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The Triangle, Swindon, Wiltshire, by Glenn Howells Architects

Glenn Howells Architects’ eco-housing in Swindon for Kevin McCloud is remarkably ordinary, but that’s no bad thing, writes Hattie Hartman. Photography by Paul Raftery

Swindon is known primarily for its railway past, as the site of the repair works for Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Great Western Railway.

Today, the Wiltshire town is more notable for its unavoidable one-way traffic system, which at one junction circumnavigates a five-point roundabout, known locally as the ‘magic roundabout’. It is also the setting of Mark Haddon’s eccentric suburban mystery The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Because it connotes/represents/is middle England, Kevin McCloud selected Swindon as the ideal location for his first venture into affordable eco-housing – the Triangle, designed by Glenn Howells Architects.

Much of the best housing is background architecture. It doesn’t proclaim, ‘look at me’, nor does it aspire to be ground-breaking. The basics – a welcoming entrance, good daylight through windows with pleasing views, comfortably proportioned rooms – are well considered. Proximity to outdoor space is a plus. Add to that superior environmental performance, and you start to have something exceptional.

The recently completed Triangle project is very good background architecture in a deliberately background location, amid a swathe of 1930s houses just north of Swindon station. Client Hab Oakus, a joint venture between Kevin McCloud’s development company Hab and West Country housing agency GreenSquare, set out to prove that eco-housing can be both attractive and affordable: in short, a desirable place to live. ‘We simply didn’t believe it when we were told that you can’t build beautiful, environmentally friendly housing at a price that most people can afford,’ it says on the Hab website. ‘We’ includes designer and ex-AJ editor Isabel Allen.

The most successful projects result from demanding clients. Many hours have gone into working out both the overall strategy and the subtle details, which differentiate the Triangle from innumerable town and village extensions in the West Country plagued with a pseudo-Cotswold vernacular. There is nothing pseudo here. Galvanised steel porticoes shelter two vertical bike racks next to every front door, and gabion wall bin surrounds (the crevices enhance biodiversity and encourage climbing plants) may not be to everyone’s liking, but they screen cars parked in the front gardens and invite personalisation of one’s front door. The residents – all relocated from an average distance of two miles away – moved in less than six months ago, and many front stoops are already crowded with pots of annuals. I even spotted a flamingo perched on a gabion wall.

Triangle

Other details of note: robust rainwater pipes delineate the party walls, stock clay tiles in three different finishes randomly add texture to what would have otherwise been a monolithic roof, granite kerbs frame permeable paving in front gardens, and one of four paint colours – inspired by the palette of neighbouring houses – differentiates one house from the next. Espaliered fruit trees, some grown to maturity on McCloud’s own property, separate front gardens. A bed below each kitchen window has been left for residents to plant themselves, although there is a lack of planting space adjacent to the imposing gabion bin stores. The central landscaped area, like the whole site, is planned to absorb rainwater run-off at source, and a casual array of logs straddling a swale doubles as a children’s playground.

But the project’s real creativity is its approach to landscape. Talk at the Triangle is as much about building a community as it is about building housing. The project takes its name from a triangular open space at the heart of the site which is overlooked by the kitchen windows of surrounding homes. Rather than packing every possible unit onto the site, landscape architect Studio Engleback preserved open spaces at each ‘corner’ of the triangle as collective outdoor space: two community gardens and a car park. The difficulty is how to make residents care about and look after this space.

To this end, Hab Oakus has devised a community trust which gives every resident an ownership stake in the public realm. This not only promotes neighbourliness and social cohesion, but healthier living too. It also makes property more valuable. A recent assessment using the new green infrastructure valuation toolkit developed by CABE, Design for London and others determined that the landscaped space at the Triangle adds nearly half a million pounds to the value of the project.

As for the houses, a 2.6-metre ground-floor ceiling height, above-standard door heads and larger than usual windows all contribute to a sense of spaciousness within the tight floor plans. Natural materials and neutral finishes are used throughout, including 350mm-thick hemcrete walls, wool carpets and cork floors. To minimise overheating, the architects devised a clever way to enhance the stack effect: at the back of the houses, a full-height, lockable louvred panel enables natural ventilation even when no one is home, and a motorised loft hatch opens into a ventilation cowl disguised as a chimney. The houses achieve Code for Sustainable Homes Level 4, and could meet Level 5 with the introduction of photovoltaic panels, which were narrowly missed due to the timing of the introduction of the feed-in tariff.

The houses are not burdened with an unreasonable amount of kit. Well insulated with double-glazed windows and relatively airtight, this is a fabric-first approach to environmental responsibility. The architect worked with three window manufacturers before settling on double-glazed composite units from Intercombi which combine a thin frame profile with a recycled rubber extrusion, making its environmental performance almost equal to triple glazing. One gadget the units do sport is a community-wide intranet, a small touch-screen at eye level which serves as a virtual notice-board near the kitchen. Here, you can check exactly when the local bus will be arriving, or ask a neighbour for Calpol at midnight.

This is a far cry from Bill Dunster Architects’ BedZed development, where orientation drove the urban design to ensure that each flat would have south-facing PVs and a roof garden to grow your own. The thrust here is place-making and community. In car-dominated Swindon, the planners agreed to a reduction in average parking provision from 2 to 1.5 per unit, because the project has a car club, good cycle storage and a bus stop at the entrance.

If you’re tempted to dismiss the Triangle as a one-off, think again. The Hab Oakus team is convinced it’s a model they can roll out. Five similar projects are in the pipeline: another by Howells in Swindon, two in Stroud with DSDHA, and two in Oxford with Allford Hall Monaghan Morris. Three different practices, but the fact that Studio Engleback has been retained for landscape throughout is revealing. Green infrastructure, thought through even before site acquisition, is key to getting it right.

There is no doubt that much of the success of the Triangle is down to celebrity power. The entire project team, from designers to suppliers, has put in countless hours to get the details right, and to deliver the project within the tight budget. It’s a sorry reflection on the state of British house building that with all the talk of eco-housing since BedZed (completed in 2003 and shortlisted for the Stirling Prize), and initiatives like the Code for Sustainable Homes, we have to rely on celebrity to deliver decent green housing.

Swindon is home to some surprising architecture: Norman Foster’s yellow Renault Distribution Centre dates from 1982, and more than a decade later Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios completed the Heelis Building for the National Trust. The Triangle, like BedZed, sets a new standard for affordable, environmentally responsible housing in Britain, in good company with Gokay Deveci’s Dunoon housing on the Scottish coast (AJ 28.10.10) and Riches Hawley Mikhail’s Clay Field in Suffolk (AJ 08.11.07). I predict that eco-housing buffs will soon be wandering the back streets of Swindon.

A programme on the Triangle, ‘Kevin’s Grand Design’, will be aired on Channel 4 on 8 December at 9pm (the first of two parts)

Detail: Thermal chimney

triangledetail

Click image to see full Working Detail from AJ 10.11.11

The roof cowl is not for exhausting smoke like a traditional chimney, but is a fundamental part of the environmental strategy for the houses. Increasingly modern homes are comfortable in the winter, but tend to overheat in summer due to high levels of insulation and airtightness. At the Triangle the design of the natural ventilation system overcomes this problem, ensuring comfortable internal conditions throughout the year.

A vent behind a secure aluminium-louvred screen can be opened on the ground floor allowing warm air to vent through the chimney using the open stairs as a ‘stack’. Thus the home stays cool without mechanical ventilation and, to prevent waste, the heating is interlocked with an insulated ventilation hatch so that the heat pump-driven heating system does not operate until the hatch is closed.

The chimney is prefabricated, constructed from a timber frame clad in sheets of plywood, with a reinforced mesh to receive a lime-rendered finish. By building the structure on the ground, the quality of workmanship is consistent, and it can be lifted into place to fix into the rest of the timber roof structure, thus providing the structural stability to resist windloads.

Managing the water run-off and driving rain while still allowing the free flow of air through the external grilles was a critical aspect of the design. This was achieved through robust detailing of the sloping lead roof and the provision of internal compartments sitting just behind the grilles to ensure any water ingress is drained back on to the tiled roof.

Dav Bansal, director, Glenn Howells Architects

 

Credits

Start on site July 2010
Contract duration 14 months
Gross internal floor area Two-bedroom house: 46m2;Four-bedroom house: 115m2
Form of contract JCT Design and Build 2005
Total cost £4.2 million
Cost per square metre £970 (excluding external works); £1,185 (including external works)
Client Hab Oakus
Architect Glenn Howells Architects
Structural engineer Curtins Consulting
M&E consultant Max Fordham
Quantity surveyor DBK
Landscape consultant Studio Engleback
Services consultant Max Fordham
CDM co-ordinator DBK
Transport consultant Pinnacle
Employer’s agent / cost consultant DBK
Project manager DBK
Main contractor Willmott Dixon
Approved building inspector PG Surveyors
Annual co2 emissions 11.85kg/m2
U-value of walls 0.19W/m2K
U-value of glazing 1.3W/m2K
Airtightness at 50pa 5m3/m2.hr
Daylight factor habitable rooms 2% minimum
External walls Lime Technology
Window/doors Idealcombi
Timber frame structure Pinewood Structures
Roof tiles Marley Eternit
Gabions Hy-Ten
Internal partitions Pinewood Structures
Cork tiles Granorte UK
Rainwater goods Lindab Ltd
Kitchens Symphony Kitchens

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