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Completed earlier this year, the Cork House designed by British architect Matthew Barnett Howland in collaboration with Dido Milne and Oliver Wilton is a brand new and radically simple form of plant-based construction. 

Monolithic walls and corbelled roofs are made almost entirely from solid load-bearing cork.  This highly innovative self-build construction kit is designed for disassembly, is carbon-negative at completion and has exceptionally low whole life carbon.

The Cork House has also won the RIBA National Award 2019, as well as the RIBA South Award for Sustainability and has been shortlisted for this year’s RIBA Stirling Prize, the most prestigious architecture award in the UK. Read more about the research and development that lead to the final build here.

Project Description

With a focus on what is solid, simple and sustainable, the project is an inventive response to the complexities and conventions of modern house construction.  Instead of the typically complex, layered building envelope that incorporates an array of building materials, products and specialist sub-systems, the Cork House is an attempt to make solid walls and roof from a single bio-renewable material. Conceived as a kit-of-parts, components are prefabricated off-site and assembled by hand on-site without mortar or glue.

Cork House embodies a strong whole life approach to sustainability, from resource through to end-of-life.  Expanded cork is a pure bio-material made with waste from cork forestry.  The bark of the cork oak is harvested by hand every nine years without harming the tree or disturbing the forest.  This gentle agro-industry sustains the Mediterranean cork oak landscapes, providing a rich biodiverse habitat that is widely recognised. This compelling ecological origin of expanded cork is mirrored at the opposite end of the building’s lifecycle.  The construction system is dry-jointed, so that all 1,268 blocks of cork can be reclaimed at end-of-building-life for re-use, recycling, or returning to the biosphere.

This radically direct approach to environmental sustainability has resulted in a building with exceptionally low whole life carbon, assessed by Sturgis Carbon Profiling as being embodied carbon negative at completion and 619kgCO2e/m2 over a 60 year lifespan, the lowest whole life carbon for any building they have assessed.

Construction and Process images courtesy Matthew Barnett Howland

From this mix of architectural and ecological objectives, the resultant structural form is new and yet familiar – a progressive reimagining of the simple construction principles of ancient stone structures such as Celtic beehive houses.  Internally the exposed solid cork creates an evocative sensory environment – walls are gentle to the touch and even smell good, the acoustic is soft and calm, and copper pipes gleam in the shadows of the corbelled roof pyramids.

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