Houses for a sustainable future at BRE Innovation Park

My environmentally friendly car of the future is a BMW M3. What does my sustainable house look like? Well this might give you an idea…

Last week I visited the BRE (Building Research Establishment) head quarters in Watford. More specifically I had a tour around Innovation Park. This is a live test bed for the future of Sustainable Innovations. Its focused on domestic housing and there are eight houses there currently – all integrating, showcasing and actually testing the latest in design and technology to maximise sustainable living. The Government are backing this initiative and pushing for continually higher standards. Domestic houses have standards set/ bench-marked by the Code for Sustainable Homes. These are not currently mandatory for all homes. The HCA (Homes and Communities Agency) have set specific ‘sustainability’ targets to be achieved for all new Social/ Affordable housing in the future.

The industry recognised measurement body for sustainability is BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method – you can see why they went for BREEAM!) I’ve always called it “BREE-AM”, but I was assured by the people at the BRE that it is actually said “BRE(EA)M” – like the Fish. Maybe there’s a tenuous association there to preserving natural habitats? Or maybe not.

I hadn’t appreciated that the BRE was first established in the 1920’s, although its focus in the early days was on improving housing quality generally, with less emphasis on Sustainability. I suspect they probably had little/ no understanding of the impact of buildings on the environment – and therefore the need for more sustainable homes back then. During the second world the BRE site in Watford was also used for confidential research and development of the bouncing bomb – used on the Möhne Dam in the famous Dambusters Raid in 1943. We saw the scaled ‘test’ model of the Dam which is still there today and is Listed by English Heritage.

The day at the BRE was hugely informative and insightful. Here’s some of my observations/ thoughts from it…

A lot of the houses there are very conceptual in their design; challenging the way we live now – as well as integrating sustainable design principles. This is commendable (and very good from an Architects ‘design’ perspective), but I cant help challenge it from a layperson point of view. It’s one thing people embracing sustainable living and energy use/ re-use, but to wrap this in an envelope/ floor plan format that is very different to ‘the british semi’ maybe a step too far? Surely this is adding obstacles to gaining wider public support? For me that’s the challenge here; to create houses which maxmise sustainable living, in a fabric and format which the majority of house buyers will want to buy/ live in. You can see links/ full details of all the houses being showcased by clicking here to open a PDF guide. However, three houses stood out for me, for different very reasons…

The Barratt Green House (click on title to see a pdf)
This is an ‘urban living’ home, designed to be built in terraces. It is designed to the highest achievable standard; CfSH Level 6. This is an interesting format and contemporary in its appearance. It has high levels of thermal mass through its concrete panelised construction. Externally is has triple glazed windows with external automated shutters, a sedum roof and rainwater harvesting. Internally it runs on a mechanical ventilation system, solar PV, solar thermal, and an air source heat pump – all managed via a computerised control system. This is all impressive stuff. Like most of these houses it requires a Plant Room (not the green growing things – M&E machinery!). This is something the homebuyers might also need to get used to in the future! The downside you ask?…it costs £1.2m to build at the moment! Not exactly deliverable to the masses.

The Renewable House (click on title to see a pdf)
This is probably the closest house to being ‘normal’ – as we know it. It is built with a timber frame and Hempcrete walls. Thermafleece roof insulation is made of British Sheep Wool to keep the house warm. Heating is provided via an under-floor heating system and solar thermal collectors provide hot water. This house concept was used by Kevin McLoud in his Haboakus housing development called ‘The Triangle’ in Swindon. A scheme which I didn’t really buy into when watching the Channel 4 documentary last year. However, this house is more conventional and therefore will possibly be accepted by the masses. It also costs £75k to build. This all seems quite good. However, it feels like any other ‘new house’ – is this good? Maybe there’s a balance to be had here.

The Prince’s House (click on title to see a pdf)
This house has been designed by the Prince’s Foundation. Describing the vision, HRH The Prince of Wales said; The Natural House doesn’t wear its “greenness” as if it was the latest piece of haute couture. . This is and interesting perspective. When I talk to people about their ‘ideal house’ more often than not they describe an old House, with well proportioned rooms and windows and solid walls, but wrapped in a modern, efficient and low-maintenance fabric. As an Architect people often say to me ‘would you like to design/ build your own house one day?’ – Actually my ideal house would be an old brick/ stone barn conversion, with complimentary contemporary additions – a blend of old/ new. Something spacious with real character, texture and detail. I digress a little here, but there’s a link. What has been achieved with the Prince’s house is a blend of efficient building technology with decent spaces internally. Its not uber modern or full of M&E ‘machines’, but actually really attractive – most of all internally. It uses natural materials, is highly insulated, uses wood fibre and sheep wool for insulation and a Passive ventilation system which modulates humidity and promotes a ‘healthy’ environment for occupants. Externally it could have a degree of flexibility in its aesthetic, but what they have designed has meaning.

“The Natural House’s basic appearance is that of “evolved tradition” – it used the simplest and most successful building solutions of the past and updates them to meet the needs of our low-energy future”.

The proportions of the house are based on a 6m x 6m square. This has a historic reference to early mass-housing design. These are the dimensions of each side of the house in elevation and also corresponds with the internal floor layouts. The front and rear rooms are each 6m x 6m. Internally it has high ceilings and big windows – the affect this has is wholly positive. I think this house has a lot of considered, informed and successful design thought in it. Figures to build this aren’t confirmed, but its believed to cost around £140k to build. Of all the houses we saw, I think this has perhaps has the most going for it.

I’ve often felt frustrated by modern house design – and a sense that their proportions, details and ‘features’ look and feel wrong (to me). Maybe this is because a lot of modern homes aren’t actually designed by Architects? Add to that an immense pressure to make them cheap and quick to build and the output is, by and large, average at best. We should go back in time. Understand the thinking behind Georgian and Victorian homes in particular – a lot of which still exist.

So future housing design should obviously embrace sustainability, but also consider the past in terms of spacial and proportional qualities in housing design. Perhaps all this technology isn’t what its all about? Maybe we should keep it simple.

However, the real challenge now though is not really what all our new homes should be like (although long-term its important), but rather how we can adapt our current housing stock to improve energy efficiency and help the environment. There are currently around 25 million homes in the UK. New ‘eco’ housing stock will be, for some time yet, a very small proportion of this figure. How can we assess ‘the british semi’ and make it better? Well this is being looked at, although there was little evidence of this at the BRE. Actually the University of Nottingham have a similar Sustainable homes research programme on-campus. You can see details of it here. The image below is one of their houses. A 1930’s Semi-detached house – a format that makes up around 60% of the UK’s current housing stock. This is the problem in terms of the environment and this is what we need solutions for. Effective sustainable innovations which can be retro-fitted to current homes.

So, I think I’ve probably talked enough for now! This is a hugely important subject which needs continued research, testing and wider public awareness/ promotion. If you want to go the the BRE’s Innovation Park, go to their website. You can book a visit for just £30 per person and I think its very worthwhile.

One final thought; part of me expected/ hoped to see the car park at the BRE full of super efficient hybrid cars like Toyota Prius’ and super-mini electric cars…I was surprised. There were actually a lot of 4×4’s and the odd BMW M3 also! Maybe Jeremy Clarkson was right when Top Gear ‘proved‘ that a BMW M3 is more efficient and better for the environment than a Toyota Prius. Watch it here.

The future is sustainability.

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