Designing Homes – The Argument for an Authentic Approach
Part 1 – The Post Modern Default
Douglas and King are currently involved in the design of new homes in partnership with forward thinking house builders. This article forms part of a wider investigation within the practice that examines the key issues of design authenticity – identity, cost, place-making and the creation of credible neighbourhoods.
In this article we challenge the typical housing typology offered by many house builders today and how this model can be improved upon to create authentic responsive homes.
For many there is a pre-conceived notion of what a traditional house looks like, we can see this evidenced when we ask a child to draw the image of a house. This notion has its origins in the house building projects of the early 20th Century when, as a reaction to the terraced urban slums in industrialised cities, the architects of that time tried to replicate the typologies of medieval and pre-industrial buildings in the creation of new towns and suburbs. These new house types were built with the technologies prevalent at the time, mass-produced load bearing masonry, and so the buildings were, in reality, very different to the historic models.
Since then the understanding of what traditional architecture is has changed. Traditional Architecture has become a multitude of styles and trends including terraced, semi-detached, pre-fabricated, bungalows, town houses, etc, etc.
Developers and house builders are likely to draw on historic house styles or brick-built box typologies often assuming that potential occupiers will feel safe with these genres. What this suggests is that these ‘traditional’ house styles have an enduring appeal that guarantees success for the development.
The image above is typical of a new house type that is often championed by private developers. A few observations reveal a number of shortfalls:
1. Houses are generally not orientated to optimise what can be achieved by topography, outlook, sunlight and daylight provision at different times of the day, insulation, winter wind factors
2. The traditional features are not drawn from a local vernacular but from a preconceived notion of what a ‘traditional house’ might have looked like
3. Windows and doors are downsized and not positioned to maximise outlook or the amount of daylight that can enter the building
4. The architectural features are an eclectic composition of different types. For example the entrance porch is from an agricultural building, the chimney is a fake, the gable ends are from a post-industrial architectural language and the dormer windows at first floor level are out of context.
5. In order to reduce costs and in part due to the lack of available craft components, the brickwork of the exterior is either bland or poorly patterned in order to add complexity to what would otherwise be a featureless exterior.
6. The building is likely to have been constructed by a system building process i.e. an offsite construction system such as pre-assembled timber frame in order to reduce building costs. The building suggests that it is of a loadbearing masonry construction – it is not
7. Internal and external facias, rainwater pipes and other secondary components are camouflaged plastic
8. The plan of this building does not allow for adaptability or flexibility. The ceiling heights and room sizes have been drawn up to conform to the minimum standards allowable under the building regulations
9. All houses in the 21st century are built with modern technology whether they are dressed and decorated with historic style references in order to create a safe, recognisable language to the building or whether they are built as an honest response to the vernacular architecture of the region.
10. Running parallel is the maxim that many developers use when planning a new ‘estate’ of houses. Maximise the development potential by squeezing as many units as possible into a plot of land to the extent that it looks like a ‘barracks’ and simultaneously present the prospective purchaser with little or no diversity.
11. Maximising the flow of natural light through orientation, a relationship with the landscape, privacy and community interaction are not priorities. Behind ‘fake’ facades the ceiling heights are of the minimum standard set out in the Local Plan, doors and other internal finishes are of an acceptable quality (just about) and kitchens/bathrooms are typically standardised.
12. It is often not a priority to respect to endorse the fundamental principles that to create a credible and functioning community it is essential to design for the long term, for mixed occupancy, an authentic sense of community and the changing narrative of a family and street.
Whilst we continue to discuss the key drivers of successful housing elsewhere, it is worthwhile flagging up a seemingly simple question, but one that is often asked:
“can we have a traditional house…… or can we have a modern one or both?”
It’s actually a very difficult question to answer against a backdrop of what are essentially pre-conceived and over-simplistic ideas of what ‘traditional’ or ‘modern’ architecture actually is. Below we try to throw some light on these within the context of a broader and important issue – ‘authenticity’:
1. all buildings built today are modern as a result of the technologies and materials used in the construction process
2. a modern building can have an authentic historical theme, what architects call a Genius Loci or ‘spirit of place’
3. well-designed buildings are highly functional, energy efficient, maximise the daylight orientation and give a higher level of user satisfaction than historic re-interpretations
4. authentic modern buildings that reflect a local architectural language will use substantial elements of factory construction and therefore yield the best value for money in terms of building costs
5. authentic modern buildings will find favour with prospective buyers when their aesthetic quality is marketed positively resulting in superior sales to a fake attempt at a historic architectural language
6. modern family living requires homes that are flexible and adaptable beyond one or two generations
7. Authentic architecture is responsive to the environment and to sustaining it
For many the notion of ‘modern architecture’ brings to mind cold, unwelcoming buildings with hard edges and straight lines. This view is largely encouraged by the ‘brutalist’ buildings of the mid-20th century that attempted to proclaim in a new way the artistic principles of form aligned with texture, materials and spatial arrangements.
The exemplars of this ‘brutalist’ building style are now buildings listed for their architectural merit as examples of the International Modern Movement. Unfortunately, the UK largely passed this by with a few honourable exceptions.
What went wrong, and further compounds the mis-reading of this style, were the poor interpretations of this architectural language in the creation of low cost and mass housing in the ‘50’s, 60’s and 70’s. These interpretations were adversaries to the movement and their legacy lingers on.
The notion of ‘traditional architecture’ when applied to housing is almost always perceived as it is interpreted by mainstream developers and house builders. It can be neo-classical, country house, cottage style, or a hybrid of them all – whatever the resulting ‘design’ the house will be ‘modern architecture’. Architects call this interpretation of traditional architecture the ‘post modern’ and the greatest myth is that ‘post modern’ homes are the preference of potential occupants.
These typologies are rapidly being built all over the UK as part of the response to the national housing shortage. Invariably, they represent a missed opportunity to create high quality homes that are both respectful to their location and its history but also to the aspirations of the people who will live in them. All too often developments of 120 houses or more maximise density without acknowledging the need for homes and neighbours to have a respectful distance between them as well as a meaningful relationship with each other and to the landscape in which they are being built.
In another article we discuss the importance of ‘place-making’ and how it must be considered as a primary factor when planning volume new-build housing schemes.
Part 2 – Investing in the Design Process – Positive Partnerships – Authenticity and Diversity.
There are exemplary examples of recent new housing developments where a full awareness of the local vernacular is employed to create modern homes that interpret a traditional architectural language. It should be said that homebuilders, including those behind some of the housing typologies outlined above, are making some efforts to improve the quality and design authenticity of their model. The 2020 Open Design Competition was an initiative by Taylor Wimpey and the RIBA find a more appropriate model for the aesthetic house style and plan. All the shortlisted proposals were for buildings that were adaptable, responsive to their location, were nuanced in their relationship to each other and considered the living experience of the occupants. The image below is of the winning entry by Openstudio Architects.
Examples of Authentic Vernacular House Building Projects
Below are further examples of authentic housing which exemplify the ways in which the vernacular architecture of an area can be ‘borrowed’ rather than ‘faked’. These have all been commissioned by mainstream house developers and demonstrate the ways in which an intrinsic ‘sense of place’ can be at the heart of the development.
House in an Urban Woodland by Douglas and King Architects
Our own example of the Authentic approach, ‘house in an urban woodland’, is one of a number of new houses built by the practice where the topography and setting influences the design and style of the dwelling.
These contemporary homes are the outcome of a design process that considers the historic building ‘language’ of the areas in which they are built. Whilst the style of these developments is unashamedly modern, the homes employ natural and local materials in a far more effective and inviting way than the ‘post modern’ response.
The density of these developments has been calculated through a process of evaluation and sensitive planning – the questions we ask ourselves are how will each home relate to its neighbour and how appealing will the new neighbourhood be to its residents and why?
Part 3 – Conclusion
A successful design in any form of building type is measured by the enjoyment of its occupant(s) and their response to its environment and aesthetic.
In designing homes there is a strong argument for an authentic approach and the key aspects of this are as follows:
1. They are designed to reflect the local architectural heritage
2. Employ a common set of components to keep costs down but are arranged in a unique way to respond to their setting within a site and their occupancy
3. They are adaptable and flexible
4. They are not inappropriately decorated
5. Their exteriors are finished in high quality materials such as timber cladding or textured brickwork
6. They have a respectful distance between neighbouring homes and a meaningful relationship to the landscape in which they are being built
Click Image to Link to Article:
An excellent article by Rowan Moore looking at the importance of good design in the provision of New Homes in which he states:
‘Much of the credit should go to a quietly heroic generation of architects. These have grown up in the era following the backlash against their profession, when they could take nothing for granted, when they had to prove again and again that their ideas were not the fantasies of arrogant dreamers, but honest efforts to improve the quality of the lives of future residents. They sometimes find themselves among the worst-paid and hardest-working around the tables of consultants who nowadays get buildings built, and the most committed to the social benefits of the final product. They tend to get squeezed between those well-intentioned regulations and the merciless spreadsheets that calculate profitability and market demands, looking in narrow margins for ways to elevate homes above the basic.
But the greater danger is that the fragile flowering of good housing is crushed by the forces of expediency against which it is constantly struggling. It has been, for example, strengthened by support from a planning system which is now being progressively undermined. And there are plenty of examples to show how much worse things could be: airless, badly planned living capsules stacked high and wrapped in multicoloured aluminium panels, or the continuing output of Noddy houses which, like cockroaches, never go away.’