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Brighton breezy

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technical & practice - A new housing project has been tucked into a sloping innercity site to keep the planners and environmentalists happy

In Cities, John Reader cites William Cobbett, social commentator and conservative thinker, writing in 1823 that 'Brighton, in Sussex, 50 miles from the Wen, is on the seaside, and is thought? to afford a salubrious air'.

Admittedly, Cobbett, a notorious ruralist and despiser of industrialisation, was a lover of most places that weren't London.

However, he wasn't uncritical of the developments encroaching on the seaside town. Describing Nash's Royal Pavilion, he said: 'Take a square box, the sides of which are three feet and a half, and the height a foot and a half.

Take a large Norfolk turnip, cut off the green of the leaves? and put the turnip on the middle of the top of the box. Then take four turnips of half the size, treat them in the same way, and put them on the corners of the box.

Then take a considerable number of the bulbs of the crown imperial, the narcissus, the hyacinth, the tulip, the crocus, and others; let the leaves of each have sprouted to about an inch, more or less according to the size of the bulb; put all these, pretty promiscuously, but pretty thickly, on the top of the box. Then stand off and look at your architecture.' Reading this today, one might be excused for thinking that Cobbett was pre-empting some of the more fundamentalist ecological architectural caricatures. Fortunately, however, environmental architecture today, in some instances, has more subtlety, and in Brighton property developer Westfield Investments is completing a new eco-home that blends into the urban landscape, uses a previously unusable piece of land, and is attempting to bring environmental benefits into the property market mainstream. Cobbett might still not be pleased, but he couldn't help but be impressed.

Smart development Known as the Smart House, this compact, single-storey family home has been designed by architect Alan Phillips Associates, in association with consulting engineer WSP Environmental, as a zero-energy building, using solar technology, earth heat sink, labyrinth and pool cooling.

The variety of building-management digital controls housed in the utility space, which looks like a NASA control station, gives lie to the idea, though, that this is low-tech stuff.

Set in the curtilage of an existing nursing home that has been converted into a range of flats for the burgeoning south coast housing market, the new house takes up the plan area of the steeply sloping garden. One of the first determining decisions for the developer, in concert with the planners, was to maintain the green vista from the flats' windows. Hence, the house has a flat roof - with solar and PV panels - covered in vegetation that maintains the appearance of a garden, albeit mostly convincingly, from the distant windows. That said, close up the moss surface has a much more natural appearance than some grassed roofs and this roof garden/ terrace feature is a welcome addition to the streetscape and can be seen from the road further up the hill.

The single-fronted house is embedded in the ground with just the front elevation exposed and available for daylight capture. Rooflights have been placed along the back of the property.

On a typical autumnal morning, they allowed a very reasonable amount of light into the back rooms.

Layout and about The building has a modular rectangular plan with the front strip broken down into an open-plan living/dining room and two double bedrooms. Towards the rear are an en-suite bathroom, a shower room and, off the living space, a kitchen and utility space slightly raised above the main floor level for the purposes of demarcation.

The building is accessed off the main road, along a timber boardwalk and across the moat. The entire front elevation is glazed with sliding partitions that enable practically all the frontage to be opened up. Internally, timber floating floors contrast with the bare concrete walls. Marble has been used in the bathrooms and kitchen areas.

A typical house of this size and layout would be expected to have an annual energy load of 16,000kWh and a corresponding CO 2 emission rating of 4,241kg, assuming that the building was heated in a traditional way. In this house however, it is anticipated that around two-fifths of its energy load will be met by the photovoltaic panels on the roof alone. Notwithstanding the manufacture, shipping, installation incidentals, back-up immersion and distribution pump effects, carbon dioxide will still be significantly reduced.

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