Smart thinking; smart building
On the one hand we take our cue from the Smart Growth movement. On the other hand we think our developments are smart because we seamlessly link our thinking on design, financing, construction, sales and marketing. We are not afraid to look to the past as well as to the future; to combine common sense with inspiration. At the heart of our neighbourhoods will be green spaces where children can play safely. There will be an abundance of wildlife, not just because it’s important for the environment (which it really, really is), but because the parents we talk to want their children to grow up knowing the difference between a bee and a wasp and to know that spring has arrived when they see the first swallows. Small groups of fifteen to thirty homes will be clustered around these greens which will be connected by a ‘tapestry of streets’ making neighbourhoods that are easy to walk and cycle around. Convenient access to public transport, schools, shops, services and leisure facilities will be essential to all our neighbourhoods.
81% of adults believe children playing outside helps to improve community spirit and 70% think that it makes an area more desirable to live in.*
People make communities, not developers. But what we can do is put in place the built fabric and management frameworks to create the platform that supports and promotes a strong sense of community. People ask us: ‘what’s your big idea?’ Actually we have lots of very good small ideas. The iPod is an icon that defined a generation; so it must have been a great technical breakthrough? Well, no. All the technology used in the iPod already existed and MP3 players had been around for a few years when Jonathan Ive, coming from a different sector, sat down and re-thought the whole package. He put it together in a way that was so beautiful, and so elegantly conceived that in no time at all, everyone wanted one.
We believe this opportunity has yet to be realised in house-building. All the parts exist and there have been plenty of isolated innovations. A single big idea is not required; just the intelligent application of best practice combined with lots of small innovations at every stage in the process. We have examined every aspect of house-building to create a new concept that combines best-practice with innovation at every level. Our design process and financial modelling are seamlessly integrated
such that benefits are reciprocal.
Here are some examples.
Working with Seattle-based architect, Ross Chapin, we have adapted his AIA award-winning ‘pocket neighborhood’ concept to local social, market and town planning requirements. The result will be pocket neighbourhoods with a strong sense of community and generous, safe play spaces for children. The setting of a well-considered green space adds value to homes while less hard top is kinder to the environment (less expensive too!).
“16 units per acre?
No. I can’t believe that. It looks much less dense.” **
Planning policy has pushed up densities, often at the cost of green space. Our innovative approach accommodates higher densities in a spacious green environment. The pocket concept allows houses to be built in self-contained phases of fifteen to thirty houses, each with a strong sense of place, even when part of a bigger development.
Precision-made factory components are constructed on-site by skilled craftsmen. All component manufacture and finishing is done in weather-controlled environments meaning higher quality. The houses are super-insulated and air-tight, so very little heating is required. A significant proportion of hot water (and the little heating that is required) is met by renewable energy (ranging from solar panels to Combined Heat and Power, depending on what is most cost-effective in each location).
Water-efficient appliances and fittings, water-butts and recycling tanks all reduce water demand. All this means our houses can exceed current regulatory standards and achieve a minimum of Code for Sustainable Homes level 4. Clever layouts achieve the UK Design Council's ‘Building for Life’ standard, meaning people can live in their homes longer, which in turn results in a greater sense of community.
But doesn't all this mean the homes are more costly to build?
No, because the modular construction has significantly less wastage and benefits from the economics of repetition. Low heat loss is embedded in our construction system so does not carry a cost premium. What’s more the speed and consistency of construction has a very positive impact on cash flow.
We don't have a house-style;
our homes will respond to their local context
Technically sophisticated though these homes are, they will be simple and intuitive to use. We work with a number of architects to design homes that have a human-scale and are appropriate to their context. We’ve looked at simple things that improve quality of life, such as increased ceiling heights and careful placement of glazed openings to give interiors a light and airy feel. Sliding-folding doors open on to private gardens to bring the outside in and the inside out. Outdoor rooms or verandas, overlook shared greens. Careful design promotes a feeling of community while preserving individual privacy. Our homes will have a human scale and a tactile quality. Our process allows for variety and bespoke responses to diverse contexts.
Sustainability is about using the earth’s resources more efficiently, so it should cost less to build, not more, yet people always say to us that sustainability will cost extra. We think that’s the wrong starting point. Instead we approach sustainability by questioning everything. Is it needed? Can the same outcome be achieved more efficiently? Can we create more value using less resource? Are there hidden costs? Is there hidden value?
Climate change is impacting every aspect of our lives, but it’s not the only environmental problem we face. Many scientists believe there are at least another nine issues of a similar magnitude including species depletion, water shortage, water degradation, off-gassing and soil depletion. At think villages we’re already considering these wider environmental issues and not simply complying with current regulations. If these issues are addressed in an integrated manner, the solutions are feasible and can add value. Take bio-diversity: how many of us want our children to grow up knowing the difference between a rook and a crow and being able to name half a dozen species of wildflower? To encourage bio-diversity costs little more than some careful design.
As important as the sustainability of our homes is the sustainability of our neighbourhoods. In developing our concept, we worked with the Sustainable Urban Design Research Group at the University of East London to test our pocket neighbourhoods against the international standard LEED ND and the British Standard BREEAM Communities. The concept was assessed to have reached Gold standard and the assessor concluded it scored "remarkably high against both of the rating systems".
Grass is cheaper than tarmac;
we take a different
approach to sustainability.
* From an ICM survey commissioned by Play England 2010
** An experienced house-builder’s response to one of our layouts