I shall always remember the start of that lecture. This was in the days of slides (as opposed to PowerPoint presentations) and the lecture hall at Tusculum was darkened so that the slides took all ones visual focus. Robert must have talked for at least 5 minutes without changing the opening slide: a house that looked like the "spaceship-has-landed" stereotype of a modern eco-house, all shiny metals and bristling with technology. I cannot now remember exactly what building it was, but it was something like The Autonomous Dwelling designed by Michael Jantzen in 1979.
|The Liberated House, or Autonomous Dwelling, designed by Michael Jantzen.|
|The Autonomous House, Southwell, designed by Robert & Brenda Vale, 1993|
Hence, the design is very carefully fitted into the context of the site, and could in fact be used as a case study for a heritage conservation lecture on designing for urban infill. Walls are of red brick, the steeply pitched roof of terracotta tiles, windows are timber and multi-paned, and there is a simple timber porch to the street. But within this pseudo-historic envelope is every piece of active and passive technology necessary to support the demands of modern life completely self sufficiently: rainwater tanks, composting toilets, heat recovery ventilation, and solar panels feeding a battery bank.
The solar panels provide a particularly clever example of how to deal with the practicalities of designing an eco-house. The orientation of the house, determined to be the most appropriate within the streetscape, meant that there were no south-facing roof planes to take solar panels. So, instead, these were mounted on a pergola in the garden, which meant they could be orientated and angled precisely to optimise output, whilst also providing an attractive garden structure.
The key point here is that, even though the Southwell house was a bespoke design very specific to its site, the underlying objective was always to demonstrate that sustainable buildings could be accepted by the mass market. The Vales note that "throughout the project, it was realised that design alone without the potential for, or the probability of, transfer to the marketplace, would be meaningless. The sustainable house must be recognised as a marketable product by house builders and as an affordable and desirable home by consumers."
In order to have any real impact on the sustainability of our society, whether at a local, national or global level, and all its associated impacts on climate change etc, we should be building every new house to this standard, not just the occasional one, and this comes down to market forces. The Vales quote a Canadian government housing programme on this theme, which states "greater consumer demand is necessary to achieve the potential energy savings related to a particular product by reducing per unit costs and pay back periods through economies of scale."
In order to meet our carbon reduction targets we need to take some big steps, not just tweak the edges, and the ideas behind the Vale's Autonomous House represent just such steps.
|The New Autonomous House by Robert & Brenda Vale, published by Thames & Hudson.|
I won't write more here about the house itself, but thoroughly recommend the book. This was originally published in 1975 before the actual house was even anticipated, and revised in 2000 under the title The NEW Autonomous House to include details of the completed house. It includes both dry factual data and inspiring background research.