Acme brings sensitivity and creativity to the challenge of building a contemporary house in a rural setting, finds Soraya Khan
Designing a contemporary house in a rural setting is beset with a series of challenges and constraints, and indeed to some degree it should not be too easy. Our countryside is a precious resource and areas such the Kent Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty are rightly heavily protected against insensitive and inappropriate development. A slow pace of change has helped to conserve the landscape, but there is also a place for high-quality design. There are various routes that can result in a successful planning application, from working closely with the local planning authority and local community to utilising Paragraph 78(55) of the National Planning Policy Framework that enables schemes of ‘exceptional quality’ to be built, although in reality only just over half of submitted schemes receive approval. Bumpers Oast – a new house near Marden in Kent designed by Acme – presents a strong solution to the challenge of designing contemporary new houses in highly sensitive rural settings through imaginative and artful interpretation together with community engagement.
Acme began by presenting three possible design directions to its client, chosen to address the stringent challenges of building a new house on greenbelt land, with only stables and a manège, or riding area, serving as existing structures on the site. The diverse approaches included the house as sculptural object in the landscape, or burrowed down into the landscape, and as an oast form. The clients chose the latter as they had nearly bought a traditional oast house and liked the type, which is characteristic of the area. Acme then undertook research into the “interesting language” of oast layouts and played with numerous combinations to arrive at a distinctive floor plan.
Oasts, or kilns for the drying of hops used in beer production, are typically found in Kent and Sussex but also in Surrey and the West Midlands, and first appeared in the late sixteenth century, peaking in the nineteenth century. A traditional layout consists of one or more circular or pyramidal oasts, joined to a rectangular stowage barn. The kiln fire-dried hops that were laid above on a timber latticed first floor, the hot air rising through them to a cowl at the top. Acme formalised this plan into a cruciform shape consisting of four circular oasts connected at quarter points to a larger central oast, with gaps between each to create a fluid relationship with the garden.
The complex planning process was significantly aided when one of the clients, a planning consultant, joined the parish council, while the other garnered community support, ensuring everyone knew about the proposals. This engagement resulted in the scheme receiving approval at committee, against the planning officer’s recommendation for refusal. He had maintained that a new house would contravene planning policy as the stables did not count as an existing structure.
External expression is a key challenge in designing contemporary rural houses. A convincing reinterpretation of traditional details often involves experimenting with new, untested detailing, using traditional materials in innovative ways. Acme wished to steer away from the traditional division of clay-tiled roof with a brick cylinder below, and instead to create a seamless sculptural form in one material. Corten steel, clay shingles and even orange concrete were considered, with brickwork favoured initially. Bespoke, tapering bricks, however, were hard to source, expensive to form, with too much wastage.
The architects felt it safer to use the roof material for walls rather than wall material for the roof and decided on clay shingles that have the qualities of being natural, wearing well and blending into the landscape. Colour combinations and fading distribution were carefully composed, with some freedom given to the specialist tilers to mix it up. The final result of darker tiles at the base transitioning to lighter at the top gives the effect of the oasts fading into the sky. As a form of chimney, traditional oasts had very few small windows. The various windows needed at Bumpers Oast could have given it the look of an oast house conversion, teetering precariously close to pastiche. But through self-assured composition, Acme has given the house its own sense of identity, a fresh artful interpretation of the oast form.
Internally the central circular oast is an entrance and dining space reminiscent of a baronial hall, complete with a nimbly detailed oak staircase winding up to first floor. It presupposes a desire for serious open-plan living which free-flows from entrance hall to kitchen to living room, with a study, bedroom and shower as separate spaces.
The unconventional placement of a circular oast at the centre creates a tension between dynamism and stasis, as while the central space is dramatic, the plan may prove difficult to manipulate for future needs without destroying its completeness. Indeed, a slight niggle here is the lack of a proper boot room – an essential for country living.
Sustainability has been seamlessly integrated, and connects Bumpers Oast very satisfyingly to traditional oast functionality. The concrete ground-floor slab, heated via a ground-source heat pump, is the twenty-first-century equivalent of the original low-level kiln fire.
It provides the main source of heat for a house that is superbly insulated, barely needing further heating at first-floor and none at second floor. Then the opening rooflights at the apex of the conical roofs exhaust warm air just like traditional oast cowls, but with the further benefit of bringing diffuse light into the spaces below. Sound-wise, circular rooms are notorious for creating ‘whispering gallery’ effects, so they were acoustically modelled.
Acme embraced the need for bespoke curved joinery, such as the kitchen base units with curved plywood doors, study desking, plywood wall panelling daintily bent to form soft window reveals, and bedroom staircases and cupboards. By collaborating with local contractors experienced in fitting out oast houses, intricate detailing is achieved. At first- and second-floor levels the curves of the oast walls become tighter, precluding the use of ply panelling, so timber shingles are used to clad the walls and cone interiors to maintain the timber finish. The structure is essentially timber-framed with timber ring beams linked together in steel at points where the cones ‘kiss’. These points create arched panels of timber shingles that provide a vertical wall within each of the bedrooms. Three oasts have a bathroom and a study, playroom or dressing room at first floor and a bedroom at second floor. The fourth oast has a double-height second sitting room to provide an alternative communal space.
The wider site is still to be planted as a new apple orchard to increase the biodiversity. Two bunds between the oast and a neighbouring sports field mitigate noise transference. One, created by Acme, also made use of excess site spoil. The garage is a separate building, built of timber but with contrasting detailing so as not to detract from the house itself.
Bumpers Oast is not quite what it appears to be at first sight. It is not a nineteenth-century Kentish oast, nor is it a typical late-twentieth-century oast house conversion. Rather it is a sculptural distillation of this agricultural building type that stands on its own as a highly crafted and imaginative solution to designing a new house in this particular setting. As in one of Acme’s earlier works, the Manser Medal-winning Hunsett Mills, the architects’ thoughtful and sensitively judged approach finds a truly contemporary expresssion in the echo of an existing rural building type.
Furness Green Partnership
Harry Barnes Construction