Published: 16 September 2015
Ben Bradshaw has been a structural engineer for ten years. Here he talks about the Sussex House project, which has been shortlisted in the “Small Practices” category in The Structural Awards 2015.
Sussex House is a highly sustainable private residence built on the Sussex Downs. When we describe it as a “sustainable” house we mean we’ve tried to ensure that the way we build it and the way it functions as a home cause minimal harm to the world it inhabits. These are vital considerations for the future construction industry, both in the UK and abroad.
The social contract of previous generations (like the Victorians) called for engineers to build a better world, but had no commitment to considering the environment as they did so. Sustainability is the mechanism by which we’ve modified that contract – maintaining the need to improve the built environment for future generations, but adding the need to consider how our structures impact the natural and built environments. We need to think much more carefully about we can use a finite supply of materials in the most economical and energy-efficient way possible.
Saying that, sustainability is not just about meeting technical requirements – we have to build functional and desirable property. If people don’t love a building (because it’s unattractive or inconvenient) then we’ve failed. A building can meet every sustainability target going, but all that effort will be wasted if people don’t love it enough to live in it and take care of it properly. In other words, sustainability is a huge challenge for architects and engineers alike: we need to build in a much more efficient way – while continuing to improve quality of life.
Sussex House is a sustainable project in a number of ways: a large part of the building is made of timber, which we sourced from a managed forest; the house uses a similar material in its biomass boiler, which helps to heat the property; and the building uses specially treated glazing and high-tech insulation to control temperature and energy use.
There are other technical achievements we’re really proud of: the Cross Laminated Timber frame* was pre-fabricated, then quickly assembled on site, which meant that it was raised in just over a week, cutting down the time it took to build the house and providing an interesting geometry to the ceiling.
One of the things I like most about the House is that the structure is full of complex engineering, which doesn’t try too hard to be noticed. The cruciform columns to the front of the building, for instance, seem simple - but in fact they have a very intricate head detail which works to support the cladding frame and superstructure, divorced from the building shell. The stairs are another example: on initial observation they don’t appear to be very complex, but in fact they sit within a glass box frame, without touching the perimeter, and manage to cantilever treads from a cantilever stringer while maintaining stiffness underfoot.
I hope that Sussex House can provide an important alternative when we think about the way we build houses in the UK. Sometimes it seems like traditional forms of construction remain the only option considered by consumers and Local Authorities alike. I am perplexed as to why we still build heavy, brick-clad, steel/concrete frames, with “dummy” chimneys, in an effort to look like buildings of another age - which were meant for an older way of life.
We should be taking advantage of prefabrication and other more sustainable and creative building methods - designing for a better future, not imitating the past.
Visit The Structural Awards 2015 website to find out about our other shortlisted entries, and to buy your tickets.
*Detail for the CLT frame was done by KLH UK