Eco no longer means ugly when it comes to architecture. Today, its foundations lie in beautiful, simple design. Abbie Vora investigates
Think sustainable architecture, and what springs to mind? Grassy subterranean dwellings akin to Tolkien’s Middle-earth? A colour palette of sludge greens and rusty browns? Compost? Long hair? Sandals?
Or perhaps you imagine glinting solar panels slapped all over roofs and imposing wind turbines in the back garden – expensive ‘green’ technologies, whose effectiveness, depending what part of the world you live in, is somewhat questionable.
These fusty stereotypes and notions of ‘eco bling’ are still prevalent, according to some of the world’s leading architects who specialize in the subject. But what they also say is that there has been a fundamental shift in the past 20 years, and the majority of people – their clients, and potential clients – are now full of enthusiasm for sustainable design or at the very least express an awareness of its relevance.
So what is sustainable architecture today? It’s simple: “All architecture, really,” says Paul Archer, director of the London-based studio Paul Archer Design. “Architecture that’s sustainable was once distinct from other forms, but the agenda has shifted; the distinction has faded. Sustainable architecture is almost a redundant term now. It basically comes down to good design.”
Lisa Wameling of the Berlin practice BCO Architekten agrees. “Designing a building is just not possible without thinking about sustainability,” she says. “It’s a part of the process now – you couldn’t do one without the other.” Besides the obvious benefits of energy efficiency, an important eco factor for BCO is longevity, the way buildings age: their durability, the beautiful patina that materials acquire, a lively yet timeless design and spaces that can be easily adapted by future inhabitants. Wameling loves Berlin’s old industrial buildings because they’ve survived hundreds of years intact and their cavernous interiors allow for continuous change.
Archer and BCO have both recently completed zero-carbon residences with vastly different aesthetics, but neither have compromised on style. This recalls another outdated notion – that eco means ugly. Why should it, when the most common materials for modern eco homes are wood and glass?
Archer’s Green Orchard house in Gloucestershire is shrouded in super-insulated panels that are clad in polished aluminium, reflecting the sky and the lush countryside and making the house almost disappear into the landscape. This is another key part of today’s eco credentials – to be in harmony, visually and otherwise, with your surroundings. The panels slide open, to connect the interior with the garden and allow a flow of fresh air. “In theory energy-efficient buildings have to be orientated south, and when you look at most passive house designs [today’s most energy-efficient concept] they tend to be an insulated box with lots of glass on the south facade,” explains Archer. “The idea with Green Orchard was to challenge that, because it’s not always suitable – for this house we had to make the most of the views over the Severn Estuary. The sliding thermal panels mean the building can adapt to the weather to suit the occupants.”
Adaptability is a key feature of the BCO-designed zero-carbon apartment block, which includes a gallery, in central Berlin, located right between the bohemian Prenzlauer Berg area and upmarket Mitte. At the core of the building, much like Green Orchard, are the services – the bathrooms, the kitchens – “stuff you can’t move around”, explains Wameling, a partner at BCO. This also allows maximum use of natural light and heat in the main living areas. “The five individual apartments feature lofts around this technical core, with sliding walls so that the residents can divide up the space to fit their lifestyle,” she says.
“Making a space flexible gives it longer life. And we use mostly natural materials – such as wood – so they age well.” Its exterior is a block colour of chic grey, to fit in with the existing neighbourhood, and looks slightly unusual for its non-uniform windows – some large and box-like, resembling picture frames, and some a lot smaller, all placed seemingly haphazardly, but actually positioned to allow the sun to enter each apartment in the right way.
Clever and striking design is certainly a common feature among the most beautiful eco homes, but showiness is not part of the new criteria. While a house like Green Orchard is a spectacular building, it’s also subtle. A very different kind of dwelling is Dutch Mountain, the first project by the young Amsterdam office Denieuwegeneratie. Besides being uber-stylish, the partially subterranean family abode blends seamlessly with its hilly environment among hayfields and woods, being virtually hidden from view by the artificial hill into which it’s embedded.
“Sustainability should be about adding something to the world that is in balance, that doesn’t disturb things; well, it will probably disturb, but we must make sure it’s in a good way,” says Thomas Dieben, one of the three dynamic founders of the practice, who spent some of his formative years training under French luminary Jean Nouvel. “When we started with this project we wanted to save the world! But architects are not God. You have to decide what your target is: are we trying to solve the global CO2 issue with this project? No. But it should not leave a CO2 footprint in the area and visually it should be sympathetic to its habitat.”
Meredith Bowles, director of Mole Architects in Cambridge, whose first eco house, The Black House, built in 2002, won the RIBA Manser Medal (awarded annually to the best new house designed by an architect in the UK), uses a wonderful analogy as the basis of his designs. “When I grew up we had a dog who would lie around sleeping all day,” he begins. “We’d always know where in the house to find the dog, because it would be sleeping wherever the sun was coming in. And being aware of that, as the dog was, and as humans instinctively are, is the first step to living sustainably.”
Responding to nature is a recurring theme, and one that the Parisian practice Djuric-Tardio also prioritizes – that is, the natural habitat of Paris and its suburbs. “If you’re in rupture with your direct environment, you provoke radical reaction,” says Caroline Djuric. Working in such dense urban areas, Djuric’s main design principles include giving all occupants of a house direct access to green space, or an outside area, such as a balcony. And using space intelligently: “you always have to be conscious that space is a limited gift,” she explains.
Government backing of sustainable projects is a mixed bag. It seems the sentiment is there, but the reality may be something else. In the UK plans for all new homes to be zero-carbon by 2016 are way off, according to Paul Archer, who says it will take another two decades at least: “I don’t think we’re even close to working out the right way to build our next generation of houses.”
Fellow Briton Meredith Bowles is similarly dubious of the target, attributing it to expensive renewable energy sources – “Germany has a thriving renewables industry and so does Denmark. We don’t. So we buy everything in.”
Thomas Dieben sees a similar situation in the Netherlands: “It’s not yet cheaper to produce your own energy.” In Paris, meanwhile, obligatory ‘green certifications’ are pointing in the right direction, but, says Tardio, they’re all about incorporating technologies, rather than allowing for “intelligence in other ways, not only in engineering. Architects in France really need to be involved politically and socially with the politicians who write these regulations, in order to soften the rules.”
It’s a complex subject, but, as these architects all agree, it’s a positive and stylish outlook – preferably one through south-facing thermal-glass walls.
Photography courtesy of David Butler, Denieuwegeneratie and BCO Architekten
A version of this story appeared in the Summer 2014 issue of Baku magazine.