Energetic pioneer in the theory and practice of green architecture, multi award winner and volunteer, OBE
A lot of ‘green architecture’ either offers little energy in return for a considerable investment, or looks hideous. Howard Laurence Liddell, who has died of cancer aged 67, recognised this. His book Eco-Minimalism – the Antidote to Eco-Bling, brought out in 2008 and just republished by RIBA Publications, is a master class of commonsense, decrying technical solutions and arguing that energy-saving is more effective than energy making. His own houses were unusual among eco-led designs in also being beautiful, notably Plummerswood in the Tweed Valley, which is prefabricated from timber and uses minimal energy for heating.
Liddell was one of the first to write on energy saving in 1974, when oil prices soared by 420%, in an article seeking new approaches to light and heating, Therm-ware over the Rainbow. His views were inspired by an anarchist group who created the Street Farm experimental ecohouse. Liddell quickly built a reputation for his policies on sustainable building, chairing the RIBA Architecture and Ecology Group from 1974 to 1979, and founding the Scottish Ecological Design Association in 1991.
Liddell was born in Askrigg, Yorkshire, but grew up in Newcastle upon Tyne, whence came a lifelong passion for Newcastle United. His family moved to Edinburgh in the late 1950s, and he talked his way into the School of Architecture despite having no appropriate qualifications. He graduated with a first. After practising in London, he became a senior lecturer and director of research at Hull School of Architecture in 1971. This was followed in 1979 by two years as a guest professor in Oslo where the Green Association of Idealistic Architects (GAIA) was formed, and where he returned to teach each summer for 25 years.
Meanwhile, Liddell moved to Aberfeldy in the Tay Valley in 1978, his base for integrating the triad of place, work and people that became the feature of his career. Inspired by Patrick Geddes to believe that stronger communities could be encouraged with better sports, leisure and tourism facilities, he set out his principles with an action body for local regeneration, the Breadalbane Institute. Liddell founded Gaia Architects (Scotland), responsible for some of the country’s first ecological buildings using minimal technology. Architectural work included the Aberfeldy Recreation Centre, and he became chairman of Aberfeldy Community Council and co-founder of a local newspaper. User participation was key to his philosophy.
From 1986 Liddell helped revive the Fairfield area of Perth, working with residents and the authorities. The final phase of affordable, ecological housing was designed to minimise environmentally-caused allergies and won a UN World Habitat award in 2003. In 1993 his practice won the UK House of the Year award for Tressour Wood, an all-timber house near Aberfeldy heated by solar gain and a wood-fired stove. Acharacle School, Ardnamurchan, was Gaia’s first building to be made from Brettstapel (stacked planks) panels fixed by dowels rather than glue, and was followed by the Glentress visitor centre. The Glencoe visitor centre of 2003 also won many awards, and Plummerswood was the Scottish Architectural House of the Year for 2012.
In 1996 Liddell returned to Edinburgh with his second wife Sandy Halliday to form the interdisciplinary Gaia Group, combining architecture, engineering, planning and research. Its cutting-edge environmental solutions focussed on local context, nature preservation and simplicity. He also ran many children’s workshops, including Children’s Eco-City events in Scotland and Belfast, and in 1996, a Children’s Parliament in Edinburgh.
Liddell was awarded an OBE last January for his services to ecological design and voluntary work, which was presented posthumously at his funeral. After the award was announced, he spoke with typical fervour against ‘greenwash and tokenism’, hoping for better opportunities for truly sustainable architecture in 2013.
Howard Liddell is survived by Sandy and the children of his first marriage to Jenny: Becky, Emma, Briony and Jamie, plus eight grandchildren.
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