Achieving sustainable living spaces

Housing is the most fundamental of shelters from the beginning of built environment history, and it remains so.

Since my last column, I’ve seen and heard some wonderful things showing that sound architectural principals will lead to healthy and beautiful environments that work on many levels.

I’ve been to Bilbao, Barcelona and Bloemfontein: in Bilbao I saw Santiago Calatrava and Frank Gehry; in Barcelona it was Antoni Gaudi, and in Bloemfontein I listened to Glen Murcutt. All of these are renowned architects, some still here and others long gone. All attempted to respond to the environments in which they worked, and that is really what one asks of the profession in regard to accessibility.

Even though accessibility is my main theme, sustainability and energy efficiency are equally demanding goals.

Gaudi and Murcutt both by chance seem to have tackled quite a large body of individual housing in their work.

The Gaudi building that I saw was already 30 years old when he worked on it: Casa Batilo; the owner thought it should be completely demolished, but Gaudi reworked the whole thing (good sustainability principles) and inserted a mezzanine and a loft room, and cut internal courtyards and light wells into it, as well as a lift! It’s a delight of good ventilation, wonderful light and aesthetic originality. It still draws crowds.

Glen Murcutt is doing the same in Australia. He takes meticulous care of the prevailing winds, the sun’s angles, and the indigenous planting and generally has many clients in the open countryside, but has done lots of inner city projects too, including his own studio/house. His work responds deeply to the actual place and re-uses all natures’ forces to enhance the internal environments too.

It is pointless to concentrate on making or mending buildings to become accessible, if these other basics are not also present. All buildings should be properly aspected, the correct spacing between, the right amount of insulation for draught protection so that the internal spaces are comfortable and not expensive to run. All extra energy needs should be merely top-ups.

Housing is the most fundamental of shelters from the beginning of built environment history, and it remains so. It is not mandatory in South Africa that housing should be accessible; in the UK however it has just been included in the revised Part M of their Building Regulations. Housing Authorities like the City of London have bought into it, and do not develop except within the 16 rules of ‘lifetime’ homes, which are dimensioned ready for access and require the smallest of changes to enable occupation for life for all the houses. Other high profile authorities are now more amenable to doing the same.

We are a long way in this country from achieving sustainable, energy efficient and accessible housing in the mainstream of the housing sector, for no good reason other than it is perceived as a social more than an environmental issue. If the professionals were used to conceptualise these things, they might work together to achieve our goals.

Columnist Photos