They are difficult to make money out of; they have a tendency to drag on and on; the clients are invariably unrealistic, indecisive and excessively demanding.
Common sense suggests that commissions for one-off private houses should be avoided like the plague. And yet architects can't resist them. There is always the hope that it will prove to be the consummate portfolio piece - like Fallingwater or the Farnsworth House, an individual vision expressed in its purist form. But almost everything conspires against perfection. The paraphernalia of everyday life is intrusive, which explains why the weekend retreat has proved so popular among the more puritanical. And clients can be troublesome. Confronted with the exquisite perfection of Mies van der Rohe's masterpiece, Edith Farnsworth could only complain that she couldn't put a garbage can under the sink because it would ruin the whole look of the house.
The solution is not only to build a weekend retreat, but to build it for yourself. Our new supplement inhouse features Nik Karalis' beach retreat on Australia's Mornington Peninsula, while our building study looks at the house at Beaulieu in Hampshire which Basil Spence built for himself in 1961. It is easy to dismiss such houses as self-indulgent extravagances. But one-off houses have a relationship to mass housing akin to that of the grand prix car to the production model. Considered in isolation, it is expensive, but as a flagship project for its maker it begins to make more sense - becoming home, practice brochure, and corporate identity rolled into one. And it is an invaluable testing bed for new technologies and ideas. It may break down with worrying regularity, but it can afford to be highmaintenance as it will get the attention it deserves.
Like a carefully crafted car, a lovingly designed house can inspire devotion, not only in it original maker and/or owner, but in others as well. The extension and refurbishment of Spence's Beaulieu house demonstrates the extent to which it is appreciated by its new owners and its new architect - proof that long after the owner has ceased to live there, even the most personal of houses can continue to delight.