Art for art’s sake or money for God’s sake

A recent editorial in Housing Association magazine questioning the need for architects in the field of housing design prompted us to reply. Here’s our response, printed in October’s issue of the magazine. (PDF copy)

In challenging your view of architects happily colouring drawings devoid of practical nous, I do not wish to fall into the mire of more professional stereotyping by proposing that architects led the charge in technology driven, construction innovations. But I do wish to correct the impression that we sat around waiting for others to give a lead.
Architects have demonstrated a capacity to put down their coloured pencils (not for good I hope), to embrace technology and new materials in progressive housing. Individual architect designed houses are little more than a paragraph in the post-war history of ‘housing’ (as opposed to ‘houses’) however the architects and the technologies which they experimented with are a different story.

As an engineer you will be familiar with the constructional items selected below, but I detect less familiar with the role of architects (in brackets) who, in a fusion of creativity and practicality, made significant contributions to their development in our industry. Slip-form shuttering (Schindler/Wright), tilt slab walls (Gill/Schindler), short bore pile/beam (Krisel/ Neutra), lightweight post & beam (Wexler, Segal, Koenig, Soriano, Segal), metal windows (Tait, Rohe), Gunite (FLW/Schindler & Neutra), curtain walling (Ellis, Prouve, Wright), plywood (Wells Coates, Straub, Soriano), bent plywood (Wells Coates, Breuer, Ain), concrete (Calatrava /Candela, Lautner)…and so on.

Setting aside the two modern architects you quote, neither renowned for their housing output, you share a widely held public preference for older styles over later modernism. However, inferring that the production of Arts & Crafts houses, Garden Cities and model neighbourhoods like Bournville, Harborne Estates and Port Sunlight somehow happened without architects is an injustice to many, including Lutyens, Baillie-Scott, Bidlake, Voysey, Parker & Unwin, Harvey, Bedford-Tylor, Martin and the thirty or so different architects working for the Lever Brothers (one at least responsible for the design of the Blackpool Tower). British housing of this period was admired the world over but the impact of World War 1, political instability and the reduction in European economic capacity moved the centre of gravity for the development of technically innovative, low cost housing to the USA, for a time.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s earlier prairie and later Usonian houses attracted many architects to leave Europe, work in his studio and latterly on the West Coast, developing new house planning ideas, constructional techniques, M+E developments, new materials, fixtures and fittings. Decades later open plan living, the family kitchen, sliding walls, composite worktops, integrated kitchens, built in closets, indirect lighting, polished concrete, multi-fold glass screens, the en-suite bathroom, dado trunking, the carport, underfloor heating and the patio entered the lexicon of the UK homeowner. Add to this list the automatic washing machine (1908), domestic refrigeration (1915) and we pretty much define contemporary living excluding home entertainment technology.

It is the creative tension between historicism and modernism, not the choice between one or the other which matters – familiarity, reassurance and security on one side; novelty, risk and experimentation on the other. You may want a cosy cottage but not a thatched hatchback and half-timbered wide screen TV.

Finally, the role of today’s architect working in housing is another discussion, but is, in summary, to create housing solutions on increasingly difficult sites, in numbers dictated by market forces, to a client’s specification, in a style approved by the client and wider public, laid out to mandatory quality standards, detailed to meet Building Regulations, constructed to minimise energy and carbon costs in materials doing little or no harm to the planet while all the time hoping the result will improve the quality of life of its users.
It is a wonder that we have time to colour up any drawings.

Mike Menzies

Lyng wins Housing Excellence Awards

Lyng Montage

We congratulate Wendy and all the Lyng Community Association Board on winning the Housing Excellence Award 2014  in the Regeneration Category.

Who would have imagined that all those meetings back in late 2000, those cold and wet evenings, busy weekends workshops and lengthy discussions about the finer points of housing design would be so successful.

Our continued best wishes to all of you and the Lyng residents for sticking with it.

The seeds of Lyng’s rebirth have flowered.

The single-storey story

From its origins in the Indian sub-continent through the British Raj to post war coastal development and urban fringe sprawl, the bungalow has a contradictory, almost schizophrenic, existence in Britain. On the one hand, reviled in the UK press as early as the twenties as ‘bungaloid’ sprawl but on the other hand, consistently voted as the public’s’ most aspirational housetype, in one survey after another. Bungalows built in the late Victorian / Edwardian period were not restricted to coastal resorts and ribbon development, many were an integral part of the utopian neighbourhoods of social reformers aiming to improve the living conditions of the urban working class.

More recently single storey homes have been relegated to holiday lodges sited within countryside parks or to the fading memories of the good old post-war prefab, an imported MMC product which survived its design life by a factor of four, and also outlived its debt redemption by decades. Wouldn’t that be a novelty in social housing.
Ageing home occupiers, reluctant to move, fearful about service costs, anxious about having enough room for a lifetime of stuff, unsure about pets and cranking up the volume on their vinyl collections, beware. As things stand, you cannot have what you want and must get used to it and learn to love the alternatives, supposedly higher density schemes with equally high service costs marketed in numerous cosy metaphors for village life in your later years.

Today single storey housing appears to have little to offer in the current housing crisis, being seen as low density, land grabbing, unstylish and comparatively expensive.
However, bungalows can readily be developed at around 40 – 50 plots/hectare, a figure common in suburban housing with front gardens providing parking and an external front to back access with a rear garden governed by the 70ft privacy spacing rule (although it started life as a sunlight/ health rule of thumb) so beloved of planning officers. With the right range of rectangular and patio floorplates, single storey housing developed in courtyard, mews style and stepped formats can be more efficient on many sites, where you can increase numbers over a layout of standard two storey housetypes.

Turning to the construction cost issue the common response is that the ratio of foundation length combined with roof/external wall to enclosed area is far from the cuboid ideal, (but no flat roof please). However single storey construction releases the designer from the Lifetime Homes strictures of upper floor accessibility, supporting an upper floor, two layer services distribution and conventional footings. It can also speed up the delivery of homes with, pre-fabrication, reduced height working, lower scaffolding/ lifting equipment costs, single panel lift and reduced preliminaries.

It has for many of these reasons been a favourite with the self-build / custom home markets, common in early housing pre-fabrication case studies and the dominant type in the post war expansion of the Commonwealth and the American West Coast.

West coast trip 228

The Californian bungalow, as it became known, reached its most innovative in the mid-century modernist, prefabricated, steel/timber post & beam, pile founded, low pitch/butterfly roofed, polished concrete 100sm floorplates, built in the thousands by developers like Eichler, the Alexander family & Meiselman brothers working in San Francisco, LA and Palm Springs. These low cost, middle income tract homes featured ,many of the domestic features taken for granted today: open plan living space, central heating/cooling, island kitchens, built in kitchen units, floor to ceiling glass, decorative blockwork, sliding external and internal doors, glazed atria and carports.

As we confront the ageing population crisis, can we not shed our net curtain/ paper doilies and cream tea preconceptions about bungalows and rediscover single storey houses which are chic, cool and suited to the downsizing ‘Woodstock/Isle of Wight’ generation.

West coast trip 265

West coast trip 224

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West coast trip 271

Weston Heights Neighbourhood Regeneration

Weston-Heights-balancing-pond

In January 2004 Axis Design were interviewed by the Coalville Partnership to undertake an Estate Masterplan for the redevelopment of the Coalville Estate, Stoke on Trent. A decade later members of the Coalville Partnership, Stoke-on-Trent Council officers and members, Compendium Living, Coalville Residents Association, Riverside and residents of the redevelopment now named Weston Heights came together on 23rd January to bury a time capsule containing drawings, public consultation papers, school project work, digital records and a few packets of sweets, scheduled to opened, and maybe eaten, in 2064.

Resident chair Ernie Clarke with Mike Menzies of Axis Design
Resident chair Ernie Clarke with Mike Menzies of Axis Design

It was a fitting culmination to our decade long relationship with the project, as we gathered in the new Neighbourhood Park originally conceived by Tony Goodall as he sketched up the first Masterplan ideas over Christmas 2003. Tony, a local lad, was born in Meir about a mile down the River Blythe from the new park which now has a commemorative wall bearing his name and those of other local residents, officers, friends and relatives.

Robert Flello, local MP, gave the regeneration team a ringing endorsement when he said:

“Weston Heights is the most successful regeneration partnership project in Stoke-on-Trent”

existenzminimum

ExistenzminimumMike considers the reality of space standard minimums and examples of UK housing:

Recent debate about the value of delivering smaller houses, with or without government subsidy, reignites the professions enduring interest in existenzminimum, the minimum habitable area in support of subsistence life. Internationally much debated within CIAM & Demos throughout the early to mid-twentieth century and often described as the house for the proletariat. The resultant decades of dialogue, research and the construction of numerous prototypical pods, insights from physiology, psychology, sociology, biology, ergonomics and engineering were garnered in support of the search for the answer.

So what is the minimum area necessary to support contemporary living: a bedspace, a bedspace + clothes rail, a bed/clothes + sitting space, bed/sitting space + cooking corner + toilet, all of the above + space saver shower? Not convinced or still undecided then…

Let’s sprinkle each with a modest social life, a (very) compact hobby or two (no pets please) and occasionally languish in a bath and you have got yourself beyond the touring caravan, converted garage, yuppy yurt, glamping trailer tent, bijou box, chic shed or my(i)pad.

The problem with existenzminimum is that most of us don’t really relish subsistence living, let alone being described as a proletarian. We surely don’t aspire to it, certainly not on a market rent or 25 year repayment mortgage. It is by its very nature a transient state which you wish to move beyond, as quickly as the property market and income will allow.

While pondering the question we quite naturally expect to put our feet up, reach into the fridge for a chilled beer/wine and prepare (maybe even cook) and consume a basic meal for one/two. From the confines of our living pod a network of space consuming relationships develop, with the outside world, not surprisingly since we have so little of the inside world to deal with. We use personal transport to work/leisure, we eat drink outdoors, we deal with laundry, we visit long suffering friends (if only for a bath and to use their dryer), we grow stuff, we keep pets, we order takeaways, order stuff (small stuff) from Amazon sometimes to display trophies suggesting we ‘have arrived’ and yet yearn for that combination of personal solitude and psychological centredness summed up in ‘my space- keep out’.

So where does this get us? Certainly beyond that rash of urban hutches which regularly appear on the UK market in a blaze of incentives for first time buyers craving the new urban lifestyle. On reflection anything heading much below 50 sq m is a strait jacket where living goes out the window (if you have one) and existenzminimum arrives. If you are still undecided have a look at the diagram which overlays to scale a number of living enclosures, there may be space for us all here.

Custom Build Roundup 2013

2013 has been a busy year at Axis Design for self-build and custom build ideas and projects. Here’s a roundup of all the progress we’re making supporting people looking for alternative choices to the standard housing market.

Stoke-on-Trent Custom Build

Our involvement with one of the UK’s earliest custom build projects has continued this year and we’re delighted to report that the plots have now been sold at auction and 6 families will be embarking on their project in the New Year. The project also won ‘Best Custom Build Scheme’ at the 2013 Build It awards in November.

Collective Custom Build

We shared our experience on the Stoke project with the team at Sheffield Uni behind the Collective Custom Build research project earlier in the year and were proud to take part in the launch event of the final outcome. An extensive resource of information across numerous topics is presented in a very accessible web site accompanied by an explanatory video at collectivecustombuild.org. The site has been a useful tool to help explain the idea behind custom home build to both our clients and resident groups.

Self-Build on a Shoestring

As one of the shortlisted entries to the NaSBA competition to design a house costing less than £50k we also traveled to London to take part in a debate between designers about the different submissions. It was fascinating to compare the construction techniques proposed and the group has begun to discuss the possibility of a ‘shoestring design group’. A video of the event is available online thanks to hosts Ash Sakula.

Custom Build West Midlands Group

If you want to support more opportunities for custom build groups then where better place to start than in your own neighbourhood? We’ve launched a call for group members in the West Midlands and the first meeting will take place in Wolverhampton in January. Sign up at the following web page if you’d like to be added to the contact list: http://tinyurl.com/customhomebuild

Make:Shift 2013

An inspiring collection of community action ideas were presented at this year’s Make:Shift event in Wolverhampton and we were delighted to be able to take part and use it as a platform to launch our West Midlands group. A copy of the presentation used at the event to start a debate on housing is available on the Make:Shift web site.

isoquick-floor-insulationhome4self

Alongside the meetings, debates and drawings there has also been plenty of self-build construction activity with the start on site of a personal project for one of the Directors. The experiment in modern methods of construction using both pre-fabricated and on-site techniques is well under way and progress can be followed on the dedicated web site: home4self.tumblr.com. The full account of the project history can also be found on Rob’s own blog: no2self.net.

Using products and processes taken from numerous areas of research into natural materials, Passivhaus methodology and breathable construction we’ve been able to test ideas that we think are ideal for other self-builders.

We’re looking forward to sharing this experience with clients in 2014. Let us know if you’d like a site visit!

Blurton Hub – official opening

One of the most enjoyable aspects of our work in community projects is getting to know the neighbourhood we’re working in over a long period of time and being able to see a project through from start to finish. Blurton in Stoke on Trent is one such project that we’ve had the privilege of being a part of and last week we attended the official opening event for the new Blurton Hub community building, alongside the new housing and retail which is now complete.

Blurton Hub opening

A project like this has involved many people and organisations over many years, not least of which is the Blurton Farm Resident Association we first met during our initial masterplanning consultation many years ago. Their dedication has been central to the success of the project and we’re looking forward to keeping in touch in the coming months to help them manage their new building and its green technology.

Here’s Christine Pratt, the resident group leader, quoted in the local press about the opening:

“This is a vision that we have had for over 15 years so it is fantastic to see it completed. The hub and new homes are already having a massive impact and making changes to people’s lives.”

Congratulations to Christine and her colleagues and best wishes for the future of the new facility at the heart of Blurton’s community.

Self Build on a Shoestring

As part of our work to develop new cost effective self-build strategies we recently prepared a submission to the NaSBA Self Build on a Shoestring competition. Although we weren’t successful it was great to see that a number of submissions had proposed a similar concept to ours, exploring the possibilities of single storey housing. The construction proposal is based on what we’ve learnt on one of our current live projects; Rob’s own self-build project called home4self.

We’ll be sharing more about that in the coming weeks, in the meantime here’s our idea for a house costing less than £50k…

*update*: Delighted to find that our proposal was displayed at the Grand Designs Live show as part of the top 16 entries.

£50k house

the 50k house isn’t a design problem, it’s a procurement problem – building a house on a tight budget demands easy to organise packages of work, simple construction and a combination of the best of both on-site and off-site techniques to ensure fixed prices and predictable program – we believe the single storey house has an important role to play in the future of UK housing and is ideally suited to self-build skills…

Single storey, modern methods of construction and easy to manage packages of work.

Our proposal is designed to consider carefully the benefits of combining simple on-site construction processes that could be undertaken by an enthusiastic self-builder alongside the price and performance certainty delivered by off-site prefabrication. We have chosen to explore a single storey house typology. Although this decision brings greater challenges with both the energy performance and ground works, we believe that the benefits to living quality, adaptability and ease of construction make the bungalow a worthwhile investment.

One of the greatest challenges for a self-builder is the day to day management of material delivery, storage and plant and equipment required to control health and safety issues of working at height. Using modern methods of construction we aim to provide a large water tight space quickly that allows the self-builder to proceed in a more easily managed process internally. By overlapping ground floor construction and off-site manufacture the initial program of works can be completed quickly with certainty over fixed prices for the bulk of the superstructure. Items of joinery such as stairs and service walls are intended to be designed and manufactured following a pattern that can be repeated cost effectively using CNC routing technology. The prices stated for the pre-fabricated timber frame also assume a standardised panel size that can be called off by self-builders following a common house type plan. The layout of the design has been developed such that it can be mirrored or handed in various ways to suit orientation without changing the fundamental construction dimensions.

Once the superstructure is complete the interior can be fitted out easily thanks to the efficient arrangement of plumbing and heating layouts that will require minimum labour and material to commission and avoid potential for delays and unforeseen costs thanks to colliding orders of trade.

The central service zone contributes not only to the ease of construction but also the ability to extend easily in future at either end of the building or into the entrance porch, without major alterations to mechanical and electrical layouts. The installation of an MVHR unit in the centre of the plan also reduces complex duct runs and maximises efficiency of performance.

Open plan living places the kitchen at the heart of the house. Our courtyard entrance strategy provides daylight to the centre of the plan and creates a useful external storage area. By completing the roof in pre-insulated panels the higher levels of the pitched roof can be left open above living spaces and enclosed over bedroom areas to provide ample storage.

We believe this is a house that future self-build families could be encouraged to undertake and project manage their own construction when offered a design that is easy to imagine and plan the work required, both in scale and order of trades.

Meon Grove completed

Our latest completed project for Birmingham Municipal Housing Trust is looking great in the sunshine. The final phase of flats has now been occupied alongside the houses that were handed over a few months ago and this morning we’ve been out in Garretts Green to take a few photos.

Meon_Grove-flats-entrance

Garretts Green, begun in 1939 and completed in 1960, was to developed to rehouse people from inner-city slum dwellings and many of its public buildings shared features of municipal modernism often dubbed ‘moderne’ because of its streamlined and Art Deco motifs.

Meon Grove, a development of 18 flats and 13 family houses, takes its lead from this and in its prominent position, provides a significant new landmark in the area. The three storey flats are an unusual triangular arrangement around common staircases, embracing the two retained trees at each corner with parking/storage underneath.

Their style reinterprets 30’s moderne, a deliberate attempt to lighten the rather heavy post-war municipal housing by alluding to inter-war modernist flats in Europe and America’s west coast, particularly those by Schindler & Neutra.

Meon_Grove-flats-street-front

The composition of brick base with render panels, carefully composed windows and balconies serve to give the flats an urbane quality, as opposed to being enlarged versions of two storey houses. The new housing is closely related in material and window treatments with box bay windows used as visual markers on corners and threshold gables.

Meon_Grove-flats-corner Meon_Grove-flats-corner-balconies

Thanks to the whole team for their work on the project, we’ve enjoyed collaborating with Jessup Brothers, Capita, Stewart & Harris and BCC. The success of BMHT continues and this was also recognised again last night with an RTPI award for planning excellence.

(the design process was also featured in a past blog post about our use of BIM and BMHT)

Niemeyer living on

Research and Development is tough. Thankfully we’re fully committed to continual professional development here at Axis Design and even go so far as undertaking long distance travel to learn more about the profession we love. For example, here’s some thoughts from Axis director Mike Menzies following a recent trip to Brazil:

Oscar Niemeyer

“Back in the early fifties when Oscar Niemeyer and his friend and collaborator, Roberto Burle Marx set out the plan for the Ibirapuera Park, roller blading and skateboarding were yet to become part of the urban street culture. However the shade and cool breezes offered by the serpentine concrete covered walkways linking many of Niemeyer’s principle buildings in the Park has been appropriated by a new generation of young Paulistas, keen to demonstrate their skills weaving between the pilotis, café tables and groups of tourists and visitors. As a lifelong communist, Niemeyer would have no doubt raised a wry smile at this counter-cultural invasion of the world of art and culture celebrated within the nearby museum and exhibition spaces.

Oscar Niemeyer

Two of which, the Pavilion of Brazilian Culture and its nearby twin, Museum of Afro Brazilian Art have undergone recent extensive renovation works. The interior spaces framed by their cantilevered floors, raking pillar supports, brise soleil and concrete louvred facades are an uncanny precursor to much later open-plan, loose-fit, flexible exhibition spaces.

The interplay of the structural grid of floor bays and supports with the serpentine, ramped access routes is a powerful and unfolding experience as you walk between the floors. His lifelong affair with curvilinear forms, most recently seen in La Lingua, his newest auditorium building in the Park, came to its conclusion with his death last December. However his urban cool lives on, not least in the uncanny parallels of a sinuously, executed grind and his meandering plan for Ibirapuera Park.”

Oscar Niemeyer