The Sustainable Design Collective

Article on an innovative eco-housing designer written for Viva Brighton magazine:

“The British building industry is the least innovative sector of our economy,” says Donal Brown, Sustainability Director at the Falmer-based Sustainable Design Collective. “We still build in much the same way as we did in the Victorian era, using the same traditional materials.”

Wanting to do something different, Donal’s father Bill - a former local authority Director of Housing - founded the SDC in 2001. He looked to the progressive techniques employed by the German construction industry for inspiration, and partnered with a German manufacturer to produce timber frame ‘kit’ houses, which were batch-produced in a factory and assembled on site. Their early projects - one-off, ‘Grand Designs’ homes - utilised innovations like air-source heat pumps and solar water heating, which were new to the UK market.

“I became much more involved in 2012, when we won a contract for a super-energy efficient social housing project down in Devon,” says Donal. “It was only four houses, but the idea was that it would be a test bed for larger social housing developments.” The team came up with a design for the homes, which featured integrated solar panelled roofs, providing energy and hot water, rainwater harvesting systems, and were completely carbon neutral. The project won awards for its energy efficiency and was the start of what would become a new focus for the business: social housing for the future.

“We do a lot of one-off projects for clients, and those are exciting and really varied,” says Donal, “but how much are they really going to help? A, they don’t really help housing as an issue, because they are only for people who can afford to build their own homes, and B, climate-wise, they’re just a drop in the ocean.” Now Donal wants to invest more time and energy into bigger projects, like social housing, and also Community Land Trusts.

“A Community Land Trust is like a co-op,” he explains. “There are members and everybody makes decisions as a group.” They are about to begin building a development in Harberton, in Devon. “That area is extremely expensive and people living there - particularly young families - can't afford to buy a house, so a lot of them are stuck in rented accommodation. We’ve been working with 12 families on a planning application to build 12 eco homes on a plot of land.”

The design features meadow roofs, which encourage biodiversity and reduce the visual impact of the development on the surrounding countryside, and solar carports, where residents can charge their electric vehicles. Each of the families will receive a wind- and water-tight shell, which they will self-finish. “Normally a 3-bed house in that area would cost £350-£400k,” says Donal, “but these will each be about £100k. The residents are held in the Land Trust ‘in perpetuity’, so they can’t sell the house and make money from it, but they can get their £100k back, so it de-marketises the development. The idea is to create a community, not an investment opportunity. It’s as much about social innovation as environmental innovation.”

“That’s where I want the business to go,” says Donal. Currently he is looking at sites to develop similar communities in and around Brighton, with potential additions like co-working spaces and community gardens. “The current housing model just doesn’t work,” he says. “Basically we chuck up a load of poor housing in the middle of nowhere and people don’t want to live there. We don’t build communities; housing is just seen as a financial asset. It’s time for that to change.”