01280 706250

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


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

Ashley Vale Self Build Co-operative Bristol

Ashley Vale BristolAshley Vale Bristol

Clare Nash recently visited Ashley Vale self-build co-operative in Bristol which will form a case study in her new book (see publications page). She visited residents and interviewed them and also went on a tour as part of the AECB Conference in Bristol. This was a very informative tour, covering the site history and politics, including the difficulties of fighting off a developer and then gaining planning permission for 20 unconventional dwellings. A real inspiration, and certainly a good example of how to deal with the housing crisis. These homes are individual, larger than standard but at very high density. This would not have been possible with conventional house building planning rules and ‘the car rules’ typical estate planning. So it is a very good example of what could be done to solve the housing crisis. Ecomotive were the ‘developers’ who enabled this development to take place and it’s director Jackson Moulding was the founding member of the National Self Build Association (now the National Custom and Self Build Association (NACSBA). Ecomotive and Snug Homes are now keen to help future developments like this go ahead.

IMG_0418Interviewing the residents at Ashley Vale was a really rewarding experience as everyone was so keen on the development. People rated the community very highly and everyone seemed to know everyone, even the tenants. Local people in surrounding housing have also benefited with communal green areas and crime is very low. Three houses were open on the tour and it was interesting to see useful passive cooling techniques, such as low level openings and high level roof lights letting air circulate in a sun space. All the houses are timber frame with cellulose insulation, which creates a very breathable construction which is a very pleasant atmosphere to live in.

These houses were a lot cheaper to build than your average home. Plots cost £25-35,000, build costs were – £45-80,000. Cost per m2, around £500 which is extremely low, take note Mr Boles! Being green needn’t cost more than a traditional house, in fact if you do it yourself or as a community it can cost less!

Ashley Vale BristolOverall this is an excellent case study as it shows that the housing crisis needn’t be solved by identikit, soul less housing, instead you can identify a self-build plot and let people get on with building their own homes, creating fantastic communities as they do so.




Vernacular self-build today

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

Does vernacular self-build have a future?

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

Poorer quality homes built today vs vernacular self-build

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

Over-complicated technologies

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

Self-finish custom-build creates less waste

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

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