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Cullinan: 'sustainability is worth trying'

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Ted Cullinan describes a life in practice designing some of the UK’s most admired eco-buildings

After my education at Cambridge, the Architectural Association and Berkeley in California, I returned to England in 1957 not wanting to go into any office, so I got an outside job measuring the 18th century Wardour Castle (by dull Paine).

With an assistant, I measured every room in that mansion and we felt the astonishing difference between the warm, sunny, south-facing rooms and the gloomy, damp ones facing north. Of course, the Georgians knew this from Palladio and, luckily for us, the finest detailing was in the south-facing phalanx of rooms, so we could sunbathe while measuring.

The following year I designed a house for my uncle in which I most energetically got to work on my southfacing discoveries, making the house long and thin and south-facing across a valley bottom in Hampshire. In the extremes of summer and winter, it was either scorching hot or freezing cold, so we devised heavy curtains and external screens to make it comfortable. In the ’50s,
modern architecture and insulation were not blood brothers, so the house was built from 6-inch Lignacite blocks, made from sawdust mixed with cement, and then we painted them.

Then, in the early ’60s in London, my wife, kids and friends and I built our own house, which faced south over a courtyard and workshop-topped garden. It was fully south-glazed, receiving what is known today as ‘passive solar gain’, but now with overhangs for summer shade and rain-proofing. This worked well combined with internal venetian blinds.

Modernist buildings were square in plan and section: overhangs or eaves were ‘impure’. Colin Stansfield-Smith presented us with a solar system-built school called Farnborough Grange, which had been built in the ’60s and was rotting after 20 years, due to painted softwood sills projecting beyond the face of the untopped facade. We gave it a new roof, which projected 1m beyond the walls and put similarly projecting solar and rain shades on the lower floors.

In the ’80s, with the help of Max Fordham, we made a headquarters building for Ready Mixed Concrete out of four old buildings, with new offices between them, with gardens planted in 1m-thick soil on top. This provided fantastic insulation and mass.

Later I did another garden roof at the Cambridge Maths building, with Johnny Winter and others. It is mostly naturally ventilated, because we designed the section to be as chimney-like as we could. By then we were making properly insulated buildings, too.

It’s lovely when you find that stuff is just lying there and you use it

With Buro Happold and Steve Johnson I designed the Gridshell, the home of the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum, at Singleton in West Sussex, which consists of three arched domes made from 50m x 50m green oak (from nearby Normandy) interlaced and patently joined. The domes are covered in insulation and locally sourced cedar. It is lovely when you find that the stuff is just lying there and you use it - like we did at Piers Taylor’s great learning adventure, Studio in the Woods.

We have just completed the Maggie’s Centre at the Freeman Hospital in Newcastle-on-Tyne. The northfacing and end walls are highly insulated and buried in wild-flowered banks for the ultimate in insulation. The south-facing glazed walls face on to a courtyard and so are protected from chilly winds. The roofs are grassed over to make exercising places and at the knuckle, where
there is a library on two floors, they are crowned by a disc of photovoltaic cells.

That is how far we have come towards sustainability. It is worth trying.

  • Ted Cullinan is founder and chairman of Cullinan Studio. He was awarded a RIBA Gold Medal in 2008
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