Cultural Capital

In March of this year, our Managing Director, Alan Francis, supported the ambitions of Cardiff Council to make Cardiff a more ‘liveable’ city, in an open letter. Alan pointed out that whilst Cardiff has an enviable reputation as an excellent events city, this does have the drawback of attracting people only for the event itself. This in turn results in short stays in the city, rather than longer city-breaks, where a more meaningful engagement with what Cardiff has to offer could be made.



Popular visitor destination in Cardiff- Cardiff Bay


In his letter, Alan highlighted two key improvements that could propel Cardiff into a different league in terms of quality- a proper international airport with direct transport connections to the inner city, and a cultural heart.

It is to be hoped that the renewed momentum at Cardiff Airport with a new Chair and the support of the Welsh Government will begin to bear fruit, which would mean at least the transport part of the jigsaw is slotting into place.

However, the question of a cultural heart is a different and potentially more challenging matter, and one where Cardiff’s success as a sporting venue is a double-edged sword. The most frequent and traditional major sporting events which come to Cardiff revolve around rugby. The Six Nations has become a global brand, and on one hand, the Six Nations rugby weekends are fantastic festivals of camaraderie, passion and entertainment which attract huge crowds to the city.


Crowds gather for sporting events on Westgate Street, Cardiff, outside the Principality Stadium

On the other hand though, this kind of event can become mistaken for Cardiff’s prevailing culture, overshadowing other potential reasons for visiting. Not only this, but there are only two or three such rugby weekends in a year, plus the occasional Ashes, or cricket event- what sustains the city for the rest of the year?

This is how a more rounded and considered approach to culture could pay dividends.

The so-called ‘Bilbao effect’ is an oft-quoted and frequently misunderstood phenomena. In essence, it refers to the case study of Bilbao- a medium sized, Basque, industrial port city in the north of Spain- which has managed to reinvent itself around the construction of a remarkable architectural centrepiece; the new Guggenheim Museum, designed by Frank Gehry. Two decades after the similarly revitalising Pompidou Centre opened in Paris, the example of Bilbao shows how an imaginatively designed cultural heart commissioned by an energetic mayor can help turn a city around.


The Guggenheim Museum by Frank Gehry, in Bilbao, Spain.

A report in the Economist from 2013, noted that:

“Visitors’ spending in Bilbao in the first three years after the museum opened raised over €100m ($110m) in taxes for the regional government, enough to recoup the construction costs and leave something over”,

illustrating the financial benefits that such an investment in culture can bring. Unsurprisingly, the Economist report concluded that,

“Other cities without historic cultural centres now look to Bilbao as a model for what vision and imagination can achieve.”

It could be argued that Cardiff has some interesting advantages over a place like Bilbao when it comes to cultural re-invention. Firstly, Cardiff already attracts a significant number of tourist visitors. And secondly, Cardiff has its own internationally renowned art collection- the very thing that had to be ‘bussed-in’ by the Guggenheim to Bilbao in order to fill the halls of their shiny new museum.

The art collection of the National Museum of Wales, which owes an enormous debt of gratitude to the Davies sisters, is exceptional. Gwendoline and Margaret Davies were the granddaughters of the fabulously wealthy Welsh industrialist David Davies, and they collated one of the “great British art collections of the 20th century”, the entirety of which (a total of 260 works) was bequeathed to the National Museum of Wales. This outstanding collection, including impressionist masterpieces by Monet and romanticist works by Turner, forms the nucleus of the greater collection belonging to the museum. This really is Cardiff’s secret cultural weapon- the art gallery holding one of the greatest collections of art in the UK, hidden away on the first floor.


National Museum of Wales, Cardiff

Indeed, it is worth noting that the same Economist report that praised the regeneration of Bilbao admits that “the collection on display is modest”. And we are all too familiar with proposed projects elsewhere in the world, where the cultural heritage perhaps does not match the architectural ambition; stunning yet empty museums, such as the Ordos Art Gallery in China which owns no collections, and has nothing to display.

As Alan pointed out in his letter, our National Museum is first class, but it suffers because it is trying to be both a history museum and an art gallery, rather than giving both collections the space and independence they deserve. Here then, is the opportunity to position the second piece of the jigsaw- the cultural heart- mentioned in Alan’s letter. As he noted, in order for us to get the kind of city that may entice people to stay for more than one night, we need to:

a) Change the National Museum into the National Gallery of Art, displaying its remarkable collection to full effect;

b) Move the Natural History exhibits into a new National Gallery of Science in the city centre, or perhaps in the Bay;

c) Create a new National Museum of Contemporary Art in the city centre.

Whereas Bilbao needed an injection of cultural exhibits, Alan’s letter set out a manifesto for building on the cultural assets that Cardiff already has, to lift the city into a different league. Not only great for rugby and shopping, but a place which has historical and cultural depth and rewards a longer stay- something we like to think we knew already.

Why should architects draw by hand?

(…when computers can draw almost anything these days!)

Our Managing Director, Alan, is a passionate proponent of sketching. In the office, he’s often found at his drawing board, and he’s even got his sketch pad out when he’s on holiday! We asked him why he thinks sketching and hand drawing is such an important skill for an architect to use.

Alan’s holiday sketch of Paxos

 What if you can’t draw?

Sketching is a skill we can all learn- we aren’t born with it, we need to develop it through training and practise. Like music. OK, some people will never become international musicians, but we can all be reasonably good. We can all be Bananarama, if not Tchaikovsky. We can all be trained to sketch and paint. Join a class if you don’t believe me and you’ll see the difference in just a few days.

Isn’t it easier to just take a photograph?

Well, when we draw by hand, we look at things differently and certainly in more detail. I can stroll through town and think I know how it works and how it’s put together. Sure, I can take photographs to record what I think I see, but it’s interesting when I refer to those photos again in the office- that lamppost is obscuring the one detail of a distant building that’s important in our scheme!! How didn’t I see that when I photographed it?!

Well, if I had started to sketch it, I would have realised my error quickly, and started the sketch from a different position. That’s because when I draw by hand, from life, I look at things more intently. I have to, or else it doesn’t come together. I can’t get that cornice to line up with that window head accurately; I can’t get the perspective working properly. So I look more closely; it all counts.

Drawing also gives you thinking time. And often, as a result of taking your time, your understanding of a place changes as you draw. You thought it was a suburban context, but actually it is a subrural one! That in turn, changes a lot- how the roads work; how they are edged; the degree of soft and hard.


One of our directors, Gavin, at his drawing board

How detailed do my sketches need to be?

To get the most benefit I need to sketch quickly. That means setting out the horizon, setting out the vanishing point(s) and dealing with the whole image at once, working down into the detail only when you know the composition is right. Drawing quickly helps enormously, as it gives you lots of time to correct yourself. Try drawing the scene in front of you but limit yourself to 120 seconds. Very tough at first, but gets easier. When you’ve started to get the hang of that, you can start to develop quick representations of existing places, then add detail, and then it takes only a short step to develop the skills to represent unbuilt places. Sketches can be highly detailed, or entirely simplistic. Which, depends on their purpose, but they are both valid and useful.

Why not just use computer?

You can cheat on computer – use the detail you used last time, copied from another project. There is a time and place for the computer of course, and though these days it begins quite early on in the process, but that doesn’t rule out the early thinking and site character drawings and it doesn’t stop us exploring new ways of joining materials together, by hand, throughout the project.

And of course, when you sketch by hand, you start to understand not just the form, but the mood of the place. We can develop buildings and places very quickly on computers, but how quickly can we capture the character of that place? And great architecture doesn’t exist without some kind of special character.

ALAN sketch
Alan’s sketch captures the character of Béziers, France

Drawing helps us think not just about the form of things, but also about light and shade, materials and textures, perspectives and viewpoints. It does this, because you can’t draw it accurately without understanding all those things and more. You have to check whether that window reveal is inset or not, whether walls are dominant or subservient.

Also, drawing helps you explain something quickly to a client or user. There wouldn’t be time in a progress meeting to set up the computer to do that, but a 2B pencil and a sheet of A3 and there you go. It appears in front of the client’s eyes and they are in it with you. And you can draw again over the top of it; how messy it is doesn’t matter, because the client will have understood the evolution of the idea. The fastest computer in the land can’t move as quickly as our brain, but a 2B pencil isn’t far behind!

And of course, it’s all very enjoyable! What would you rather be doing- sketching and working out ideas quickly, or waiting for the laptop to fire up? It’s a no-brainer, so get practicing.



Architecture: Home and Away

At GFA we find that having a multi-national staff results in a diverse, vibrant and exciting workplace. People who have trained as architects in different parts of the world naturally have variant experiences and approaches and when working together as a team, this means each project benefits from a multiplicity of fresh ideas and novel viewpoints. One of our architects, Luis, trained and qualified as an architect in Spain, and talks below about the differences he noticed training and working in Spain and the UK.

Getting my degree as an architect in Spain, but experiencing most of my working life in the UK allowed me to compare architecture in these two countries. There are many similarities, but for now, I’m going to talk about the differences…
Education-wise, I was surprised by the amount of experience that architectural students from the UK have. Perhaps, in the UK, it is normal to get your qualification having already worked in practices for a few years, but in Spain, you don’t have much experience of working in the industry when you qualify.
There was a real housing bubble in Spain and everyone was rushing to build even though there was no demand. After this popped, there was a real lack of construction, and working construction sites, and I was studying right in the centre of this. This affected how architecture was taught in Spain. I remember taking a course at university in which we were supposed to go to site to see how everything worked, but this course was changed into a 3D and computer based course after the construction boom, because there weren’t enough sites around on which building work was actually being done, to go and see.

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Site Visits
I learned that work sites differ a lot between Spain and the UK. While in southern Spain, any concrete needs to be watered overnight for the first few months, here in the UK; how can I put it? Well, you don’t need to water the concrete…
I remember the first time I went to site in the UK; it was in the Cotswolds. I went wearing an immaculate white shirt, and at the end of the day, came back with a mud jumper on!
In terms of structure, concrete is the primary option for buildings in Spain, while here in the UK, masonry walls or timber frames are more popular. I would say the use of steel is the same in both countries- although in my opinion, in both places it’s not nearly enough! With regards to cladding, in Spain, brick is the most extensively used material. Surprisingly, solar technology is actually more extensive in the UK, but in both places, the sustainability conversation is still so quiet.


So from studying in one country, to working in another, I had to change my whole way of thinking, my language, and swap the Spanish ham inside my sandwiches for cheddar, piccalilli and beef, but not everything was hard! The number of things I am learning, and all the nice people I am meeting makes the way a little easier.
Overall, I would completely recommend travelling and experiencing architecture in different places, even if you’ll only get to see the sun for 25 minutes per year!

Eco-housing Part 2- The Barratt Green House

In 2007, Gaunt Francis entered and won the Home for the Future competition with their design for the Green House. It won with over 22,000 votes not just because it was zero carbon rated, but precisely because of its elegant and homely design which was missing from so many other attempts at creating eco-housing.


Gaunt Francis Architects’ winning design for the Barratt Green House at BRE

Built by Barratt Homes at the Building Research Establishment (BRE), the Green House was the first zero carbon, Code Level 6 dwelling to be built by a volume house builder.

As we saw in our last blog post, the SOLCER House was the first carbon-positive house to ever be built. Parts of the house however, are still uninhabitable and though it was a successful experiment into carbon-positive structures, really, the Gaunt Francis design was the first realistic eco-house ever built in the UK, because of its aesthetic likeness to traditional housing. This house proves that in order to be ‘green’ or live a sustainable, renewable lifestyle, you don’t have to compromise on comfort, technology or style. Renewable and eco-friendly materials were used throughout the house, from low-emission paints and natural ink wallpapers, to natural organically certified materials like cotton, wool and silk for the carpets, mattresses and even the towels.

Through clever interior design, there is an astonishing level of recycled materials used in the Green House, for such an elegant, homely and stylish look. All wood used in the property is FSC certified and where possible, second-hand furniture has been ‘upcycled’ with high standard refurbishment, such as natural fabric upholstery. Not only this, but extensive use of recycled materials for decorative accessories, such as glass (in the chandeliers in the dining area), and plastics (using recycled yoghurt pots and milk cartons for media unit doors) helps the Green House to hit its renewable, carbon neutral targets.


Inside the Green House are all the familiar home comforts of traditional homes.


The Green House has a number of cutting edge technical features which help it to achieve such high levels of compliance with the regulations for zero-carbon certification, as shown in the annotated section below. Some of these include triple glazed windows, solar panels, rooftop bio-diverse vegetation and a futuristic, interactive computer control panel which regulates the heating and cooling of the house to ensure maximum precision in energy management.


Some of the Green House’s eco-features.


The house is a 130m2 (1400 sq ft) three storey, three/four bedroom family home, including an open plan living, dining and kitchen space; downstairs cloakroom; games/play room; home office; family bathroom; and ensuite to the main bedroom of the three provided. All rooms are serviced from a central hallway, which starts from the front door and covered carport area and terminates at the second floor external terrace. The house was designed to be built as part of a row of terraced houses, which not only improves energy efficiency, but also so the house can be connected to a district electricity generating/heating system.


A proposed row of Green Houses. In terms of efficiency, the Green House performs best when built as part of a zero-carbon community.


The whole purpose of the Green House was to see if zero-carbon housing could ever be achieved a) by a volume housebuilder, and b) whilst still being an attractive and inviting home. SOLCER House is great, but it’s not very cosy. Green House was designed in line with the 2006 UK government’s target for all new homes to be zero-carbon rated by 2016, and the long-term target of an 80% reduction in carbon emissions from homes by 2050. However, in the summer of 2015, these targets were axed by the Conservative government (in a movement which was widely criticised by environmentalists, architects and housebuilders alike). This was despite David Cameron touring the BRE Innovation Park in 2010, spending time in the Green House itself, where he heard about the key principals that underpin the delivery of more sustainable homes. Following the tour, the Prime Minister said;

“Looking at the houses here today, it is clear that people’s energy bills can come down if homes are properly insulated and properly built.”

This knowledge however, had been apparently forgotten, as the chancellor stated that the decision for scrapping the targets was based on the efforts to make housing less expensive and create a more prosperous nation.

SOLCER House and the Green House however, had already proved that positive-carbon dwellings were within the accepted budget for social housing. In a BBC report, John O’Brien, the Principal Consultant at BRE, said that the chancellor’s decision was “flawed” because it absolutely did not cost more to build zero carbon homes, and in fact, they could even provide an income or reduced energy expenses for owners, which the Prime Minister had already stated himself (as above). As well as resulting in greatly reduced energy bills, homes which produce their own energy can actually glean income from energy contributions to the national grid, producing a highly efficient system UK-wide, not only in just new-build housing areas. Still, regardless of this, the target slashing went ahead.

Today, the Green House is still part of the BRE Innovation Park, where you can visit and take tours of the Green House along with other sustainable dwelling prototypes. It’s an educational park where you can learn about the design, materials and technologies which make carbon-neutral building possible. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look as though we’ll be living in houses like this on a large scale for some time. Nevertheless, the Green House remains proof that eco-housing works and with the 2050 target fast approaching, sustainable houses such as SOLCER and the Green House will soon be highly in demand, and not long after, become essential.


Eco-Housing Part 1- SOLCER House

This is the SOLCER House; the UK’s first low cost, zero carbon, carbon positive house.

The SOLCER House

Designed by Professor Phil Jones and his team based at the Welsh School of Architecture, Cardiff University, the house was built in July 2015 as a ‘smart energy’ prototype in an astonishingly successful attempt to meet the tough targets for zero carbon housing set by the UK Government (now axed by George Osborne). The house, constructed as part of the Wales Low Carbon Research Institute’s (LCRI) SOLCER project, and supported by SPECIFIC at Swansea University, is low-cost, energy smart, and is capable of producing and exporting more energy to the national electricity grid than it uses.

Some of the features, allowing the house to be really smart with its energy production, storage and usage.
Some of the features, allowing the house to be really smart with its energy production, storage and usage.

Professor Jones said of the design,

“The Welsh and UK Governments – and governments across the EU – have set targets for very low ‘nearly zero’ energy buildings by 2020, and zero carbon new housing can deliver this and more. This means that as an academic community we have to rise to that challenge and come-up with innovative new ways to build houses of the future.”

When the UK government’s eventual dismissal of these targets was announced, it attracted widespread criticism not only from environmentalists, but also from house builders, planners and universities. It would have ensured that all houses were carbon positive and making significant energy contributions to the grid by 2016.

GFA at the SOLCER House

GFA at the SOLCER House

On Friday 16th November 2015, a few members of staff from GFA decided to make a trip to see it. I asked around the office to see what we learned:

The loft space

The loft space, which can currently not be lived in due to its lack of insulation.

Architectural Technologist, Miranda, said:

 “The most interesting part of the building from a design standpoint was the loft area, which is roofed in glass with PV panels attached, creating a striking, light-filled space. Unfortunately, without insulation, the space is not actually habitable. But the basic idea could be taken forward with some form of transparent insulation to create a very interesting architecture, which directly makes the eco-credentials of the building visible.”

Transpired Solar Collector (TSC) Panels. They’re essentially sheets of metal that have a few tiny holes in and an air gap behind. When the sun hits the surface of the metal, the air behind it heats up. The system then moves this heated air around the house using the natural ventilation.

Transpired Solar Collector (TSC) Panels.
They’re essentially sheets of metal that have a few tiny holes in and an air gap behind. When the sun hits the surface of the metal, the air behind it heats up. The system then moves this heated air around the house.

Director and architect, Gavin, said:

“The external metal wall panels, TSC solar air collectors, were an interesting concept. It’s good to see more sustainable projects being built in Wales and congratulations to the WSA Architectural Science group on funding, designing and building an energy positive house. GFA have our low carbon batteries re-charged after the visit. The attic space was interesting in that the PV cells were mounted directly onto glazing; seems a shame that it wasn’t a habitable room but is a great concept for further development.”

The house, although being an incredible positive carbon model, is not the most aesthetically attractive home, making it unattractive to developers and housebuilders, despite all it's benefits.

The house, although being an incredible positive carbon model, is perhaps not the most aesthetically attractive home; will that make it unattractive to developers and housebuilders, despite all its benefits?

Architectural Assistant, Sam, said:

“It was quite inspiring to see a physical manifestation of what can actually be done with off the shelf materials to make a house environmentally friendly. It’s a shame that it hasn’t turned out to be the most attractive building. I think the next step for architects though is to use some of the techniques and systems cleverly to create an attractive (and potentially cheaper) architecture that developers will be more willing to get on board with.”

For a non-architect who doesn’t really know anything about the environmental aspects of designing a building, it’s really refreshing and encouraging to see that environmental concern and energy efficiency is at the forefront of research and practice in universities and in architectural studios. It’s continuing to be pioneered, despite there no longer being an immediate target, which is just as well really, as we need to be reaching an 80% reduction in carbon emissions from homes by 2050 under the Climate Change Act.

What Sam said was particularly interesting, because in 2007, Gaunt Francis entered and won the 2007 Home for the Future competition with their design for the Green House. It won with over 22,000 votes not just because it was zero carbon rated, but precisely because of its elegant and homely design which was missing from so many other attempts at creating eco-housing. The 2015 SOLCER House was successful as a technological experiment to see if a carbon positive dwelling was a possibility, but the Green House was the first zero carbon, Code Level 6 dwelling to be built by a volume house builder, Barratt, at the Building Research Establishment (BRE). Really, the Gaunt Francis design was the first realistic eco-house ever built in the UK, because of its attractiveness to ordinary people who want somewhere cosy to come home to at the end of the day (which makes it an attractive design for developers, too).

We’ll take a closer look at GFA’s Green House design and building, in next month’s blog posts. Perhaps the technology of the SOLCER House and the Green House design together, are an insight into the sustainable buildings of the very near future.

Welcome to Gaunt Francis in Cardiff!

In the Welsh capital, Gaunt Francis Architects’ Cardiff office is still buzzing with the same life, creativity and inspiration as our main London practice. Cardiff is an absolutely stunning city. Multicultural and vibrant, yet still with a strong sense of its Welsh identity it’s an inspirational city to work in and at the GFA Cardiff office, we pretty much have the best views for miles around.

I joined the Cardiff office in May of this year as an administrative assistant and therefore, because I’m not an architect, I often have a lot of questions. These are often questions such as “what on earth is a balustrade?!”, or “how much milk do we have left?”, but working in this new and exciting industry has also inspired me to get thinking about concepts, ideas and theories I had never encountered before.

Rather than keep my head in the clouds all day, this blog exists to document the novel and interesting things I discover as I work, to voice my musings and wonderings about architecture, and to give a brief peep into the working life of the GFA Cardiff office.