Great Bow Yard

A pioneer in eco home design

Langport, Somerset
South West Eco Homes

19 years ago Grand Designs was having a moment, beaming the once-niche pursuit of sustainable architecture into three million homes every Wednesday night.

Buoyed by that momentum, Great Bow Yard emerged as a groundbreaking experiment in modern living. Spearheaded by Ecos Homes, the project aimed to redefine what housing could be. So there on the edge of Langport, next to the river, Great Bow Yard became a testing ground for two unique design approaches.

In July 2023, we revisited Great Bow Yard to speak to the inhabitants. Images below are from 2006 and 2023.

Moving on from the Middle Ages

Thinking about new housing stock, we discussed how the UK’s developer homes of the 80s and 90s hadn’t changed much in form since the Middle Ages. Boxy shapes. Small windows. Limited connection with outside—and often with conservatories added to the back.

This observation sparked our design approach: integrate nature, light, and living to create the homes people appeared to be seeking.

17 years on…

I came across articles about this project and I just fell in love with it. I saw the drawings and I thought, yeah, I’m going to make a big change and I’m going to jump in. I committed to it about two years before I moved in.

Chrissie, 2023

Reimagining the humble conservatory

Inspired by London’s award-winning Bedzed project, our approach for the first terrace was to reimagine conservatories as integral architectural elements.

A south facing orientation with two-storey double-glazing underpins a passive solar strategy. The sun naturally heats the homes in winter, while timber slats paired with high and low level openings keep the homes cool in summer. So no more freezing winter conservatories—or boiling in summer. Just naturally-heated sunspaces that blur the lines between indoor and outdoor, offering year-round comfort.

The distinct angled structure maximises that natural light and harmonises the homes with the landscape. Together with the timber-slatted and glass inside-outside space, the form challenges the notion of houses as mere boxes. The tilted roofs also capture rainwater, which feeds into a tank above each porch for toilet flushing. Usually these tanks would be buried below ground, but we made them visible to highlight some of the home’s inner workings. Almost all of the residents were quick to connect this pure, chlorine-free water source to their washing machines.

With the intervening years our design strategy would probably be different now, most likely based around a more scientific approach aligned with Passivhaus. But at the time (2005) passive solar was relatively new territory. And yielding results too, highlighted by the development being named ‘most energy efficient street in the UK’ in a study by Sheffield University and energy providers Eon.

I think the imaginativeness of the design is what always gets me. So many different ideas come together to make it such a habitable place.

Duncan, 2023

Trialling super insulated timber townhouses

On the other side of the development sits a terrace of east-west-facing townhouses and apartments, which cater to a diverse range of residents. Unlike their sun-soaked counterparts, these homes prioritise insulation and lightweight timber construction achieving year-round energy efficiency.

The ground floors featured robust masonry for parking and flood protection, while the upper levels are twin stud timber frames with shredded newspaper insulation. In what was an unconventional design approach, we located the bedrooms on the middle floor with living spaces above, which offer the best views and lighting. Balconies on both levels enhance the living experience for the residents.

The choice of timber was innovative at the time and has weathered with character, a quality of the ever-evolving nature of natural materials.

Using gardens as a focal point

As you approach the south-facing homes, you’d expect the entrance to be at the front, but we positioned them at the back to open towards a communal garden. Each home has its own private garden as a buffer between for greater privacy, but this unique layout helped the communal garden become a cherished focal point for residents to gather and interact.

Mature trees and native planting blends the communal space with its riverside location, embodying Great Bow Yard’s natural aesthetic. Wood chip paths use clippings from pruned trees on the site, and a planted ditch for sustainable drainage underlines the development’s broader environmental commitments.

My children were teenagers when we moved in. They loved it and I think they’ve all been inspired by the house. My son is an engineer now, and works in eco housing

Claire, 2023

Break the mould, not the bank

Great Bow Yard transformed from a muddy construction site into a mature garden that almost becomes one with the homes. Using energy-efficient terraced building forms, the construction cost was actually comparable to that of a traditional build, but the homes’ value was higher due to their unique design and prime location.

The result is a testament to what can be achieved when you challenge the typical new build status quo. Great Bow Yard pushed the UK’s sustainability agenda forward, providing inspiration to many and challenging the standards for our future housing.