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Glen Howells Architects challenge conventions of volume house building

Conceived as an exemplary riposte to the dreariness and mediocrity of most volume housebuilding, this new residential scheme in Swindon actively engages with ideas about community, sustainability and place

GH_TRI_32Intended to challenge the meanness and mediocrity of volume housebuilding, the scheme is a subtle meditation on notions of what constitute the ‘ordinary’. Low-rise terraced housing, an established and reassuring English residential type, encloses a central communal green.

Here are some early reactions from tenants living at the Triangle in Swindon. Kevin McCloud is a ‘top man; genuine’, says one resident. ‘My toddler hated vegetables. But with the shared veg patch just round the back of the house, she has been eating fresh stuff all day long,’ enthuses another. ‘When the bullies followed [my child] here back from school, the neighbours rallied round; they knew what was going on, and chased them off the estate.’ So the 36 new houses and six flats developed by the Grand Designs TV celebrity are producing these rather unusual stories. What has been going on in north Swindon?

The project is the result of a joint venture between McCloud’s residential development company HAB and Westlea Housing Association, and is his first attempt to show what volume housebuilders could be supplying the average punter: Happiness, Architecture and Beauty. More mundanely, the recession has meant that once the scheme was completed, the sales market proved moribund due to the recession so all the units are now rented to housing list applicants, though the hope is some will buy in due course.For now, however, the Triangle is that peculiar misnomer: affordable housing.

Glen Howells Model

Model of the development. Long rear gardens, typical of the surroundings, were eschewed in favour of the triangular green, with its potential to create and sustain communal interaction

Glenn Howells was the architect, with active editing from HAB’s design director, Isabel Allen. The first strategic moves were to increase the density of an already consented scheme, to use terraces and to forego the long gardens common locally, and instead to create a central triangular green to be shared by all.

At the points where the lines of the triangle meet are further shared areas: a vegetable patch, some poly tunnels and the possibility of a playground. Crucially, cars would not be allowed to overwhelm the place; occupiers are limited to one car parking space per household and cars parked in the spaces in front of homes are masked by gabion walls tall enough to screen them.

With sustainability a key focus, hempcrete has been used throughout the scheme. Externally, it looks like a rendered finish and gives a robust sense of enclosure and soundproofing to the internal spaces. It also chimes with the local rendered vernacular and enables a range of simple pastel tones to mark out different houses in the terrace, which would have been difficult with brick. Apparently, it has negative embodied carbon, as it continues to absorb carbon for a few years after construction.

Each house is topped by a thermal chimney, part of a simple passive ventilation system. When the houses get hot in the summer, a secure hatch at the back on the ground floor can be opened, encouraging a stack effect, with rising warm air expelled through a roof cowl. On the ground floor there is underfloor heating, with radiators upstairs. The system is powered by an air-source heat pump outside on the back wall. Green credentials are further enhanced by an estate intranet: a wall-mounted screen on the ground floor keeps residents informed about energy and water use, and lets them know when the next bus to Swindon is due.

Walking around a house, there is a quiet feeling of generosity, which is a tremendous achievement in the face of the drab, reductive meanness characteristic of most volume housebuilding solutions: ceilings are generally 2.6m-high, and windows are wide and tall. Ground-floor plans feel spacious, with a through lounge. These are fundamental permanent benefits for which the team must have struggled, yet have delivered with success.

Site_Plan

The Triangle sits in a tradition of new affordable housing, which tries to do more. If the Georgian were concerned with buildings not collapsing and streets not disappearing into flames, and the Victorians were committed to reducing overcrowding and introducing basic hygiene, the architects of the last century started to attend to the space people needed for a decent life.

Hab and Westlea are furthering the debate in their engagement with the question: how do we provide decent homes that offer privacy, but also create a community? It has become a given that communities are best developed by offering neighbours something to share, usually a green space, and putting in place a way to manage it firmly.

As its name suggests, the Triangle aims to do this. On talking to residents, I felt there was a general delight in the availability of the shared spaces. Perhaps it is inevitable that there was also a feeling that only a minority were going to participate in meetings between the residents and gardening committees, and actually put in the time needed to do work for the benefit of all. Yet there is no doubt that a volume housebuilder solution would have made a poorer place, even if not everyone at the Triangle is going to be a community builder.

With developments such as Accordia and Poundbury, there are clear precedents for carefully crafted affordable housing (particularly houses rather than flats). These reflect concerted efforts to build decent ordinary houses and do their best to integrate them into a place which offers something more than a key to a door. Yet for HAB, the issue of community building is not enough.

The website reveals an ambition for: ‘beautiful homes that keep people cool in summer and warm in winter and generally happy and smiling all year round. Places with beautiful outdoor spaces with communal gardens and edible landscapes and butterflies and badgers and birds’. You are also guided towards a weblink for the ‘Movement for Happiness’, which aims to replace individualism and consumerism with community spirit and contentment.

Deatail Section of Cowel

Detailed section through ventilation cowl. Click to download PDF

For the Triangle, landscape architect Luke Engleback has produced Grow 2 Eat, a guide and cookbook for residents. You can eat the rhubarb planted near the guest parking, munch your way through the crops from the fruit trees, graze on nuts and berries, and improve your greens intake with salad leaves.

McCloud enthusiastically describes the ‘intensely edible’ environment with its fundamental biodiversity. Connecting housing development with food production, a general appreciation of healthy eating and an enjoyment of the daily ritual of eating is an appealing notion, although residents will need to wait until next spring and summer before the landscape is properly edible.

There are some minor caveats. On talking with residents, it is clear that some find it hard to operate the green systems effectively. And the intranet really is not up and running yet. The one car per household regime is also still a work in progress; only time will tell whether the community can keep the area around the triangle free from fly parking. And the gabions are rather strident as car concealers; the black top seems about to strangle the precious green.

But overall, this is a fine and carefully considered scheme: lots of people have thought deeply about doing housing better, and succeeded, even if there are little flickers of eccentricity, which may wither in due course. Especially admirable is the apparent confidence to do something which does not look too extraordinary, to provide a framework for people to get on with their lives without bossing them about, and to make it just that bit easier for them to say hello to their neighbours. Surely it is right, as Architecture Research Unit director Florian Beigel has suggested, for architects and developers to provide the rug on which the picnic is to be enjoyed.

Children frolicking enthusiastically in the communal growing areas, where fruit and vegetables can be cultivatedChildren frolicking enthusiastically in the communal growing areas, where fruit and vegetables can be cultivated

This development has been enriched by Westlea’s expertise in looking after their tenants, offering the possibility of nurturing a community, so distant from the ambitions of volume housebuilders. Hab’s next schemes, in Stroud and Oxford, should build on the achievements here. The notion that beautiful places can make people happy (a sentiment shared and being explored by Alain de Botton with his Living Architecture) will continue to provoke debate.

My personal taste is for something more modest: it should be our responsibility to show what good architecture can offer ordinary housebuyers. Enhancing the housebuyer’s sensitivity will be as much about education (about food as well as places) as supplying a better product.

The Triangle represents a significant challenge to the volume housebuilder: house, community, environment. Like Jamie Oliver, McCloud and Allen are offering healthier ingredients, and their brand should flourish, as brand-building can focus on doing a good job rather than attracting our attention (which McCloud’s celebrity status already ensures). A test which has not yet been met is the crucible of the market. Berkeley Homes and the Candy Brothers have successfully negotiated the vicissitudes of making money and building brands, and Hab still has to do that before the housebuilders will get too worried.

The next goal, after the success of the Triangle, is to show that ambitions which include anti-consumerism can be squared with the realities of landbuying, building contracts and the sales office. And to check out whether that landscape is edible.

GH_TRI_14

The Triangle, housing project Swindon. Architect Glenn Howells + HAB.

Architect: Glen Howells Architects
Structural engineer: Curtins Consulting
Services engineer: Max Fordham
Landscape consultant: Studio Engleback
Photographs: Paul Raftery

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