Archive for June, 2008

Eco Open Houses

I was so fascinated by the subject of last week’s column, Earthship Brighton in Stanmer Park, that I decided to look into the subject of environmentally friendly houses further. My task couldn’t have come at a better moment.

Over the next two weekends, fourteen prominent eco houses around Brighton & Hove, including the Earthship, will be opening their doors to the public. The list includes everything from a standard Edwardian house that has been thoughtfully kitted out with solar panels and thick insulation to a brand new zero carbon tripled-glazed rainwater-harvesting development by Brighton Station. Fortunately for me, a glossary of useful terms is provided within the programme! See www.ecoopenhouses.org for details.

The first building that I saw was the eye-catching house at 5 Dyke Road Avenue, a structure that once featured on Grand Designs. I can see why current owners, Tony and Elizabeth Hancock, snapped it up for more than just its eco credentials as it’s a modern architectural classic in its own right. It was designed by BBM Sustainable Architects and Duncan Baker Brown himself will be leading the tour. I’m finding it hard not to write about the aesthetics of the house for I’m hoping that the Hancocks will agree to allow me to write a whole column on their fine home in the future. On the environmental front, the house uses the sun to heat water, recycled newspaper for insulation, organic paint on the walls and sweet chestnut wood as cladding.

The second building that I came across was the Smart House on Ditchling Road, an all-out eco house by Alan Phillips Architects with little in the way of compromise. It shares many of the characteristics of the Earthship such as facing south to catch the sun and being embedded in the ground to store heat. This means a comfortable home throughout the year. Lots is going on inside but the roof is even busier – its panels heat water and produce electricity; its array of collecting equipment allows rainwater to be captured and used; and its grass top provides bio-diversity. Now that’s smart! 

It’s frightening to think that new properties are still being built that don’t embrace the concepts that are being showcased during the Eco Open Houses weekends of 28th/29th June and 5th/6th July. I’m not talking about making new laws; I’m talking about people doing their bit – by getting their own houses in order.


Earthship Brighton

Like the alien craft that dramatically landed on Horsell Common in H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, Earthship Brighton at Stanmer Park was built for little green men. Environmentally ‘green’ obviously!

In a nutshell, ‘Earthships’ are eco-buildings that are constructed in a particular fashion to embrace several key concepts. Car tyres, rammed full of a locally available material by hand with a sledgehammer, are used as the principle structural material. The thermal mass of the tyre walls carefully balanced with passive solar heating allows the temperature to be regulated easily throughout the day and, indeed, the year. Energy from the sun is used to produce electricity and heat water. Water is, as one might expect, harvested from the rain. The aim is ultimately to be non-reliant on local utilities and, therefore, be self-sufficient. The design is constantly evolving and stems from the first Earthship that was built over thirty years ago in New Mexico by Michael Reynolds.

The UK’s first Earthship opened in 2004 at Kinghorn Loch in Fife, Scotland, and was built by Reynolds with local partners. Earthship Brighton opened in 2005 and this time Reynolds worked with the Brighton-based Low Carbon Trust. Interestingly, chalk – a locally-sourced material – was used to fill the tyres. It was the Trust’s first project and the client was Stanmer Organics, a consortium that leases an allotment-style 17 acre site from Brighton & Hove City Council.

During my tour of Earthship Brighton, it was quite clear that I had stumbled upon something out of this world but I couldn’t help but question why it had actually been built. Was it pure folly? It was built in an extremely inaccessible location after all, tucked away off a long track behind Stanmer House. Well, it serves principally as a community centre for Stanmer Organics and is well-used, I’m sure. Its greatest service, however, is the way in which visitors can learn from its alien technology – like the Americans did at Roswell. From the conscientious recycler to the master builder, everybody can take an idea away. This alone makes the project worthwhile. There are plans for more Earthships in Brighton. Sixteen Earthship homes are planned for the cliffs above the Marina.

During the forthcoming weekends of 28th/29th June and 5th/6th July, fourteen buildings around Brighton & Hove with sound eco credentials, including the Earthship, will be opening their doors to the public. See www.ecoopenhouses.org for details.


Princes House Penthouse

It’s not an unusual story – pedestrians look in shop windows; rarely at what’s above, however beautiful. This goes for North Street too but take the trouble to look above La Tasca and you won’t be disappointed.

The Grade II Listed Princes House was built in 1935-6 to the designs of Harry Stuart Goodhart-Rendel, an English architect, writer and musician. It was originally the head office for the Brighton & Sussex Equitable Permanent Benefit Building Society (which later became the Alliance and then the Alliance & Leicester). The brick-clad steel-framed building is and features bright blue mosaics in geometric patterns. The current layout of thirty flats and two penthouses is the result of a considered conversion by the Baron Homes Corporation. The redevelopment was quite a job and involved replacing steel-framed Crittall windows on a like-for-like basis. Furze Croft on Furze Hill in Hove – a steel-framed brick-clad building from the same period – went through a similar replacement process fairly recently too with equally impressive results.

I first learnt about Princes House’s penthouses when one of them was put up for security during the well-publicised Crawley Town Football Club legal battle. The penthouse owner and football club co-owner, Azwar Majeed, is no stranger to trouble. Previous form includes selling alcopops to kids in his off licences, dodging rent, assaulting a teenager, avoiding tax and skipping community service. His penthouse sat on the market for some time at £1.4 million but it wasn’t long before a more appropriate home was found for him – prison.

The spacious three-bedroom penthouse is now providing Mike Holland and, more importantly, his design-minded partner, Kate McKenzie, with a blank canvass. The Versace floor tiles – neutral and far from the gaudy unnecessary extras that I imagined them to be – will be staying. The lap-dancing pole and stereo wall are long gone though! The transformation will take time but will be exciting. The octagonal kitchen, in particular, presents a challenge but that’s enough of the interior for it’s the outside space that really makes this a ‘penthouse’. From the two balconies, it’s possible to see the Downs, the Clock Tower, the Theatre Royal, St. Bartholomew’s Church, Brighton Station and, quite amazingly, the Royal Pavilion and its beautiful grounds.

Kate, an interior designer working from Middle Temple in London, envisages a 1930s Hollywood glamour style. This means ebony, sycamore, satin, velvet and black lacquer. Now that’s something to look up to.


Portcullis House

Moving out of the most famous Victorian building in the world was always going to be a disappointment but the chance to work in one of the most advanced modern structures instead had its benefits.

The area around Westminster Abbey and the Palace of Westminster (or Houses of Parliament as it’s usually known) is a World Heritage Site. To put that into perspective, in the south-east of England outside of London, only two other sites qualify – Canterbury Cathedral and Blenheim Palace. The demolition, therefore, of the old buildings on Bridge Street across from the Palace in 1994 was bound to be controversial and, being a public project, expensive.

Portcullis House was built to the designs of Michael Hopkins & Partners to house principally 210 Members of Parliament and their staff. It is connected to the Palace by a tunnel beneath Bridge Street and sits directly above the cavernous Westminster Tube Station; an amazing Batcave-like hole with floating escalators and huge pillars supporting what’s above. With the Thames just metres away, God only knows why it doesn’t flood. The building’s most distinctive features are its fig tree-filled central atrium, and its flat-topped chimneys (which work as part of the unpowered air conditioning system). Portcullis House, which should last for 200 years, was completed in 2001 at a final cost of £234 million; partly explained by the extensive use of aluminium bronze on much of the exterior and a costly court case.

The current Palace of Westminster was built following a fire in 1834 that destroyed most of what was on the site previously. Work began on Charles Barry’s design in 1840 and it took around thirty years to complete. Along with those already mentioned, St. Margaret’s Church, the Middlesex Guildhall, RICS HQ and HM Treasury also overlook Parliament Square and its statues of Sir Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln and other famous statesmen. In such illustrious company, Portcullis House had a lot to live up to.

As I now work in Portcullis House (or PCH as it’s known on the Parliamentary Estate), I get to experience what’s good – and bad – about it first-hand. Unfortunately, there are many continuing problems; the worst being the extremely weak mobile phone signal. Despite the niggles, PCH is a great environment in which to work. Public buildings should be inspirational and PCH passes the test – I just can’t call any friends from work to talk about it!