Studio MGM’s deep-green living machine
A modest timber-built housing scheme in Bury St Edmunds eschews hi-tech, high-concept sustainability features in favour of practical and imaginative solutions
The small wisteria plants at the base of this block of flats are hardly noticeable, but in three years’ time, the architect hopes they will have grown to completely cloak the building with vines. The original intention of the vines was not as ornament, or for atmosphere, or to hide something, or even to create an overtly “green” aesthetic. It was inspired by the tradition of vine-draped buildings in hot countries, where the plants’ function is to provide interior comfort as much as determine the appearance of the facade. In the cooler climes of Bury St Edmunds, in Suffolk, the wisteria vines serve to make habitable, comfortable housing on an inhospitable site.
The building stands on a narrow 12m by 40m plot beside a large roundabout on the town-centre ring road in Bury St Edmunds, on the cut end of a block of conservation area terraced cottages. It faces the Arc, a 5ha Hopkins-designed retail park on the site of the town’s former cattle market. In this direction, the Arc presents a view of its car park and the rump end of a landmark aluminium-clad Debenhams department store. The wisterias are intended to shade the interior, filter the air and interrupt the views — from inside and out.
Studio MGM is a joint practice of three offices working in rural locations — Mole Architects in the Cambridgeshire fen, Greenyard in the forest near Kalmar in Sweden, and Modece Architects near Bury St Edmunds, which took the role of project architect here. The partners set up MGM with the intention of designing “deep green” sustainable architecture on larger scale projects. This, their largest building, is a block of 12 affordable flats for the consortium of East Anglian housing associations E2. The client’s straightforward brief was for the maximum number of flats on a standard budget of £1,500 per sq m delivered through a design-and-build contract.
“Deep green” now seems to be a popular term for architects with widely differing perceptions of what sustainable building is about. It can just mean “very green” to a mainstream practice interested in energy efficiency and new technologies; to Arcadian architects interested in pre-industrial, even pre-urban technology, it might suggest something closer to “deep ecology”. For architects who borrow from both traditions and may or may not want any green technology (high or low) to show on the surface, there are many shades in between. The common thread in MGM’s work appears to be an idea of what a deep-green sustainable house should feel like to live in. Their houses are all designed with a particular culture of living in mind — relaxed, frugal, unceremonious, where the luxury is being in close contact with nature. Something that architects rarely attempt to translate into the design of a block of flats.
The first decision was to create a long garden behind the block, against the garden wall of a neighbouring house, and orient the building towards it. The external larch grid, which surrounds the building protectively on its three other sides, stands further out in the garden like a giant pergola, containing the flats’ balconies. Here by the garden path are the two entrances to the block — two staircases rather than one so the 12 flats could be arranged in pairs with private outlooks front and back.
Inside, the one- and two-bedroom flats have standard sizes (48sq m and 64sq m) and highly unusual layouts. Corridors and halls were considered an unwanted formality as well as a waste of space. As a result, the sequence is very direct, with the front door leading straight into the centre of the living room. The one-bedroom flats have the more efficient, informal layout with no corridor at all — the bedroom is straight off the living room, while the bathroom is entered from the bedroom.
The arrangement is also similar enough to a picturesque sort of parlour cottage to imagine the architect had this in mind. The west end of the living room gives on to a balcony and at the east end is a deep bay window projecting out among the wisteria vines, with a bench seat making a place in front for the kitchen table, and the kitchen nested into the living room to one side.
The construction and services have the feel of a scaled-up version of one of MGM’s low-tech, lightweight, self-build houses. Behind an elaborate facade is a construction of almost Segal-like simplicity. Standing on light pile foundations, the entire construction — walls, floors and roof — is assembled from similarly sized timber JI joists with a full-fill insulation of recycled newspaper (Warmcel). All other elements of the building are timber or timber-derived: the roof is clad in recyclable rubber sheeting (Rubberfuse), and internal sheathing and acoustic linings are types of wood-fibre boards bonded with the non-toxic wood extract lignin. Windows are oak, the facade cladding is larch –both left unfinished for low maintenance.
The building does without all of the current green technologies — ground source heat pumps, photovoltaics, biomass plants and heat exchangers — partly to save costs but mostly because the architect wanted to demonstrate that, with a little creative lateral thinking, complicated hi-tech equipment is not necessary.
The block’s heating system is a nice example. Good insulation and some passive heat gain meant that a supplementary system could be minimal. Following the logic of “a stately home with 20 bedrooms would run off one boiler, so why fit 12 here?”, one gas condensing boiler is used to heat the whole block, with residents paying heating bills through a service charge. To reduce the use of hot water, M&E consultants Conservation Engineering improvised on a cheap thermostat mixer valve from an underfloor heating system. This adds in some cold water to the hot, with the added benefit that showers and radiators never reach scalding temperature.
A good quantity of fresh air is provided through an equally resourceful low-tech method, which seems a real improvement on the usual approach of giving flats a minimum of purge ventilation with a few openable windows and mechanical vents in the bathroom and kitchen. Here, ventilation works entirely by passive displacement, through a series of cheap, large-diameter vertical ducts. Each flat is served by two ducts, one drawing air from the kitchen and bathroom out through a louvred box on the roof, the other carrying fresh air from the plenum beneath the building into the middle of the flat, which enters the living room and bedrooms. Incoming air moves slowly enough through the ducts to be warmed slightly before it enters the flats. The simple device of leaving gaps below internal doors allows the air to circulate.
To conserve water, rainwater is used to flush toilets and water the wisteria plants; taps are fitted with aerated heads; and, unusually, all the flats are fitted with showers, not baths. The Housing Corporation granted a special waiver for this on the condition that baths could be fitted later. The result is the showers are luxurious — almost bath-sized — but they won’t be appreciated by some, especially parents of small children facing a daily prospect of “shower time”.
MGM’s approach, which is about creating “delightful spaces with an external face that grows from the plan and section”, has had some unusual effects on the exterior, such as the appearance of bay windows within the facade frame, a bit like bottles in a wine rack, but the architect treated the facade as a piece of design in its own right, which was considered with great care. The module of the frame describes the measure of the rooms inside to give the monolithic block a particular domestic scale. The range of dimensions within the facade — thick larch posts (actually paired planks) with giant galvanised brackets, finer cladding boards and cross-ties, barely visible wires — was a way of giving the building multiple scales, an important device to bridge the scale of the block and the smaller neighbouring houses.
These judgments will inevitably be masked as the vines grow, and one wonders with what result? The image of the building may eventually be decided by the vines — whether they drift and drape as expected, or are neatly trained, or creep and choke the building in a ruinous way. It is an unpredictable kind of architecture, working with vines, and we shall have to wait and see.
Original print headline: Deep-green machine
Architect Studio MGM, ClientE2— Havebury Housing Partnership/Orwell Housing Partnership, Structural engineer Scott Wilson, Quantity surveyor Tillyard, Services engineerConservation Engineering, Contractor Elliston Steady & Hawes
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