How green is my chalet

March 2, 2001

A challenge to build a Welsh house of the future inspired an eco-design using local materials such as slate, horsehair and newspaper. Adrian Mourby had a peek.

Wales has never had much claim to be the home of architectural excellence. It boasts a lot of castles, built mostly by the English, miles and miles of deeply depressing terraced housing and a tradition of rural building, much of which has been taken apart and reassembled at the Museum of Welsh Life in St Fagans, near Cardiff. The only time in recent years that the architectural spotlight turned its glare on Wales was when Zaha Hadid's visionary design for an angular glass opera house in Cardiff Bay was passed over so that the city could build another rugby stadium.

Now, however, Wales has done something rather bold on the architectural front. With the enthusiastic backing of Malcolm Parry, head of the Welsh School of Architecture since 1997, the Welsh house of 2050 has been built at St Fagans and opened to the public this week.

"The brief for the competition was to design a standard family home built from sustainable resources, low on energy usage and capable of fitting into most rural and urban sites," says Parry. "The dream house with gizmos beyond the purse of the average citizen was to be avoided. Finally, and most testing of all, it was to make a response to the culture, life and climate of Wales, but eschew nostalgia."

Parry, who moonlights as a television presenter, came up with the House of the Future idea in 1999 with BBC Wales producer Eric Haines. They sold it as both a house to be constructed at St Fagans and a TV series that would stimulate debate about where domestic architecture is going in Britain.

In some respects, the Welsh dimension was the most testing part of the competition's rubric. When most of the houses at St Fagans were originally constructed, the builders would have had no concept of their architecture fitting into a concept of Welshness. They built to the best of their ability, using the materials to hand. The idea that architecture can have ideological dimensions is a relatively recent one in all but religious circles. How on earth were the 50 entrants who took up Parry's challenge to make their house Welsh without reference to love spoons and spinning wheels? In the event, most combined the national theme with the requirement to use sustainable resources, opting to build with local materials.

BBC Wales brought together a team of judges who whittled down the 50 entries -many from continental Europe -to a shortlist of six. When the competitors' identities were revealed, Parry was thrilled to find that a design reminiscent of the Malaysian "shop-house" had been submitted by a Malaysian former student from the Welsh School of Architecture, Eleena Jamil. And that another design had come from a young graduate, Maredydd ab Iestyn, who was already building his own energy-conscious house in North Wales. The only ostentatiously futuristic finalist was the firm of BDG McColl, which saw its house as a flexible support structure for a curious egg-like facility housing the owner's workstation.

The winning entry was from Jestico and Whiles of London. "It was an elegant design that pressed all the right environmental buttons," says Parry.

Built on a wooden frame using Welsh oak, it has huge windows to the south to let in sunshine and a Welsh slate floor to absorb its heat. Its curved aluminium roof is covered with alpine plants to provide insulation and gather rainfall into a "grey" water supply that flushes lavatories, reducing the use of fresh water. Internal walls have been created by pressing bricks out of clay excavated while the foundations were being sunk, and the building is rendered in horsehair and lime, a compound one of the plasterers remembered using 50 years ago.

One of the house's most impressive features is its ability to heat and power itself using solar energy (there are photovoltaic cells on the roof) and a heat-exchange pump provided by the Swedish firm Thoren. This remarkably simple idea of drilling down 15m to where the earth is warmer and allowing heat to pass up a coil is hardly used over here, although Thoren claims that the mild climate in southern Britain is perfect for heat pumps. Insulation of the house has been achieved using wool and recycled copies of the South Wales Argus , which are impressively heat resistant.

Redrow, the building firm that constructed the house, was impressed by the simplicity and effectiveness of many of these innovations, although it found its task much more difficult than expected. Because of delays in finding a suitable roof, the oak frame warped and then developed an alarming wobble. Once fitted, the alpine garden on top of the roof clogged the guttering, and flooding within the house caused the computer, which controls every aspect of this futuristic living space, to short-circuit.

Although a realistic budget of £120,000 had been set, costs spiralled. The alpine roof alone rose in price from £6,000 to £28,000. "This is the price you pay for using products that, while proven, are not generally available," says Parry.

Before the house went public, a real family - the Powells from Bridgend - was selected from more than 200 applicants to move in for a week to see how well the design worked in human terms. Everyone found the main open-plan living area light, spacious and fun. Less successful were the bedrooms, kitted out by top Welsh designer Angela Gidden using recycled materials that were considered uncomfortable and impractical. The kitchen that dominates the centre of the house worked well, confirming ideas that, with family members eating at different times of day, the kitchen is the hub of the house.

Least successful was the computer, designed to control every domestic function from closing the blinds to internet shopping. In theory, all Mrs Powell had to do was pick up the phone and announce: "Computer, close lounge blinds" but, like HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey , the machine had a mind of its own. Eventually, Mrs Powell had to override it, using a multifunction remote control.

"But in the end 'The House' wasn't about high-tech gizmos," says Parry. "It wasn't meant for robots and men in shiny suits but to represent the way real people could be living in 50 years' time, using concepts that have been established but are not in general use yet."

As for the future, Parry hopes the house will be continually updated. "The last thing we want is for it to become some kind of museum piece."

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