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.

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.