One is an arch defender of the quaint and traditional Dorset village dreamed up by Prince Charles, the other is the architect of south London’s cutting-edge, solar urbanist community. So what would Michael Mehaffy, director of education at the Prince’s Foundation, and Bill Dunster find to talk about?

#1 Making the grade



So Building wants us to have the Big Smackdown, Poundbury versus BedZed – the paragon of chocolate-box "pastiche architecture" versus the anti-urban icon of "gizmo architecture?" Well, I don't know about you, but I find a lot more interesting things going on in both cases. And maybe it doesn't serve the simplistic divisions to note that you've collaborated with our allies at the Congress for the New Urbanism on green building and urbanism standards, which they report was very positive; or that – I should disclaim - Poundbury was not done by us, but by the Duchy of Cornwall.

Well, OK then: let me assert first of all that Poundbury, contrary to reigning misconceptions, is not about a style. It is however about a system that allows certain sustainable goals to be achieved, and that applies the useful problem-solving information embodied in a traditional style, or series of styles, as well-adapted and efficient tools to do so.

It is seeking above all to create sustainable urban form, ending the over-reliance upon the car, and creating a walkable public realm that is well-connected, socially diverse and has a rich mix of uses. Though it does do some innovative things on the level of sustainable building technology (more as time goes on in this important area), its most notable success to date is in urban sustainability.

To achieve these goals it uses local traditional styles because, for one thing, they offer critical human-scale detailing at the pedestrian level. They are also readily repairable and adaptable by local tradespeople in support of a local economy, often using local materials, and reinforcing the local identity of the region. At the same time their well-developed traditional language allows efficient off-site manufacture of a number of components to reduce costs, is readily marketable, and can be taught to local builders as a reliable and durable form of "good ordinary" architecture.

This is a lot to offer, and it seems to me we can't look askance at a tool that gives us such concentrated problem-solving power. Not to mention, such traditional styles have already held up well over long periods of time and would seem to stand a reliable chance of surviving long-term through the vicissitudes of fashion and nature.

So for my money, it's smart to use new technology and new ideas – carefully, with suitable precautions - to address our needs, and occasionally to explore new aesthetic aspects and new ideas in art; but maybe it's not a sustainable approach to assume that everything, even background urbanism, must always look daringly innovative – particularly when even leading architects concede that most of what gets built is junk, and only a very few pieces make the grade.

Maybe the more radical view is to re-assess the shared roots of form over time, as the biologists are doing. Maybe we are going to have to think more deeply about mining our own “DNA of place", the "collective intelligence" of our own human morphogenesis, which you notice has sustained rather well.

And maybe there is a useful synthesis between traditional urbanism, with its sustainable approach to materials, longevity, social integration, travel and urban structure, and green building, with its ability to deploy new tools to reduce the use of non-renewable resources, reduce the energy impact of both building and living, and offer important benefits for water use and re-use.

What do you think?

Chocolate-box “pastiche architecture” vs the anti-urban icon of “gizmo architecture”
Chocolate-box “pastiche architecture” vs the anti-urban icon of “gizmo architecture”

#2 Buildings before glass



Regarding the stereotype of “shiny and new”, none of our work is shiny, and on the whole uses equally durable high quality natural materials. We agree with you about local sourcing of natural materials and using local labour with traditional skills, with walkable mixed-use neighbourhoods.

Our supply chain and standard details have now been used on a number of projects since, showing how even a small family firm in east London can deliver ZEDstandards. At BedZED on 100 units, we have designed in different-sized social housing units, rent, shared ownership and only 30 % private for sale with flexible workspace, live-work units, village hall, communal reception, organic food-box deliveries, residents bar, sports facilities, on-site child care, car pool, bike storage and good public transport connections, with a four minute walk to the station and 20 minutes to London Victoria. There is nothing special whatsoever about the context of BedZED, built on old sewage treatment land, surrounded by standard house types from volume housebuilders from the last 100 years or so.

How dare we descend into such unacceptable nostalgic historicism, such ‘pastiche’!

We have tried to show how traditional construction techniques can be reformulated to provide a new vernacular that comes to term with the reality that we must minimise the demand of new development on the limited shared national stocks of renewable energy whether biomass, biofuel or green grid electricity.

By designing new development to ZEDstandards, this frees up scarce national resource to run our huge stock of historic existing buildings (I would include Poundbury in this category).

It is no longer acceptable to export energy water, or waste problems to someone else’s territory - green grid windfarms are unpopular.

I doubt that many members of the public would choose traditional urbanism in an Enquiry by Design exercise if it were explained that it virtually guaranteed ongoing war over fossil fuel and the irresponsible revival of nuclear power with its dreadful legacy.

So maybe BedZED is an imperfect first attempt at what you get when you try and maximise amenity and private gardens around existing public transport nodes at the same time as reducing the need for energy to the level where its overall annual needs could be met by renewables generated on site.

Subsequent ZEDfactory projects at similar densities to Poundbury show that 60 % of domestic hot water can be met by solar thermal panels, 25 % of space heating by passive solar gain, 25 % of space heating by passive wind-driven ventilators with heat recovery, 50 % of annual electric demand from photovoltaic panels and 50 % annual electricity by micro wind turbines. This reduces the amount of national communal biomass resource for top-up heating and hot water to the absolute minimum - potentially under £100/year for a three-bed home.

Aerodynamic and solar urbanism with rights to wind, rainwater, natural ventilation, daylight, and direct sunlight become critical if the potential for micro generation is to be met. It is very hard to see how traditional building forms that originated before glass was invented, can cope with these new building physics requirements, and I would suggest that in the low-carbon society of 2050, with the reality of personal carbon credits looming and chronic human overpopulation amid rampant climate change - a fresh set of design codes and a new vernacular urbanism has to be allowed to evolve, or you accept UK plc's evolution into an aggressive polluted nation.

#3 Poundbury is modern



Your reply confirmed my assertion that we have much more in agreement than the stereotypes would suggest. Nonetheless I think you are overlooking something important about traditional urbanism, and about the embodied sustainable intelligence of traditional forms in general.

You say that “it is very hard to see how traditional building forms that originated before glass was invented, can cope with these new building physics requirements”. Please look again: you’ll notice that they have adapted to glass very well, and to a great many other technological innovations. This is because they are robust, adaptive forms that have emerged over centuries of evolutionary refinement; and we are beginning to understand that they are far more sophisticated than we like to give them credit for.

For example, Poundbury has had notable success in adapting traditional forms with passive solar, grey water recycling, solar hot water, thermal block construction and other criteria of the BREEAM Ecohomes Standard of Excellence. Such forms are also readily adaptable to the support of a successful, human-scale public realm, the realm of social capital, which we are learning is a key to sustainable built environments no less than is energy use.

The key to full sustainability, I suggest, is not only in selecting a particular criterion and engineering to zero-out that value. For as important as, say, domestic energy consumption is for climate change, it is far from the only issue that must be addressed. Rather our solutions must adapt optimally to the full complexity of human and environmental factors. We got into the current ecological crisis precisely by engineering to narrow technological criteria, and then discovering all sorts of nasty unintended consequences; and I suggest that we can’t fix the problem at the level where it was created. To be fully sustainable we will have to create a more integrated kind of technology, in the deepest sense.

We are slowly recognising that this is what traditional patterns and forms, by definition, have done and still do: they function dynamically as a kind of evolving “collective intelligence” to adapt optimally to the full complexity of human needs and requirements. They are very well-suited to repair and adaptation over time and, as Stewart Brand puts it, to “learning”. There is no need for them to be hidebound in some rigid earlier state, but rather they need to combine innovation with deep evolutionary stability, as nature does.

I suggest that we are in a peculiar and dangerous state today: the architectural dogma of the moment says that any hint of traditional form equals “nostalgia”, and demands radical novelty as prerequisite to the creative freedom of the artist-architect. Nonsense! (After all, history is full of great revivals by great architects.) On the contrary, from an evolutionary point of view it is this old 20th century insistence on radically novel building forms – those that pursue just such narrow technological and artistic goals (I am trying to avoid the word “fashions”) -- that is looking distinctly unsustainable. The critique I would offer of BedZed’s building form – in spite of its many laudable achievements - is largely on this basis.

It is natural and comforting to look with rose-tinted spectacles back to historic settlements and use this language to cloak our industrialised buildings

On the level of urbanism, the same critique applies at a different scale. BedZed’s urban form pays rigid attention to one particular criterion, solar orientation. But a traditional urban environment – which is nothing other than one adapted and re-adapted to many factors over a long period of time – optimises the solution to a great many human problems and needs, including problems of sustainability, in a remarkably sophisticated and localised way.

There is a great deal of “collective intelligence” on offer about the patterns that make successful, enduring, well-loved places, there to be combined with (but not dictated by) the most sophisticated new technology. We would be eager to explore this with you further.

#4 We’re not obsessed



Reading your response carefully – I honestly believe the only problem you have with BedZED is the way it appears to have bypassed a historic vernacular architectural language, and that this departure is perceived to have been caused by a one sided obsession with the technology of domestic energy saving.

I think you have to be more generous in your critique. The question you should be asking is have these new passive energy saving concepts and carbon reduction technologies provided a poor quality public realm or created an unpleasant urbanism ? The answer from most residents and professionals visiting without an axe to grind - is that spaces between the buildings are unconventional, but work well, and that the solar urbanism concepts can easily be reconciled with the placemaking agenda. So much so – that in 2003 BedZED won a Civic Trust Award.

If you look at our designs carefully you will find very traditional detailing in many areas that coupled with a very solid massive structure and stainless steel cavity ties and non degradable mineral wool insulation could easily outlast the lightweight timber frame and urethane foam housekits used in parts of Poundbury.

Just because a standard frame kit is clad in a half brick thick wallpaper of local bricks and stone cills, or a fibreglass chimney has brick slips glued on with high technology adhesives – it does not mean the resultant built fabric has suddenly inherited ‘a collective intelligence capable of optimally adapting to the full complexity of human needs’ (using your words). It just means that a high quality stage set has been built using the same sentiment that had Marie Antoinette playing milkmaid just days before the French Revolution.

Substitute the French revolution with the concept of ‘peak oil’where global demand exceeds supply – which many industry analysts suggest is next year, and you can see how important it becomes to both build new and regenerate existing urban fabric reducing fuel demand to the point where it can be met by renewable energy sources generated within a sites boundaries.

I suspect the motive behind this enthusiasm for historic styles is really rooted in a deep fear of the environmental challenges of this new century, where the human race has expanded in numbers to the point where our life support system is stressed to the point of near breakdown. In this context it is natural and comforting to look with rose tinted spectacles back to historic settlements built in periods of stability (when the UK population was 5 % of its current level), and use this language to cloak our contemporary industrialized building systems.

We would suggest that a fresh truly contemporary vernacular, borrowing durable low environmental impact techniques from the heritage gene pool, at the same time as developing new zero fossil energy capabilities will fast become appreciated by the public – showing that those commissioning and inhabiting this approach are actively participating and helping realize a collective future that works, rather than hiding behind nuclear powered nostalgia.

Our aspiration is to reconcile all agendas in a holistic approach without giving up on any of them - rather than initiate a design process using historic codes that frequently make the new science of harnessing wind, sunlight and daylight an afterthought.

What has actually been built at BedZED tries to be so much more than just some energy efficient homes – it was designed to be a living / working holistic community that could provide some of the answers to the challenge of how to achieve a step reduction in environmental impact without reducing quality of life. Legible street scenes, active commercial frontages, private defensible space and a pedestrian prioritized public realm can be easily incorporated within environmental urbanism.

Surely this aspiration is worth celebrating with a fresh architectural language expressing a fresh cultural ’resurgence’ that will engage the ‘hoodies’ of Poundbury in a vital debate about an optimistic future for all generations?

hocolate-box “pastiche architecture” vs the anti-urban icon of “gizmo architecture”