Some 150 kilometres west of Paris, the commune of Nogent-le-Rotrou unfolds from the agricultural landscape in an eclectic mix of building styles. From the medieval Château Saint-Jean to a cluster of mid-century apartment towers, and a collection of churches spanning nearly the length of a millennium, the small community is a sort of architectural archive – and a fitting site for an innovative project by NZI architectes that reaches to regional vernacular materials for inspiration.
The Parisian architecture firm‘s newly completed social housing project introduces 13 affordable homes to a previously vacant site. Clad in lightweight wood, the structures also utilize straw bale insulation, combining two inexpensive and locally available materials to create an efficient building envelope.
The lightness of the wood and straw also allowed the pre-fabricated components (which were manufactured in a factory) to be easily transported to the site. This made for an accelerated construction timeline – without the need for heavy equipment, cranes, or labour-intensive onsite framing.
What’s more, the materially pared down structure entails a substantially lower carbon footprint compared to industrially manufactured insulation and cladding. It’s an innovative methodology, yet also one that draws on centuries of northern European precedent – using the region’s simplest and most plentiful materials to create an inexpensive, scalable, and (relatively) eco-friendly housing solution.
Inside, the homes are simple yet generously proportioned. With high ceilings and large windows, NZI have created a sense of openness, while the staggered rows of homes lends each living space a greater sense of privacy. Although the gardens open out to a larger green space beyond, the deftly contoured site plan gives outdoor spaces a comfortable sense of enclosure.
At the edge of a 20th century tower-in-the-park community, NZI’s new homes are grouped into three discrete blocks, creating permeability through the site while breaking up the street wall with a more organic and varied face. It makes for a slightly more pedestrian-friendly environment, while optimizing sunlight and exposure for each home.
With prominent pitched roofs, the structures evoke traditional house forms, while the tonal variety of the wood cladding introduces a subtle but distinctly contemporary ambiance. A simple pattern of white, black, and natural wood, breaks up the monotony of repeating forms. With the entire body of each dwelling clad in the same tone, however, the NZI design retains an impressive sense of aesthetic unity.
In a small French commune, a social housing project by NZI architectes finds eco-innovation through a revival of regional vernacular.