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Solar system

PROJECT PROFILE: HOUSING - Robin Wilson reports on an outbreak of modernism in Gloucestershire

The site of a new social-housing project by Gloucestershire-based architect Darren Cater could be said to lie at the frontier of the changing topographies of small-town England.

Enclosing it on three sides are extensive 'executive' housing schemes - the all-too-inflexible solution to housing need that has taken up vast belts of greenfield land in the country.

To the west of Cater's project is a flood plain, which, at the time of the project's completion in November 2000, was under water thanks to backflow from the swollen rivers Severn and Avon. Beyond that is the town of Tewkesbury - the massive limestone tower of its Norman abbey clearly visible.

The design was chosen in an open competition run by Tewkesbury Borough Council's planning department. Energy efficiency, communal interaction, 'lifetime' adaptability and progressive rather than retro approaches to styling formed the basic premise of the brief.

The chosen solution is a strong synthesis of architecture and engineering. The requirements of domesticity and medium-density living are expressed here as a hard-edged system.

Terrace as solar machine There has been no specific referencing of previous architectural forms, which must be a first for a major nonindustrial project in Tewkesbury since the 1960s. But the project could be seen as a meditation on and evolution of the brick terrace. Cater has shifted, extracted and juggled with its symmetries and repetition.

Brick returns, then, not as the levelling medium of uniformity but as a particular texture and tone, as one planar surface in a lively play of interrelated surfaces: brick, wood, render, glass, metal. Windows slide to the edges of facades and wrap around corners, or up to meet the asymmetrical pitch of a roof; rainwater guttering and downpipes become crisp metallic articulations that accentuate and further diversify the geometric play.

All 15 units (arranged in three terraces) have built-in steel and glass conservatory spaces, allowing the exposed brick surfaces to take on both interior and exterior roles, and to provide the backdrop for the seasonal expansion of the household into these intermediate areas between the private and the communal space.

Of double height, the conservatories make for expressive, functionalist forms, but their actual usage seems somewhat ambiguous, caught between utility and leisure space. Indeed, the word 'conservatory' might have the wrong connotations. Rather, they could be seen as a development of the front porch, an expansion of that threshold structure so as to become a room of itself.

Or we might dispense with all comparisons to usual domestic spaces and simply call these glazed volumes solaria. This would be consistent with the fact that the project has been moulded largely by the desire to maximise the use of solar energy. There is a strong coincidence between the requirements of passive heat transfer and the creation of dynamic, interior spatial relationships.

On the north terrace, the kitchen windows wrap around the corners of the brick towers at the lower level to face both the exterior and the interior of the solaria. On the east and west terraces, this role has been transferred to the first-floor bedroom windows.

All the units also open out on to their solaria from the first-floor landings. The panels, which provide energy for hot water, are embedded into the stainless steel sections of the roofing on the north terrace and on the south-facing tiles of the east and west.

This amounts to a convincing modulation and mixing of design elements.

The terrace house has been converted into solar machine with an authority that would suggest such projects have been the norm in Britain for years. The one downside to the requirements of solar orientation is the comparative blandness of the shadier facades of the estate.

Integration A textured orange-red multi brick manufactured nearby was chosen, both for the purposes of integration and energy efficiency in the logistics phase.

The bricks are laid exclusively in stretcher bond. This linearity is in keeping with the purism of the overall project, but use of the medium is not without expression.

At the site's eastern edge, the stretcher bond has turned serpentine to form a 'crinkle-crankle' wall. This successfully reduces the dogma of the solid division while maintaining privacy for the gardens. It is also a fitting symbol of the potentially uneasy boundary between the rented property within and the privately owned housing without.

Cater's project has a functionalist sobriety and, above all, a strong grasp of the basic, common sense realities of contemporary housing provision. It combines an active encouragement of communal interaction with high levels of energy efficiency through the common denominators of light and transparency. It also demonstrates how a strong adherence to functionalism is not at odds with assimilating new forms into a context as sensitive as the English abbey town.

It's rather sad that such modernism, widespread throughout Europe, is as rare as hens' teeth in this country.

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