Monday, 4 August 2014

Vale, Robert & Brenda: The Autonomous House

Autonomous house is a generic term, referring to a building that functions entirely on the resources it can draw from its immediate site and which is not connected to any mains services (electricity, gas, water and sewerage). Many autonomous houses have been imagined as part of a Utopian vision, and some have been built as practical examples. The most well-known built example is probably The Autonomous House built by Robert and Brenda Vale in Southwell, Nottinghamshire, in 1993. I have leafed through their book of the same name many times and feel I know the house as if I had lived in it, but when I first heard about it, at a lecture given by Robert Vale at the RAIA in Sydney in the mid 90's, I knew nothing about it.

I shall always remember the start of that lecture. This was in the days of slides (as opposed to PowerPoint presentations) and the lecture hall at Tusculum was darkened so that the slides took all ones visual focus. Robert must have talked for at least 5 minutes without changing the opening slide: a house that looked like the "spaceship-has-landed" stereotype of a modern eco-house, all shiny metals and bristling with technology. I cannot now remember exactly what building it was, but it was something like The Autonomous Dwelling designed by Michael Jantzen in 1979.

The Liberated House, or Autonomous Dwelling, designed by Michael Jantzen.
I had, of course, assumed this was the Vale's Autonomous House. It was only when Robert turned to look at the screen himself and said "oh, by the way, that's not my house", and flicked to the next slide, that I realised we had all been tricked. For that next image looked nothing like the stereotype, but rather like an old and fairly ordinary house, more likely to be the subject of a heritage conservation lecture.

The Autonomous House, Southwell, designed by Robert & Brenda Vale, 1993
Robert's point was simple: the idea of an autonomous house was challenging enough for the public, and there was no point to also challenge them aesthetically, which would risk putting them off the idea all together. This worked on multiple levels. The site was within an area designated as a heritage conservation zone, with surrounding buildings dating back to Medieval times, and the planning approval process was much more likely to run smoothly for a building which was sympathetic to its neighbours in terms of materials, form and orientation. The Vales note "a deliberate effort was made to design a house that would look a natural part of its setting. If a radical proposal is made to change the way that houses are serviced, it is perhaps too much to demand that people should also have to change their expectation of what a house should look like... Had the house been very unconventional in appearance, it might have elicited a response that the idea was interesting, but that the technology was clearly not for the ordinary householder." The imperative for the Vales was to sell the idea of sustainability, not a specific building type.

Hence, the design is very carefully fitted into the context of the site, and could in fact be used as a case study for a heritage conservation lecture on designing for urban infill. Walls are of red brick, the steeply pitched roof of terracotta tiles, windows are timber and multi-paned, and there is a simple timber porch to the street. But within this pseudo-historic envelope is every piece of active and passive technology necessary to support the demands of modern life completely self sufficiently: rainwater tanks, composting toilets, heat recovery ventilation, and solar panels feeding a battery bank.

The solar panels provide a particularly clever example of how to deal with the practicalities of designing an eco-house. The orientation of the house, determined to be the most appropriate within the streetscape, meant that there were no south-facing roof planes to take solar panels. So, instead, these were mounted on a pergola in the garden, which meant they could be orientated and angled precisely to optimise output, whilst also providing an attractive garden structure.

The key point here is that, even though the Southwell house was a bespoke design very specific to its site, the underlying objective was always to demonstrate that sustainable buildings could be accepted by the mass market. The Vales note that "throughout the project, it was realised that design alone without the potential for, or the probability of, transfer to the marketplace, would be meaningless. The sustainable house must be recognised as a marketable product by house builders and as an affordable and desirable home by consumers."

In order to have any real impact on the sustainability of our society, whether at a local, national or global level, and all its associated impacts on climate change etc, we should be building every new house to this standard, not just the occasional one, and this comes down to market forces. The Vales quote a Canadian government housing programme on this theme, which states "greater consumer demand is necessary to achieve the potential energy savings related to a particular product by reducing per unit costs and pay back periods through economies of scale." 

In order to meet our carbon reduction targets we need to take some big steps, not just tweak the edges, and the ideas behind the Vale's Autonomous House represent just such steps.

The New Autonomous House by Robert & Brenda Vale, published by Thames & Hudson.

I won't write more here about the house itself, but thoroughly recommend the book. This was originally published in 1975 before the actual house was even anticipated, and revised in 2000 under the title The NEW Autonomous House to include details of the completed house. It includes both dry factual data and inspiring background research.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Loudon, John Claudius (1783-1843, Great Britain)

John Claudius Loudon was a prolific writer on gardens and architecture in the early nineteenth century, and his works were hugely influential on these subjects at the time. Country Life described Loudon as an “eminent Victorian” stating that he “personified that moral force, thoroughness and desire to fill every moment with useful productivity that seem to us the hallmark of the 19th-century man of distinction”. Yet his name is little known today, even within those professions. However, the more I find out about Loudon, the more intrigued I become by the man, both professionally and personally.

John Claudius Loudon

Loudon was born at Cambuslang in southern Scotland, not far from where I find myself now living. Like me, he was a farmer’s son, my birthplace being the Hunter Valley in Australia. For whatever reason, we were both destined not to continue in the family farming tradition, but to work with the land in other ways.

Loudon studied botany, biology and agriculture at the University of Edinburgh, and in his early career described himself as a “landscape planner”, working on farm layouts during this period of dramatic change in farming practices. In this, he was influenced by the works of Lord Kames, judge, writer, philosopher and “agricultural improver”, who began his pioneering agricultural pursuits at Kames House in the Scottish Borders during the late 1740’s.

Loudon left Scotland around 1803, travelling extensively in Europe, and intent on establishing himself in London. He developed the style of gardening known as “gardenesque”, earning himself the title “father of the English Garden”, with commissions including Harewood in Yorkshire and Ditchley in Oxfordshire. His most important landscape work is probably the Derby Arboretum, created in collaboration with industrialist Joseph Strutt, which was groundbreaking for its time and is the oldest surviving public park in the UK. His architectural output was much more limited, but his own house survives at Porchester Terrace in London, as does the burnt-out shell of Barnbarroch House in Dumfries where he designed alterations.

Postcard of Barnbarroch House showing its landscape setting

The ruins of Barnbarroch House today

However, it is Loudon’s writings rather than his commissions that were most influential during his time and which stand as his greatest legacy today. He published numerous books and magazines, with subjects including garden design and management, botany and plant names, buildings and their rapidly advancing technology. The series titled “Architectural Magazine and Journal of Improvement in Architecture, Building, and Furnishing” was the first of its kind. But for me, his most inspiring work is “An Encyclopaedia of Cottage, Farm and Villa Architecture”, a massive two-volume tome first published in 1834, exactly 180 years ago, and still in print today.

Titlepage of the Encyclopaedia

In the opening line of his Introduction, Loudon states: “The main objective of this Encyclopaedia of Cottage, Farm and Villa architecture, is to improve the dwellings of the great mass of society, in the temperate regions of both hemispheres; a secondary object is to create and diffuse among mankind, generally, a taste for architectural comforts and beauties.”

The line that first caught my eye was the reference to “the temperate regions of both hemispheres”. This no doubt reflected the colonial nature of the world in which Loudon lived. Indeed his ideas, if not his actual book, quite probably influenced my ancestors when they were establishing their pioneering farms in Australia during that period. For me, personally, this also reflected the world in which I have learnt and practiced my architectural trade, working and travelling in Britain, Europe, Australia and South Africa. So this line drew me in, made me ponder the full sentence more closely, and in doing so I started to realize how potent Loudon’s statement was about the real purpose of architecture.

To state that his intention was to “improve the dwellings of the great mass of society” is no small claim, but one which Loudon can be said to have followed through on. While the Encyclopaedia included schemes for large country houses, there was at least equal emphasise given to humble workers cottages, with detailed guidance on how to maximise their amenity. This included all the latest technological advances, with instructions provided in words and drawings for their construction. Whilst the specifics may seem antiquated and outdated, the principles remain very much valid today, as we wrestle with the issues of environmental sustainability and social equality.

Even that heroic claim was not enough for Loudon, adding to it his desire to “create and diffuse among mankind… a taste for architectural comforts and beauties”. In short, he proposed that architecture is not just about the practicalities of providing shelter, but should aspire to the higher ambition of creating places of beauty. Many would say this is an essential part of what it means to be a “civilised” society, and again this is equally valid today.

I may well write again about Loudon, particularly on how his ideas can be applied to sustainable development in our modern world, but hope this brief overview is sufficient to justify the recognition I think he deserves.

Friday, 6 June 2014

Sustainability is The Priority

Before the recession, sustainability was just getting recognition as a serious issue for the UK property industry. I was working as Sustainable Development Director for a national property developer at the time, in which capacity I initiated and spoke at a conference in May 2008, hosted in association with the Scottish Property Federation at the Balmoral Hotel, Edinburgh, on the theme "Selling Sustainability". When the recession hit just a few months later, the gains made by the sustainability agenda were virtually wiped out. However, the messages delivered at the conference remain equally, if not more, valid today.

The conference attracted a broad range of delegates, some of whom were strongly committed to the "green" agenda, whilst others were obviously equally cynical about it. My message to both groups was the same: it doesn't matter what you believe about climate change, whether it is man-made or not, and what impact it might have, the reality is that we are using up the earth's natural resources faster than they can be replenished, and releasing a vast array of pollutants into the environment which are toxic to all life. That is obviously unsustainable and must be changed.

How to make those changes with regard to buildings? Make sustainability the priority in any project from the outset. By doing so, the maximum benefit will be achieved at minimal (if any) additional cost. Most projects operate under tight budgetary constraints, and there will inevitably come a time when something has to be cut. If the sustainability "features" have only been included as add-ons, it is all too easy to see them as a low priority and the first to go. That is why it is essential that sustainability never be seen as an optional extra, but something that is fully integrated into all aspects of the building process.

At the conference I said that "we hope to inspire those who attend to try and achieve real and substantial gains in the industry, challenge those sectors involved in the acquisition process to start putting a value on sustainability, the merits of which can be passed on to the developer and construction industry, and provide a significant platform for debate on sustainable development in Scotland.” I can make no great claims to having achieved that since then, but it remains my objective.

British Property Federation - SPF sets Scotland's green agenda

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Welcome to my architectural journal

Welcome to my architectural journal, in modern terms my "blog". I am a practicing architect, having trained and worked in both the UK and my native Australia, currently based in the Scottish Borders. These are my personal musings and ramblings on people, places and issues that influence and inspire my approach to architecture and the environment.

They include architects and other designers from past and present, buildings I have visited, books I have read, and people who have spoken out with a strong vision of how we should interact with our environment. 

There is an emphasis on sustainability and on heritage - the conservation of the natural world and of the man-made world. I believe these share common principles that are essential to the maintenance of a healthy and civilised society, and must be at the core of all design.

Country houses and life in the countryside are also regular themes, reflecting my own life experience growing up in rural Australia, and the setting for many of the projects I have worked on.

Please note that I am not endorsing any particular person or issue, or suggesting that all buildings should be designed in a certain way, but simply weaving together many different strands to explain my own approach to how we make and inhabit buildings.

I hope you enjoy reading it, and thanks for your time. Ranald Boydell