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 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.