Slow Home with John Brown of Slow Home Studio- Part 2
Interview: John Brown, Slow Home Studio
By Gilo Holtzman
‘I don’t think that sustainability is an option any more, it is a obligation … if not it’s like re arranging the veranda on the Titanic’.
Q: What is your take on sustainability in the slow home context?
We distil it to two things: slow home should be simple to live in and light on the environment. Simple to live in means that it should function properly and be beautiful. And light on the environment is obviously sustainability. In our world there are many ways to look at sustainability – the fast home industry may offer water fixtures, bamboo flooring and low VOC paints to claim that it’s a sustainable house, well it’s not sustainable at all.
We wanted to approach sustainability in a more fundamental way, so in setting up our slow home principles we looked at location, how much driving you need to do in order to get to your house, solar orientation, size, the notion of stewardship using your resources that have been invested and taking care of them as you develop. So we are trying to think more fundamentally, offer practical choices that people need to make about where and how they should live in a more sustainable way without getting into the environmental blink of things.
Q: do you think that good design has to be sustainable?
Yes, I don’t think that sustainability is an option any more, it is an obligation. Everyone should do that, all has to become sustainable. If not it’s like re-arranging the veranda on the Titanic. At the same time it can’t be just sustainable, because if it’s sustainable and a horrible place to live then it’s also not right. It has to be both.
Q: How do these principles manifest themselves in the type of projects that you take?
There are two sides of what we do as architects: we design slow homes and also promote Slow Home Studio as an action. So we are always building on existing sites, brown field sites. We try to reuse the existing structure as much as possible, we buy and renovate according to solar orientation, we make sure that it’s modestly sized, and then we rapidly use renewable resources. We use advanced technologies like heat recovery ventilators and solar power water heaters and we also build them so that they would last, so they are a good investment for the environment which they go into, and we also suggest that the client use green power as part of the things that we do. We are now finishing our first ‘LEED’ Gold house and doing a ‘LEED Gold renovation.
Q: how valuable is the communication between clients and designers, how we can improve it, and how can we make ourselves more accessible to them not only in the design process?
What I really promote is the idea of working with a designer rather than buying something in stock. If you’re working with a designer, even if it’s just choosing the right house, you can talk about how this dining room works, what is this light, where does the light come in. We found out through 12 years of practice that people get really engaged with this process, and they think about their homes in a more fundamental way when they’ve gone through that, so that’s the way we do the design minutes. We talk about design in this accessible way, similar to Jamie Oliver’s approach, lets teach everyone to cook, to get engaged a bit more with their food. So if I can teach people a little bit about design, so they will get a little bit more involved with their houses, so they will feel more comfortable hiring an architect or designer to help them with these small decisions about their house. So it is about social engagement.
Q: Do you think that by creating a multi-discipline business model, providing services that are not usually provided by architects, we can gain more control over the design process – control that we have gradually lost in the late 20th century? Q: How do you see the future role of Architectural Practice?
Yes definitely, and that was the big advantage of our Housebrand practice, and I go and lecture about this business model because it has been very effective – because rather an architect being just the person who draws drawings and is one little piece of a bigger pie, we do all of the things. So when someone comes to me and says, well this is how much money I’ve got and this is how I want to live, I want to do these sorts of things… so what I do, I go and find the property, then I help them buy that, and then I design the house and then we build it. We do the interior design, furnish it and do all of that, so it gives us control. It gives accountability to the client, because there is one person looking after everything, and it allows you to do a proper trade off so you’re not over spending on one area. There is an overall consistency, and because we’re designing and building it gets back to the idea of craft rather than it being the drawing where the builder had built from it, and it allows us to get much larger integration in design and construction right from the very beginning. Another advantage from the business point of view is that you are being paid from an early stage, and not late in the design process. And from the client point of view they know what they get. Since we design and build, we know how much things cost, we know how to build it. There are no unexpected crossovers, variation of costs, and if there are we know how to balance them as designers and not rely on the contractor to make these decisions of what to cut out.
What we also need to think about is what we are as professionals because a lot of times people do not need that heroic house – what they need is some simple advice to do simple things that can really transform their lives. So for me I find it much more rewarding to be able to help more people live in a more sustainable way in better homes that they understand and nourish, rather than design houses that will be featured on a cover of a magazine. So I like to help people who think that they can’t hire an architect, the people that are average home owners and renters, and how they can make better and smarter decisions about where they live, and give them some simple tools to do that. So I am interested in helping move public opinion, and that’s the focus of Slow Home Studio, but it does not deny the other things and roles in various realms – we are one piece somewhere in the middle.
Q: Besides the Slow Home philosophy, does a slow home take any recognisable physical form or features?
I try not to have it become a style, because I think that as soon as it becomes a style, it becomes a thing that can be packaged and sold and so it becomes fast. So I’d like to think that it’s like slow food: in Italy slow food is pasta, in Spain its paella, each culture and each climate has its own features, so each country, city has its own idea what a slow home is, and it can vary from a small unit in one city to a single family house as in Calgary. So it needs to be tuned to the climate, the people living in it, and should be designed by someone who knows the area, and then it can be all sorts of things without labelling it as modern contemporary etc.
So slow home physical attributes will make a bedroom a place that is comfortable to sleep, in the feel of the room, how much light comes in and can you block it, is it quiet, peaceful. Too often, particularly in the fast house industry, these rooms are just names on a plan. A bathroom is just a room with plumbing fixtures and not a space to get ready in the morning; kitchens are just a space with appliances and not a comfortable place to cook in.
Q: have you received any feedback from clients or done some post occupancy evaluation to see whether your design had an impact on their lives ?
Yes for sure, actually I found it in the process of working through the design and construction with them. What’s funny is that at the end of the project when they take me to tour their house, they say “would you like to come and see my house?” and that’s for me the mark of success – that they have such a sense of ownership and connection that they fail to see that I had anything to do with it, which is to me ideal. And some, not everybody, really do change – they change their diet, they change the way they live, start biking to work, they suddenly become aware of other things that they didn’t think of. There is really a profound impact and much of it is because of their involvement and collaboration in the whole process.
Today there are a lot of people who are willing to engage and learn about living more sustainably, but they don’t know how. And so the fast house industries take advantage of that by selling green wash homes, which miss most of the fundamental attributes of sustainability, therefore it is our duty to offer alternatives.
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