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Does sustainability have to mean biomass boilers and solar panels?

We recently submitted an opinion piece for the architecture competition organiser Bee Breeders’ first issue print publication, ARCHHIVE; which will focus on affordable housing. The question was ‘what is affordable housing’. Our premise was that a successful building or home has to be affordable for the specific user, as well as affordable for the environment. 

This article, as well as the upcoming London Affordable Housing Challenge design competition, has got us thinking about the broader meaning of a valuable sustainable design response. 

Sustainable living requires a design grown from the architecture of the place, learning from the local vernacular, not just existing precedent. The study of the social and urban fabric on both a macro and micro scale is vital to this process; it is imperative to understand the links between people and the broader networks. Designing one ‘green building’ or city zone in isolation is not the solution.  

Proposal for a bespoke retirement dwelling on garden land in Bristol

Last week we received a resoundingly negative pre-application response to proposals for a new house on garden land, in a green belt conservation area. The basis was a conflict in principle with Core Strategy and local development boundaries. The client’s current property is a generous detached house, and the garden is her pride and joy. She likes it in the area and wants to stay in a familiar place after retirement. But, keeping up with the demands of an older property as she approaches retirement is not viable, nor is an equivalent development nearby affordable nor desirable for her. 

With her, we have proposed a new purpose-built dwelling on the corner of the site, replacing two run-down garages with awkward access. The new house will be respectful of the surrounding environment and carefully designed for longevity, based on the principles of usability, orientation, sunlight and a positive visual relationship with the woods opposite; creating a home that adds rather than subtracts from the locality. Although discreet, the house is not apologetic. The project will allow her to build a bespoke house suited to her lifestyle and needs for the price of a flat in a conventional development complex. It is an exciting affordable home for an existing member of the community which represents a sustainable solution to her change in lifestyle. 

“Affordable development should be socially as well as financially sustainable for the users – and also for the city. However, national regulations are not always interpreted locally with this in mind. It is our responsibility as design professionals to engage in this debate and champion the importance of human factors, alongside promoting green tech.” 

How do we go about promoting the value of social and emotional factors in delivering sustainable design? In the past family members would take on evolving roles as they progressed through life. Buildings and settlements would be adapted organically to meet the current and future needs of their occupants, without interference from governing bodies. Today’s communities and global environmental demands are more complex, upheld by strategic regulation. So, whilst we must strike a balance between learning from the habits and instincts that rule vernacular development, there is absolutely also a place for educated professional input and technology.

As architects, we want our buildings to stand out. We are also often associated with ‘eco-warriorism’ and embracing innovation –as we should be. Nevertheless, ambitious, visible architecture is not incompatible with respect for the place, and creating a bond between the building and its environment so they are mutually supportive. Our toolkit includes specifying recyclable, local materials (or those with strong environmental credentials) and studying the orientation and sunlight, prevailing winds and temperature to guide the structural form. But we also listen. Through discussion we must immerse ourselves in the aspirations of our clients, their users and other stakeholders; analysing their routines and creating places that delight. When a place is loved it is cared for, and when it is cared for it works; when it works it is sustainable.

Axonometric plan of the proposal for Sevenoaks Wildlife Trust “The Ark”

We put these experiential principles into practice when designing Kent Wildlife Trust’s new visitors centre which we dubbed “The Ark”. We invested time talking to a spectrum of managers, staff and visitors at the centre; as well as engaging with the site itself physically and emotionally. One critical consideration was the need to balance business viability with the site’s available human and monetary resources. The staff were keen not to commercialise the natural visitor experience, whilst wanting to increase staying times and draw new customers to increase income. Our proposal relocated the new building to the natural pinch point of the trail walks around the two lakes. In this location, we connected the walks with a meandering courtyard offering glimpses and easy access to welcoming internal retail, information and cafe areas. Careful consideration was also given to the general location of spaces on plan to allow for easy management and surveillance to improve functionality.

Our core design concept for the £2m “Ark” was to ‘bring nature in’; engaging through different perspectives in; on; and over the landscape. The project comprised of 3 small lettable treatment pavilions and a main building in direct relation to the water. The design of the visitor centre sought to elegantly encourage user engagement whilst facilitating staff supervision; within an eye catching yet rationally constructed structure. The timber framed form with an undulating roof mimics the natural setting. The glazed ceramic tiles imitate the reflective surface of the lake, and integrated bird and bat roosts with observation areas draw wildlife into the building. 

Section of the proposal for Sevenoaks Wildlife Trust “The Ark”

We strove to create a building that was a capsule to preserve, help and bring in nature as well as meeting the functional requirements we learnt about. When a building is specific to the context it resonates and represents a sustainable development. This level of responsiveness cannot be found in policies and national targets. Neither will it necessarily meet generic strategic requirements and we must stand up for the bigger picture. 

We believe that we are at a crucial moment in the history of design. As professionals, we have to be the link between people, the policymakers and the environment. 

We must do what we can to help the urban environment to evolve sustainably and affordably.  This should be based on principles of longevity and respect for the context from concept to use; not simply "patching" development with biomass boilers and solar panels. We have to reflect on what kind of cities we want to live in and what kind of buildings we need for living. The answer is in looking at the architecture of the place, for the place and adapted to the place.