SUSTAINABILITY IN PRACTICE: FAT’s new housing in Middlesbrough proves that sustainability is not a matter of style, says Hattie Hartman
With the completion of FAT’s 80-unit Cube in a Cube housing block in Middlesbrough next year, sustainable architecture will be decoupled once and for all from colourful windcowls and south-facing sunspaces. As part of the BioRegional family this project is also third generation BedZed. Think Las Vegas – or the Venturis’ Learning From – and you’ll be closer to the mark.
Conceived in a time of plenty, Will Alsop’s original 2004 masterplan for Middlesbrough docks did not lack ambition. Billed by developer BioRegional Quintain as the largest zero-carbon development in the UK, the current Studio Egret West masterplan includes 750 housing units, 18,500m2 of offices, and 2,300m2 of retail on a desolate site across the A66 from Middlesbrough’s town centre.
To eschew the monotony of masterplans designed by a single hand, BioRegional Quintain has commissioned a different practice for almost every building.
FAT’s Sean Griffiths calls the site a wasteland. Severed from the town centre by a motorway, it is difficult to access on foot, yet occupies a potential waterfront route to nearby Riverside Stadium, home of Middlesbrough FC. Archial’s Middlesbrough College, which caters to 20,000 students, was the masterplan’s first completed building in 2008. The masterplan document brims with CGIs of a pedestrian-filled public realm, which implies major urban regeneration peopled by more than students and football fans.
BioRegional Quintain understands the critical role of the public realm and invested early in a broad pavement by Grant Associates also completed in 2008. It reads as a kind of boardwalk – one can imagine it chock-a-block with football fans – and it links the site entrance to a public square at the water’s edge. FAT’s Cube is the first on site because it fronts onto this square. Across the water, Temenos, a 100m long hoop and net sculpture by Anish Kapoor, funded by BioRegional Quintain and a consortium of other parties was inaugurated earlier this year.
Like Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios One Brighton (second generation BedZed), completed last year by the same developer, Riverside One espouses One Planet Living. Encompassing both the built environment and lifestyle issues, this addresses sustainability in the round. Its 10 tenets – which were at the heart of London’s Olympic bid – include all the usual environmental parameters, as well as equity, fair trade, health and happiness.
‘We had to sit through endless sustainability workshops and they are all the same,’ says FAT’s Sean Griffiths. ‘Sustainability does not mean a building has to look like it was built by Robinson Crusoe; it’s about insulation, airtightness and the way it’s built.’ He dwells on One Planet Living’s ‘health and happiness’ tenet when outlining the rationale behind the practice’s provocative proposal of a seven-storey building perched on a ‘Swiss chalet pub’ and topped by skyhouses. ‘We like to take things people are familiar with and do something different with them to give them a certain edginess. This is an approach which somebody who is not an architect gets,’ he says.
Managing director Pete Halsall, who leads BioRegional Quintain’s five-strong sustainability team, is a determined client: ‘This is a radical design. Middlesbrough is a house town where personality looms large. This building has personality and uniqueness that mirrors the town – old and new. The more conventional a building looks, people don’t believe its green, but characterful design can be congruent with sustainability.’
A building physicist by training, Halsall opposes the orthodoxy of south-facing orientation and is delighted that two-thirds of FAT’s flats have water views and are dual aspect. FAT’s housing is designed to EcoHomes Excellent standard – approximately Code for Sustainable Homes Level 4. The building’s structure is a post-tensioned concrete frame with 100 per cent recycled aggregate and 50 per cent cement substitute; the concrete is exposed internally for thermal mass.
External walls, about 400mm thick, are made of FSc-certified timber infill panelling with wood fibre insulation and brick cladding. Much of the know-how is a direct import from One Brighton, which at the time of going to press had all but one unit sold.
Although the sustainability agenda has evolved dramatically since this scheme was first designed, the only significant alteration to the project’s zero operational carbon strategy has been to replace a site wide energy centre with smaller phased energy plants. A plant room located to the rear ground floor of FAT’s Cube will house biomass boilers serving the first three residential blocks. They will meet the entire heating and hot water demand, which together comprise about 50 per cent of the site’s total energy requirements. The remaining 50 per cent electrical load will be supplied via a private network, which means that a single renewable electricity provider can be locked into the scheme.
Lessons from One Brighton have led to minor adjustments at Riverside One, such as a revised configuration of the biomass boilers and the thermal store and alterations to the metering strategy. Future plans include an offsite wind farm to meet the site’s electrical demand and a link to Thomas Heatherwick’s proposed biomass plant for BEI-Teesside, located just across the river. A plan backed by Tees Valley Regeneration and the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA) calls for running a pipe under the river to serve a district heating system for council buildings, the college, Riverside One and its subsequent phases.
FAT’s Cube has proceeded despite the downturn due to bespoke HCA funding. Next in line is an adjacent Alsop block, whose start date depends on the sale of FAT’s flats. BioRegional Quintain is betting on the unique appeal of this scheme. ‘Architecture can create a new, distinctive place for Middlesbrough. This scheme is about colour and light. It’s also about uniqueness,’ Halsall says.
When this project completes in September 2011, one thing is certain. The notion of a single aesthetic for green architecture will have been forever put to bed.
Completion date September 2011
Predicted CO2 emissions 0 (kg CO2/m2/yr)
On-site energy generation 50 per cent
Average U-value (W/m2K ):
Target airtightness at 50 Pa m3/h.m2 3
Mains water consumption (m3/occupant/yr) 120 litres