A green ideal

Sue Wheat looks at a housing project designed with a difference

John Lees is a city designer with a vision. His company, Lees Associates, has a client list that boasts royalty, The Savoy, the Chinese government and many of the largest financial institutions in Europe. But his vision does not include building more for the rich; it is about establishing a model of ecologically responsible and aesthetically pleasing housing in the countryside.

England's green and pleasant land has become a conflict zone among planners, developers, farmers and conservationists, all fighting for different things. This is certainly true of the Norfolk countryside where John grew up, which he describes now as being "eaten up by ugly brick boxes with awful `Norfolk Red' tiles", and killed off by chemical-intensive, "prairie-style" farming.

As the brother of Andrew Lees, the Friends of the Earth campaigns director who died in Madagascar in 1994, he also has a strong personal link with environmentalism. Now he intends to use his professional skills to make some of the changes his brother campaigned for. "The Government has said we need millions more houses, so encroachment of the countryside will happen. But it must happen in the right way. We don't want to see replicas of Milton Keynes all over the place."

An unusual client - a community of 20 adults with learning disabilities and 12 co-workers - is the means through which he hopes to realise the first experimental step towards his vision. Thornage Hall, near Holt in north Norfolk, is a Grade II listed 12th-century hall. It was donated to the Camphill Community by Lord and Lady Hastings in 1987, together with 50 acres of land. As with all the 70 Camphill Communities worldwide, Thornage Hall is run in accordance with the teachings of the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner, who emphasised the interplay of environmental and spiritual issues in everyday life.

Residents and co-workers live in "families" or "life-sharing groups" and work together rearing livestock and growing some 70 varieties of vegetables and crops. They sell left-over produce locally and their organic, low- tech methods result in high yields, low irrigation and an environment of wildlife and flowers. Mucking out is one of the most highly valued jobs.

Anker Pedersen, the community's farmer, explains: "For us it's not waste, it's richness - it produces our food."

Thornage Hall is already a prime example of what environmentalists term "sustainable living". John's job is to design an extra residential unit, community hall and bakery. The first step has been to build a natural sewage treatment system which filters and cleans waste water through a series of pools and reed beds and directs it to a nearby stream - vital in an area where ground water is dangerously low. The result, explains the designer, Andrew Joiner, "is a functional sewage system within a beautiful landscape, in sharp contrast to the ugly, engineered sewage works that we're used to".

The next stage is deciding the location and design of the new buildings. "Having a building constructed is one of the most exhilarating things that can happen. But too often it is done without understanding the needs of the people using it," says John. The bakery, where residents work together round a table, needs to house minimum machinery and encourage maximum human interaction. The extra residential unit should allow everyone to have a window. Local and natural materials will be used throughout. "The ecological design of a building is not so much about wacky ideas as about sensible design," explains John's co-worker, Alex Hoffmann. "We will use materials that manage themselves, such as lime mortar, which lasts hundreds of years, and green oak, which looks better as it gets older and needs just a thin coat of limewash to preserve the wood."

John also sees his company's role, as facilitator between the client and the planners, as a vital one, especially at Thornage Hall, because of its conservation status. He hopes he can transfer this experience to people's environments on a national basis.

"In future, we need to bring agencies such as English Heritage, the Open Society and the Countryside Commission together and say, what about building a common and having animals on it; why not rotate the land; and why not have housing nearby with the most modern ecological design? Of course, other communities won't be the same as Thornage Hall, but we desperately need diversity in housing, and at the moment there isn't a sector in the housing industry for people who want to live in a more sustainable way." It's not a new idea, he admits. But then, no one else seems to be doing it.

Thornage Hall, Holt, Norfolk NR25 7QH (01263 860305); Lees Associates, 5 Goodwins Court, St Martin's Lane, London WC2N 4LL (0171-240 6000).

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