First things first
The three buildings this week - Black House, Double House and In-Between - are the shortlisted projects for the AJ First Building Award in association with RobinEllis Design and Construction, with the winner to be announced at the Stirling Prize event in October. We begin with the Black House by Mole Architects, a striking presence in the flat Fenland landscape The windy flatlands of East Anglia are home to many small, dispersed communities, the longer-established hamlets often protected by shelter belts. But the barn-like Black House in the village of Prickwillow stands tall and exposed, using instead today's (lowenergy) technologies for protection, free then to enjoy the long vistas this landscape affords.
Such reworking, drawing on local roots, and in the process making something new, is what gives this project much of its vitality.
Of course, the blackness is what strikes you first, though this was not an essential of the original ideas. A few barns in the area are clad in corrugated fibre-cement sheet, painted black. (The Fens were drained too recently and the peaty ground is too compressible for a heavy oak-framing tradition to have flourished. ) These simple barn precedents helped with the eventual local acceptability of the scheme. But architect Meredith Bowles of Mole Architects, whose family home this is, considered early on a galvanised pressed fish-scale-pattern siding system from the US for what is a prefabricated timber-panel structure. Only when it proved problematic to get the sitework of making the siding's corners, openings etc, done in the UK did Bowles turn to 'native' corrugated sheeting. These sheets are, of course, grey/white.
Paradoxically it was Simon Conder, with whom Bowles had shared workspace, and who created the black rubber-clad retreat at Dungeness (AJ 22.1.04), who asked Bowles if he 'had the bottle' to leave it unpainted.
Eventually the more contextual black option prevailed, one Bowles feels is 'more finished'.
Many local buildings hunker into the ground for wind protection, often leaning and bending, poorly founded on the compressible peat. Black House, by contrast, stands tall and true, a possibility of the technology Bowles has adopted. His house is on 10m piles, the visible brick piers on pile caps linked by a ring beam of glulam, on which the building sits, proud of the ground. While Bowles is happy to have avoided the complications of damp-proofing, the decision to make the house float above the ground owes more to the visual tradition of granaries on stone staddles. And to the desire to have Georgian-height ceilings, so that the house would inevitably stand tall compared with its neighbours anyway. Height turned out to be more problematic for the planners than the blackness. (Immediately neighbouring houses are undistinguished inter-war semis and recent developer spec houses, although there are two steel and glass houses by Jonathan Ellis-Miller nearby. ) As you approach Black House, the barnlike agricultural simplicity is soon subverted;
galvanised steps lead up to a coloured paleblue door with a yellow panel to one side, the fenestration is extensive, and close to you see the sharpness of detailing, such as the steel sections that make the vertical corner arrises, where corrugated sheets abut.
The house is oriented east-west with west the principal orientation across open fields.
(immediately to the south is a neighbouring building). A timber-slatted brise-soleil to the ground floor shades windows from low sun, with solar film to first-floor windows. This response to climate is both a matter of being in tune with the rural location and Bowles' commitment to environmental issues.
With walls of timber I-beams with recycled newspaper insulation, the house is highly insulated. A heat-pump system with heat recovery provides hot water and warm-air heating (backed up by small panel radiators, hardly needed). Bowles finds this wholehouse heat-pump package needs controls that are a bit more advanced; it is one of the freedoms of self-building to be able to try things out.
Windows from Rationel provide much better airtightness than most on the market.
When the wind really blows here, a layer of dust from the slowly eroding peat can cover a house interior, as it has in the recently built spec houses nearby. (Perhaps surprisingly, south-west winds are prevailing, rather than the famed north-easterlies blowing cold and uninterrupted from the Urals. ) Internal layout is focused west, although most principal rooms do have daylight from two sides. On the ground floor, large glazed doors open on to a timber-decked western terrace; the kitchen at the heart of the house includes a window seat. There is a generous walk-in utility room and larder, though this is not a grow-your-own-food family.
Upper floors are reached by a top-lit stair with glass balustrades. Finishes generally follow the simple construction - plastered walls and translucent-stain timber joinery.
These upper floors provide bedrooms plus workrooms for Mole Architects and for Bowles' novelist wife, Jill Dawson. The regular compartmentation of the plan is in part occasioned by the need for two crosswalls to stiffen the tall platform-framed structure against wind loads, effectively dividing the floors into three zones. Increased ceiling height in the main bedroom (first floor, south) is readily achieved with this timberframing method, and the step up in the son's bedroom above is just an added feature.
There is a hand-made quality to this house; not surprisingly, perhaps, since Bowles took a year out from mainstream architectural work to build it. He has gained an experience of construction and its management that he will use in future projects. In the process he has created a personal-feeling home, innovative yet fitting this landscape.
His next clients appear to agree.