While it is no secret that architects’ houses are some of the most exciting around, just how exciting only became abundantly at an online seminar presented by Architecture Today and Schueco, showcasing three of the most interesting. Not only did the houses discussed provide an opportunity for their architects to implement long-cherished ideas, but they also formed the basis of research, of new business opportunities and provided opportunities for the sheer joy of getting their hands dirty – and even making mistakes.
The first house discussed was Backwater, a holiday home in the Norfolk Broads that Patrick Michell of Platform 5 Architects designed both for the enjoyment of his own family and as a property to let.
While the spot was idyllic, on the side of a small lagoon that connected to the main broads, it was not without its problems. Michell designed a house to replace the existing 1950s home that was rotting on its piles and “sinking into the Broads”. The new house is in three bays, for sleeping, eating and living. It echoes the local working environment of timber buildings with multiple bays and deep pitched roofs. Backwater tapers in plan away from the water, with a deep overhang to a veranda on its southern side where it faces the water.
The difficulties came from the nature of the site. The structural engineer described the ground as “reinforced water”. There was no choice but to pile through the 4m of peat to support a galvanised steel frame on which the timber house in turn could sit. But piling took place in the winter, when raised water levels made setting out with no reference points a challenge! This meant that a number of piles had to be repositioned. And concrete pile caps had a nasty tendency to float away.
Top: The Cork House, designed by Matthew Barnett Howland and Dido Milne of CSK Architects
Above: Backwater, designed by Patrick Michell of Platform 5 Architects
This is a second-string to the architectural business and the synergies are good. Prospective clients for private houses can stay in Backwater and get a real feel for how the practice designs – and architectural clients are also potential holiday renters.
One difficulty Michell found was that, because the house was a business proposition, it had to be finished on time. This contrasts with most architects’ houses where it is possible to leave some elements unfinished if time and money are tight. He would like to build more, but envisions smaller units next time, to put less pressure on time flow.
In terms of function, the house that Rhys Cannon of Gruff Architects designed is far more conventional. But one glimpse tells you that Pitched Black, his home in Brockley, south-east London, is anything but ordinary. This is partly due to site constraints. Cannon was not looking to build a house for his family of five, but when he saw the opportunity to buy a builder’s yard, he couldn’t resist. Although the site is cramped, with poor access and next to a railway, the views are fantastic.
The house reacted to all these conditions, to the narrow and constrained access for construction traffic and to the need not to overlook adjoining housing. The result is a building on three levels, where every floor plan is different and which uses different materials at each level. Clad in black-painted timber, its upper floors are supported on bright-blue steel sloping legs.
Above: Pitched Black, designed by Rhys Cannon of Gruff Architects
The basement includes a turntable for the family car, while the first floor deliberately inclines away from its neighbours, with a staggered blind facade that allows light to enter through slots at right angles to the neighbours.
In addition, said Cannon, “we had a lot of investment in the details”. For instance, he appointed an art fabricator to make and finish the blue steel legs so that the finish would be top notch. Other parts he and the practice physically worked on themselves. Not everything went entirely to plan but, said Cannon, “I am happy to keep the little mistakes and celebrate them in the final building. The fact that we have been able to craft and make elements and have a bit of fun is really important”.
In terms of site, Matthew Barnett Howland and Dido Milne of CSK Architects, designers of the Cork House that was shortlisted for last year’s Stirling Prize, had the easiest ride. They were building in the large back garden of their house in Eton. But from there on, everything became, deliberately, complex. Ironically, this complexity was because of their pursuit of simplicity.
They wanted to replace the multiple layers of a typical house construction with one material that could provide insulation, weather-tightness, structure and moisture control. They lit on expanded cork and carried out extensive research, culminating in the construction of their single-storey house which, apart from a timber ring beam and some cladding on the pyramidal roofs, is all cork. And, says Barnett Howland, “it smells fantastic”.
It is a house like no other, a labour of love and represents a serious advance in knowledge. Built up from interlocking blocks that have been precision laser cut, it is, he says, “a satisfying combination of ancient construction techniques with twenty-first-century computer technology.”
Few architects’ houses will be as innovative as this. But, despite the fact that the presentations made no secret of the difficulties involved, this was an event that will inspire others to go ahead and build their dream projects.