Many people, I think, would probably acknowledge the urgent need to improve the design of ordinary housing in the British Isles alongside better integrated neighbourhood design.
The reasons to do so run far deeper than aesthetic considerations. As a result of living through a period of plentiful energy, we have tended to forget the fundamentals of successful community that have developed over hundreds of years. These include walkable catchment areas for a mix of social, retail and other uses, attractive shared streets and public spaces, a natural blend of different age groups and households of different sizes and incomes in proximity to one another. These principles, coupled with architectural styles that evolved organically from local circumstance and materials, have given us a legacy of special places – generally our historic town centres - whose common denominator is a refreshing lack of reliance on cars and cheap mobility for the mechanics of daily life to function.
It is upon this legacy that we are now trying, with varying degrees of success, to build in a way that will serve our own successors well. This has to mean reducing the “carbon cost” of our houses and daily activity to the absolute minimum. The recent work of my Foundation for the Built Environment has been particularly focused on addressing the issue of climate change. The Foundation, working with associates in many different spheres, can now demonstrate that places designed around the pedestrian actually effect a reduction in daily car use. As a corollary, the Foundation’s work on housing markets has also shown that new places designed around the principles of “Sustainable Urbanism” garner higher value in a relatively short space of time and therefore represent a good investment for developers and homeowners. Such principles, if followed, can also be shown to produce enhanced social and environmental value.
In addition, the Foundation can demonstrate that we are able to achieve the much-needed energy reduction targets we have set for both building and living in new homes by heeding the lessons of tradition, and that “Eco-Homes” need not wear an alien face to be energy-efficient. The “Natural House”, currently under construction by my Foundation at the Building Research Establishment, points the way to a new model for green building that suits any site condition, is cost effective and is easily adapted for volume building. The design has a contemporary, yet timeless feel, even though it is based on time-honoured, geometric principles of balance and harmony. The materials employed are largely from natural sources, either grown or from the ground; the main walling material is a new form of clay brick, easier and quicker to lay than traditional bricks, but with far higher insulating properties that meet modern expectations of thermal performance. The clever design of the bricks means air trapped inside the wall becomes the primary insulating material and such clay bricks have been used in Germany for the past nineteen years.
“The Natural House” will raise important findings about true sustainability that I hope will be useful to a building industry facing root and branch change in the next few years. I am sure that well-informed consumers will demand more of their new homes – not only energy efficiency, but attractive, spacious, and natural constituent parts of real communities. They will discriminate between the developments that make real places and those that do not. They will be more likely to vote for a strongly defined character offered by durable materials suited to local conditions, well-managed public spaces and green amenities, and the sort of variety and individuality that we cherish in the best historic neighbourhoods.
It is hardly an exercise in nostalgia to recognize that traditional architecture, particularly our unrivalled domestic vernacular, represents a pragmatic response to limited resources and limited energy reserves from which we can still learn today, even as we incorporate the best of appropriate and contemporary “green” technology. Equally, the traditional town was entirely walkable, while early suburbs were served by trams and trains, an example of science contributing to cohesive society. The present domination of the car over the pedestrian, in planning and engineering terms, is of course a complicating factor. We must surely be able to organize ourselves – as the Victorians did – in ways in which we are not dependent on it to such a great extent for our daily needs. This kind of public transport-oriented development is fundamental to achieving the ultimate goal of a “low carbon community”, and it is very likely that such communities, far from being austere, will actually become the sought-after places where people will choose to live and spend their time. This principle has been implemented in practice at Poundbury and it is heartening to see the real community that has now emerged as a well-mannered extension of Dorchester, one of our great English towns. I can only hope its lessons are emulated for the benefit of generations yet to come.