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Cliff House by Foster Lomas

5 houses by 5 practices: Cliff House by Foster Lomas Architects

Cliff House is Foster Lomas Architects’ first new-build house, situated on the Kent coast overlooking the English Channel.

Our clients were a semi-retired couple with a family business in London who had always wanted to build their own house. They spent considerable time finding a site, finally purchasing a substantial Edwardian house with a large sloping garden which was previously a railway cutting. The draw was the incredible view out to sea from the south-facing garden that is elevated 50m above sea level.

In 2008 we produced a feasibility study to examine the potential of the overall site. Grander plans were shelved as we were then in thick of the global financial meltdown, and instead a smaller house was conceived in a part of the garden. The original house and remaining garden were then sold off to fund the project. The budget was tight, and to reduce costs the client became the contractor, managing the build process.

The focus of the brief was the view, but we also had to consider the protected view looking back to the steep hillside from the seafront. We studied the grain of development along the hillside to determine the siting of the building, and to provide an argument to the planners that the new house would actually follow local precedents.

We imagined the simple, low-cost building as a sculpted block of Kent chalk, perched above the ground. The mass is skewed, reacting to the site constraints, with further cut-outs made to allow for terraces and windows. We developed the form with intensive model-making; this also assisted us in communicating our ideas to the local planning authority and the neighbours.

Locally there is a history of geological instability, and planning guidelines required us to minimise the loading on the slope. This meant that mass concrete was not a solution. With engineer Webb Yates, we developed a scheme that balanced the weight of the new building with the weight of material excavated. A cut into the slope creates a flat site, with a grid of piles connected with shallow ground beams providing the foundations. The building sits in the cut on legs, avoiding the need for expensive waterproofing. The idea was simple but due to the difficult geological conditions, roughly 25 per cent of the budget was spent on groundworks.

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We designed a lightweight house using a timber frame fully filled with insulation and then overclad with a continuous layer of Diffutherm wood-fibre insulation. The entire building was rendered with a lime-based breathable render that requires no expansion joints, resulting in a seamless finish.

The local authority required us to achieve a minimum of Code for Sustainable Homes level 3, and this informed the construction method. A rainwater harvesting system and an array of solar panels on the roof were installed, as well as many other minor requirements.

The plan of the house is focused on maximising the view so the main living spaces are on the upper, entrance level. As you enter what appears to be a single-storey building, you are immediately presented with a view to the sea. The daylit hallway brings together the geometries generated by the view and the site.

The living spaces are open plan and a large picture window provides an unobstructed south-easterly view. From the dining space a lowered terrace can be accessed, and this is dramatically perched 9m above the lawn below. The kitchen is located at the front of the building and has a northern window looking into a private courtyard.

On the lower floor the bathrooms and ancillary spaces are positioned on the blind north side of the building. The bedrooms are dramatically lowered towards the intimate lawn between the trees at the bottom of the slope, with the master bedroom benefiting from a south-facing balcony.

Greg Lomas, director, Foster Lomas Architects

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