Is ecological design a hobbit hole or a hi-tech weather station?
Chris Stewart of Collective Architecture reports from Glasgow:
The second round of SEDA Green Drinks passed on the last Thursday of March, held in true Friday spirit being the day before the Easter Weekend. A full house crowded the new Glasgow Society shop cum gallery on Argyll Street, and proceedings began with some badly made cocktails.
Those attending were informed of the usual recipe of ‘a half and a half’: both a Glaswegian drinks combination and in this instance a half hour presentation followed by half an hour of ecological debate. This approach had previously been a result of time limitations in an effort to hire cheap venues but the format also keeps everything short and sweet. Ahead of the event I asked our young presenters how ecological design had affected the start up and ethos of their practices, and as I uploaded the 100 plus slides given to me by Matt and Micheal, I felt time might run over.
To add some further spice, I spiked the introduction with a question that continues to bother me:
Why does ecological design continue to be perceived as either a hobbit hole or a hi tech weather station? Our first round of Green Drinks in January was based around the aesthetics of recycling but also stirred some angry debate around this same point.
Why is ecological design perceived as either a hobbit hole or a hi tech weather station?
That evening, the late Howard Liddell of Gaia Architects was with us and with typical gusto stressed that SEDA had always fought against the negative perception of ecological design. Respects were given to Howard with a brief retrospective of his Plumberswood House.
These were used as examples of how younger practices can challenge the stereotypes of ecological design. Our own Dress for the Weather (DftW) and Roots Design Workshop are pursuing this path here in Scotland.
Due to economic necessity, a number of young Scottish practices have started their studios straight from University, the majority coming from Strathclyde School of Architecture. It did not then come as a surprise that both Matt and Micheal shared the same year at Strathclyde before entering the workplace. Their subsequent routes have been quite different, with DftW concentrating on greater Glasgow, while Roots Design have been working on remote Scottish islands.
DftW delivered the urban perspective to the evening’s subject research projects linking housing types to thermal loss, random shop patterns to supermarket screens and architectural tours which follow underground train routes. However, their built or to-be-built projects lie in the suburbs, integrating ecosystems into bungalows through innovations such as an eave designed to let bats feel their way home. Considering the economic difficulties we are all experiencing, it was understandable that a large urban commission had not yet come the way of DftW. A possible breakthrough has come in their success winning a Glasgow Institute of Architecture competition to reconsider the parlour within Greek Thomson’s Holmwood House, a few miles from the centre of Glasgow. The design beautifully works ‘edge on’ recycled paper to create a woven interior which links future visitors to the past commissioning client, James Couper who made his fortune in paper production.
You would expect the rural context to be a harsh environment for a start up practice. However Roots Design are well adapted to survive, and their mobile office, a converted VW camper van, is capable of hopping from island to island and client to client. The remoteness has also deepened their thinking and led to an understanding of the Hebridean vernacular. Climate has informed a series of wonderful projects where contemporary detailing provides essential protection against strong wind. Roots Design also treated us to the work of TOG studio, a summer school of architects and engineers inspired by Brian McKay-Lyons Ghost Lab in Nova Scotia. TOG’s demountable Tiree Lighthouse has been often featured but the photographs of enthusiastic young students brandishing tools never fails to brighten a landscape nor hide the wonderful nature of the end product which brings together modern architecture and the vernacular. TOG 2013 was introduced to the gathering, a permanent boathouse for the Tiree Maritime Trust, for which TOG are still taking interested bookings. Micheal concluded with a well-worn: quote from the Closing Circle by Barry Commoner: ‘The first law of ecology is that everything is related to everything else’.
This unashamed reminder brought the congregation back to the original argument, that good ecological design should not just be about levels of toxicity, embodied energy or SAP/SBEM ratings. The old guard questioned the ‘green credentials’ of the young presenters but all agreed that to bring beauty to de-mountable structures, integrated ecosystems and recycled materials offers a fresh approach to the time weary assumption of how ecological design should appear. Beauty, proportion and materiality take us into subjectivity but no one can deny these subjects are part of everything, and less can they deny that the most sustainable building if unloved and unused is the most unsustainable building.
SEDA April Green Drinks
Robin Harper the former Green Party MSP will debate the relationship between ecology and possible independence, venue to be confirmed. More information here.