Janus House: A blueprint for creating happy neighbourhoods

04. December 2020 Sustainable Construction

Authors: Outpost with Propagating Dan, StrawWorks, Gaia Group, Max Fordham, Milk, Momentum, and EcoCocon

The Janus House Community was designed for the "Home of 2030" competition to create an urban planning approach where the built environment and the natural environment are brought together to form a strong sense of place. The masterplan, landscape, building typologies and natural materials used create harmony between people and nature, and between people within the community. Overall, our neighbourhoods are designed to promote a healthy and happy life for their residents.

From pre to post-petroleum society

The collision of the Covid pandemic with the overwhelming evidence of climate change and biodiversity loss has created a deep sense of uncertainty as to how we should address the complex and interwoven issues we face. A fundamental rethink of our relationship with the natural world and our seemingly insatiable demand for land, energy, and material resources is the only positive way forward for humanity.

Our design proposals respond to these challenges by seeking to cultivate a new relationship with nature by learning from the past and looking to the future. The idea that we should use less and build with ‘natural,’ recyclable and non-toxic materials is nothing new. Timber, straw, clay, cob, lime, and stone (to name a few) are all readily available local materials that make up our traditional pre-petroleum architectural vernacular. Our society prizes and protects these historic buildings and we place a high value on them for their beauty and longevity. By working with ‘natural’ building materials these are qualities we can re-introduce into the built environment. 

Knitting community knots through urban design

How we choose to build reflects and informs our social behaviour with far-reaching implications on how we think and act towards each other. Our landscape proposal and site layout challenge traditional road/ front garden/private back garden arrangements, instead promoting the benefits of larger communal green spaces. Every residential unit still has use of a private garden area where residents can sit and enjoy their own space and which offers the potential for personalisation and a sense of ownership and belonging.

The masterplan has been developed as a series of clustered communities made up of small groupings of residential buildings each with their own community asset. The community asset varies in its function and design, but all serve the same purpose of providing a neutral shared space where joint activities can take place and people connect with each other outside of their own homes. 

At a wider site scale, community assets are envisaged in the form of more conventional building typologies. These include functions such as cafés, a woodland forest nursery, a gallery, a library, multiple and various forms of business units, workshops, and retail spaces. This mix of uses helps form a community and allows a development to feel alive.

The communal assets continue into the public realm outdoors with civic squares for open air gatherings and markets; areas for outdoor yoga or tai chi; boules greens; children’s playgrounds, skate/scooter parks and communal BBQ areas. For all residents, there will be water butts, compost boxes and planter boxes available. Raised beds will provide accessible planting spaces for residents with limited mobility. Shared allotment spaces and the community greenhouses can be run by a management team and residents’ committee, who can also take part in the more large- scale landscape management strategy.

Natural materials promoting wellbeing

Thanks to the progress made since the start of the environmental movement, we occupy a time where our understanding and scientific advancement of plant and clay based materials is such that we can now use them to build in ways that outperform petroleum based materials. These readily available, low impact, hygroscopic, non-toxic, long-life, zero waste and beautiful materials offer us the opportunity to think afresh about how we construct our built environment to help meet the challenges we face.

The EcoCocon straw wall panel is 98% plant-based fibre requiring no added chemical treatment to the straw. Unlike some other fibre-based insulation products that require fire retardants such as boron and biocide, straw, through its dense compaction and high naturally occurring silica content, does not require any additional fire retardants. The internal clay renders are fully organic materials that contain no chemical additions. The hygroscopic qualities of both clay and straw provide an intelligent interior finish capable of regulating humidity levels and improving internal air quality with many associated health and wellbeing benefits.

The use of natural, breathable, non-toxic materials adds an indefinable ambience to the feel of the building. Occupants report feelings of cosiness, comfort, peace, and warmth from living surrounded by these materials, which is further enhanced by good insulation and the soft aesthetic of the clay and lime plasters.

Design for one planet living 

While we support investments into clean energy, it is critical to simultaneously continue to strive towards energy efficiency in our buildings. Our proposal adopts a Fabric First Approach to help drive down our energy demand. This is a more effective way and requires less upfront capital investment (for a new build) to reach net zero than using retro-fitted technological fixes such as adding solar PV arrays to poorly insulated homes.

The design, procurement and construction of our proposal is to be delivered through bespoke Design Quality Framework Agreement with exclusions and minimum standards that go significantly beyond building regulations to meet one planet living:

  1. A minimum energy standard designed to PassiveHaus standards
  2. A maximum 10% petroleum-based materials per dwelling by volume
  3. Embodied Carbon to achieve the London Energy Transformation Initiative 2030 target of 300kg CO2e/m2 and 200kg CO2e/m2 including sequestration 42
  4. Toxicity to be designed out of all building components and follow the Substitute it Now design criteria
  5. 200 Year Design Life
  6. Independent On-site Quality Monitoring
  7. Digital Passporting

An exciting way forward

The positive potential of rethinking our consumption of land, materials and energy goes beyond the mere fabric of our buildings, extending to the way we configure and imagine our urban environments. By adopting a new understanding of our place and impact on our biosphere there is an exciting chance to rethink the way we live and work, as well as an opportunity to begin to develop a new architectural language, reflecting these cultural shifts.

We hope that an architecture that speaks of human generosity, sensitivity to the landscape, efficiency and simplicity will emerge through our willingness to engage afresh with both old and new ideas.

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