Home » Human Nature aims to fly high with sustainable living ideals

Human Nature aims to fly high with sustainable living ideals

by Mark Cantrell
A vision for an eco-development in Lewes, billed as the UK's most sustainable neighbourhood, has secured planning permission

A vision for an eco-development in Lewes, billed as the UK’s most sustainable neighbourhood, has secured planning permission – don’t read too much into the name, though

The Phoenix is all set to rise.

That’s great news for the partners behind the ambitious project in Lewes, East Sussex, of course, but given it features what is said to be the UK’s largest timber-structure neighbourhood – maybe they should have picked another name?

After all, though we commonly use the reference to signify something new emerging out of the remains of the old, the mythical phoenix is actually famous for arising out of the fire; not quite the connection we might want to make, obviously.

That little ‘oops’ aside, however, the Phoenix development is certainly looking to stand tall and spread its wings triumphant, with an ambitious aim to deliver a breakthrough model for sustainable place-making.

The project has been brought forward by Human Nature. It’s a campaigning development company that designs, builds and manages what it says are “intrinsically sustainable” places that respond to the crises in climate, nature and health.

The Lewes-based company, which was founded by former Greenpeace directors Michael Manolson and Jonathan Smales, promotes the concept of ‘exponential sustainability’; explained as making it easy and enjoyable for people to live sustainably and well. High ideals, of course; the proof is in the subsequent lived experience.

“The current mainstream model of development is catastrophic, baking in deeply unsustainable fabric, infrastructure and transport, fuelling the climate and nature crises; it also creates social divisions and exacerbates loneliness,” says Smales, Human Nature’s chief executive.

“We aim to show that living sustainably can be a joy, not an exercise in self-denial, made far easier by the design of neighbourhoods. We’re working with an amazing team, bringing together best practices in sustainable design, urbanism and construction to provide a new breakthrough model with the Phoenix.”

One year after proposals were announced for the transformation of the 7.9-hectare brownfield site into the UK’s most sustainable neighbourhood, the Phoenix development has now been granted planning permission. So, those ideals underpinning the project are one step closer to being tested in practice.

A walk in the park

Phoenix is designed to prioritise people over cars. The aim is to create a walkable, multi-use development on a former industrial site in Lewes, within the South Downs National Park.

The mixed-income, multi-tenure development will provide 685 homes. Of these, 30% are intended to be affordable – made up of 154 homes at local housing allowance levels, and the remainder as First Homes – to create a place to “start out in life”, and a place to stay.

When complete, it will be the UK’s largest timber-structure neighbourhood, and – so Human Nature hopes – a blueprint for sustainable place-making and social impact that can be deployed at scale.

Human Nature is working with some of the UK’s leading architects, landscape designers and engineers. It’s also working with local businesses and foundations to breathe life into its breakthrough models in sustainable place-making; prioritising both social value and impact.

The Phoenix was masterplanned by Human Nature’s in-house design team, along with regenerative design agency Periscope, and Kathryn Firth, director of masterplanning and urban design at Arup.

The Phoenix site. Image courtesy of Human Nature and Periscope / Ash Sakula Architects.
The Phoenix site. Image courtesy of Human Nature and Periscope / Ash Sakula Architects

A template for the towns of tomorrow

An emphasis on building connections, and enabling interaction in shared spaces and facilities runs through the design of the Phoenix.

In addition to those 685 highly energy-efficient homes powered by renewable energy, the new neighbourhood includes public squares and gardens, dedicated community buildings (including a low-cost canteen), and a site-long river walk.

Furthermore, a co-mobility hub will incorporate electric-car share, car hire and car club, electric bike service, and a shuttle-bus facility – enabling a shift away from reliance on private vehicle ownership, and creating safe streets for walking, cycling and wheeling. At least, that’s the idea.

In Parcel 1, the first homes designed in detail (by Ash Sakula Architects) are interwoven with play areas, communal garden plots, and a shared cycle store intended to facilitate interaction and promote a culture of shared living.

Designed in collaboration with Periscope, a central courtyard gives residents a place to sit, pause, talk and play, and incorporates a rain garden providing protection against flooding – features which will be found across the Phoenix, Human Nature says.

In the wider plan, “climate-progressive innovations” include a data-driven renewable energy system set to enable 10-20% reductions in residents’ energy bills. This represents what Human Nature calls its goal of ‘radical affordability’. The neighbourhood will also feature on-site recycling, waste-management and composting facilities, and an urban-farming and community-gardening strategy.

Meredith Bowles, principal at Mole Architects – one of the firms working with Human Nature on the project – said: “While the rest of the world is carrying on as if everything is normal, Human Nature thinks that we have to build in a way that will allow us to live differently in a less hospitable world. But rather than seeing this as a constraint, the Phoenix is an opportunity; for sociable living, for local events, for a greener world. More than anything, it suggests that living sustainably will make for a better life.”

Holistic living

The Phoenix is said to take a holistic approach to sustainability.

As well as considering operational carbon (emissions from heat and power), and embodied carbon (emissions from materials and construction), the project has also been designed to address a ‘whole-place carbon footprint’, which includes emissions caused by transport and human behaviour on the site all the way until the year 2100.

Circular-economy principles are also embedded into plans for design and operation. The Phoenix’s buildings will be constructed from engineered timber, including CLT (cross-laminated timber), with prefabricated cassettes made from local timber and biomaterials such as hemp.

Local apprenticeships will offer training on site in modern methods of construction; one of the ways the project aims to maximise social impact.

Where possible, Human Nature says, existing materials from the site’s industrial past – including cladding, steel trusses, bricks and buttresses – will be salvaged and repurposed or reconstituted.

“Our focus on radically improving environmental and social impacts through the power of placemaking is uncommon in 21st-century Britain,” Smales added.

“But the result won’t feel unfamiliar, rather a return to traditions we’ve forgotten: A place of elegantly designed buildings made using local materials; streets safe for children to play in, with most daily needs met within a short walk, and where it’s easy to meet and socialise with your neighbours.”

Main image: The Phoenix’s courtyard gardens. Image courtesy of Human Nature and Periscope. Sketch by Carlos Penálver


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