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 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.