The London Design Biennale, running unto 25 June, is hosting a demo house built by Cambridge architects with adaptable timber dividers that can be repositioned to accommodate evolving resident requirements.
The innovation’s objective is to minimise waste and carbon emissions, while enhancing living standards for individuals unable to afford costly renovations.
Homeowners globally often contemplate “knocking through” walls in their houses to create open-plan living spaces or adapt layouts to accommodate changing needs or circumstances. While the outcomes can be remarkable, they typically entail substantial financial and environmental implications. However, what if there was a way to avoid demolishing existing brick and plaster walls and constructing new ones?
Cambridge’s Centre for Natural Material Innovation and PLP Architecture, in collaboration with partners, have recently introduced Ephemeral—a groundbreaking solution that utilises engineered wood as an alternative. This innovative concept has been unveiled at the London Design Biennale, held at Somerset House from 1st to 25th June 2023.
Under the guidance of Cambridge researcher Ana Gatóo, the initiative presents a residence that embodies the core principles of affordability, sustainability, flexibility, and adaptability. Visitors are encouraged to enter this home, which was constructed with innovative flexible wooden partition walls. These partitions, developed by Gatóo during her Cambridge PhD research, utilise a technique called kerfing. This method enables the wood to bend without breaking, similar to the approach employed in crafting guitars and other stringed instruments.
The outcome is a set of wooden walls that are characterised by their simplicity, durability, foldability, and mobility. This feature allows them to adapt to the evolving needs of residents. For example, these walls can accommodate changes such as the arrival or departure of children, shifting requirements due to age or mobility constraints, or adjustments in response to modifications in remote work patterns.
According to Gatóo, “Self-assembly and modular furniture have positively impacted numerous individuals’ lives. We have created something akin to that concept, but for walls, empowering people to have complete command over their interior spaces.”
“If you possess abundant financial resources, you can engage a designer and modify the interiors of your house. However, if you lack such means, you are constrained by inflexible systems that may be outdated by decades. You could be burdened with surplus rooms or inadequate ones. Our aim is to empower individuals to personalise their spaces and make them truly their own.”
The team’s “rooms of requirement” offer sophisticated and cost-effective solutions that can be integrated into the building’s design from the outset or seamlessly retrofitted. By doing so, it circumvents the substantial carbon emissions linked to demolition and reconstruction, thus minimising environmental impact.
Gatóo explains, “We are utilising engineered timber, an economical and sustainable material. It is a natural resource that also serves as a carbon store, and once it is no longer needed, it can be repurposed into something else. This approach ensures minimal waste generation.”
Gatóo and her colleagues operate from the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Natural Material Innovation, which is a renowned global hub for studying inventive and sustainable applications of timber in the field of construction.
The team underscores the versatility of their system, highlighting its potential for implementation worldwide, not limited to residential spaces but also applicable in workplaces. The researchers have already engaged in promising discussions with various industry stakeholders, including affordable housing developers in India, indicating the system’s broad appeal and potential adoption.
Gatóo expresses, “Having worked in development and post-disaster housing alongside NGOs across numerous countries, I have consistently prioritised the use of sustainable materials. When I embarked on my PhD journey, my goal was to integrate affordability, social impact, technical innovation, and sustainability. This is precisely what our future cities require—a holistic approach that considers both the well-being of individuals and the environment simultaneously.”
If implemented extensively, this innovation holds the potential to revolutionise the construction sector positively. It empowers individuals to tailor their spaces according to their needs, concurrently reducing housing expenses and addressing the obstacles that the construction industry must confront to foster a sustainable future. By enabling adaptability and reducing costs, this innovation represents a significant advancement towards a more sustainable and responsive construction paradigm.
Working with Cambridge Enterprise, the research team is seeking industry and policy partners to further advance product feasibility for industry-wide adoption.
The project is supported by PLP Architecture, The Laudes Foundation, the Future Observatory and the AHRC Design Accelerator.