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Hackney Self-Build Challenge

Charlie Butterwick

January 2021



Design Team: Daniel Kelso, Charlie Butterwick - Architecture Unknown, Elaine Cresswell, Cat Higham - reShaped Landscape architecture and Mike Foat - Mantis Energy

Design Background
In a time defined contradictorily by its transitory moments of freedom alongside the new normal of interminable and sometimes seemingly endless waiting, homes have taken on a new significance that requires a re-evaluation of the status quo. These places, where we now spend most of our time, are the bedrocks of communities but isolation in the midst of others is becoming increasingly common. As we see individuals fragment away from the already worn fabric of local connections, defining a scalable response to the ensuing loneliness is one of the most important challenges for new domestic housing in the 21st century.

The reasons for this fragmentation are many and intersect economics, housing, community and local government. Hackney has a thriving culture of innovation, history and newfound symbolism epitomised by its rapid growth as a centre for the arts and technology. However, this optimism is often seen through the lens of the finance entering the area and the rise of local prices in housing and elsewhere. The obviously beneficial recovery of the urban fabric from the last century’s experiments with mass housing have created a slate of opportunities for thriving success but at a material and communal cost. The erosion of communities by commerce, that is evident across the country is particularly acute in London and has led to the continuing loss of long-term residents priced out of their homes. With this scheme we aimed to apply the principles of a broad solution to these issues can at its heart aims to reconnect people with place and provide affordable homes for locals that are both flexible to requirements and the context but also suitable for mass-production. The name of this system of change is called WikiHouse.

Created by Hackney’s very own Architecture 00, WikiHouse is a concept designed to adapt the way buildings are built to make them accessible to communities and individuals so that “sweat equity” can mean more than painting skirting boards. By using only ubiquitously available plywood, simple construction techniques and ingenuity WikiHouse offers people the opportunity to build the structural shells of their own buildings using flat-packed “IKEA-esque” construction kits designed to the millimetre and manufactured offsite. WikiHouse is one of the simplest self-build systems available and suitable for all ages and skill levels. With only a mallet, an instruction manual and a local community to help, building your own home with your own hands can be a reality.

The system sits at the centre of a social network that is, by its very definition, local and sustainable. Powered by local fabricators cutting WikiHouse pieces on a CNC router and assembled by a team of 5-6 friendly neighbourhood volunteers, these buildings create local opportunities, expenditure, get people outside and into the fresh air, provide opportunities for teamwork and community cohesion and allow for the creation of affordable homes that are a result of a shared positive vision of the future. Who knew that something so comprehensive was sitting in Hackney’s backyard waiting to be discovered?

Smiling Man on Laptop

Floor plans for a beautiful WikiHouse family home

Design Qualities

The scheme is defined as both a family home on a specific site and also a potential pilot project for a new way of providing community-led housing on small sites facilitated by Hackney Borough Council’s release of land assets to local people as pioneered through the hackney Self-build Challenge. The scheme responds to the Design Background in a place-specific way but with the intention to create an exemplar building that opens a path towards communally beneficial and sustainable housing for Hackney using WikiHouse. Whilst also seeking specific and relevant architectural solutions to the layout and form of the building to match the client’s requirements and the context, the design seeks to ensure modularity and flexibility are baked into the fabric of the building. On the surface the scheme is a 3 storey, four bedroom, 110m² townhouse occupying a footprint of 54m² with reducing floor plate sizes as the building rises. However, the WikiHouse system offers the opportunity for this design to have many different design variants that can retain the quality of the original and without increasing costs. The design has been rationalised to maximise the opportunities for the scheme to use in alternative modes and places.

Balcorne Street has seen more than its fair share of change. A survivor of Victorian London, this street has seen the changes wrought by the 20th century pass right by its windows, from the slum clearance and the Blitz to the soon-to-be-lost optimism of the post-war contract. Through the years backed onto the Kingshold Estate, Balcorne Street retains a strength of character which the design aims to reflect. The core features of the façade are the indelible horizontal bands defining the floors, elegantly misaligned windows at first floor which are offset from the arched main entrances. The design bookends the street, creating a definitive full-stop that incorporates all the core features of the terrace and respecting its proportions and materiality. By stepping the attic storey back from the street the increased height of the building fades into the background and draws attention to its natural screening of foregrounded plant life. The play of materials between the new and old is most apparent in the use of cork exterior cladding which with its buff colour and subtle texture is a modern match for the London stock masonry of the terrace. The more reserved recessed portion are clad in lightly charred larch which retains its character but without the distinctive brightness of its traditional silver finish. The side elevations would be host to wall climbers that will soften the gable wall and become a home for local wildlife, giving back to the street to offset the loss of the tree at the front of the property.

The design is melded with nature and seeks not only to please the human inhabitants but support the vast invisible ecosystem of the natural world which permeates even the inner city. The scheme promotes a sustainable vision of the future by enhancing the natural world and gives full consideration to the necessary circularity of its proposed lifecycle. From the moment of entry under the grapevined trellis to the rising internal herb garden courtyard, the green roof over the ground floor living space and the rooftop terrace the design is an exercise in connecting with outside and all that makes it special. The gardens are designed with repeatability in mind using the established ‘Building with Nature’ green infrastructure standards. In the same manner as the WikiHouse these principles can be applied to any site to enhance the quality of the landscape in a systemised and repeatable way which has proven to have broad appeal.

To counter the loss of the existing multi-stem tree on the front corner of the site a pollinator hedge is proposed matching the neighbours fence line which is joined in the front garden by the green roof over the bin store, grape vine over the main entrance supported by a trellis and an allotment planter. The main garden to the rear embraces the shady spots under the large rear tree and replaces the lost vegetation onsite with two new multi-stemmed small trees. Combining a mixture of functionality, sophistication and play the garden has a raised deck built around existing trees, stepping stones and logs as well as storage and rainwater planters. Visual access to the outdoors is provided at all levels and the roof terrace could become a high level oasis capturing the last of the Autumn sunlight in the evening. The building provides new habitats for birds, wildlife and insects incorporating shelters, hibernation spaces, solitary and bumble bee nesting sites, vegetated boundaries forming wildlife corridors to adjacent properties and woodland ground flora that will support a broad ecosystem around this new home.

The scheme seeks the lightest of touches on the Earth whilst maximising support for the surrounding ecology. This home is designed to Passiv Haus standards and will be carbon negative from day one through the use of timber structure, local materials wherever possible and off grid technologies. The WikiHouse encourages a fabric first approach as the structural depths incorporated into the system are ideal for mass fill insulation using highly sustainable natural insulation such as sheep’s wool. The building is full of natural light from through the triple glazed windows but also from the central herb garden/courtyard penetrates the centre of the plan. Significant proportions of the external skin are clad with cork which has its own additional insulative value and the South elevation is given an additional “green skin” of climbing plants which use the sunlight for fuel and reduce the direct heating loads on the external envelope. The building is passively cooled and heated using a combination of an MVHR (mechanical ventilation heat recovery system) and an air source heat pump to ensure optimal indoor room temperatures all year round. The building fabric will include a full vapour control layer to minimise air changes and top up heating for hot water is provided by a small electric combi-boiler. The electrical systems are primarily powered by the solar array on the roof and, in an attempt to live truly off-the-grid, any excess electricity is stored onsite to avoid transmission losses and maximise the independence of the home. Finally, surface water run off is disposed of via soakaway to the Hackney Gravel Member. In this way the only offsite services required are foul water disposal and fresh water supply providing a realistic vision of an urban site maximising its potential for low-carbon futures but only utilising reasonable tried-and-tested technologies and building details that are repeatable, sustainable and require only periodic maintenance.

Layout, Light and Flow
The building is laid out as a modern but typical family home but with some key features that set it apart. In this way, the design aims to appeal broadly without sacrificing character but allowing for a flexibility of use by other families using this schematic. The main entrance is an intimate moment in the design, turned away from the street and covered with plant life that allows space to transition from inside/private to outside/public without being overlooked. This opens out into a tall hall way lit by two characteristic windows and packed full of storage and useful space including a ground floor W/C, utility space and small plant room. The bespoke timber staircase winds its way to the first and attic storeys and this space also contains the door to the snug. This separate living space could also be reimagined as an downstairs accessible bedroom. This works due to the generous nature of the open plan kitchen, dining and living room which opens out onto the garden. Naturally wit by the large sliding doors and the herb garden this space is the hub of the home for entertainment, studying, cooking and relaxing as a family. Upstairs on the first floor is the Master Suite with views over the wildflower green roof to the rear and the light well, the family bathroom and a bedroom with built-in storage. The landing is lit by horizontal glazing over the stairs which lead up to an additional bedroom with top-lit ensuite and a final office/bedroom which opens out on the screen roof terrace. The design flows naturally between the various nodes of interaction and is focussed around maximising the occupant’s opportunities to connect with the outside.

The adaptability of the construction system means that the building can shrink to better suit a smaller site. As just one example of a potential adaptation, by removing the ground floor extension and the attic storey, the house can become a two bedroom property with a separated kitchen and living room on the ground floor. However, this does not reduce the quality of the scheme and is incorporated into the design thinking from the start.

The building successfully fulfils many functions and is designed to be understood as the first of many WikiHouses in Hackney. Small sites offer a wealth of opportunities for development by self-builders which can only be released through the efforts of local government. We hope that this design shows clearly and unequivocally how successful such schemes can be by using standardised practices to create beautiful, functional, sustainable and ecologically enriching homes for people who need them.

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