Mole Architects has built a new house and boat shed on the harbour front at Wells-next-the-Sea in north Norfolk.

Buildings.

Practice director Meredith Bowles talks to Piers Taylor from Invisible Studio about East Anglia’s otherworldly character, drawing inspiration from local materials, artful informality and the fine line between thoughtful reinterpretation and straightforward pastiche.

The project is also the subject of an episode of AT Conversations, a podcast series hosted by Architecture Today editor Isabel Allen that taps into discussions taking place across the profession.

Meredith Bowles The client is an engineer who we’ve worked with for many years. He lives in a house opposite the Balancing Barn, the house that we did with MVRDV for Living Architecture, so he knew we were up for doing something interesting.

Piers Taylor It’s a quirky building in an unpredictable way. There is a composition but it’s a very unusual composition. I think working in a context like this is really hard. It’s a very particular context and you could argue that you hardly need architecture. There’s a series of buildings that have evolved over many years and most of them haven’t been designed by an architect. Most of them are unselfconscious. You have all these haphazard encounters of one building being next to another that have evolved over 300 or 400 years. But it is a very strange and unusual placement. The landscape of East Anglia is exotic and strange. How did you know how to place a building in a context that seems to me, as somebody that lives in the west, so strange and other?

Initial sketches explored the possibility of replicating the three-storey gablefronted form of the building that previously occupied the site or making a two-storey building with a roof pitched away from the road. Both options were rejected as too overbearing in the streetscape.
The strategy of dividing the frontage into a “living” house and a “sleeping” house, each with their own materiality and roof profile, allowed for a composition in keeping with the scale of the houses and small cottages that characterise the area.

Meredith Bowles One thing that’s really particular about East Anglia is how cut off it has been over the years. This part of East Anglia is coastal, which is the most connected. East Anglia made its connections to the rest of the world through seafaring and then up rivers. And once the rivers ceased to be the main form of transport, it was cut off. We don’t have any hills or big rivers to drive industry so the industrial revolution passed it by, which is why it feels like a place out of time, because it
effectively stopped at the end of its very rich medieval history. Until the late 20th century, apart from the university towns, there wasn’t much going on. There wasn’t much industry, which I think is why each part of East Anglia has its own very particular qualities. But they’re all very cohesive. North, where this is, it’s a ring of fishermen’s towns along the coast that are built out of the local materials. These have changed over time and actually there is a great deal of variation, although the “typical” is treasured and the variations are less observed. The brick and the flint, the lime wash, the black-painted pantiles – they’re extraordinarily consistent. And the feeling of those materials belonging to that landscape, as all indigenous vernacular buildings tend to do, is incredibly strong.

Our client wanted something that was as extraordinary as we could muster up for him with the knowledge that we were in the middle of a conservation area next to a load of listed buildings. I value conservation areas and I love listed buildings. I don’t have any problem at all with the idea of preservation and making something that is suitable for its context, that’s not going to upset the equilibrium of a place, but I think the interpretation of the rules is often incredibly narrow. My take on making a building that is contextually conscious does not preclude it being different.

Ampetheatre

The roof line follows the pattern of varied hipped roof and gable ends facing on to the road.

Piers Taylor At the same time, it is familiar. You can tell it’s a Mole building. I studied in a culture that was quite straightforwardly rooted in the modern movement, and no architect that I knew really knew how to respond to a historic place with any degree of subtlety and sophistication. There’s the modernist response and there’s the conservation response. And it’s unusual to actually understand how you can do an extraordinary building that really does look at what’s there in a very considered way and doesn’t try to mimic it – doesn’t try to be a pastiche of it – but at the same time draws out a building that is extraordinary without being overtly extraordinary.

Meredith Bowles Observing a place and spending time just seeing what you can find is really interesting. That’s the bit that is often lost in terms of the interpretation of the character of a place. Everyone focuses in on the special, particular, beautiful buildings. That’s what gets written into conservation appraisals. Everything else gets excluded as if they don’t make up the quality of the place. When we were trying to get to grips with the character of what we wanted to produce, we used a number of images that were not actually buildings.

They were bits of buildings or signs or, in particular, the lobster pots made out of netted material that are piled up on the foreshore. And black tar-painted walls. There are buildings that are black tar painted, but a lot of walls are too. That’s the character that we began to discover; that wasn’t just about listed buildings. The question was how do you make a building that encapsulates or imbues those qualities; that references not only the local buildings but the lobster pots and black tar paint?

The little building at the back, by the way, shouldn’t have been grey, it should have been black, but the conservation officer just wouldn’t have it. It freaked him out too much – even though you could point to other black buildings – because it made for him too stark a contrast. My thought is that you can make a condensation like an extreme genius loci; a concentration of what’s there that makes you then look at what’s around you because it’s startling.

Ampetheatre

Piers Taylor Black is a strange colour for conservation officers in any context. Yet even in a rural or small town context it’s the most familiar colour of all. I remember once, when we proposed a black extension to a building, someone on the planning committee said “Who could do that to a building?” But of course, people have been doing that to buildings for hundreds of years.

One of the things that really interests me about the language of modernity is how we deal with the familiar. What I like about the house that you designed for yourself is the fine line between what’s familiar and what’s unfamiliar. A door is still a door and a window is still a window and a skirting is still a skirting. And in the language of modern architecture, those are the hardest things to do. There are almost no architect I know working in the idiom of the modern who know how to weave those things into their work. How do you deal with those things?

Meredith Bowles Well, in some ways I think the general public are mystified by architects – the reason being that we are steeped in an experience and observation of buildings that are unfamiliar. One of the aspirations, or the instincts, that led Alain de Botton to do Living Architecture was a feeling that most people are never able to experience modern architecture.

I think what’s happened to me over years of travelling around and seeing stuff – and I love looking at old buildings as much as new ones – is that I’ve developed an understanding of the language of the built world, which includes modernism but is predominantly stuff that’s been built over the last thousand years. And actually, I think the resonance for me of going into historic places is stronger than going into most modern buildings.

Ampetheatre

A large bay window cantilevers out to shelter the entrance, which is tucked around the side on Jolly Sailor Lane.

Piers Taylor What I like about old buildings is that inscrutability. You can’t quite tell where it started and where it finished and what happened in between. There’s no beginning point. There’s no end point. When I look at this house, it doesn’t look like a building that was necessarily designed to look as if it was made over time, and yet it does feel as if it could have evolved. There could have been something there that was accrued in quite an unselfconscious manner. And yet at the same time, it is a formal piece of design.

Meredith Bowles Yeah, it is completely artful, of course. It’s not accidentally haphazard. It was invented in a way to give it that sense of accretion. To break it down into parts so that it wasn’t one big building but two smaller ones was a logical thing to do. It stood a better chance of it being less imposing in the street. Having done that, we then made it three parts instead of two and thought of them like … I don’t know … three pebbles or boats that had knocked together when the tide came in. This site, of course, was irregular, and our client wanted to use every available bit of space. And so those three forms that started off being regular all found their position, which left all kinds of weird angles in between them that was hell to build.

Piers Taylor How is it made? And how much did your client, the engineer, have an input into it?

Meredith Bowles Actually, his input was really interesting. He just wanted it to be as stiff as possible. He didn’t want an inch of movement in it. We’re used to the engineering being driven down to a minimum but this was completely overengineered.

He wanted to clad the whole thing in 25-millimetre ply, so that it was as rigid as anything. We had assumed originally it would be three little timber buildings on top of a flood-resilient concrete base. We ended up having a steel frame, and I was quite against that originally. I thought, “Why can’t it just be timber on top of concrete blocks? This is a tiny building. What’s the problem with that?” But they persuaded me that the size of the timbers was a problem. The space constraints on this building were enormous. We couldn’t put accommodation on the ground floor so we made that a boat shed and a store. Ideally, the client would have wanted three bedrooms, but it was just not possible.

We had a slightly larger building earlier on and the planner, probably rightly, said that it needed to be smaller. So the client was concerned about keeping as much of the interior volume as possible.

And the advantage of the steel frame with really small angles was enormous because it was such a complex building to set out. The steel frame was done between Alice Hamlin, who is the architect in my office working on the drawings, and the engineer. They used BIM to model the steel frame. So when it arrived and was erected on site, it fitted and all of the timber work could go in the right place. I think the setting out of it would have been really challenging if it had just been timber. That was quite an interesting lesson in terms of the value of sequential work and setting out.

The bit that would have been impossible to make with a simple timber roof structure is the roof terrace, which was dropped down into the volume of the hipped roof. You’ve got hip with a three-metre square chunk of it cut out in the middle. It would have been very difficult to do that without steel. And it’s a massively valuable space.

The client really loves his electronic gadgets, so there’s a tiny little staircase going up to a sliding window in the bedroom that allows you to go up on to the roof terrace; you can carry a tray of stuff and press a button and walk out on to the terrace. And then there’s a dumbwaiter that takes your G&Ts up to the roof terrace from the kitchen.

Ampetheatre

Photograph from circa 1912 showing the Norfolk Freeholders Public House standing on the site. Unlike most of the buildings on East Quay, the building’s gable faces the street.

Piers Taylor That’s quite an unusual thing also, to be able to get a house on a site with no external space around it. Usually planners do like to see a garden. It’s also quite unusual to enter from the side.

Meredith Bowles Yeah, it’s a little side street, so you enter off the side, which is up the hill. We wanted to get the entrance door as high up the hill as we could. We had to place all the living space at first floor level because the area is prone to flooding. So the living room is upstairs.

Obviously, the building is wholly about the view. You’re not going to go on holiday there and not want to look at the view. I mean, everyone wants a front row seat. So we’ve given it the biggest window we could. It’s looking north. Weirdly, it’s a part of East Anglia that faces north, so there’s no overheating from the window. Everything is subservient to that view, because that’s all you want to do if you’re there.

Piers Taylor What about your own environmental agenda? I know you take energy very seriously – energy use and carbon. Tell us a little bit about that in the context of this house.

Meredith Bowles Well, it’s interesting. You work with your clients in whatever way you can and persuade them as much as you’re able, and you choose to take on jobs or not. We have greater buy-in from some clients than others. John was mostly concerned with maximising interior space, so the thought of losing space with an extra 100mm of insulation was really difficult for him. And they are small rooms, and it’s an expensive building. I continue to pressurise my local authorities and central government to change legislation so we can’t build buildings that use more energy. And until the regulations change, it’s up to people to make their own choices.

Credits

Client
Private client
Architect
Mole Architects: Meredith Bowles, Sasha Edmunds, Alice Hamlin
Building Contractor
Cunningham Builders
Engineer
JP Chick
M&E consultant
ALH Design
Lighting Designer
Claire Spellman
Lighting Design