Archive for July, 2014

Moulsecoomb Forest Garden

A builder isn’t really a builder without dirty hands. They’d probably be a project manager or the owner of a construction company. Russell Pountney, at Moulsecoomb Forest Garden, has quite dirty hands so he passes the test but he has the dirtiest feet that I have ever seen which I didn’t quite understand until I was shown around the project’s latest eco structure.

Moulsecoomb Forest Garden was created in 1994 by Warren Carter and a group of determined friends. 2014 is, therefore, its 20th anniversary. It is hidden away behind Moulsecoomb Station on a south-facing plot of land that previously served as ten allotments. In fact, it is still rented from Brighton & Hove City Council as though it were allotments but it now incorporates some woods behind as well.

A very diverse range of individuals works hard throughout the year to make the most of this inner-city oasis. 20 volunteers at any one time is not uncommon. They need stores, shelters, classrooms and meeting spaces if their work is to be both enjoyable and fulfilling.

Arson was the cause of the destruction of the group’s previous, smaller, communal building (known as ‘the shed’) in 2011. The new shed has risen from the ashes in the form of a chestnut-framed two-storey structure that carries out all sorts of functions. It measures 6m by 6m and consists of a storeroom downstairs with an airy flexible area above. Despite its size, it has been created with just hand tools (along with the odd battery drill which is probably a hand tool anyway).

Russell Pountney designed the new building and is leading on the project with his apprentice Russell Kingston. It occupies an enviable spot at the top of the steep plot which means incredible views across the Lewes Road valley but also a long walk with heavy materials. Douglas fir from Sussex, old glass bottles, recycled plastic ‘slates’, clay, sand and straw have all been lugged up from the road below. The clay, sand and straw are mashed together by feet (often the Russells’) to make the perfect cob mix which covers the shed’s internal walls. It can last for hundreds of years.

Volunteers (and any potential donors!) are welcome throughout the whole year though the group’s special 20th anniversary celebrations in September might be a good time to get started. See the group’s website,, to donate – or get really muddy.



Passiv Pod

The architect of one of my favourite modern homes in Brighton & Hove is in the running to win a prize in the prestigious British Homes Awards which is run by the Sunday Times annually.

15 Lloyd Close in Hove is a building that I have often mentioned in this column as a fabulous piece of modern eco-architecture. It was designed by Mark Pellant of Koru Architects back in 2010 and features a zinc roof, reclaimed York stone slabs, a fruit-packed garden and oak flooring throughout. In collaboration with Jim Miller Design, Mark’s latest project – specifically for the awards scheme – is a design for a series of holiday homes for Habitat First, a company that specialises in the creation of holiday homes in idyllic locations.

Mark and Jim’s entry is for a collection of detached ‘Passiv Pods’ around a lake at an unspecified location. If they win, their scheme will be built by Habitat First, perhaps at the firm’s Silverlake resort in Dorset where a 564-acre quarry and former RAF airfield is to be turned into a holiday community with lakes, woodland and other habitats once quarrying stops in 2017. Silverlake follows Habitat First’s existing 550-acre scheme near Cirencester in Gloucestershire where homes can be bought within what is essentially a huge nature reserve. The concept appears to be both brilliant and admirable.

The Passiv Pod is a detached two-storey eco-chalet in the form of a large conker (a very attractive conker, it has to be said) with four bedrooms, a jetty and helix staircase. Bathrooms and a utility area, with little fenestration, are at the back of the building; bedrooms and a lounge are at the front. For strict Passivhaus standards to be adhered to, each structure has to face south, and would, therefore, have to be built on the north side of a lake if views across water are to be created.

1,000 homes are set to be built on Habitat First’s Dorset site over a ten-year period which means that a commission could be something of a dream job for an architect like Mark with a passion for the natural environment. Competition will be stiff though.

The public will have a large say in who wins the coveted award and can vote at As a proponent of high standards in local architecture, I will certainly be backing Mark and Jim before polls close on 31st July.

Koru Passiv Pod 5x

Koru Passiv Pod 10x

Circus Street Redevelopment

A planning application is shortly to be put before Brighton & Hove City Council’s Planning Committee for a decision on whether or not the long-awaited redevelopment of Brighton’s old municipal market on Circus Street can go ahead. But both the Regency Society and the Brighton Society – two of the city’s most respected amenity societies – have serious concerns.

The Circus Street Municipal Market opened in 1937 on a site at the foot of Carlton Hill, to the east of the Valley Gardens. Extensive slum clearance took place throughout Carlton Hill from 1928 and Brighton’s first council housing was built there not long afterwards. Terraced houses and a chapel were removed so that the market could be built at an overall cost of £75,000. The market, opposite Brighton’s famous 24-hour diner, operated until 2005 but has remained empty ever since save for the odd art exhibition.

Circus Street joins Anston House, Preston Barracks, Black Rock, the King Alfred and Patcham Court Farm on the long list of Brighton & Hove wasted development opportunities where talk has firmly outweighed action for years on end. The application includes 486 student bedrooms, 142 flats, a university library, 43 car parking spaces, a dance studio, shops and a café.

Much of the architecture and landscaping is attractive but it really will be a squeeze and the two proposed towers are simply too tall. Towers have their place, and many have been turned down unnecessarily, but this central spot, overlooking the historic Georgian houses of Brighton’s Valley Gardens, really is not the best position.

The Regency Society and Brighton Society have objected for a number of reasons including that natural light, noise and overlooking will be at unacceptable levels, and that a scheme of this density will ultimately recreate the slums of old. I very much agree with the societies’ position on tall buildings in this historic setting but have little sympathy for the view that student housing should not be built because it doesn’t count towards our overall housing targets. Scrap the targets, I say, and build this dedicated student housing so that our local neighbourhoods can become proper communities again.

It is no doubt the case that nothing would get done if every objection was effectively a veto, but there is a balance to be had. Scrap the towers and reduce the number of subsidised flats, and we won’t be far off a decent application.

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Secret Garden, Kemp Town

The much-loved Secret Garden in Kemp Town has just been awarded Grade II listed status for its special architectural and historic interest following the submission of a detailed statement to English Heritage by local historian Nick Tyson.

The Secret Garden is located on the corner of Bristol Gardens and Bristol Place, just east of Sussex Square. In fact, it was once part of a garden of around three times the size that once served 32 Sussex Square, a large townhouse in the north-east corner of Brighton’s most famous Regency composition. The house was owned by Laurence Peel (brother of Sir Robert Peel) who commissioned the garden in around 1830. A tunnel beneath Bristol Place once connected the house to the garden. Part of the tunnel is still visible on the garden side and the rest may well still exist beneath the road.

I first came across the Secret Garden at a Regency Society summer garden party. The annual event was, and still is, legendary but no longer takes place. At the time, it was owned by a lovely elderly lady called Yvonne Dale whose husband, Antony Dale, founded the Regency Society back in 1945. A plaque on 46 Sussex Square notes that Antony Dale lived in the building from 1914-1962.

During my own years on the Regency Society’s committee, discussions were taking place between Yvonne Dale and the Society about what should happen to the garden in the event of her passing away. I do recall that the Secret Garden was turned down by the Regency Society. The Antony Dale Trust was formed in 2008 by several of my fellow committee members as an alternative arrangement in order to effect the garden’s preservation.

The Secret Garden is a magical place yet, as a sunken garden, access is somewhat tricky. Its rickety steps certainly caused problems at the Regency Society garden parties. A large gated opening has just been made at the point where garden is closest to pavement to improve access.

There are many reasons to preserve such a space but Nick is particularly keen to emphasise the importance of the building material of the north, south and west walls – Ranger’s artificial stone.

As a well-known Sussex builder, William Ranger pioneered the use of his artificial stone during the 1820s and patented it soon afterwards. The Secret Garden is thought to be its first use in a major construction project.

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