17 August 2021

‘No Building As Usual’ – an innovative way of learning

TRADA image

During July, TRADA made the trip to Herefordshire to visit this year’s ongoing ‘No Building As Usual’ – an exceptional ten-week cross-sector live build summer school arranged by TRADA member Studio Bark, which started in mid-June and continued until mid-August.


Uniquely, it invited ten undergraduate and postgraduate students to participate in the construction of Nest House while following rigorous environmental design principles and living off-grid.


In combination, this practical construction experience taught participants how to design and build in response to the climate emergency.


Design principles included:

  • Radical adaptability and design for disassembly
  • Circular economy principles
  • A fabric-first approach
  • The use of natural building materials such as timber to reduce embodied carbon
  • The use of a unique foundation design in order to eliminate the use of concrete
  • A user responsive, smart heating system



Why ‘No Building As Usual’ (NBAU)?

NBAU is a collaboration between Studio Bark (project lead), Structure Workshop (supporting engineer) and other expert collaborators from across the building sector.


It was conceived in response to the climate emergency and the observed gaps in climate literacy within the built environment, as well as the high costs of education that Studio Bark and others consider insufficient preparation for the next generation of built environment professionals.


These kinds of projects are important to Studio Bark director Wilf Meynell. ‘We care a lot about education. If we are going to solve a big problem like sustainable architecture, it’s not going to be done necessarily by us, but by future generations’, he commented. ‘There’s no point in us designing a few eco-homes if we’re not passing on knowledge of how those things work.


‘We have done quite a bit of teaching, including on more traditional architectural courses, but we found that we can teach better doing it this way than within the context of a university.


‘[NBAU] is all about climate literacy. Because the students live off-grid, they also learn the value of things like electricity, water and shelter. Even if they don’t want to live an environmental life here, they have to – because there are very limited resources.’


NBAU is run as a not-for-profit arm of Studio Bark and student costs are paid for by industry sponsorship in order to nurture diversity and equal opportunities. This includes food provision, teaching and mentoring for the full ten weeks, plus the costs required to set up an off-grid kitchen area, a composting toilet, and off-grid shower. Students camped on site throughout.


Sarah Broadstock, Architect, Studio Bark, said: ‘Above all, we were looking to bring together a diverse group of students – balancing ages and backgrounds as well as skill levels. The selected group range from first year students through to those who have just completed their masters. What we weren't looking for were 12 students who were already confident using tools and passionate about the climate emergency. We saw that approach as potentially limiting the overall impact which the programme could have.


‘We were also looking for commitment to the programme. 10 weeks is a long time to be living and working on site - it's a testament to the students, as well as the programme, that everyone who started in June is still here at the end.’



Nest House

This year, the NBAU live build covered the construction of Nest House for clients Francine and Stephen Burns. The couple, who have maintained a smallholding of rare and native breeds on the site since 1995, previously owned a neighbouring house; however, this they sold in 2016 when it became both a physical and financial burden following Francine’s redundancy and a rapid deterioration in her health – Francine has been disabled since birth with a rare and complex neurological condition. They then set about planning to build a house suitable for Francine’s long-term physical needs on the seven acres they retained.


The result is Nest House, a two-bed, fully accessible, carefully proportioned home, arranged around a central courtyard that is flooded with natural light, and which was constructed using Studio Bark’s modular construction system U-Build. Its use allowed Studio Bark to create a structure that is timber frame, with timber floor, a timber roof, timber cladding, timber decking and joists, as well as timber windows.


Key features of the U-Build system include:

  • Low impact, high environmental performance
  • Simple and intuitive assembly
  • Human scale modules, which negate the need for large machinery on site
  • High level of airtightness and high performance insulation
  • Bolted fixings, which allow the system to be easily disassembled and adapted


Set in the rolling countryside of a small hamlet near Hereford, Nest House also necessitated considerate planting as well as a green roof and landscape enhancements to conceal the house from overlooking neighbours, leaving the view unblemished.


Lauren Shevills, Architect, Studio Bark, said of the U-Build system:


‘It is a modern method of construction, which is good for students to learn about so they have that understanding of CNCing, manufacturing and then assembly on site. U-Build is also quite tangible for students. When you’re an architecture student and you’re learning how to construct and model it in the studio, you often do it out of small and modular pieces of grey card, and it’s quite cellular or repetitive. It’s not hard to imagine U-Build coming from drawing board to site.’


The U-Build system as well as a previous Bark Live Build can be seen in action on the 2019 TV show Grand Designs: The Street.


Timber cladding workshop with TRADA

NBAU also facilitates weekly visits from industry experts to educate students on a specific part of the build that is coming up, as well as ongoing sessions on low energy design.


Lewis Taylor, Senior Timber Frame Consultant in the BM TRADA timber advisory team, has been involved with several live build projects arranged by Studio Bark over the years.


This year he delivered a cladding workshop, giving participants a quick-start take on the variables to consider when specifying, designing and using timber for cladding. In the afternoon, they were challenged to design, mock-up and present their own 1:1 cladding models in groups.


Lewis said: ‘When designing their own models, the students had to balance the aesthetic and technical considerations of timber cladding – which required decision-making around moisture-related movement, fixing types and support batten arrangements.


‘We saw an interesting variety of designs from the students, as each group formed different aesthetic solutions.’



Student feedback

Terri, a post-graduate student at Sheffield Hallam, commented:


‘This is so inspiring. Even in my position [as a post-graduate student], there’s still so much that I don’t know and so much experience I haven’t had yet. If you’re at a larger practice, you don’t get to go to site as often. You might never get to go. Just having this experience sets you apart as you learn the whole process is important. You gain so much respect for everyone that’s involved, because you can’t do it on your own.


‘We have site roles among the 12 of us that rotate weekly, so you can take ownership of the whole process. Ultimately, that’s what should define academia in the built environment; it’s a two-way learning process from all angles. It’s not just the architect’s perspective, or the surveyor’s or the builder’s. It’s all of it and it’s so vast but we’re not always exposed to it.


‘Architects are considered the "designers" so you can be quite creative, but we just don’t have that understanding of how things are built. Once you’ve had a chance to build something yourself, I think you naturally become more interested in it. Otherwise in lectures you just see drawings or videos but you never get to build those elements yourself; you’re trying to draw things that you’ve never seen or touched. So how can you understand it? How can you resonate with it? Without this resonance, it may seem boring or intimidating. Thankfully, it seems so much less intimidating now and more exciting. I want to know more about construction.’


Salome, an undergraduate student at the University of Sheffield, said:


‘I’m not far into my uni journey so there are a lot of things I’m learning for the first time here. However, I think the practical experience I’m getting – understanding all the details and how everything comes together – will definitely impact how I approach my own work into the future. I’ve learnt to really consider different elements and design so that I can avoid mistakes, which creates a more realistic design ultimately. It’s been so exciting to see what started off as plans on paper become an actual building in real life.


‘There’s often not an understanding when you’re designing of how your designs are actually going to be built and who it’s going to be built by. I’ve learnt to really take those people into consideration and make them a part of my process.’


Find out more at studiobark.co.uk