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Taking stock of new housing concepts

'I am worried by Pierre d'Avoine's award-winning Concept House, in which, 'writes a former editor of New Society, 'he 'reinvents' the terraced house. Are we once again instructing other people how to live?'

Paul Barker's sentiments reinvoke a whole post-war tradition of pinning the blame for society's problems on architects, both as a professional body and as individuals. However, first of all, the award-winning Concept House competition scheme was the work of the practice Pierre d'Avoine Architects and its consultants, not one individual, and as such embodies the shared ideas and experience of a number of people from different backgrounds, representing different age and gender groups. Not exactly a cross-section of society, perhaps, but nevertheless a collective, not an individual viewpoint.

Secondly, it is extremely unrealistic to suggest that the architect could be some kind of powerful deus ex machina, capable of autonomously conceiving and imposing outlandish ideas on society. On the contrary, architects as individuals and as a profession have probably less control than any other interested party over change in the built environment, as they are powerless to do anything without clients. It is the client, then - the party with the financial and commercial interest, ranging from the private individual to the corporate organisation and the developer - which ultimately has to bear responsibility for what happens to the built environment. The architect may hope to bring some influence to bear, but is in the end subservient to commercial interest. Paul Barker seems then to exhibit a certain naivety in suggesting that the suburban developments and vast out-of-town shopping malls which he applauds as 'populist and popular' anti-architecture represent some kind of manifestation of 'people power', or a new vernacular for our times. Or perhaps he too has been brainwashed by the powerful corporate forces, with considerable political clout - the volume housebuilders, large developers, and multinational companies - that, motivated by profit, bring these developments to fruition with complete disregard for the wishes and needs of the helpless communities which they exploit.

The Concept House competition invited architects to respond to a brief prepared by a committee of experienced people in order to address a massive body of urgent social and environmental concerns of which Barker seems to be unaware. The idea of 'reinventing the speculative British urban terraced home' came from this committee, chaired by Simon Allford, who explains that the survival and adaptability of the terraced house as a generic type made it an attractive starting point for the exploration of a flexible, environmentally sustainable housing prototype suitable for mass-production and brownfield development. The submitted entries represent an enormous pool of experience, skill, invention and concentrated thought about the future of the built environment - most of which, unfortunately, will go largely unseen and unacknowledged. As the anthropologist Victor Turner states: 'The social world is a world in becoming, not a world in being.' Now, more than ever, western cultures must consider ways of changing their patterns of material consumption, with enormous implications for ways of living.

Even Paul Barker admits that 'fresh thinking is essential'. This seems a contradiction of his claim that 'the best guide in design and planning is what people want'. Which people? How can people possibly know they would not prefer ideas they have never had a chance to consider? And when did the volume house-builders - whose so-called market-research procedures are a blatantly cynical exercise - and developers of sites like Thurrock ever give the 'people' any choice about what they were going to get?

If fresh thinking is essential, expertise and imagination are required to set that process in motion, in which case architects must be credited with having a role to play. The construction of the winning Concept House scheme at the Ideal Home Show, which opened last week, provides a magnificent opportunity for the public to experience, and at least to consider, alternatives to the lifestyle stereotypes fed through the conventional information channels of advertising and the media.

The roof garden (De Rijke Marsh Morgan, Edmund Wilson, fat) replaces the old-style back garden with an airy, bright terrain for relaxation, and provides a massive layer of insulation over the area of the house most vulnerable to heat loss and gain. As such it becomes a key factor in achieving environmental sustainability, which in several schemes is supplemented by photovoltaic technology and even wind power (Matt Marga, Deborah Saunt and David Hills (dsdha), fat, Nigel Craddock, John Randle Architects).

The concept of the adaptable facade is an interesting one which seems to have developed very much out of architects' responses to current planning conditions. The emphasis on contextual conformity of the external appearance of houses and streets in urban settings has led to the evolution of a notion of the house facade as a screen to hide what goes on behind it, as opposed to a representation of those activities inviting a view inside. This development has been reinforced by the increasing inhospitability of city streets due to the domination of the car, making a degree of separation between street and domestic domain more desirable, and the prevalence of the advertising billboard. Several of the schemes (fat, Katy Ghahremani & Michael Kohn/kgmk) explore the implications of these issues through the invention of a new type of facade which is adaptable to different circumstances and provides increased protection. In the winning scheme this has been criticised as distancing the house from the street, although it is effectively counterbalanced by the integration of a prominent functional and symbolic entrance threshold. This verandah-type structure, which appears in at least one other scheme (John Randle Architects), comes right up to and engages with the edge of the street, in contrast to the distancing device of the traditional, useless front garden.

Only one of the shortlisted schemes (Bosch Haslett) specifically combines the house with other functions, such as swimming pool, supermarket and parking, programmed into an urban block. This represents a fundamental reworking of the traditional British terrace concept which most entries preserve as a dedicated residential zone of autonomous living units where the only communal areas are the street or, as in the winning entry, the gardens.

Many of the schemes are predicated on the use of prefabricated elements, allowing for rapid, easy assembly and potential recycling. But as a rule the proposals steer well clear of the cliched futuristic styling classically associated with industrialised techniques. The winning scheme is made predominantly of timber, and is striking not for exaggerated architectural gestures, but for its economy of materials and the calm, linear simplicity of its form.

These qualities are effectively communicated in the show house built for the exhibition. There have been constraints imposed by the development of the scheme to meet the terms of the exhibition stand (coordinated by Louise MacKinney of Artery and Lucy Marston of architect Burd Haward Marston). The main problem, observes Pierre d'Avoine, is that 'the materiality and detail suffer - you get an ersatz quality'. The team therefore put its biggest efforts into achieving the quality of the space and lighting. The courtyards are fully glazed, achieving a wonderful degree of transparency through the house which can be layered by a series of blinds and curtains to achieve variable openness or privacy. The furnishings (coordinated by stylist Nathalie Wilson) are an eclectic mix of second-hand and new contemporary pieces from sources such as scp and Habitat - the team having rejected an initial idea to use furniture bought from Lakeside Thurrock which might have been construed as an attempt at irony.

The main regret is that budget restrictions prevented the construction of the communal roof garden. The initial ambition of building one house in detail, but with five facades and roof gardens, with an access ramp containing an exhibition display, was ultimately scaled down in favour of one house (for a mother, father, teenager and twin babies) and its pavilion, with three facades and entrance thresholds. It is unfortunate that the roof level cannot be experienced by the public, although three different forms of the 'diy back' of the facade can be seen, one featuring a vertical hydroponic garden. The fronts of the facades have been made in a semi-translucent inflatable material designed to indicate the freedom with which they might be treated in real life.

As it stands, the show house represents a mock-up of a well-considered and fully thought-out scheme ready for construction on an actual site, and there seems no reason why this concept, and others which explore alternatives to the status quo, should not enter the mainstream of thinking about the development of future housing provision for 4.4 million new households in the next 20 years. Above all, let the articulate members of society beware of setting themselves up as spokesmen for 'the people' in order to claim they have no interest in new ideas.

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