Words v. Vision

Words v. Vision


The cheapest brick box with a concrete tile pitched roof, plastic windows and a bolt-on porch is not “traditional design”. Winding ribbon tarmac roads, random plots, car dominated layouts, a few token patches of planting and a handful of fortunately protected trees does not make a sustainable place. Yet the planning applications of the national housebuilders include reams of documentation prepared by should know better consultants extolling the wonders of their sustainable “placemaking” intent. Many famous architectural firms are complicit in this travesty; planning officers and their committees accept and grant consent to these deplorable untruths with the justification that the houses are of “traditional design”. All the right words, but woefully inconsistent with an absent vision. Local authorities are rightly under government pressure to deliver more housing because of the national shortfall, but the resultant abuse of our land resource, vulnerable planning system and deplorable design is nothing short of an unsustainable travesty. It is spreading across our once green and pleasant land like an environmental plague. Visual leprosy. Noddy designed the houses and consent was granted by Big Ears. Meanwhile, Andy Pandy’s planet is dying and the Flower-Pot Men have lost the will to live.

Now away from this last-century approach comes a major exemplar of knowledge-based analytical thinking, innovation and collaborative work. 

This giant step in the right direction is the recent government-sponsored ‘House of 2030’ competition. This has brought forward a multitude of ideas and real-world solutions for better quality houses that are zero carbon, affordable, and lay the foundations for multi-generational sustainable communities. The first prize was shared by “Igloo” and “Openstudio” architects. The winning scheme by “OpenStudio” and a team of top-flight consultants exemplifies art, engineering and fabrication with real potential. Their comprehensive proposal sets a target for all involved in housebuilding and the planning process. The design, performance, adaptability, quality, speed of construction and affordability are all spot on. And it hits the zero-carbon bull’s eye. It is exciting, profoundly intelligent and demands industry attention. 

The proposal utilises a range of robust factory-fabricated timber-framed panels that can be adapted to various house and apartment sizes, a variety of site densities, layout figurations, heights and cladding options. The panels comprise a series of economically transportable ‘flat-pack’ elements that make up a base unit and loft. A choice of house types achieves diversity through simplicity and repetition. The selection of materials carefully avoids the pollutants present in certain mass-produced building products. The design provides excellent ventilation, acoustic and daylight performance. The use of 2.7m ceiling heights allows taller windows whilst meeting climate comfort targets for 2080. (Such levels are compromised in lesser schemes by the environmental performance aspects of current building regulations.)

Engineering services are totally integrated with the design to deliver net-zero buildings, using today’s technology without resorting to carbon offsetting. The energy consumption is 55% lower than the current build average. The services adopt a central riser hub that provides flexibility and a modular format, allowing ‘plug & play’ systems that are adaptable to individual buildings and their occupants.

The OpenStudio winning scheme goes way beyond the individual zero-carbon house. It illustrates how whole neighbourhoods can be conceived with the essential hierarchy of private > semi-private > semi-public > public space. Each dwelling has its own garden, balcony or roof garden. Clusters create communal gardens and shared open spaces. The designs consider the issues of ageing in place, impact on countryside ecology, and local landscape character as part of a holistic approach to meeting the 21st century climate emergency. The detailed concept meets the need for wheelchair access as well as the pandemic demand for home working. The underlying vision balances amenity, adaptability and choice, sequence and scale of space, connection to nature, comfort and stimulation of the senses, multi-generational inclusion, integration of available technology, quality of fabrication and alternative identities to suit the specific character of different sites. These are the real ingredients of “placemaking”.  The right words that are truthfully consistent with facts and a vision of Place.

At the pinnacle of the Westminster super-prime market, it is interesting to read that the Chelsea Barracks project has been awarded LEED Platinum certification for Neighbourhood  Development. This allegedly makes it one of the most sustainable developments in Europe. The application of permeable and accessible streets, urban greening, open space provision and biodiversity are all to be applauded. What is inexplicable is that such certification clearly does not measure the carbon footprint of so many acres of concrete, stone, marble and air conditioning. Chelsea Barracks has an overabundance of these materials and services, which does not amount to a “holistic approach to every aspect of building design”. Such developments may be taking steps towards an improved public realm, but they should not claim to be meeting the demands of climate change, or acceptable levels of embodied carbon. Those are last-century platitudes.

Image Copyright: Openstudio

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