Sustainability & Architecture: A Brief History
Sustainability & Architecture
Around 50% of all carbon emissions and all energy produced by human beings in developed
countries, is produced through buildings.
In response to this, the last few years have seen a successive tightening of building regulations
to ensure higher standards of thermal efficiency and encourage the employment of more
renewable sources of energy.
However, the relationship between architecture & sustainability goes back much further than
just the last few years and is concerned with much more than simply energy use.
Issues such as land use, social justice and politics have always played a significant role in a
relationship between architecture and sustainability that arguably finds its roots in the
The talk at this year's IAAAE symposium was a brief resume charting how the modern art of
making buildings had developed whilst always having the 'shadow' of sustainable issues
looming large in the background.
Victorian Social Reform
Nowadays sustainability is thought of mostly in terms of energy consumption and damage to
the natural environment, but it was in the context of damage being done to the human spirit
that sustainability issues first presented themselves in the modern world. Victorian England
was a place in which industrialisation had brought huge wealth in the hands of the few. The
rich leaders of industry, businessmen and nobles led a privileged life while the poor dwelt in
overcrowded, squalid streets riddles with disease. People like the famous writer Charles
Dickens and art & architecture critic, John Ruskin felt ashamed and realised that the situation
could not go on, in other words, that was not 'sustainable'.
Illustration 1: John Ruskin 1819 -1900
Dickens did much to highlight the suffering of the poor through his writing whilst Ruskin took
more direct action. He tried to organise working class men in such a way that they would be
able to improve their lot, and he spent virtually all of his personal inherited fortune on projects
to help them. His efforts eventually led to what we now know as the Welfare State. However,
in addition to social problems, the damage being done by industrialisation to the environment
and to health was becoming apparent.
Illustration 2: Painting by Claude Monet of Smog filled sky over
Coal was the fuel that drove the Industrial Revolution and the sky above England's cities was
filled with black smoke, whilst the air at street level was saturated with soot.
Victorian Land Reform
The main solution to the smog filled cities of Victorian England was the land use strategies first
put forward by Ebenezer Howard in his Garden City Plans. The idea was that a network of
'slum less, smokeless' low density cities where people lived, should be separated by
allotments, canals and a 'green' area (which would be used for recreation, grazing of animals
etc.) from the industrialised 'central city'. The network was to be connected via railway. In
other words, the city was to be 'pulled apart' and then 'immersed' in nature in its various
Illustration 3: lustration 3: Original Garden City Plan 1902
This strategy (illustrated in Howard's own 'ideal plan above) directly led to the creation of
places like Welwyn and Letchworth Garden Cities which thrive today, and it also led to the
famous concept of 'Town & Country' which lies at the root of Planning law in England as well as
being influential throughout the industrialised world.
Frank Lloyd Wright
The famous Frank Lloyd Wright is one of the most influential modern architects to have lived.
He was American and along with Mies Van der Rohe of Germany, Le Corbusier of Switzerland
and Alvar Aalto of Finland, was one of the founding fathers of modern architecture, and like the
other three I have mentioned, he made his name at around the turn of the 20 th Century.
However unlike his distinguished contemporaries, Frank Lloyd Wright was responsible for one
or two significant innovations in the field of what we now know as 'sustainability'.
1. Broadacre City
Illustration 4: llustration 4: Broadacre City, 1932
This was a very simple idea that Frank Lloyd Wright developed as an antidote to the new
American cities, such as Chicago, with their 'hustling bustling' streets and proliferating glass
and steel skyscrapers. Wright was concerned that people of the modern world were losing
touch with their natural roots, so he proposed that every family in America should be given a
house with one acre of land that would afford that family a 'link' with nature through a certain
amount of subsistence and recreation. As you can see, it owed more than a little to the ideas
of Ebenezer Howard.
2. The Usonian House
Wright developed a 'system built' house that was optimised (in terms of it's construction) to
the industrialised processes that were then emerging in America. The system was flexible and
could lead to a variety of forms and layouts. The system was a commercial success with
clients flocking to Wright to have their house designed by 'the master'. The houses however
were not as easy to build as Wright had hoped.
The Usonian house concept was a considerable achievement when you consider that
Wright built many of them and many of them are still standing over half a century later, much
sought after on the open market.
It should be realised also, that the idea of truly flexible, beautiful, system based housing is a
'holy grail' which still has not really been attained even today.
Illustration 5: Detail of Usonian building system. The horizontal bands late to the
timber sizes produced by saw mills at the time
Illustration 6: A Usonian House dating from the
1930's, as it is today
The Autonomous House
The 1970's witnessed one of the most significant energy crises that the world has ever seen.
It was during these periods that architect Robert Vale, writing his thesis at Cambridge
University postulated the 'radical' concept of a house that was completely self sufficient in
terms of energy and water management.
In 1993 He and his wife (also an architect) Brenda set out to actually build the house that
Professor Vale had theorised about almost 20 years earlier. They published a book of their
Illustration 7: Illustration 7: Cover of the book
published by Robert & Brenda Vale, showing
the house they actually built
Many of the features that we have now come to regard as commonplace in the field of
sustainable building in the UK today, directly descend from this prototype developed by the
Vales dating back to 1975. These include:-
• South facing conservatories and heavy masonry construction to both harness and store
solar gain for space heating
• Heavily insulated building envelopes to stop heat from escaping
• Photovoltaic panels and wind turbines to provide electricity
• Solar 'Hot Water' panels to provide for domestic hot water requirements
• Using the roof area to collect rainwater for storage and subsequent domestic use
• Waterless composting toilets to save precious water and use human waste as fertilizer
Significantly, the Vales also recalled the ideas of Howard and Wright before them in
championing the idea of the 'decentralised city', in which energy, food production and waste
management would take place at a smaller scale and service smaller sized communities than
the big conurbations that had become the sine qua non and emblem of city life. This strategy
would use less resources, result in less waste and encourage individuals and communities to
take more responsibility for themselves.
The Hockerton Housing Project
After completing their Autonomous House project, the Vales wasted no time in expanding the
fundamental principles of that scheme a to achieve a truly self-sufficient community, that even
today remains the model for sustainable development.
In 1995 five like minded families formed a housing co-operative for which the Vales designed
sustainable terrace houses. The design of the houses drew on that of the original Autonomous
House, but improved on it in a number of ways:-
• Employment of 'earth sheltered' strategy to take advantage of the more constant
• Employment of heat recovery technology in ventilation to 'capture' heat from exhaust
• Reed bed technology to enable more refined on site processing of human waste
• Small scale management of livestock and crop production to enable self sufficiency in
terms of food
Illustration 8: Illustration 8: Hockerton Housing Project, Nottingham, 1998. The houses are half buried in
the ground to enable greater thermal efficiency. The lake in front of the houses is actually the 'Reed bed' on
site sewage treatment plant which processed the urine of the inhabitants. Solid waste is stored in a septic
tank where it is anaerobically processed until it can be used as fertilizer.
Today these houses have become very popular and have even changed hands on the open
The Hockerton Housing project is the definitive sustainable development in the U.K today and
there has been nothing to surpass it in terms of measurable success since it's inception. There
have however been a number of other interesting developments in the field on sustainability
which have opened up new lines of enquiry that may yet prove fruitful
Illustration 9: Illustration 9: BedZED, Beddington, south London, 2002
Standing for 'Beddington Zero Energy Development', BedZED attempted to bring Hockerton to
Suburbia. It is a development of 99, 1 to 3 bedroom 'live/work' units. It incorporates many of
the features that first came to prominence in the Autonomous House such as south facing
conservatories. Instead of composting toilets, waste (grey) water is used to flush conventional
water efficient WCs.
The distinctive multicoloured chimneys are in fact extremely sophisticated ventilation heat
recovery devices that have been developed by the architect of the scheme Bill Dunster.
Less successful has been the communal power generation which is based on wood gasifying
plant. This has proven to be quite inflexible and impractical with the result the plant is often
2. Double House
Illustration 10: Illustration 10: Double House,
Illustration 11: Cross Section
This house based on the traditional semi-detached type was developed in response to the
general public's preference for suburban living. Many of the advances in sustainable housing,
it was argued, did not take account of the real everyday patterns of life of ordinary people.
Designed by London based Sergison Bates architects, this modern variant on the traditional
semi is based on a system that is optimised for factory production (recalling Frank Lloyd
Wright's Usonian House).
The system patented by timber research organisation TRADA is based on timber (the
most environmentally friendly and carbon neutral building material if it comes from properly
managed sources) and formed largely of recycled materials such as wood off-cuts and recycled
newsprint. Although the system makes the houses very thermally efficient, due to the high
levels of thermal insulation it incorporates, the real focus of this system is 'embodied energy'
I.e. energy that goes into the manufacture of products, rather than energy in use.
In a country like the U.K which has a chronic housing shortage, factories could be
established to turn out many thousands of such houses very efficiently each year, at lower cost
to the economy and the environment than houses built more conventionally.
Illustration 12: Illustration 12: Detail of the
'TRADIS' prefabricated panel. All the floors
and walls of the double house are built from this