If you like homes with elegant clean lines, light-filled open plan living spaces and large expanses of glass, but are left cold by the flat, plain white walls and clinical atmosphere of Modernist houses, then the new more natural style that is currently prevailing in contemporary home design might be exactly the inspiration you are looking for.
A growing number of new houses are being built in a style that takes the basic tenets of Modernism, with its emphasis on function and utility, and combines it with the latest principles of sustainable design and construction. The result is homes that have both a purity of design and an inherent warmth, created by the use of natural materials – often locally sourced and drawn from the vernacular palette: timber, stone, slate, etc. – combined with modern, low-maintenance alternatives.
Natural Materials, Organic Form
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This remarkable example of modern organic architecture has been granted consent on a site in open countryside near Rothbury, in Northumberland, under PPS7 — the scheme introduced to allow the creation of new one-off country houses on the basis of exceptional architectural merit.
Its creators, award-winning architects Reid Jubb Brown, describe its timber gridshell as “the ultimate in exploiting the complex structural properties of timber”. By using interlocking timber components, distorted in three dimensions to produce a highly efficient and immensely strong structural form, it minimises the volume of material.
The building form tends to follow function and usually comprises long and low rectangular blocks of one or two storeys, with simple clean lines, usually with a flat or very low-pitched roof. Full use tends to be made of the roof void to provide either accommodation or architectural space through the use of vaulted ceilings.
Forms tend to have a vertical emphasis, although a taller ventilation tower may be incorporated to encourage natural convection, creating passive air conditioning as warm air rises up the tower, drawing fresh air in at ground floor level.
Large expanses of glass are used in some sections of the building to make the most of natural light, views and orientation for passive solar gain, although care is also taken in the design to avoid overheating through the use of sun screens (brise soleils). This is often achieved through either an overhanging roof, or independently fixed louvers over the south-facing windows.
The larger windows often stretch floor to ceiling, and sometimes over ceilings or around corners, too, often with minimal or no visible frame. Glass may be used in conjunction with ingenious engineering to create the illusion that the roof, or entire upper storey, somehow defies gravity, floating over the glazing below, through the use of the most delicate steel posts and of cantilevering.
Smaller windows may take a very elongated form, creating either a very strong vertical or horizontal emphasis. Other parts of the building, typically north facing, may have few, if any, windows to minimise heat loss and trade-off for the expanses of glass elsewhere.
There is typically a strong relationship between inside and out. The boundaries are consciously blurred through the continuation of the same materials and levels inside and out, through large windows and external door openings, typically fitted with wide sliding patio doors, folding sliding doors or pivot doors.
Courtyards may be incorporated, with vistas created across them from one section of the building to another.
This award-winning renovation includes a fully glazed courtyard.
Sustainability is the watchword when choosing materials for a home in the contemporary natural style. Construction is often post and beam (steel, oak, Douglas fir or glulam) in order to create the large spans necessary for the open plan living, with large window and door openings. The frame is infilled with timber frame panels, structural insulated panels (SIPs), insulated concrete formwork (ICF) or insulated blockwork.
External wall cladding is often in panels of complementary but contrasting materials of varying colour and texture, broken up by areas of glazing, the separation of storeys, or different sections of the building. Natural materials which inherently tend to improve over time rather than deteriorate, and require little or no maintenance, are predominant. Cladding materials are often used both inside and out to link sections or blocks of the building form, particularly where the lines of the building can continue unbroken through sections of glazing.
Popular choices of timber are oak, Western redcedar, sweet chestnut, cedar, iroko, meranti and idigbo. Hardwoods are often left untreated to weather naturally. Softwood cladding may be treated using non-toxic borax salts.
This low-impact self-build is a glulam post and beam structure clad in western red cedar.
In areas where there is a tradition of building from stone, panels of local stone are often used, laid in the traditional vernacular style to form a link with the environment and simple local craft tradition.
Self-coloured lime render is also a popular material, formed using either lime and local sand for a breathable and flexible finish, or white cement and local sand for a more costeffective, quick-setting finish. The use of local sand again brings the natural pigments found locally into the palette.
Also very popular are flexible, breathable polymer renders such as Sto. These render systems are best applied onto external insulation, typically expanded polystyrene, which helps absorb any movement in the building, preventing the render from cracking. These manmade, reinforced renders are through-coloured in a wide range of shades, and come in a variety of textures, and are supposed to be low-maintenance.
Metals are widely used, and because they are both long-lasting and recyclable, are considered ecological despite the energy used to extract them. Lead, zinc and copper are used as wall cladding, as well as for roofing, where anodised stainless steel is also employed.
The Designers’ Views
The way in which families live in houses has changed significantly over the past century. The limitations of load-bearing brick and timber which have in the past produced a cellular form of house design, with separate rooms fulfilling separate functions, have been replaced by a new way of living — today the kitchen has come to be the heart of the house and of family life. It guides the arrangement of space to produce open plan layouts which are much more flexible and multi-use.
New technology is allowing larger spans to be achieved, and more glazing and natural light is being introduced into houses, which is allowing generous multi-use, flexible spaces to be created as a focus to ‘community’ living.
Our understanding of the dynamics and physics of how a building performs and relates to environmental conditions allows us to craft the orientation, form and efficiency of the building to provide optimal performance. No longer are designers constrained by the preconceptions engendered from the Victorian ‘stylistic’ movements or the modern movement.
Architecture is evolving and who knows what the current era we are in is called compared to Modernism, Victorian, etc. We are finding ourselves in a new era related to our growing understanding of ‘nature’ and looking after our ‘health’. Environment is the current phase and, for us, health is where is goes next: organic paints, non-toxic chemicals in products — it is the natural extension of the environmental issues.
The change from the white-rendered glass box is occurring in materials as a new development and reaction, which we believe is related to more ‘thought’ on local context. People are responding more to environment and ‘exploring’ new materials and so buildings are ‘responding’ more to their environment. In our view it works well ‘elementally’ using pods and blocks of material, not intermixing too much.
We like to use high-quality robust materials. For sustainability we try to use local materials if possible. There are some amazingly beautiful glazing systems out there to explore and go for — meaning there is no excuse for PVCu windows!
Nicolas Tye Architects: nicolastyearchitects.co.uk.
From Organic Architecture to Modern Natural
Some ideas are simply ahead of their time and this is certainly the case for the style that Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) described as ‘organic architecture’. The great man, whose Fallingwater is probably still the greatest example of ‘organic architecture’, stated that the style followed no tradition or design form but instead common sense and was determined by the nature of the materials used.
Today it is the principles of sustainability, together with the physical limitations of materials that inform the design of many of the most exciting modern homes. The idea that has prevailed is of creating homes that help find a harmony between human habitation and the natural world.