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Closed encounters

Terry Farrell & Partners' rekindled interest in housing finds expression in three exceptional courtyard houses for Berkeley Homes Richmond, though part of London's inner commuterland, 16km from central London, has much of the residual character of a separate market town. And Petersham, 2km to its south across open Thames-side water meadows, retains much of the rural village.

Not surprising, then, that this prized setting is the location for seriously expensive housing. Farrell's three new houses here of 600-650m 2have an advertised guide price of £4 million each.

Nor is it surprising that Petersham, long an exclusive enclave preoccupied with privacy, has some of the feel of a gated community. Yes, the narrow roads have through traffic, but many of the mansions stand behind high walls with opaque gates.On River Lane, a walled route to the river edge, a gate leads to a backland site where Leonard Manassah built two houses in 1964-67. One, Courtyards, still stands. The other, Drum House, much altered, was demolished to create the site for the three new houses. Both local planning and conservation officers were supportive of building the three houses on this site, once the principle of grouping them was put forward, though there were some private objections. The houses now stand side-on as you emerge from the drive, their flank and courtyard walls and garages creating a faceted but continuous visual barrier in keeping with Petersham's tradition of built privacy, but not fortress-like.As elsewhere in the village, buildings and trees are evident above the walls.

Farrell's use of the courtyard form at Petersham is part of a wider interest in courtyard housing as a general housing model. He describes Petersham as an urban form in a rural setting, though the precedents cited in relation to Petersham are as much suburban/rural as urban - Barragán, Utzon's Fredensborg housing, Peter Aldington's Turn End and his own work at Northampton (1963). Other Farrell schemes - the urban Colonnades in London's Porchester Square (1973) and Swiss Cottage (2001) - plus the Petersham houses, demonstrate that high aspect-ratio house plans can make workable homes, with the potential to play the role of both house and perimeter wall of a courtyard unit (see plans).

And if Petersham, especially, suggests that large floorplates are a prerequisite, Farrell argues against this with a recent concept scheme for courtyard housing based on a two-storey 100m 2house (see plans).

Courtyard housing offers two potential strategies for the designer bent on densification.One is the potential for close packing of plots, which in principle could be contiguous with others on up to three sides. The other is an intensive rather than extensive relationship of the garden to the house.

House and garden are highly interconnected; the garden works harder but is smaller.

Outdoors really are rooms, as Farrell says, 'as intimate as any room in the house'. Inside the boundary wall, the surprise at Petersham is to look at the site plan and realise the high plot ratio.

In laying out three houses on this longestablished Petersham site, the architect had to negotiate the site's shape and established trees. While the designs of the three houses were never intended to be near-identical, Farrell's Mike Stowell says that they have turned out more different than initially envisaged. In outline, each plan is a long block with an attached lounge pavilion.

Varying the position where the pavilion connects to a block changes the garden shapes and in part drives each block's layout. Other variations between houses come from the design of the gardens - set out in rectilinear swathes, emphasised by lighting - and tailoring of the materials palette within the overall framework of white plaster and glass.

House 1 is the lightest, using white limestone for floors, worktops and garden, and a white reconstructed stone bath. The stairs and landing are beech. House 2 uses green slate and oak, including an oak master bath lining.House 3 is the darkest and most 'woody', with grey slate and walnut, plus teak decking to the garden and wenge in most bathrooms.

At the time of writing, the house furthest from the drive is complete (house 3);

house 2 is very nearly so; and house 1 is a few weeks off completion. The completed house 3 acts as the current show house, fitted out by Tara Bernerd, and is the one mainly pictured here.

Passing through a solid front door in the protective flank wall, you are immediately in a two-storey, galleried hall, fully top-lit, stretching some 35-40m. Too long and simply terminated to focus your attention on the end point, there is rather the intriguing ambiguity of where you are being led. You know that the continuous, exceptionally smooth (laser-levelled, dry-lined block) north wall on your right is also the boundary to the neighbour's courtyard. To the left, light spills from openings without doors.

Passing a group of service/store rooms, you turn first into a kitchen/breakfast space (and dining area in one plan), and are immediately confronted by the south wall which is glazed everywhere, incorporating large sliding doors and a garden area beyond. The sense of room and garden as an ensemble is made the more defined by the walls containing the garden. Flooring generally flows out into gardens. Kitchen fittings are as high spec as you would expect. This, though, is not the designed heart of the house. That, unambiguously, is the pavilion. To reach it you must return to the hall for a ceremonial entrance.

Passing beneath the gallery and through a single-storey transition space (including the glass-balustraded stair), you emerge into the dramatic symmetry of the square pavilion, a 4m hearth set in its solid facing wall, glazed to either side, with an appropriately high ceiling.

In fact, this ceiling is a storey and a half, much lower than the hall, but the transition space makes the act of entering the pavilion feel expansive rather than reduced.

It is only here in the pavilion that the whole scheme is revealed and the transparency of all spaces is evident. Brise soleil to the pavilion east and west both provide some shading and keep the eye's focus down on the connected outdoor rooms of the garden rather than up to the distant sky. It is a relaxed space, the architecture not seeking to assert itself.

Further along the hall of houses 2 and 3 there is a dining area, more a recess off the hall than a room, though more enclosure is available from sliding walls. These spaces are surprisingly small, especially for houses where entertaining is very much part of the design agenda. They feel somewhat hemmed in too, behind the nearby wall of the pavilion, despite it being painted with Barragán brightness. (This is less an issue for the bedrooms above, as they are high enough to look out over the pavilion. ) House 3 shows a particular response to an established tree. The house wraps around it with the plan depth cut back as far as the hall. This has been turned to advantage by placing the ground-floor room beyond to the west and the bedroom above a potential guest wing. Unusually, there is a second stair here and this bedroom does not connect to the rest of the house along the gallery.

First floors comprise bedrooms and white mosaic-tiled bathrooms, the latter expressed as boarding on the south facade, which is otherwise fully glazed with sliding doors as on the ground floor. Stowell was a bit defensive about the size of the bedrooms, not because they are in any way inadequate - they are large-normal - but because having paid the high price, purchasers may expect an ostentatious size. Some bathrooms are located in the upper level of the hall, a neat ordering though the 1.8m hall-width restricts layout. Some of these bathrooms' walls which face along halls are of obscured glass, borrowing light by day and providing another source of illumination by night.

Throughout, the standard of workmanship is, of course, exceptionally high. Even with all this attention to detail, the feel is more of a component building than something crafted, perhaps in part reflecting the Farrell interest in the potential for housing prefabrication. The houses' scale and expected use for entertaining result in some formality to the layouts, but they avoid that 'art gallery' quality of occupants constantly on show.With their intense privacy from neighbours they offer relaxed places for living.

CREDITS HOUSE BUDGET COST £3,970,000 (£2,174/m 2), including fees REVISED SPECIFICATION £4,404,000 (£2,415/m 2) with enhanced M&E, landscape, finishes, entry systems DEVELOPER Berkeley Homes ARCHITECT Terry Farrell & Partners: Terry Farrell, Malcolm Lerner, Giles Martin, Aidan Potter, Mike Stowell, Roda Sulaiman, Julia Davies STRUCTURAL ENGINEER Battle McCarthy LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT Gillespies LIGHTING DESIGNER LAPD SUBCONTRACTORS AND SUPPLIERS Steelwork Mid Kent Steel; cladding, glazing English Architectural Glazing; glass door systems Hueck; staircase metalwork Advance Fabrications; render Sto; stone flooring In-Situ; timber flooring UK Wood Floors; security MR Security; kitchen, bathroom fittings Alternative Plans; fireplaces Pedrette Engineering; control systems SMC; roofing Robseal; lighting control Lutron Homeworks WEBLINKS Berkeley Homes www. berkeleyhomes. co. uk Terry Farrell & Partners www. terryfarrell. co. uk Battle McCarthy www. battlemccarthy. com Gillespies www. gillespies. co. uk

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