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

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.

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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.

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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!

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

Building Information Models – BIM and BMHT

Construction is well underway on Meon Grove, one of our projects for Birmingham Municipal Housing Trust (BMHT). We’re working with Jessup Brothers Ltd who are building 12 houses and 18 flats to Code for Sustainable Homes Level 4 using a predominantly ‘fabric-first’ strategy. This is the first project we’ve developed as a full Building Information Model (BIM) at all stages since we took the decision to switch the whole office over to Graphisoft’s ArchiCAD last year and the benefits for all involved have been clear to see. From the simple improvements in coordination between storeys during planning and drawing work, through to the detailed discussions and testing of steel fabrication requirements or mechanical services, the project team has used the 3D model in numerous ways.

Team meetings often take place with the model projected on the wall running directly in ArchiCAD, allowing us to interrogate any part of the building and test ideas by making live adjustments. Using both BIMx and Tekla BIMsight we’ve also been able to issue the model to others in a format that allows them to view the information on their own machines without additional training of hardware requirements. We issue the files using our online project management tool – Basecamp, ensuring that file sizes and e-mail constraints don’t prevent access.

Whilst full integration and use of the model on screen is the obvious goal with BIM, the value of simply improving drawing output with more 3D information should not be overlooked. Being able to better understand the overall geometry of the buildings thanks to wireframes or cut-away sections has also been welcomed by the site management.

The construction sector has been debating the cost of BIM adoption exhaustively for several years and much discussion centres around the value of the return on investment, particularly for small practices like ours. Our experience in this first year of full adoption has proved to us on many occasions that moving to BIM tools was the right decision. Choosing to offer BIM output as a standard part of our service on all our projects in future is how we intend to continue improving our service and providing value to our clients. Next comes the challenge of working with other BIM ready clients and contractors to explore all the possibilities of a complete virtual building model, from concept to construction and on to hand over and facilities management… Who’s up for it?

Custom Home Build Finance

Custom Home Build continues to get the support it deserves from numerous organisations, funders and commentators at the moment and financial support for self-build groups being provided by the government is helping to kickstart a number of projects. These early adopters will get to explore all the ways that building a home for your family can be so uniquely challenging from not only a construction and financial point of view but a personal and emotional one as well. We hope to be starting work shortly with the seven residents fortunate enough to take part in the first Custom Home Build site in Stoke on Trent, having recently achieved outline planning approval in Penkhull for the first of what the council hope will be several sites across the city.

We’ve had two evening events (launch event in Stoke on Trent shown on the left) to meet the potential investors so far, along with the team from Buildstore who are offering financial and project management support. We couldn’t have been more delighted by turnout, the variety of people who came to see us and the breadth of ideas and aspirations they hoped to bring to their new home. Talking through the ways an architect might assist on a self-build project was very useful to us as well as the residents themselves, as we’re determined to ensure we can provide as much input as possible within the confines of the ordinary self-build budget. We kicked off with a virtual model of the street to help set the scene for the Penkhull project (left) and it’s clear to us that innovative use of BIM technology is going to be a crucial part of what we provide. The level of commitment from residents to energy saving measures as a fundamental principle of a project was also deeply encouraging in a market that so often struggles to ascribe any value to the ‘green £’.

The importance of the relationship between energy, building strategy and finance is also fundamentally linked to the success of Custom Home Build because the backbone of this market will be the lenders. Whilst there are several mortgage packages available for self-build already – tailored to staged release of funds as a building progresses – there is much still to be done with the relationship between estimated property value, the technical performance of the fabric and the resulting reduction in bills and monthly outgoings.

We had the pleasure of attending the Build It Magazine awards yesterday (right) and shared a table with one of the lenders who may be involved in our project. The common ground between architect and mortgage lender proved to lie in the field of building warranty and the predictable concerns over innovation. If a construction process or material choice proves to be unsupported by the necessary structural warranty provider then the lender is too exposed. The key issue here – and perhaps the one that is most easily forgotten – is the longer life of the building beyond the original self-builder. Even if they and the original lender agree between themselves that a particular approach represents no risk, what if a future lender during a later sale (or, dare we say it, following repossession) has no confidence in it?

Rob’s personal experience of a self-build valuation process, involving completing a form that contained questions that were twenty years out of date, has recently served as a timely reminder that those of us enthused by the prospect of helping more people build their own home must make sure we include the bank or building society in the design team.

It’s no exaggeration to say that we can’t wait to get the Penkhull project moving, and we look forward to taking the mortgage lender with us on the journey.

Read some of our other posts in the Self Build Category.

BMHT Consultation Event Success

Over 50 local residents and community representatives came along to the public consultation event held in Ladywood last month for the latest Birmingham Municipal Housing Trust (BMHT) scheme we’ve been working on.

We have developed 3D models in BIM which allowed residents to take them on virtual journey through the proposals, giving them a clear idea of how the area will look when the development is complete. Sharing these drawings and models prompted comments and feedback which form a valuable part of the design process prior to the submission of a planning application. We also created a dedicated website which will help us keep local residents informed of the project’s progress.

Making PassivHaus Affordable

Together with our project partners at Brooks Devlin, Capita Symonds and EH Smith, along with specialist product suppliers, we gathered together 17 housing associations and representatives from the HCA to share Passivhaus construction principles at a dedicated event in Birmingham City Centre on 21st February.

Our affordable PassivHaus project was initially created in response to a call for solutions by the BRE in 2011. The event was an opportunity share our knowledge with developers interested in how to design and build Passivhaus standard housing. We began with presentations from the design team to explain the technicalities and design based on passivHaus principles, followed by an exhibition from specialist product suppliers.

Responses to the presentations from our audience addressed important questions about lifecycle costings, ongoing maintenance, simplification of mechanical and electrical engineering in early design stages and alternative systems.

We’ll be sharing as much as possible over the next few weeks through the dedicated affordable PassivHaus website.