A break from the standard blogging currency of comment, criticism, conjecture and pointing elsewhere … here’s a series of entries about one of my own projects and how it’s been confirming my growing concern about my generation’s appreciation (or rather, lack thereof) of the history of housing design:
Part 1: to a degree
In November last year I was asked by a client to develop a housing layout for a small site on the edge of Stourbridge in the West Midlands. The brief, set by Black Country Housing Association, called for an ‘exemplar’ environmentally friendly scheme. A layout had already been prepared by others using three pairs of semi-detached properties but large storm and foul drains had subsequently been found to be running through the centre of the site and they required a substantial ‘wayleave’ (zone to be kept free of building) on either side. Very little room for development was remaining.
Can you continue the ‘green’ agenda of the initial scheme? Could we still achieve the same number of units on half the site? Can we have a plan by next week? Can you note that the brief asks for ‘award winning architecture’?
Yes, yes, yes and – depending on your definition of award, winning, or for that matter, architecture – yes:
We have a tried and tested technique in our office. It’s a simple thing but it’s value is often overlooked by those obsessed with the black/white, and/or, left/right, x/y world of the perpendicular. It’s called, for want of a more poetic name, 45 degree planning. It’s come to my rescue often. So often in fact that it risks becoming a style rather than a technique, but for the moment I shall stand by the assertion that I’m understanding the action rather than just reaching for a result. It’s a simple thing but instead of its more popular sibling – 90 degrees – it seems to require a certain deftness. It feels more like a vector. A point on a line of infinite possibilities, rather than a line between two points of known characteristics (*cough* thank you D & G *cough*).
Three existing conditions leapt off the site plan in that first meeting to create the response above: the position of the neighbouring house to the north, the narrow space forced on us by the drainage restrictions and the north-south orientation of the site. The last one creating the need for an appreciation of the solar gain to be equally enjoyed by each property to both front and back, and the potential heat loss to be avoided in the north.
A blustery weekend in a coastal cottage with pencil, paper and Jane Eyre on the TV and it developed into this:
The crucial factor in the development beyond that initial site plan proved to be the roof. You can see me noodling about with it on the first 3 sheets (noodling – verb: to apply, through subtle, successive iterations, the full extent of one’s many years of architecture experience to a design problem). The result is a type of scissor roof arrangement in which each plot has two different pitches, one half of which connects to the following plot as the houses step back. We get visual continuity and interest out of the wider street scene, irrespective of level changes, that also creates an opportunity/need to deal with the intersection detail directly above the centre of the floor plan. Ventilation possibilities? Check. Natural light inlet? Check. Character? Innovation? Place making? Check, check and (hello CABE) check.
Returning to the office that week I discussed the layout and house design with older, wiser colleagues. Go and take a look at the work of Eric Lyons, they said. Eric who? said I, not knowing his work. The following week brought the announcement that the RIBA would be mounting an exhibition of his work at Portland Place. The coincidence seemed too great to ignore. I booked train tickets.
Coming up: Part 2 – The RIBA and their terrible muffins