Noel Isherwood

Case Study

The Noel Isherwood, Jeffrey Hart interview

The creator of the Poundbury Series, Noel Isherwood, is interviewed by graduate of the Princes Foundation Crafts Apprentices program, Jeffrey Hart, founder of Hartwyn, the natural building company. From Leon Krier to Le’Corbusier, from breathability to mixed uses and Malmo to Poundbury, listen to Jeffrey and Noel discuss building sustainably and why it is taking so long!

Click here to listen to the podcast or scroll down to read the transcript.

Where did it all begin?

JH – So, Noel, thank you very much for coming on the podcast

NI – You’re welcome

JH – Yes, we are in the sustainability centre?

NI –  It’s the Swansea Environment Centre

JH – What is that exactly?

NI – Well, it was set up over 20 years ago. It was designed to educate people around the issues of sustainability. They were just then beginning to emerge, as important things we needed to get to grips with. It was done for people in Swansea to come and find out more about climate change, renewable energy and recycling? it was really basic.

JH – So when was it set up?

NI – I don’t know exactly the date. (Here are the facts:  In March 1994, the project was adopted to commemorate the 25th Anniversary of the Investiture of the Prince of Wales. HRH visited the site in May 1994 and a number of national companies and charitable trusts contributed substantial sums towards the renovation costs. The Centre was officially opened in April 1995 by the Prince of Wales on a return visit)

If you go to the entrance, you will actually see a picture of Prince Charles opening the centre when he was young and fresh.

JH – Oh right.

NI – There always seems to be a link with Sustainability and the Royal Family however that works. With him in particular. As the Prince of Wales, he was I suppose establishing his position in Wales at the time.

Swansea always has this side of activism to it and of trying to do things differently. There have been so called hippy communities on the Gower and people seemingly living very differently. Shocking people from time to time. At the same time, there is a conservative mind set and the politics that you have in most provincial towns. Sometimes there is a conflict between the two, misunderstanding or non communication even..

JH – Ok well…, I’ve seen that outside there is a whole raft of different people working here. There’s a cafe, lots of information and stuff like that.

NI – Yes well they like doing campaigns and at the moment there is a campaign for a plastic free Swansea. To get people aware of the amount of wrapping in plastic and cling film that is being produced on a massive scale. Much through the main supermarkets at the moment. 

The actual centre here with the cafe and the shop they have developed, is selling non-plastic wrapped products. You can buy pulses and lentils, brown rice and so on, all in brown paper bags. It’s a small way in which to get people engaged in that concept. Also renewable or more ecological washing powder. Washing liquids where you can come and fill up your container here without having to keep buying new plastic ones.

JH – Yes, its the way…, I’ve lived in North America for a long time and the bulk buy bins were just the standard way of shopping. It seems surprising to me that we’ve taken so long, that this is seen as a new and novel idea?

Why's it taking us so long?

NI – It has taken us a long time to catch up. That’s why people who were talking about it 20 or more years ago, were seen as a bit ‘out there’; weird activists. And that hasn’t completely gone away! You can still seem a bit of an outside voice when you are talking about these things.

JH – Very much so, yeah.

NI – And what you are doing with Hartwyn, is taking building in this same direction and looking at natural materials. As an architect with my practice here at the Environment Centre, its useful for me to be here as I get to speak to people who have those same interests in moving things along. Obviously you can’t aways move things 100% in the direction you would ideally like. But if you can make percentage improvements on every project you do, and in the thinking of every client, then you are making some of these changes.

JH – I find it quite difficult when, we’re in this kind of bubble. I’m talking to you and you have an understanding of what I’m talking about, like natural materials. The people I teach also and the people I work with, to them it’s not in any way a new idea or an extreme idea.

And then I’ll meet someone at a wedding or something and they just go, “what, what, you can’t do that. What are you talking about”. Yeah, its a completely alien idea. Its a funny thing to be quite so niche. Well hopefully if we keep going, it won’t be niche. We won’t call it natural building, we’ll just call it building.

NI – That will be the main stream by then.

JH – That’s the hope.

It takes everybody

NI – Well the environment centre brings together a lot of organisations like Low Carbon Swansea Bay and Renew Wales has a base here. They are both involved in getting alongside organisations and groups who are thinking they what to do some changes. Maybe they think they should be doing it in a greener and more environmentally friendly way. So, they can bring mentors into play and enable conversations to take place in community groups like church committees or whoever is involved. To help them think in different ways about it. Then helping them to implement the ideas by recommending say a renewable energy expert  mentor for a couple days to help shape the thinking. How are we going to reduce heat loss in community asset buildings? Or someone else pops up and says we aught to do some growing in a plot of land next to the buildings which can help us become resilient communities again.

But it does take everybody. Its like an allotment where you can’t really do it all on your own. You have to have a team of people working together in volunteering ways to make progress. Which is good, because it brings the community together when as a society we have become very individualistic in the way we do things. What typically happens? You get out of your house, walk to the end of the garden and into the car. You may be lucky to see your neighbour if he happens to be doing the same thing at exactly the same time as you, which is like, almost never. So community has been lost. We have almost become virtual communities. On-line all the time and yet we’re not really interacting and maybe that’s why loneliness is a big issue and issues of poverty become more extreme. We don’t know how to rely on other people – on each other, as members of the same community. 

JH – Yeah and the quality of the interchange has changed quite a lot, because you are no longer looking someone in the eye when you’re talking to them. You can be quite rude and misread things. You can deliberately misread things. You can not care and not really realise there is another person at the other end. So yeah, actually meeting someone while you’re trimming the hedge is eh well, this is a genuine interaction.

NI – Yes that’s right. And community based things bring together people from diverse walks of life. That’s the beauty of it as well. You get plumbers and solicitors, electricians and barristers all mixed up together. They all kind of need each other anyway, in a small eco-community. When you have to build in long transportation commutes for certain groups of people because they can’t afford to live in the community, in a particular place; or wen you segregate people by the way developments are built with high security, this is not a great way to develop cohesive communities. It works against them. 

I'm going to do it in a different way

JH – I was reading a thing a couple of years ago, which was a report into how people in the city are going to work out in the country. Then the people who are buying the properties in the country are going to work in the city. Sorry, it starts the other way around. They start life in the city. They get rich. They buy their country houses and that takes away the houses from all the people living in the country. So they in turn just move to the city because its cheaper, but are commuting back then, so you get this criss cross movement of where people are living and where people are working. Yeah, not being in the same spot. Nobody is getting any benefit from it.

NI – This is the result of having extended suburbia going on forever which usually has no mixed uses in it. No centres and no places to buy things easily. So you then have to drive into the town centre which becomes a commuting scenario. In American, the sprawl concept is so wide spread, on a massive scale and the same principle applies. What people say there is that in order to get a mortgage, you drive till you qualify. You drive out of the town centre till you get to the affordable zone that’s right for you. That can be a long way in America because everything is so low density. Like a couple of hours drive in the morning and the same again in the evening. And if you are living in a poorer area, the irony is you are paying more for your travel than anyone else, so its distorted economics. The amount of money left for your house and home gets smaller and smaller as you commute. 

JH – …so you have to go further and further out! Yes, now speaking of community developments, you’ve been involved with Poundbury which I’ve only become aware of in the last couple of years. On the Princes Foundation (Crafts Apprentices Scheme) we talked about it quite a lot. Obviously they are very proud of what they have done. So what was your involvement with that?

NI – Well, my role was as the Princes Foundation’s representative for Poundbury. So my job was to take people to Poundbury and explain the principles behind the development, from the beginning. How it has developed over time and what the future looks like for the fully developed project. It was a fascinating few years for me. Although I come out of a mainstream architectural education and background, I have always thought about urban issues as a background to my architecture practice, Noel Isherwood Architects.  Then at the Princes Foundation, it suddenly became the main thing. I was then looking at how you structure settlements for all kinds of things, such as how to make active sustainable communities that are going to be self sufficient in the long term. So Poundbury was setting that kind of model in place in the early days and to some degree had the luxury of having an enlightened land owner….

JH – right yes!

NI – …who could take long term decisions and say, ‘well I don’t care what the market or the mass house building community are telling me, or the funding people or the real estate surveyors, whatever it is – the industry or the architects – I am going to do it in a different way’.  And, so that’s what’s happened.

Hang on, you're saying, form follows function?

JH – Um – so how’s it different from … well for a start its an expansion of Winchester. Have I got that right?

NI – No ….Dorchester!

JH – …the other Chester!

NI – Yes, well it was a Roman town so you’ve definitely got the origins right.

JH – So its an expansion of Dorchester. How big?

NI – It was about 450 acres. It was one of three locations around Dorset, that could take the expansion needed for the county. When three areas in Dorset where assessed in planning terms, Dorchester came up best in terms of sustainability. The other two locations were in danger of being too remote from other existing settlements, which put them into the category of the then fashionable term ‘EcoTowns’. But because they were not connected, they were not as Eco as they made themselves out to be. To extend an existing settlement and create walkable neighbourhoods that are connected, with infrastructure like railways, buses and other things, ticks a lot more boxes even before you start building. Location efficiency!

There was a ring road, which is common in a lot of English towns which went round. Quite a lot of the land owned by the Duchy of Cornwall at that time was on the town side of the ring road. So it was wedged in, in a way that did not make it ideal for the farming community to farm properly. You’re fenced in in some ways. So it became a logical place to build. The Prince of Wales then decided, having observed a lot of Duchy development over the previous 100 years or 50 in particular, that he didn’t want to do it the way they had always done it. Which, in relatively recent times, was based on the suburban model. He already had his own thoughts which we based in traditional architecture, natural materials and classical forms. Things that could be easily reproduced and built by ordinary people and builders over centuries. People who didn’t have to have a PhD in scientific forms of building technology in order to build the buildings. There seemed to be a lot of sense in that. But there wasn’t many people around then who would know how to deliver that. This is because the architectural profession are literally always following in the line of Le’Corbusier and everything that came out of modernism from the early part of the 20th Century. Although its been tweaked a bit since, the principle is largely the same. It is talked of as ‘form follows function’ but in many ways it became a  stylist thing as much as any other form of architecture. Today people argue for the modernist approach based on stylistic principles and very little on anything else. All aesthetics, even when arguing that the program is the generator.  

JH – So hang on you’re saying its ‘form follows function’. That function is primary in the modern…

NI – Yes, in modern architecture ‘form follows function’. So the idea was, however you wanted to live your life and the spaces you wanted to occupy, was of so prime importance that what in the end the envelope of the building turned out be, was not important. It was the end result of all these ‘logical’ steps that you had taken.

You have to stop and make a decision

JH – Aha…

NI – But with the skill that Le’Corbusier and all these people had, -(Le’Corbusier was quite an artist and good at organising visual things), there was a certain cache to the style and the look of the thing as well. There were quite a lot of social ideas that attached to modernism in the early days too, which were good, although very top down. But as time went on, it became an excuse to build cheaply. ‘We don’t need to put pitched roofs on, we don’t need all this decoration” but the weathering characteristics of modern architecture with its minimal detailing is not great in the northern hemisphere. If you’ve got something in Greece or in other places with flat roofs and no projecting cornices, somehow in those climates the weather doesn’t affect the building in some terrible way.  But if you are in Northern Europe you get streaks and staining and building failures and leaks and all kinds of trouble if you don’t building in a more robust way.

…So, in looking for someone to deal with Poundbury, the Prince of Wales came up with Leon Krier.  Or, he was advised that this was a man who understood European traditions, historic, settlements patterns and would be able to develop a new kind of masterplan. Such a masterplan would have a link with the characteristics of sustainable, walkable neighbourhoods, which was the basis of original Roman settlements.

JH – Ok..and walkable settlements was one of the key things I was interested in when I first heard about it. The streets don’t have a curbed pavement do they? There’s lots of indicators as to why you should drive slowly without ever telling you that you should drive slowly.

NI – Yes well Poundbury adopted an organic approach to town planning where streets didn’t go on elongated Beaux-Art axis forever, where you could build up a bit of speed while you are driving down it.  Then, you might career around some enormous curved radial at the end allowing you to keep your speed constant at 50 miles an hour. It was decided that the almost medieval street pattern was more based in how people actually walked. And by having junctions that are terminated by another building or street frontage, you have to stop and make a decision as to whether to go left or right. You take away a lot of the signage. You take away traffic lights, the 30, 40 mile an hour signage. By doing this you are throwing the responsibility back onto the driver coming into your town, to make his own decisions about how fast he drives and to work out what is the safe thing to do. And because there is a lot more uncertainty in that process, he will automatically slow down because he is thinking that a child could run out on the street. So it has this counter intuitive thing going on. You would think that the more signage existed, like 20 and 30 miles an hour signs and slower, the safer we would be. But ironically it doesn’t do that. If you put a sign say 30 miles an hour, and some driver will say “ah, I can drive at 30 miles an hour”, regardless of what the actual conditions might be like. So you are creating possibly a more dangerous environment for people to walk.

So Poundbury pioneered this concept, certainly in recent times, of sharing surfaces, quite a trendy term now in towns and cities. At the time there was no legislation or books showing you how to do it. So Leon Krier had this extensive knowledge of towns and cities across Europe. Many are Anglo Saxon settlements by origin, which many of our own towns and cities are based on as well in the UK. So he said, lets look and see what happens in these places. If it works there, it can work here. Trying to argue this with road engineers and council planners is not that easy to do. So he had of necessity, a very persuasive role to play in the early stages, trying to put across this new vision.

The fountain of many re-learned ideas

JH – Well yeah, and has it…. I tried to describe this to various other people, this way of slowing traffic and of making people more aware. I think generally the response has been. ‘That sounds really dangerous, there’s very little respect for the drivers view. If they’re not told what to do, then they won’t do it. I assume by the way you’re talking that there’s been no fatalities, or people being knocked down by speeding cars hasn’t happened.

NI – No well the last time I heard Simon Conibear, the former development director for Poundbury talking about this, there had been no miss-haps at all.

JH – That’s fantastic,

NI – Which is surprising. The number of people who get knocked down by cars is quite considerable. In the States the number is large, quite alarming. But it does take quite a bit of careful design. The masterplan at Poundbury is a very sophisticated piece of work where every corner and every junction is really thought about. Not just as a flat plan as to how the roadways intersect, but how the buildings visually present themselves at the corners. As you are coming along most streets you won’t see straight through. You will get a building jutting out with a window facing you for instance. There will be more natural surveillance happing. People will be looking out foreach other. Whats going on in the neighbourhood? And you are driving into someone else’s territory. If you are on a motorway, you feel the road is yours and you can put your foot down. But if you make it different and can plant a tree in certain places like the lanes. In Poundbury they brought ‘lanes’ back into the dictionary of town planing again which had been lost for a century probably.

JH – How do yo mean ‘lanes’. Oh you mean like an alleyway?

NI – A lane is a small connecting route through a town or a village, which often is very nice and mostly just the locals know about it. It is great for improving walkability with increased permeability and giving richness and interest to a place. So you get hedges, you get streams, trees and there is a lane in Poundbury with a tree right in the middle of it. So you can’t drive down it. You can walk or you can cycle down it. And lots of apparently littel things like that. They are all subtle and because they are built in carefully they make a massive difference.

JH – Fantastic. I did notice,.. I was at a very regular housing development just a little while ago and I noticed there were no pavements and they must have taken that idea, although I don’t know if they were directly influenced by Poundbury. But there were no pavements at any of the intersections and they weren’t marked out like a round-a-bout or a four-way-stop – thats very American – was just left for your own initiative. 

NI – Yes well after Poundbury and some of the things that the Foundation were involved in, there was a gradual build up of knowledge of this way of doing things. Some of that information got taken up by the Government who was developing design guidance for new towns and places. So they replaced DB32 their old highway design document which had set out the radius for road curves and multiple plans for three point turns and everything, which was based around how the car worked.

So this started to get superseded by something called Manual for Streets. Manual for Streets took many of the principles that came out of Poundbury and other projects that followed it and embedded this in design guidance for everyone.

So the influence of Poundbury is quite considerable. People don’t always acknowledge it, but it is definitely the fountain of many re-learned ideas that have been there in the past but have been lost, because of car domination really.

JH – And that’s a fascinating point. One of the founding principles of this podcast is about how we use techniques from the past, with modern thinking, to go forward. Certainly in Hartwyn we use a lot of lime plaster, lathe and plaster, heritage techniques, that are based in the knowledge of materials, and we know that they last. And so that’s what we use to drive our view on sustainability. Proven track record of materials and techniques. So its really interesting that that is the same mindset for this development.

NI – Absolutely and longevity is a key part of sustainability. A lot of products now that are used in the built environment have short time frames. A warranty might be 25 years if you’re lucky. And the amount of degrading and failure the can happen with fossil fuel based synthetic materials is quite significant. The way that insulation boards have been used over time has created condensation within the structures of existing buildings, because of the way it does not allow breathability and as a result, traps moisture in the building. So there is a lot of rethinking at the moment from the mainstream insulation industry as to how you do that. A lot of people have been insulating from the inside, and particularly with roofs, this has been causing lots of problems and claims have been coming in as a result. It goes back to the idea that we should be building with breathable materials and allowing the whole structure to breath and become a combined piece of thermal mass which heats and cools at a slower rate. Slower than thin materials which heat up quickly then cool quickly so you have to rely on air-conditioning and temperature control to mitigate these extremes. Like that you become much more reliant on technology.

What a happy coincidence

JH – I think that breathable is a term often used, but I think its somehow quite misleading. What we’re really talking about is moisture permeable isn’t it? I think that breathable gives the impression that it is full of holes, like you could breathe through it. I just got a specification through the other day from an architect which said that because the buildings are breathable, the air can flow through them. Well I thought its not the air that flows through them, its the moisture. If the air flowed through them you would have draughts. It wouldn’t be an effective skin?

NI – Take aerated clay block as a possible solution. It is clay and air – solid wall construction but the moister can go in and come out freely. You’re right it is about the passage of the moisture, being allowed to flow through and not get trapped. This does effect the internal air quality significantly. You don’t get that musty dank feeling as when moist air can’t move freely though the fabric of the building. Possibly trapped by a defective vapour barrier. 

JH – Yeah I think what had happened with this architect was that they had confused ventilation and breathability, as they are not the same thing.

NI – Yes its quite complex depending on whether you are dealing with new or old buildings. With new it is easier to work from breathable principles throughout the construction. But often in existing buildings you might get timber boarding over the rafters, which may have been treated in some way, making them quite impermeable. So if you put insulation to the underside of that and fill up the gap between the joists, you will find that you can still get interstitial condensation occurring even with a natural product. So you have to be careful to incorporate ventilation from the eaves to the ridge. Traditionally a lot of old building just did not have insulation…..

JH – Not unless they were thatched.

NI – They just had big fires and wore lots of clothes. Thatch was probably the exception to that. They thought they would take advantage of its insulating properties.

JH – Did they think that? Or did they say ‘We’ve got lots of straw? Just bung it on the roof’.

NI – Then they said.’Oh its nice and warm in here’!

JH – What a happy co-incidence.

NI – Often things happen like that. Even Poundbury started off as being something that would just be a nice classical place in terms of its looks, architecturally. But actually it turned out to be an exercise in sustainability, in quite an extreme way.

JH – Were the houses built from aerated clay block in Poundbury?

NI – Some, may be and others use insulated timber frame. But I think in the early days of Poundbury when it was first built, no one really knew about new technologies and materials or hadn’t development them very far. For instance Natural Building Technologies (NBT) has since pioneered the use of wood fibre insulation in the UK. It’s been used in Switzerland and Germany for quite some time where is it a mainstream material, but it’s all still quite new here. So trying to get it through the standard forms of construction management and building regulations takes quite an effort. But I think this is changing. Passive Haus standards have questioned quite a lot of things as well. And Code for Sustainable Homes for a while had a stream of projects that were pushing the agenda in various ways. So a lot of new buildings now are more sustainable that they would’ve been say 20 years ago.

JH – Yeah – just outside my studio in Bristol theres a little…, well I think they are student houses going up. The speed at which they went up was phenomenal. They were timber framed. I noticed they were all wrapped and taped, with infill insulation. And it has made me question… It’s always been a question in my mind, but the tapes, and you know what you were talking about earlier and the warranties and how long a product is going to last, like how long is that tape going to last? And a soon as that tape degrades you have just got a massive air gap and then you have got short lived houses that are going to be useless very very quickly.

…I didn’t have an actual question from that.

So you were involved with the Prince's Foundation Crafts Apprentices?

NI – But its true. You can do things more or less sustainably, but then rely on certain technologies that hold it all together. Airtightness for instance. Taping up all the joints and potential gaps everywhere is a good thing in theory, but how long is the tape going to adhere to those materials? I know there are a lot of good products available, but once they break down you have to consider what happens then? Will the building still be airtight or not? I guess when you are designing houses or buildings, you have to find ways to connect the building elements together using good construction in the first place. This naturally seals things or connects them up in the right way – Insulation with insulation and with the frame, cills, jambs and copings, or whatever it is, without this reliance on technological fixes. For instance when mastic first came out, it was being used everywhere. It was the answer to everything. Bad building techniques need mastic and of course it breaks down after a while. You end up with leaking windows and cills, roofs and everything because it has a short life before it falls apart. This is naturally due to the extreme temperatures of winter, summer and so on. To rely on such synthetic materials even when you are building ‘sustainable’ buildings is still a bad idea.

JH – Yes I was talking to someone the other day, who said that PCV windows, when they were rolled out for sustainability purposes, what they didn’t do was install them properly. So they got a nice insulated window with lots of gaps around the outside, which was probably worse that the single glazed windows that they replaced. Actually a net loss in efficiency.

NI – Exactly. Most heat loss is through the gaps in the construction. Not the construction itself. Even the glazing, single or double glazed. If you look at traditional brick buildings, you will see how the outer brick leaf projects in front of the window frames. And traditional vertical sliding sash windows were well embedded in the building construction. If you do things like that, the amount of wind and rain that is even going to get to those joints is going to be reduced significantly.

JH – Yes there is a set distance back ins’t there that is optimal I see to remember hearing once. Maybe its a bit of research thats needed. That if you set the window back too far then you get a bit of a dead space and then you can get damp on the windows, but if don’t set it back at all, then its right in the wind zone and all the air pushes through. There’s an optimum gap, I think its a 100 mm?

NI – That probably coincides with the regulations that came in after the great fire of London in 1666.  It was a fire issue as well. Fire on the outside of the building was leaping up from one floor to another. The Queen Anne windows were right on the surface of the building, so there was hardly any depth at all. It was easy for that to happen. After the fire they set the windows back by 100 mm minimum so it made that less likely.

JH – So you were involved in the Princes Foundations Crafts Apprenticeship, is that right?

The architects and the planners couldn't deal with that

NI – Yes I led on two. One when I was working in the Foundation and another when I was working in my own practice. The first one was at Poundbury and that was an education program which brings people together on the graduate program who are training to be professionals in the built environment industry. So that could be people wanting to become planners, policy makers or architects and on the other hand it brings together people who are learning craft skills on the crafts apprentices program. So someone could be doing stone masonry and some could be doing timber framing. They were brought together to plan out a building in Poundbury that would mean they had to use all their skills and communicate. Two groups of people who do not usually communicate easily.

JH – notorious disconnect between the two. And the builders – us – tend to go – ‘Ohoo those architects’ and wave their fists and I think it’s probably the same the other way around isn’t it?

Yeah its a fantastic program and I was eh … I think I am registered as the only ‘EarthBuilder’ they’ve ever had on the Princes Foundation apprentices program. Its a fascinating thing. Its a three week program ..Was that the case when you were involved?

NI – Yes the first one was quite short summer school program. Everyone was together on the site (in Poundbury) looking at aspects of the geography and topography. Then we had a workshop where everyone together thought through how it was going to be planned, designed and built. That was a lot of drawing work. Some of the crafts guys found that quite difficult. Most of them were good at making timber joints and thinking things through in their head and just building it. The architect and the planners couldn’t deal with that. They had to draw it first and get it right with all the dimensions correct to enable them to communicate and understand what it was they were doing. And of course you get to the point in these projects where you have to have it signed off by someone.  This can be the architect on the one hand, but also you require the structural engineer. This is where you get into a bit of conflict. The traditional craftsman is someone who has based his ideas on tradition, on things having been done in a certain way for centuries. So the question then is, why do you need some engineer to verify what he’s done, which he knows has been done this way for two or three hundred years and has always worked perfectly?

So we had absolute stand up rows on occasions in some of the workshops we went to when dealing with the master craftsmen and the engineer. Walking out, slamming doors, it was bizarre on just a small project in Poundbury.  A real eye opener for me. But there are people who have this long tradition – almost medieval – and it still kind of exists.

But then equally the engineers had to do calculations on timber joints they had never seen before and timber sections. In actual fact most of the time the structures where over engineered in the way the craftsmen work. They could probably stand a hurricane, they were so well founded. So there shouldn’t really have been any worry, but the engineer still had to run calculations on a machine – a computer – to demonstrate to himself and his professional indemnity insurance providers that he was doing his job. It was a clash of cultures. 

JH – Yeah and I suppose we look back in the past and say people then knew how to do timber framing, they know how to do the right sized timbers and stuff. But then we only get to see the ones that survived. So perhaps there were people building with sticks and they have collapsed. So yes we have that proven track record of being able to say ‘these buildings have stood for hundreds of years’. ‘We know these timber sizes are adequate’.

NI – Yes and when you overlay on that the requirements for insulation, heat loss and other efficiencies today, it means that some things will inevitable change to meet those targets. So bits and pieces from the traditions need to adapt to take account of that. With Poundbury the crafts apprentices project we did there was a youth shelter on the edge of the settlement next the oval cricket ground. It was positioned just far enough away for the young people not to feel they were being overlooked too much, but not too far away to get into heavy drugs. A well calibrated position within the masterplan! That project s a construction, was well within traditional building field.

There is quite a gap between the two

When it came to the second one, a couple of years later, to create a performance stage structure at the National Botanic Garden of Wales, that was very different. Somehow the guys who had been designing in the summer school workshop, the ideas which took precedence, came from the architects. The geometry they came up with, whilst looking traditional was not as traditional as it appeared. My job as the architect was to take these ideas and make them work. It didn’t really work fully from a straight forward traditional point of view. Then the engineer came in. He could see there was a bit of a conundrum. He said what we could be looking at here is a cooperative structure. That’s very different. A cooperative structure is where every piece of timber within the construction has a role to play that is almost equal in terms of its structural capacity. With traditional timber frame building structures it is a hierarchical organisation of forces. So you get some really big trusses that take a huge proportion of the weight which comes down onto bigger piers or columns. And then there is much small and lighter secondary structure that takes a lot less weight but finds its way onto these bigger structures above. Its a hierarchy of support from the top to the bottom.

So this was a different way of thinking and it was a mind bender completely for the poor old timber framer. He had to think how to work with this ring beam with a lot of timber members coming down onto it in equally. At the same time it went vertically upwards to a tall square slated spire at the top which the graduate fellow architect had come up with. Beautiful drawing, but we all had a dickens of a job working between these two very different traditions. The one being the mainstream professional consultant from an engineering practice and the other being from the traditional timber framing world. Somehow it worked. The engineer came up with a sophisticated three dimensional computer model to show how this cooperative structure would work.

In the end, amazingly it was built by craftsmen cutting these enormous pieces of timber to make the ring beam and then all the other structures that piled up on the of it. So I realised then in both these projects, there is quite a big gap between the two which is quite a bridge to jump. To make life simple, you either go the full engineering route or you go fully with the crafts tradition and stick with it.

There is though a case for bringing them together, but it requires a lot of thought as I found out. I think there is a lot of re-thinking going on in the building industry and so there should, to make buildings much more sustainable for the 21st Century. Learning from the past but also from things we have learned in the 20th century.

JH – I was reading your blog this morning. I was fascinated by the phrase that 100 years ago we had 55 building products And now its, what did you estimate it?

NI – I think its something like 155,000. Its ridiculous.

JH – And so it goes into what we were just saying, that if one of those products is wood, you have got all this knowledge about what has succeeded and what has failed. So you have that proven entity. Whereas now, because we don’t have proven track records of 155,000 products, we have to model them and calculate them to make sure we are being safe.

NI – Yes its difficult. If a new product is on the market it’s not got a track record. They give you a warranty of 5 or 10 years or something, but who knows.  It’s test it and see really.

JH – Or over engineering and see!

NI – or that ….or take out expensive warranties that cover you and the client over and above your professional indemnity. So the whole thing become an insurance nightmare.

We've all caught up and gone, ah yes, thats a good idea

JH – Mmmm…

NI – adding to the costs.

JH – So…he’s come up a few times, the Prince of Wales. He’s the founder of the Prince’s Foundation or the patron?

NI – Yes he is the patron of around 20 charities, at least a few years back when I was there, which he founded himself one way or another. Obviously the Duchy of Cornwall has gone on for centuries, since the Black Prince in 1347 or whenever it was. Yes he started a drawing school for architects in the early days to try and get them to draw with pencils, to observe and look at things and appreciate traditional architecture once more. A lot to people went through that school. It was influential in many ways. A lot of people I know now had a connection with that. I didn’t do that. I came to it much later when I joined the Princes Foundation for the Built Environment (PFBE) as it was then (2007) and it later become the Princes Foundation for Building Communities (PFBC). So the emphasis has slightly changed.

So yes he is the patron of the Princes Foundation which acts as the educational explainer for what’s happening in Poundbury, the principles that go behind it and what he is trying to achieve.

JH – Its interesting that he has been championing organic food since the eighties or something isn’t it?  A lot to people wrote it off as a nonsense fad. And suddenly we’ve all caught up and gone, oh yeah, thats a good idea. And it seems like he is quite forward thinking in terms of the sustainability of the community stuff. And again modern thinking is starting to catch up with his premonitions almost. Premonition is probably not the right word but.

NI – Yes I think he’s learned on the job. If you are a big land owner and you are doing a bit of farming anyway and you’re building buildings and all kinds of other things and developing, you get to have quite a big perspective of the whole environment and everything that goes in to making it operate and work. Obviously in the Prince of Wales position, you are travelling all over the world as well. You are seeing an awful lot of things.

He has probably shaken more hands with more people than anyone in the world by a mile, I am pretty sure of that, ….except maybe the Queen.

But some of that rubs off on you and you must think to yourself when you come back to Dorset or Cornwall that maybe we could put some of these things into practice. Better than just treating them as nice touristic experiences. He’s done that in an amazing way. He has collated knowledge and experience and brought it together in a project initially Poundbury and now others, for better or worse as he’s been working it out on the job. He’s been prepared to apply these things in practice. And low and behold it becomes a leading influencer in the whole way that masterplanning in the built environment is now organised. A lot of people would still deny that position for Poundbury including a lot of architects, largely because of the reliance on traditional architecture as the principle behind building a new settlement in the 21st Century. 

But there’s no denying it. It must be by far one of the most successful and sustainable communities built from scratch in the UK because of the way, for instance, mixed-uses have been integrated into the development from the beginning. It has the first successful pub built into a new housing estate in England for a very long time. The Poet Laureate. And a village hall that was planned form the beginning. Leon Krier worked out what all the mixed uses should be from the very beginning and he put them all in the masterplan. So the housing had to fit between the mixed-uses. This is in contrast to the mass house building market where the developers sprinkle uniformly, their repetitive identikit house products all over the place without relief.

So this was very forward thinking for the time and now, I’m not sure of the numbers but theres about 2000 (actually 3,000) people living there and about 2000 jobs. A little bit more or less. Now, thats remarkable, to have a community that can really function.

Just to visit?

I was doing a film there one time with Dan Cruickshank (the BBC television presenter). I somehow managed to persuade him to walk round Poundbury talking while we filmed him. It was amazing. And the Pub owner said if you want to do business then come and live in Poundbury. There’s so many people doing so many things. There’s small business centres, medical practitioners, Dorset Cereals, a chocolate factory and theres a collage of building. I mean, its all in this place.

To do that you would have really had to think differently. Because of the way we have segregated everything in the 20th Century, and planned everything into separate zones, you would never, never have brought things together in this way. It’s far too complicated for average professionals to get their heads around, due to the way they have been educated, including architects.

So it is a phenomenally advanced thinking place. There was about 30,000 people very year and it may be more or less now, who used to come and see Poundbury.

JH – Just to visit?

NI – Just to visit. Yes from all around the world. It wasn’t just me at the Princes Foundation – the Duchy of Cornwall took a lot of people around as well. I was surprised often to have people like ‘The City of Malmo’, in Sweden coming to see what was going on in Poundbury. And I was thinking, they are supposed to represent the cool edge of sustainability in the world and everybody goes there. And they were coming here, to Poundbury. They seem to have bi-passed the architectural profession in this country coming to view something the professionals here would not think of doing. What they said was that they had done all the super smart projects on their waterfront, all very glamorous, but that 90% of the country (Sweden) is made up of ordinary small communities and we now have to address that and we don’t really know how to do it. So we have to find somewhere that has set the standard, so they came to Poundbury.

I had stand up arguments with say a bunch of Dutch architects that came to visit Poundbury once. They were intent on puling it down. Myself and a colleague, Lucian Steil from Luxembourg who now works for the University of Notre Dame in America; he and I were just sat at the front of the hall being pilloried by all these questions shooting at us from all angles and we were defending it to the hilt. It was a lot of fun. 

It was in the Brownsword Hall, this community centre in the middle of the square right in the centre of Poundbury’s phase 1. 

JH – Yeah, before I had been there and before I know too much about it, I’d heard mixed reviews about it. People who didn’t really get it and I think someone called it a toy town. Didn’t really see the benefit of why if was different. But certainly talking to you, it seem like it was a success. Is it largely a success? Wholly?

Its a dangerous thing to write if off because of the architecture

NI – I would say pretty much wholly a success. Now you might not like some of the expressions architecturally and that’s fair enough. It is a bit of anomaly really, considering how far we have had to go back in history to make something that could side step the cul-de-sac we have got into with modern development. People are now looking at it and trying to apply the principles in different ways, with different architectural forms and more modern forms which is fair enough. But the big thing is understanding the need for a language. A language of architecture. Within any language there is a multitude of different expressions and variety. And if you are creating a design code you are often putting code in place to create variety rather than prevent it. A lot of recent housing estates have no variety at all. It is the constant repetition of the same model more or less. The architectural profession not like to accept the discipline of an agreed language, the basis of all good urbanism. Without it you ave to accept the ad-hocism that most or our cities and towns are afflicted with. 

You have to see Poundbury as a big experiment of its day and of its massive contribution. There are parts of Poundbury where you could say that it could have been done better, on this part of the layout, or this building configuration. Usually there is not a lot wrong with the masterplan because it has been so well done. It’s sometimes the delivery of the building projects themselves. Or a bit of a loose handle on what should be happening or lack of confidence in one approach or another.

But overall there is a lot to learn from it. Its a dangerous thing to write it off because of the architecture. Sometimes you can say this is a bit flowery here or there a bit over the top. Or why do they have to use classicism quite so strictly. But on the other hand when you see what the mass market comes up with and how developers and builders come up with their own, what you could call fake version of tradition, it really can look pretty terrible.

I think the key is to look as authentically as you can at the building construction. The quality of the brickwork, the variety of different brick coursing, the window proportions and how they are set back in the right way with their frames and the eaves. There are strong principles that need to be carried through in developments and maybe you don’t put the classical bits on always. But you need to consider how do you get the detail that relates to ordinary people who like to see the detail.

As you get closer to a classical building your appreciation of its architectural significance changes. At first you seeing the total classical facade with the proportions – the large scale….

JH – When you say classical, what does that mean.

NI – In England we have always had this classical tradition that got back to the 16th century or earlier. Inigo Jones, who was a welshman by the way, he did the grand tour and came back and built a few buildings based on what he had seen of Palladio’s work in Italy. That was a very simple form of building. Pitched roof, square building and a few pilasters on the front.

JH – Yep..

NI – And it took off in this country. So its been a long tradition, Christopher Wren and others. It’s the use of harmonic proportioning. And the columns role is to adjust the scale of the building to the city scale. So you may have a few floors behind the columns in the city, but on a small house it might just be applied to the front door. Its a way of adjusting scale to the human and the city. A lot of modern buildings don’t do that. They have this graph paper regularity that goes from the pavement to the roof. No differentiation, no hierarchy, no change of scale which as you get closer to it, it remains the same in detail as when you are 10 miles away. Nothing changes, it just gets bigger. Whereas with a classical building, you start to appreciate the different levels of detail as you walk closer to the building. Not just classical buildings, it could apply to a traditional barn or traditional brick building. Vernacular buildings that don’t have the frills but have enough detail just to allow that human appreciation and refocussing at street level as you are walking by, ‘wow that’s amazing stonework, the handrail, I really love that material, its really cool, in contrast with what is all to prevalent; panels and panels of more glass, more steel, and cementitious materials.

JH – Great, well Noel, thank you very much for taking time to chat with me.

NI – Its a pleasure.

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