Sustainable Home Design Series: The Nest House with Studio Bark
One of the biggest challenges that we face in the pursuit of sustainability is finding eco-solutions that won't break the bank. With an upcoming energy crisis in Britain, saving money is at the forefront of every mind at the moment: but this shouldn’t mean we have to compromise on sustainability. Founded in 2014, Studio Bark is a pioneering architectural practice, which focuses on affordable environmental design. Dedicated to creating eco-conscious builds which inspire change, Studio Bark has created multiple stand-out builds, including the Periscope House featured on Channel 4’s Grand Designs.
Sarah Broadstock is an associate architect at Studio Bark, involved in their latest creation- the Nest House. She joins us today to discuss her journey into architecture, and how Studio Bark approaches sustainable design.
The Nest House project was constructed by a team of local students in the summer of 2021. They utilised Studio Bark’s U-Build technology, a flat-pack timber construction system that not only creates a time efficient and ecological build, but also teaches the students about sustainable construction methods.
Read on to discover Sarah’s experience in sustainable architecture, and how companies such as Studio Bark are approaching eco-design today.
Could you please introduce yourself, and talk about why you became an architect - what inspired you to enter the industry?
I became an architect because I love drawing and also wanted a technical challenge… I guess I didn’t really know what being an architect would actually entail and so it’s lucky that I enjoy it as much as I do. And that my job, fortunately, allows me to do a lot of hand drawing!
Sarah Broadstock (third from the far right), Associate Architect at Studio Bark working on the Nest House Project. Copyright Studio Bark.
Why is sustainable architecture important to you?
Sustainable architecture should be important to all architects! For me on a personal level, it’s important to do what I can to support a shift towards a more sustainable industry, and I think that’s something we all share at Studio Bark. Even though we’re a small practice we’re very passionate and ambitious!
The journey we’re on as a studio is very much about strategic business decisions, as well as always wanting to improve our ability to design environmentally beautiful architecture. It’s really rewarding to work at both of those scales and to understand my role as part of something bigger.
The Nest House, sustainably designed with a central terrace to maximise the indoor natural light. Copyright Andy Billman.
Your Nest House project uses locally sourced materials over steel and concrete foundations. How did you go about sourcing these materials, and does moving away from concrete foundations bring any new challenges, or perhaps any new benefits?
We’re getting more confident in moving away from concrete foundations, though it isn’t (currently) possible on every project. From my perspective, the main challenge is about the perceived/real risks of moving away from tried and tested ways of holding up a building, which people trust, towards new, or often older building traditions.
Not only does the client (and their insurance/ mortgage provider) have to be confident, but everyone involved in the design team needs to be, too. At Nest House we worked with engineers at Structure Workshop who designed the non-concrete solution using reclaimed railway sleepers. The sleepers had, from their past life, been painted with something pretty toxic (Kreosote, I think). On the plus side that meant we didn’t need to worry about them rotting, but needless to say we would have preferred not to be putting those chemicals back into the ground.
In terms of sourcing materials we always make efforts to source materials locally, not only because it helps projects to feel visually ‘of their place’ but also because it’s a powerful way to lower a building’s embodied carbon. Down the road from Nest House is Whitney Sawmills, who supplied the cladding and decking timbers. They were really supportive of the educational nature of the build process too, and the students really enjoyed seeing their set-up and learning about different timbers.
By the time the project started on site, and even more so by the end, it felt like we had established a really strong network of people and businesses who had all played a part in creating Nest House.
Studio Bark sources their materials locally to reduce the embodied carbon of their projects. Here, the timber used for the cladding and decking was sourced from Whitney Sawmills in Herefordshire, just several miles from the project location. Copyright Andy Billman.
Sustainable builds are often considered a more expensive option. How did you manage the cost of this build while remaining sustainable?
Environmental technologies can be expensive, yet many sustainable decisions cost nothing, such as getting the orientation right. At Studio Bark, we major in the latter, and use technologies thoughtfully and perhaps even sparingly, to complement the design.
Nest House was unlike typical build projects because we took on the role of contractor, through our contracting arm, Studio Bark Projects (SBP). We tend to use SBP for educational builds, and Nest House, although relatively modest in size, was ambitious for us. We also didn’t have a QS (Quantity Surveyor) and were carefully scheduling all the materials and products used so that we could do rigorous carbon counting. Because of that, we (or specifically Studio Bark Director Wilf) had a close eye on costs.
Construction costs were incredibly turbulent at the time due to Brexit and Covid, so as well as having a good handle on the numbers, goodwill and good relationships were important. We worked with a building systems provider called Atamate and local technology college NMITE, who were fully on board with the environmental ambitions of the project and who played a part in helping to keep the project on track.
Fossil fuel free, the Nest house runs primarily on solar energy. Copyright Andy Billman.
Tell us more about your unique U-Build technology - what exactly makes it so sustainable?
Unlike conventional ‘single-use’ construction materials, U-Build is a flat-pack timber construction system suitable for the circular economy, where all parts are fully demountable and reusable. The parts are CNC cut from sustainably sourced plywood in such a way as to reduce material waste during production. The plywood parts piece together like a jigsaw to make box modules, which are then stacked and bolted together by hand to create walls, floors and roofs.
If the walls need to be insulated we suggest Thermafleece lambswool insulation, which arrives cut to size to fit in the boxes (very satisfying and zero waste), and if external, the walls are wrapped in a breathable membrane and can be clad in whatever material or design preferred (timber for us please).
The Nest house incorporates Studio Bark’s unique U-build technology, making it simple and sustainable to construct. Copyright Andy Billman.
What are the applications of U-Build? Does it require professionals to install it? And what sized projects is it best suited to?
U-Build aims to make construction simple so that anyone can take part - no previous experience is needed. U-Build projects range from storage units and garden pods, up to extensions and stand-alone houses… It's proving to be very versatile! U-Build has its own website www.U-Build.org for anyone who’d like to find out more.
Do you have any advice for new architects, designers, or even homeowners on how to renovate and design more sustainably?
Collaborating with other architects and designers who are also enthusiastic about natural materials and trying out new things can be really motivating and fun.
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What a great project! I would love to be able to self-build one day.