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Germaine Greer on Barratt's Home for the Future

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The first person to design a gracious zero carbon home will have to be a genius at least as innovative and epoch-making as Brunelleschi.

Architects have been intoning the four-fold mantra for years; the insulated house-box must have no thermal bridges; make good use of sunlight and internal heat gains; be built tight as a drum; and provide adequate ventilation, plus efficient heat recovery. Only when all these demands have been met can we even begin to consider what such a house, as isolated from its environment as an aircraft flying at 35,000 feet, might be like to look at or to live in.

Britain is 20 years behind Germany in developing the zero-carbon-house concept, as was pretty evident from the designs submitted for the Mail on Sunday and Barratt Homes Home for the Future competition last year.

Its meagre prize of £5,000 would not cover the cost of generating the design. The brief was to create a ‘mainstream’ house with a minimum of three bedrooms, a maximum height of four storeys, on a 9m2 plot with an integral one-car garage, and to achieve Level 5 of the Code for Sustainable Homes.

Another requirement was that the dwelling should be buildable detached, semi-detached or as part of a row, so that windows could only be placed in two of the four external walls. Imagine Frank Lloyd Wright dealing with this kind of restriction and you will grasp at once how little scope there was for designing a graceful or elegant house.

More could have been achieved if the floor plan did not have to be right-angled, and if the row housing could have been set widdershins say, but the Mail on Sunday brief required a perpendicular chunk of housing based on that least attractive of forms, the square. As the loadbearing walls were all external, the arrangement of the spaces within was optional, but with so much to be crammed in, all the designs submitted were warrens.

The shortlist of nine designs displayed all the usual shifts adopted by the eco-architect: fat external walls made of everything from hemp and woodfibre to compressed straw; roofs covered with stonecrop or photovoltaic panels; deep-set windows functioning as glass walls, letting in maximum light in winter and partly shaded in the summer. As no stipulation had been made as to orientation, there was no way of knowing how well or how badly all this would work. The roofs all sloped, but whether they sloped towards or away from the sun was impossible to tell. The public was not meant to judge the technical
performance of the houses; rather to respond to what the judges called the ‘wow factor’.

The public went for the entirely wow-free Green House by Gaunt Francis Architects, which achieved Level 6 of the Code for Sustainable Homes. Something like the illustration they voted on was the basis for the prototype Green House built by Barratt Homes at the BRE Innovation Park in Watford earlier this year. A few weeks ago, I visited it.

What should have been obvious from the outset was that a three-storey house would have to have a staircase as its main feature, which, on a 9m2 plot, would leave little room for anything else. In the Green House the stairs, the flooring and the internal window trims were all European oak, sourced, I was told, from plantations. Oak is a relatively slow-growing hardwood; whether sourced from plantations or not, there was little justification for using it in this application, where it served no more useful purpose than to give the Green House a veneer of luxury that will not be a feature when and if it is ever built as ‘mainstream’ housing. The same might be said of the copper cladding on the roof and mansard, and the green slate in the bathrooms. Expensive finishes will not improve a mean concept.

The Green House is a ‘lifetime house’, which apparently means that people can be born, reproduce, and live to a ripe old age in it. For people of all ages, and especially the very young and the elderly, stairs are very dangerous. These stairs were built broad, so that there would be room for a stairlift. Why not a proper lift, I asked, mindful of parents hefting infants and assorted clobber up and down this unforgivingly vertical house. If you wanted to eat on the second-storey sundeck, every knife, every glass, every plate and all the food and drink would have to be juggled up those same stairs. The only handsome space in the Green House is the ground floor, which has a double-height section acting as a clerestory, with a gallery that could serve as a workspace.

My guides were keen to point out that positioning the washing machine on the second floor removed the necessity of humping laundry up and down the stairs. In place of an electric drier, an old-fashioned airer had been hung in the head space over the stairwell. But 21st-century families wash clothes every day, and I wondered what the constant presence of wet clothes would do to air quality in the house. Even if mushrooms didn’t start growing on the warm walls, sheets and towels forever drooping in the stairwell is not a good look.

The three bedrooms were unforgivably mean – much the same size as the bathrooms, which had space for a bidet as well as the lavatory, but no bidet was present. Much would be done for the trees of the world if humans would stop using paper to clean themselves after voiding bowels or bladder, but the designers and builders of the Green House are not tree-conscious.

I was told, but cannot quite believe it, that the Green House is built over a 3,000 litre rainwater tank. The rainwater collected in it has only one use – to flush three lavatories. Grey water from the shower could do that, without the energy cost of a pump to bring the water up from the underground tank, which itself has a massive environmental impact. In  ustralia, rainwater is used for drinking, washing and cooking, often in preference to mains water. One man’s green is another man’s brown.

The ground floor of the Green House has three entrances: a front door, a back door, and a patio-style door that forms the central panel of a triple-glazed picture window, set in the facade parallel to the street, as if the living room were a showroom. Pratically all the designs in the Mail on Sunday shortlist had a version of this misconceived feature. Natural light for green architects means clear glass windows, which residents would be certain to cover with ‘drapes’. The windows in the Green House were fitted with external shutters that opened and closed electronically as conditions within the house changed.

What happens in the event of a power cut can only be imagined. No designer in any of the nine shortlisted schemes made use of any kind of translucent walling. Glass bricks provide excellent heat and sound insulation as well as wonderfully refracted natural light, but for some reason they are never used in domestic architecture.

Ultimately I am left wondering how long the British will insist on stacking their dwellings side by side like toast, with a staircase in every one, and the kind of unlimited ground-floor access that gives us the highest incidence of burglary in the world.

When will we realise that everything, from achieving Level 6 of the Code for Sustainable Homes to serving meals on the sun deck, is easier if you put single-storey dwellings on top of each other? Then you can have 360-degree views, privacy, efficient waste disposal and passive heating, all at a fraction of the price. The building can be beautiful too, which the three-bedroom end-on box never will be – not with all the European oak and Welsh slate money can buy.

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