Truth to tell, even with our best transition endeavours, the thing that really puts food on our table and keeps the family clothed, fed and sheltered is our architecture practice.
There are days when I wish we’d moved a bit further in disconnecting from the daily grind, but it’s not a bad way to make a living - even with the threat of a triple dip recession and a very, very soft construction industry . The catalyst for setting up the practice was the need to rebuild our family home. Our whinstone cottage had been destroyed by fire and, with an architect in the family, it seemed a shame not to see the opportunity in that particular crisis.
As eco-minded people, we were always going to design a home that kept us warm without costing the earth to run. But there was more. The overwhelming memory from our first return to the fire-damaged cottage was of the toxic, acrid smell of burned plastics. So our new home majored on natural materials, on healthy spaces and on the removal of toxic stressors to the environment and to ourselves.
The architectural practice launched in 1997. Building our own home was a blast and we were on a mission to persuade the world to develop healthy spaces using ecological design. What’s not to love? We learned very quickly that in architecture, as in life, there’s a trade-off between even the palest green and the commercial bottom line that’s become ever more acute as the economy tightens. Like many pale green designers, easy eco-options came as standard in our designs:
- passive solar gain;
- simple energy efficiency measures;
- allowing ambient site resources like water and light to shape design.
All of which was fine.
But I’m an awful one for getting itchy feet; for going the extra mile (which may or may not be there); for pushing the (building) envelope as far as it will go…
…and after a while it started to feel a bit tame and inconsequential. The design improvements we were being allowed to make were really just a band aid. What was needed was far more extensive surgery.
We looked first where we always look – at the
‘individual enthusiast acting autonomously where the expert fears to tread’.
Straw bale and earthships had to be the way to go! So it was that we ended up lodging all manner of gobsmackingly good (though I say it myself) planning and warrant applications – for self-build straw bale homes and offices, for earthship holiday accommodation, you name it, we probably did it. We got permissions for many too!
But not one of those ‘Grow Your Own’ buildings has gone ahead – or certainly not as straw bales and earthships. In practice the combination of time and (some) money and energy needed proved too much to deliver. Instead, clients fell back on tried and tested methods of construction. And while I would never give up on community as a way (literally in this case) to build a brighter future, more recently, I’ve found myself persuaded by the mainstream approach to building.
I spoke in my last blog of how we work with the principle not of self-sufficiency but of shared sufficiency. In our architecture, this translates as small building groups, where we can start to realistically move away from dependency on services provided by external agencies. It’s not just about being ‘off grid’. The shared sufficiency we were designing-in was pure Transition: here was the space for strong, resilient communities that could meet their own needs from within their local resource base when external support systems failed. We carefully designed the shared spaces around and within buildings to create opportunities for interacting that build sense of community and belonging.
Most often, our ‘Timeless Ways of Building’ were just ignored by the developers and the traditional cul-de-sac – both literal and philosophical - remained.
But unexpectedly, we ended up building the very sort of development we’d been trying to promote. It took a very special, serendipitous mix of ingredients – a private landlord with a strong, authentic social conscience, prepared to take both a long-term view and calculated risks; a design team who put quality, workmanship and budget management above turning a fast buck; a government grant to pilot rural housing for affordable rent… but we ended up with our ‘dream’ project: the Dormont PassivHaus development.
These eight new-build homes are designed and certified to the ultra-low energy PassivHaus standard. They’re the first of their kind in rural Scotland; the first to be built on a commercial scale anywhere in Scotland; and the first PassivHaus private rented housing for affordable rent in the UK. Levels of insulation and air tightness are so high that they don’t need a conventional central heating system. If tenants get cold (and this is rural Scotland, so it happens), they light a candle or run up and down stairs once or twice and the heat recovery system makes the house cosy again. Built to current building regulation standards these houses would emit around 63 tonnes of CO2 every year. By building to certified PassivHaus standard, and utilising solar and biomass renewable energy, they actually emit around 3 tonnes of CO2 a year – a saving of 60 tonnes of CO2 every year for the estimated 60 year lifespan of these houses.
Now, I have a horror of what Howard Liddell calls ‘eco-bling’- the green-tech ‘badges’ that get plastered across ill-designed houses and lifestyles. So I find myself surprised to be sold on PassivHaus, but I am. PassivHaus design, coupled with appropriate renewable energy technologies, has completely removed the threat of fuel poverty for these tenants – not just now, but long into the future. Some tenants can finally direct their hard earned cash into having fun with their family rather than trying to keep their old, leaky house warm. And despite the technology, they were built at more or less the same cost as conventional construction. So these houses are affordable – if you can afford to build a new house, you can afford to build PassivHaus. That’s a result.
What’s also a result is that our ‘Pattern Language’ approach to the design of the space has created exactly that feeling of safety and community we’ve been banging on about for decades. The tenants developed strong community bonds and have got together and agreed to take over a nearby walled garden as allotments, so that sense of community and ecological responses continues to grow. I’ve seen the trauma and toil that goes into self-build and know a number of self-builders whose health and life has been badly affected by their passion to do it themselves. Divorce, illness, stress – all part of the territory for those with grand (or even modest) designs. Dormont PassivHaus demonstrated to me that the reskilling we need is not just as individuals, as enthusiastic amateurs and as communities but within the professions too. By bringing commercial companies along for the ride we create a culture of meaningful and authentic eco-opportunity that has the advantage of delivering on time and within budget.
To misquote Bill Mollison, ‘We thrive together, or none of us thrive’.
Notes on Photos:
Photo 1 Meikleholmside, White Hill Design Studio LLP. The living room used green oak construction to create a stunning open space. Oak timbers were chain-sawed on site by a local craftsperson. With any green oak building, the first two years are the worst – earth shattering cracks at any time of day or night as the timbers dry and season eventually subside. Photo 2: Dormont PassivHaus development, White Hill Design Studio LLP. The new houses had to be designed to fit with a group of existing cottages. Key to PassivHaus is that the building envelope is irrelevant – it can be used with traditional and modern styling and everything in between. The development has received a number of Green Apple awards and won the 2012 Scottish Homes Award for Rural Housing Development of the Year.
Jane Gray works with her partner, David Major, in their award winning business White Hill Design Studio LLP, an architectural and development practice that uses Permaculture as a central design principle. She also founded the Lets Live Local Community Interest Company in late 2007 and is a director of Nourish Scotland, which is working to change the way food works so it's fair, healthy, affordable and sustainable – for all of Scotland. They live on a 45 acre smallholding in the beautiful Annan Water Valley, near Moffat.