architecture design

Building of the week – Varndean Gardens

VARN_07Glamorous eco-homes and innovative sustainable architecture is all good fun, but most of Britain’s houses will still be occupied and in use in 2050. The turnover of housing stock is very slow, and we don’t have the option of knocking everything down and rebuilding it better. That makes refurbishing old houses a major priority.

Since refurbishing makes homes more comfortable and lowers energy bills at the same time as cutting carbon, it’s one of the easiest wins. A national housing efficiency drive is going to have to happen sooner or later, but so far attempts to start one have been timid or only half thought through. The latest Green New Deal is a bit of both – a good idea that’s been so mishandled that home insulations have actually crashed by 97% since it came in.

Anyway, here’s a great example of a retrofit. The house in question used to look like this. It’s a fairly standard late 1950s brick house, bigger but otherwise pretty similar to our house in St Albans when I was little. It was built by the parents of the current occupier, and when they took it over they decided to refit it dramatically. Working with architects BBM, they wrapped the whole house in insulation and clad the external surfaces in wood. Windows were replaced with high performance glazing, making the building airtight.

Photovoltaics and solar thermal were added to the roof, along with a wood burning stove. Altogether, energy costs have been reduced by 75% and CO2 emissions are now 86% below the national average. Not bad. It now looks like this:

40-Varndean-GardensThe house, with is on Varndean Gardens in Brighton, was recently open as part of the town’s Eco Open Houses event, which is where I heard about it. That’s finished now, but there’s a detailed case study on the website, right down to which contractor did the guttering.

This is obviously a large house and a major project, so it’s not for everyone. But what it does show is what a radical difference you can make to a fairly normal house. To live truly sustainably, we need to reduce our ecological impact by 80-90%. Opponents say this means going back to the dark ages. This house in Varndean Gardens says otherwise.


  1. That looks a lot better than it did before too. We’re seeing a lot more of this in Germany now, but I’m still concerned that these projects present ‘eco-housing’ as something that architechts and ‘experts’ do, usually for vast amounts of money. I’m increasingly coming to believe people could often build their own eco homes at a much lower cost with minimal outside help, if only they were ‘allowed’ to do it.

    1. That’s one of the nice things about the Eco Open Homes project, they have a whole range of houses, the majority of them being very ordinary projects that people did themselves. I’ll have to feature some of them more often!

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