieben_linden   Contemporary vernacular housing - Sieben Linden

Sieben Linden, Germany – Dirk Scharmer

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

 

Contemporary vernacular housing - Eden Bio   edouard_francois_bike_shed   edouard_francois_contemporary_housing

Paris, Eden Bio – Maison Edouard François

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

 

parsons_whittley_norfolk   parsons_whittley_norfolk

Burnham Overy Staithe, Norfolk, Parsons Whittley Architects

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

 

Contemporary vernacular housing_mole architects

roofs_across_fields

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

Fulmodeston, Norfolk, Mole Architects

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

 

Lancaster co-housing   Lancaster co-housing across the river

Lancaster Co-housing – EcoArc

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

 

gillard_associates_turf_roof   Sustainable housing in Wales

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

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

 

hermann_kaufmann_robert_froewis   hermann_kaufmann_unterfeldstrasse

Vorarlberg, Austria – Hermann Kaufmann architects

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

October 12, 2015

Inspiring Housing Schemes

 


Saegezahn eco home timber shingles

Lovely windows set in to a local larch shingled facade

Over the past few months I have visited four inspiring housing schemes in Europe. I had hoped to find the time to write about all of these inspiring housing schemes individually that I have visited for my book recently, but here is a quick summary:

 

Saegezahn eco home timber shingles

Saegezahn timber eco home

Saegezahn eco home timber shingles

Useful dry open, space with slatted doors for ventilation

Saegezahn eco home timber windows

Fab windows!

I visited Lake Constance area in September to look at several houses designed by the architect Alexander Ilg of Saegezahn (means Saw Tooth). He trained as a carpenter and became a master craftsman before becoming an architect. He specialises in highly crafted timber structure and timber clad buildings with breathable walls and all materials sourced locally. To ensure the Mechanical Ventilation and Heat Recovery system works perfectly he installs it himself. MVHR ensures fresh warm air in the house at all times of day, this coupled with the breathable timber walls that regulate humidity, creates a very healthy environment. The homes I visited all represent a local contemporary vernacular (albeit that they are sat amongst catalogue homes). The residents were all over the moon with their homes.

 

 

Vetlanda Group Home Sweden

High level landscaping for wheelchair users

I then travelled to Sweden to visit a care home facility with a difference. Designed by Kjellgren Kaminsky Architects, these homes are designed as a set of 6 to house disabled people who want to live independent lives. They were keen that their homes fitted in with the vernacular wooden and brick houses around them and that it did not shriek institution. The materials of dark brick and metal roof fit in really well with the surroundings and the quality of the spaces inside was superb. They really had thought of everything that a disabled person needs while still providing a very homely atmosphere inside. I know how difficult this is to achieve having worked on healthcare projects myself.

Kjellgren Kaminsky Architects Vetlanda Group Home

The materials and form sits well with the surrounding Swedish timber homes and woodland

 

 

Rural Design housing Plockton

These two homes sit well in the village context, you could not be sure they hadn’t been there for years

Rural Design housing Plockton

The materials and forms represent a white farmhouse and barn vernacular

In October I travelled to the Isle of Skye and nearby Plockton. My main reason for visiting was to look at a housing scheme in Plockton by Rural Design based on the typical white farmhouse and barn vernacular of the region. This worked very well and created a very positive entrance to Plockton. The positioning of the homes was really well thought out, as were the materials used. Another smaller scheme by the same architect in Plockton itself, blends so well, that you could walk by and not know it hadn’t been there for years. Again the residents were very pleased with the quality of space and light. One resident didn’t even turn her heating on in the winter! While in the area I couldn’t resist visiting Neil and Mary at Dualchas architects and also one of the homes designed by the project architect Daniel Bär (recently moved to their Glasgow office) called Cliff House. Dualchas place real emphasis on designing buildings of the place, creating modest simple buildings that provide surprising amounts of space and light inside and using materials that represent a modern vernacular. The appearance of these two architecture practices on the island 15 years ago has really lifted the quality of house building. It is not that people did not want this kind of quality before, it is just that they didn’t know they could have it. Now they can.

Dualchas Architects Cliff House

Dualchas Architects – Cliff House. The house sits low into the landscape, not disturbing any views

Dualchas Architects Cliff House

Dualchas – Cliff House materials fit well into the landscape

 

Dualchas Architects Cliff House

Dualchas Cliff House – fab view!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Faro Architekten Biesland Housing

Narrow streets to slow traffic and create a village feel

In Holland in November I visited a large housing scheme of nearly 500 houses, part of a completely new development of some 11,000 homes. I interviewed Faro Architekten who oversaw the design and implementation of the scheme. The emphasis was on creating a rural atmosphere and this has been achieved by incorporating the typical Dutch Polder landscape (fields split by canals and foot bridges) into the housing. They were keen not to create another housing area dominated by one architectural design. Instead narrow streets and randomly placed housing designs give the area a village feel. The narrow streets have another advantage of slowing traffic and increasing visibility by making parking impossible. This means that children can play safely in the streets. Car parking is achieved by small car parks for 20 cars dotted around. Not one of the residents I interviewed complained about any parking difficulties (unlike new housing schemes in Britain). The build is also of very high quality with beautiful brickwork and very thickly insulated walls.

Faro Architekten Biesland Housing

Faro Architekten, Biesland Housing – Typical Dutch Polder landscape

 

Faro Architekten Biesland Housing

Faro Architekten Biesland Housing – Open spaces in the development create a rural atmosphere

I still have many more housing schemes to visit though most of these will be in the UK. It has been a very inspiring time for me so far and I enjoy putting these new ideas into my work and teaching.

December 21, 2014

Clare Nash visits Osprey Quays, Weymouth

Osprey Quays, Weymouth Officer's Field, Weymouth

Officer's Field, Portland IMG_0607

Clare Nash recently visited the olympic village, Osprey Quays, Portland, Weymouth which is now housing. This will form another case study in Clare’s new book about sustainable housing (specifically contemporary vernacular design).  The build quality is excellent and the residents have fabulous views of the Chesil beach and light and airy spaces inside. The heating is mostly run off Biomass or wood pellet boilers. Rainwater flushes the toilets and everyone has their own roof terrace with views of the sea. The housing fits in very well in Portland, using Portland stone and render and is a good example of a reasonably low cost housing development delivered at a high standard. The architects for this scheme are HTA and the developer is ZeroC. So far Clare Nash has interviewed the MD of ZeroC, Kim Stowe and will be interviewing the architects soon.

September 11, 2014