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Paint it black by Iain Aitch

We English have a reputation for being somewhat eccentric and architect Meredith Bowles certainly does not let the side down as he drives me across the flat plains of the Cambridgeshire Fens towards his home, The Black House. The Fens, reclaimed from marsh land thanks to Dutch drainage engineers in the 17th century, look more akin to the wide open spaces of the Mid West rather than the English countryside and are dotted with large agricultural sheds and barns made of corrugated tin or cement cladding. Bowles slows as we pass each one, enthusing about its uncomplicated design, beautiful decay or declaring: “now that is a shed.”

The Black House, where Bowles lives with his wife, novelist Jill Dawson, and two sons, Lewis (15) and Felix (3), is the culmination of his obsession with these simple structures, aided by his ever-growing collection of photographs of sheds from around the world. English city-dwellers moving out to the country usually seek out brick built, timber-framed barns to convert to nostalgic, rustic dream homes but forward-looking Bowles wanted something more contemporary when moving both his home and burgeoning architectural practise, Mole Architects, out of London.

“As an architect, the nostalgia for a world past makes me cringe a bit,” he says. “It is not a good driving force.”

The result is a cross between the sheds he so adores and a child-like drawing of a simple house. Taller and narrower than the single-story agricultural buildings that surround it, The Black House has three floors that look out west across the velvety peat fields and back into Ely, which is the nearest town. Rather than a style decision, the black color of the house is down to the color of the weatherproof coating applied to the exterior cement fibre cladding. The stark exterior sits well with the dark soil; the yellow-stained Scandinavian softwood window frames providing a stylish contrast.

As well as affording views of the 13th century Ely Cathedral and picturesque sunsets, the westerly aspect allows for a healthy afternoon solar gain. The house is not yet solar-powered, but it is designed to run from photovoltaic cells once this becomes a viably priced option. At $35,000 Bowles found the solar panels beyond his initial budget of $299,000 for the project, so for the time being The Black House is run from electricity generated at a wind farm in Cornwall. This helps to run an air-to-air heat pump that takes heat energy from the air, increasing the efficiency of the electricity input threefold to provide hot water and warm air heating. Argon-filled glazing, which has a low-emission coating to reflect light back into the house, reduces heat loss in winter, whilst solar blinds keep the house becoming too warm in summer.

The family have found that the low-tech, zero energy solution of creating a through draft by opening windows front and back is an efficient way of cooling the house on hot, sticky days. The fact that the house is built atop concrete piles, which raises the structure two feet from the ground, also aids ventilation. This has practical and environmental advantages in so far as the house is above the sodden Fens soil and there is no need for a damp course or plastic membrane betwixt structure and ground.

“It is like a granary,” says Bowles. “Which are always raised to stop rats climbing up. Same principle, slightly different reason.”

Bowles is something of a fan of simple solutions, reasoning that decisions to install low-energy light bulbs and low-energy domestic appliances all help in the struggle to lessen the property’s environmental impact. Those materials that had to be imported were shipped rather than airfreighted and The Black House has built in storage for recyclable products, such as paper and glass. Bowles runs his practise from an office on the second floor and Dawson writes in a study one floor above, so there are a good few screwed up sheets of paper come the end of the day.

Energy-saving ideas were foremost in Bowles’ mind when considering materials for The Black House, deciding that softwood had least environmental impact. He lessened this further by using Swedish-made formaldehyde-free Masonite I-beams for the frame. These beams are made from compressed lumber waste, which is sandwiched between pieces of softwood to form a sturdy building material.

Elsewhere in the house recycling is king, with the 7.8-inch thick insulation in the walls being made from recycled newspapers and the acoustic insulation mats between floors manufactured from old car tires. In the kitchen the funky wipe-clean splashbacks are made from recycled plastic chopping boards.

Bowles’ ability to bring in a sustainable project at a reasonable budget has not gone un-noticed in the locale, which has resulted in a proposed scheme to create ten smaller ‘sheds’ for a local social housing project. UK Government guidelines on social housing are pushing developers toward solutions that involve low environmental impact along with the speed and cost savings of pre-fabrication, so we could yet see stylish shed living become the norm in rural England. Bowles has his fingers crossed that becomes so, for both the prosperity of his practise and the inevitable fall in the price of solar panels that would at last see him able to afford to become self-sufficient in power generation.

All content copyright © 2012 Iain Aitch


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