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Challenging convention

A steel frame is one crucial ingredient of a prefabricated home that questions Belgium's outdated ideas of the form that a family house should take A glass jewel sitting in an orchard in Verviers, Belgium, is a house for the Denis-Otmans family, designed by architect Daniel Dethier.

Collaborators were structural engineer Laurent Ney and artist Jean Gilbert. Belgium has its problems with planners' institutional detestation of anything but Noddy houses and Dethier was plainly surprised that this eco-friendly all glass-wall structure was given a building permit. He concludes that this is 'proof that the administration is concerned about the situation' of caricature traditional housing which has no relationship with contemporary life or ecological issues. Dethier says: 'The idea is to offer a house that uses contemporary technologies: insulated glass, steel, roofing covered with vegetation, mechanical ventilation and so on to form economical housing with a reduced surface area, adapted to today's lifestyle and respectful of the environment. Entirely prefabricated, the building was assembled on simple foundations in the middle of an orchard.'

The dimensions of the 15m by 7.5m by 5m high glass prism indicate the existence of an underlying grid of 3m square bays with a half-bay of 1.5m forming a zone down the middle. The plan is wonderfully simple: a 3m wide bay at one end is walled off and allocated to garage and laundry with a store room and spare bedroom above it. The solid dividing wall acts as the building's main cross bracing. The tendency of the frame to collapse longitudinally is resisted by diagonal rods bracing one full-height bay in each elevation. All the services are grouped in a ground-floor island unit: two bathrooms either side of the master bed recess and a kitchen bench with sink and hob attached to the outside. Above is an open study mezzanine which shares a lift-up access stairway with the spare bedroom that is accessed through a door in the cross wall.

The structure was prefabricated off site and is apparently immensely simple. The two long elevations have five 3m wide bays, each bay divided vertically into two 2.5m sections. The short elevations have three bays, the middle one half a bay wide. The roof is of insulated profiled industrial sheeting which sits on top of lateral bowstring trusses seated at the heads of the tubularsteel uprights and is planted with grasses.All this is supported on the edge of a heavily insulated floor, itself supported by lateral beams sitting on top of short piers which in turn sit on two longitudinal underground footings.

Glazing is based on the 3m by 2.5m module. It is actually a separate system whose glazing bars and opening doors are fixed to the inner face of the steel structural members. There are sliding doors at the front, side and entrance and an identical sliding door to the upstairs child's bedroom. This is a rigorous building: no wimpish nonsense about handrails.

The cladding material, apart from the turf roof, is entirely 30mm double-glazing.

Some zones, such as the garage end wall and much of the south facade, have sand-blasted glass through which the carefully selected coloured rectangles of artist Jean Gilbert are enigmatically visible. This elevation also has wires stretched between the uprights on which are trained deciduous climbing plants serving as natural spring and summer solar shading and, in the words of Dethier, 'will also, because of the play of patches of light on the floor and walls, constitute continuous coloured entertainment.'

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