24 Feb 2009
A Wander Round the Wintles
I have wanted to visit the Wintles in Bishops Castle in Shropshire for many years. It has won many awards over the years as a pioneering ‘green’ housing development. I knew its creators, Bob and Carol Thomlinson, many years ago, and followed the project’s early stages, including its design phase. It was conceived of as a low energy, sustainable housing complex, one that was designed in such a way as to create a strong sense of community. Last week I was in Bishop’s Castle for a talk (which went very well), and finally I was able to have a good look around the place and see how it had turned out.
Bishops Castle is one of the UK’s most beautiful small towns, complete with gorgeous timber framed houses and small streets. It has also long been a community of creative ‘alternative’ types alongside a more traditional rural community. The Wintles is situated on the edge of the town, on land that was already zoned for development when it was bought by Bob and Carol’s company, Living Villages Trust, in order to develop it as The Wintles. The first phase featured a number of houses around a small village green, the second a further collection of houses on the hillside behind the first, and then a third phase behind that. So far the first and second phases have been completed, with the third still unfinished (more on that later).
As well as the houses, the development also features a community orchard and an area of allotments, which each resident it entitled to. The design phase of the project intended to create a deep sense of community and at one point, architect and author of ‘A Pattern Language’ Christopher Alexander, had some design input, and was one of the key sources of inspiration for the design approach. The estate was designed to be car-free (cars are kept to the edges of the development), as energy efficient as possible, and designed in such a way as to maximise the sense of community cohesion. The provision of allotments means that individual gardens are smaller than one might expect, and the houses are close together.
The Wintles features a range of different house sizes, from smaller bungalows to larger family houses, with various other designs in between. They all have solar panels and are built to very high levels of insulation, as well as being designed to maximise solar gain. They are also very beautiful. On first view, one is struck by the creative mixture of different materials, stone, brick, timber, plaster and tile, as well as the use of colour. The whole development feels very pleasing to the eye and also very welcoming and comfortable.
I arrived at about 4pm, and had a bit of a wander around. I hadn’t been there long when Pat Robinson, one of the residents, came out of her house and asked if I would like a tour around her home. She showed me both around her place and one of her neighbours houses’, who was away and which she was looking after. All the houses I saw had solar panels, heat recovery units (that extract warm moist air from some rooms and use the heat to warm air going into cooler rooms), woodstoves and gas boilers as back up. They were all very well insulated, indeed the house we visited that was unoccupied had been closed up with no heating for a couple of weeks, but was still perfectly warm. Each house was beautifully finished with lots of natural materials on display.
Then, another family over the road offered a tour of their house too, focusing more on the technical aspects of the energy systems. That house had an open space running up the middle of the stairs to allow warm air to rise, and was very light and beautiful. They told me that the house was so well insulated, and the stove so efficient that it only took 3 logs to heat the main room downstairs. Some of the detailing seemed a bit at odds with the energy efficient aims of the houses. The kitchens featured lots of halogen downlighters, which use a great deal of energy in comparison to their lower energy equivalents. Also, kitchens had been fitted with large gas cookers, but they were just one large oven, rather than two smaller ones, meaning that anyone wanting to heat up a small meal would need to heat the whole large oven. These choices, which were fitted into all the houses while they were being built, felt somewhat incongruous given the overall aims of the development.
The Wintles recently ran into problems due to the economic contraction we are seeing, which as we know is hitting the housing sector especially hard. The third phase of the Wintles was half built, the houses weathertight but unfinished, when RBS, who were financing the development, refused to extend their loan any further and the project was put into recievership. As a result, the houses are unfinished and nobody knows how or when they will be finished (see right). They are stuck in limbo, with apparently some of them having buyers lined up, but no way of actually completing them, apart from a few that are being built by a local housing association. It is tragic but inevitable that the downturn in housing should also affect the emergent ‘green’ housing market.
Those who I spoke to who live at The Wintles feel sure that the houses will be built, and that the receivership is just a temporary blip in the evolution of the development. What interested me was, having been aware of the design process and the amount of work that went in at an early stage to try and ensure that a strong sense of community was facilitated for those who moved in, whether or not that had actually emerged. Although it is a development that has only been in existence for a few years, and already some of those living at The Wintles are ‘second generation’ residents, the common response I got from those I spoke to was that that sense of community is already very strong.
The village green is already used for lots of events and social occasions, and acts as a meeting place for residents. People help each other out with the allotments, and work together in many different ways. Of course it is hard to attribute the degree to which people form community, or conversely the degree to which they don’t, to the physical design of a settlement. However, it felt to me that that hard work put in at an early stage has paid off, and as a result, the place feels calmer, more welcoming, and more like a community than many other new estates built at the same time.
Of course, such a development with all its green bells and whistles, comes at a cost. The houses at the Wintles are significantly more expensive than other houses in Bishops Castle, and as a result, those who can afford to live there represent a smaller cross section of society than would be desirable for a truly sustainable community. Indeed some might question whether ‘green’ developments like this can actually claim to be truly sustainable, given that in order to work they need to be sold at a price which excludes the large majority of the population. The hard reality is that developers such as Living Villages are unfunded and operate in the marketplace, and need to remain viable. It would be a great shame though if the insights, careful design, attention to detail and energy efficiency that are at the heart of this development were not also to become embodied in more affordable developments.
However, that said, I was impressed. The Wintles is an experiment, and it has moved the discussions about sustainable building forwards significantly. Is it replicable on a very wide scale? In terms of design as if beauty mattered and energy efficiency yes, but in terms of that resulting in houses unaffordable to most, perhaps not. However, as a mainstream development that embodies the spirit of Pattern Language and which places a far higher priority on the need for beauty than most conventional development, this is an important place. It was a brave development by a visionary developer, one who took risks and who put their money where there mouths were, at a time when many other talked about the need for sustainable building but did nothing.