Anthony Jelley on plans to make the Prince's Foundation house shown at the Ideal Home Exhibition a reality
One of my biggest gripes with new buildings today is, for want of a better word, their ‘plasticization’. By this I mean an industrial scale, factory produced look and feel. What’s more, in the search for ever increasing energy efficiency, architects have taken it a step further in trying to sell us ‘eco-houses’ that look more like lunar laboratories.
The Prince’s Foundation for Building Community, after a challenge by the Prince of Wales, took the view that it is possible to build an eco-house that not only looks like a house, but is moreover a house built by human beings, not a mechanized production line. At the risk of being called a Luddite, I believe that, however much life becomes modernised, people generally wish to put a limit on the extent to which the synthetic, vacuum-packed hegemony intrudes into their homes and neighbourhoods. They want to retain, something of what they, their parents or their grandparents grew up with; something that has been programmed into us over centuries.
This innate desire for the familiar and the human is why I believe the Prince’s Natural House and the Prince’s Arts and Crafts House, shown over the last two years at the Ideal Home Show have been such a success with visitors. They go against the trend towards ever increasing plasticization. Not only do they prove that a house that far exceeds today’s stringent energy standards can be built from natural materials, but it can also remain recognizably a house, and one that is built to last.
Step inside and it feels different. The atmosphere is different – not just from its trendy eco-competitors, but also from the standard volume built new houses and flats that litter the country. It does not feel like a mass produced ‘living unit’, knocked together purely for speed and energy efficiency. The natural and sustainable materials – walls constructed from clay blocks or lime/ hemp panels, lime render, wool insulation, lime/ clay plaster, natural paints and timber windows – are breathable and give the house a different feeling. It is rather like the difference between polyester and cashmere.
This is not to say it is difficult or inefficient to build. It can be easily configured as a terrace or alternatively semi detached or detached houses. Blocks of flats of 3-6 stories are also in the pipeline. It has been designed to be built simply, by local trades, using locally available low-carbon materials. Indeed this is a crucial difference between the Prince’s House and other eco-houses. In order to be carbon neutral, most eco-houses use enormous quantities of carbon in their production and sourcing of materials, be it hi-performance carbon fibre insulation panels made in Japan or hi-spec acrylic polymer compound windows sourced from Switzerland. The Prince’s House does not only set out to use less energy once built; it also tries to minimize the use of carbon in its construction, which normally makes up the bulk of the energy used by a house over its lifetime.
We will soon be able to see if the success of the Prince’s Houses at the Ideal Home Show translates into commercial success. The Dorchester Group has just signed a licensing agreement to use the Prince’s House system design principles and standards at its development in Heyford Park, Oxfordshire, and construction is expected to commence next year. This agreement has the potential to set a much higher bar for house builders. Homebuyers will soon be able to choose if they want plastic living from a new house or a natural alternative from the Prince’s Foundation.