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Cavendish Avenue House, Cambridge, by Mole Architects

A one-off design by Mole Architects combined with the homeowner’s decorative taste has created a beautiful example of domestic architecture, says Kester Rattenbury. Photography by David Butler

‘It’s dinky, if anything,’ says Meredith Bowles of Mole Architects. ‘It could have been a foot higher.’ He’s right. His practice’s new house, in a street of large Victorian homes in the southern suburbs of Cambridge, is incredibly cute.

Kept that bit smaller for planning reasons, it’s in the great tradition of English houses that takes high architecture, domesticates it in scale and adds feature windows, understairs cupboards, attic storeys and porch seats. Don’t knock it. It’s produced some of the most gorgeous homes in the world.

Mole Architects’ new house is incredibly cute

And this is a lovely example. After 17 letters of objection and a nail-biting finale (‘if it had been a TV debate, it would have been really quite interesting,’ says Bowles), the planning meeting went 5/4 to them, the casting vote for its excellent green qualities.

‘Indeed,’ he adds, studying the client’s meter readings with pleasure – and despite Mole not setting out to do this officially – ‘it looks like we’ve got ourselves a passive house.’

Though the shingle comes as a surprise – tiles were originally intended – this house is designed incredibly carefully to fit into the patterns of its detached Victorian neighbours. The front is formed of two parts: the shingled timber volume works like, and is scaled to match, the occasionally tiled front bays of the neighbouring properties.

The main volume, clad in a glass rainscreen, is scaled more like a classic white villa (a contextual curio which doesn’t bother me a bit) with grand stair window and attic storey, its white striped glass overcoat carefully chosen to make what could otherwise have been a dour north wall a soft and hazy presence on the road.

The stairwell isn’t vast, but is luxurious

The front door opens to a triple-height hall and stairwell that isn’t vast, but is luxurious. It is top-lit (the opening and blinds are controlled automatically), with glass-sided walkways, and includes a concrete core that acts as the cooling and heating core for the house and is decorated in concrete-coloured ‘ponyskin’ wallpaper by the owner, as well as a ‘chimney’, though the fireplace at the back was replaced by a desk.

This hall acts as the fire stair and has banisters, understairs cupboard and niches for furniture while still maintaining open views throughout the house. That’s a lot to pull off.

The whole house opens off the hall. The shingled bay, with its big window to the road, is a private, cosy, timber-lined music room with pyramid roof, enclosed separately from the rest of the house. The kitchen, dining room and living room open into one another and out through the glazed wall to the garden.

The exposed timber structure extends to form the solar shading portico at the back, which is sail-rigged in summer. 

Bowles mentions rooms a lot

What could be uncompromising materials – exposed timber structure, concrete core, steel elements – are used simply; variously combined rather than creating a rhetorical flourish, making this a soft space.

Even the glazed wall to the garden combines timber and metal – fixed slim metal elements, chunky wood opening ones – which makes for a much nicer and less ruthlessly bombastic glazed wall than is now usual.

Bowles mentions rooms a lot. ‘There’s far too much talk about space and opening things up to the garden,’ he says. A really good room with the right degree of privacy between you and the road is a hard thing to achieve, yet this house manages all of it. However, as the hall is so large, the rooms themselves are not.

But they’re chic, offer great views and, with all the doors open, you can see right through the building from any point.

While it has architectural clarity, this should always be an easy house to live in

This is a very accommodating bit of domestic design. True, it’s made for a client family that sought Mole out, but you can see that while it has architectural clarity, this should always be an easy house to live in. It accommodates all kinds of furniture.

It is detailed to soften itself into the background. It’s on the sweet side of architecture – but most of the best normal houses are. It is, crucially, a great example of something architects tend not to do: make a real, comfortable house. I’m told the planners now hold it up as an example of how you can do a ‘modern’ yet traditional house. And quite right, too.

Awards

Winner: David Urwin Award, Cambridge City Council
Winner: RIBA East Spirit of Ingenuity: Sustainability
Winner: British Homes Awards – best small house

Project Data

Tender date April 2007
Start on site September 2007
Contract duration 50 weeks
Gross internal floor area 205m²
Form of contract JCT intermediate
Total cost £570,000
Cost per m² £2,780
Client Private
Architect Mole Architects
Structural engineer Ramboll
Quantity surveyor Sherif Tiplady
Main contractor Cambridge Building Company
Glass screen supplier Firmans Glass
Timber frame supplier KLH
Annual CO2 emissions Not supplied

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