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Flight of fancy

building study

Butterfly House, Laurie Chetwood's weekend home, is a hands-on playful architecture of self-expression and a development lab for Chetwood Associates Distribution centres, mixed-use urban redevelopments and Underground stations are just some of the buildings you may not have heard of from Chetwood Associates, projects in the modern mainstream. The work has, though, developed an increasingly green theme, such as a hotel project for Clerkenwell (AJ 9.5.02) and the Sainsbury's supermarket at Greenwich, notably its daylighting, shoppers being able to see the sky.

For Laurie Chetwood this is not just an extension of functionality, what he calls 'the boiled dry stuff ', but a quest to make buildings more enjoyable to experience.

'Architects should put a hell of a lot more into quality of life, ' he says, and he sees this happening by putting more passion into buildings, balancing it against the boiled dry.

That said, he feels OK about the balance struck at Greenwich. But the Butterfly House has given him a chance to explore where the high-passion, expressive end of the spectrum leads, both for himself and as a test bed for the practice. The house has offered a low-risk environment for experimentation. They have been able to try out wild ideas, often making prototypes. 'Almost everything was built twice, ' says Chetwood cheerfully.A lot has been self-built, a gradual prolonged process.Wife (and practice member) Roz recalls, when pregnant, climbing a ladder to the upper floor before new stairs were installed. Emily is now three. The remainder has been project-managed by Chetwood. Finding the right people has been difficult, as has cost control.As she says, they learned to present what they were doing as relatively conventional to potential subcontractors - a piece of steel to be laser-cut here, some glass-fixing there. If, instead, they presented what was needed in the context of the bigger picture of an experimental project, cost estimates escalated.

The project began conventionally enough, with Chetwood buying the house in 1993, with its adjacent summer house, on 1.2ha of land. The site sits on a south-facing slope, relatively open, but in other directions enclosed in trees. The site's indigenous planting turned out to be highly attractive to butterflies. An ecological survey of the site highlighted this, leading to new planting which enhances this quality.

The main building is a Canadian timberframed kit house erected first in the 1930s at the Ideal Home Exhibition and re-erected on this site at Dunsfold in Surrey in 1946. Perhaps because of its exhibition provenance, it had no insulation (nor airtightness) - OK as a summer shelter.

Chetwood overclad it in insulation and brick to make it habitable at weekends yearround. Then it was time to branch out, to dream.

It is easy enough to play spot-the-influence - to Pop Art, '70s Star Trek, not to mention Heath Robinson. But these are in some ways beside the point, Chetwood is not trying here to advance any established positions. And the butterfly lifecycle ideas, which were not there at the start, are now the most explicit influences, particularly the ribbed chrysalis of the pupal stage, the bursting out and the spreading of wings, worked out sculpturally and in graphics.

While the whole is very much more than the sum of the parts, it is simplest to explain it as building plus unfolding butterfly. The original house, latterly brick-faced, has been overclad in high-spec painted ply, its roof 's existing bonnet ends turned into powered ventilator flaps with extending fabric cheeks.

The new chimney is clad in layered copper sheets, some natural, some painted in bluegreys. This building has been joined to the summer house by a new glazed entrance link (opening up the end of the house), plus conservatory and guestroom/playroom with a route via the guest's bathroom and a short white Star Trek tube of a corridor into the summer house. This is now a studio and has been reroofed with clear plastic corrugated sheets, plus fabric shading on the south slope.

Running through these buildings is the sculptural unfolding of the butterfly. It begins on the north side, where plants such as nettles are most conducive to butterfly egg-laying. Galvanised metal plates like leaves step up to a plated walkway that loops in an arc to the new front entrance. Its surface floats above the garden, supported on ribbed arms and crossed structural cables.

Balustrades of entwined tubes compound the deliberate illegibility of the structure.

Some are side-emitting fibre optics that make the whole route to and through the house much more a separate entity at night.

Copper tubes carry end-emitting fibre optics. Some of the tubes carry collected rainwater for irrigation, all continue through the glazed entrance and out the other side. It is in the entrance that Chetwood (and son Charlie, aged 5) built the sculpture, where supports and blades of plastic sheet in the black and red of the swallowtail butterfly burst through the glass roof. The violent dynamic and motifs of this are taken up too in the metal-plate stair (surprisingly not 'live' to step on). Out on to the terrace to the south, and repeated on a smaller scale further east on the terrace, furled Kevlar butterfly wings can be wound to unfold. Terrace planting here favours the emergent butterfly with nectar. Wisteria is beginning to grow up the building.

This is not all.Obsessive experimentation is everywhere. In the conservatory a table of three layers of glass with overlapping butterfly patterns is held by cables between roof and floor, as is some of the seating - boards for sitting forward or leaning back while perched on sliding rowing seats. The kitchen table (cooking is not a favoured weekend activity) is a set of five glass plates, here pierced and locked together by free-standing steel rods. In the main house's 'studio' (more a TV/lounge space), a small version of a ship's steering wheel spins to let down two hinged half circles of glass on cables, part folded like wings, until by ingenious gearing they open to a be a flat table above a circular pit where it is tethered for stability - you sit on the edge of the pit. In the living room, skeins of shock cord (elasticated rope, as in bungee jumping) support timber seats - some are quite stiff, some sway. (An earlier idea was to cover the room with rubber rods like a cornfield that you could lay back on anywhere, but detailing and the cost of several kilometres of rubber curtailed this.

Maybe later. ) Upstairs the children's bedrooms are little touched, but suspending the bed in the master bedroom is work in progress, and the bathroom includes dispensers in the form of chemistry lab burettes.

Some of this stuff only sort of works.

Chetwood himself has no problem with that.

He is a man who needs a project. To finish would be unthinkable (and improbable). He is happy to be learning about a whole range of technologies, like rediscovering winding mechanisms, the dynamics of weaving shock cord, how meshes of wires and cables come to lock solid, or tuning gas struts (which operate the hinged window-wall to the living room). Many of the moving parts, now hand-cranked, may one day be motorised when funds allow. Even so, what is surprising, given the different sort of sophistication of Chetwood's other buildings, is the Arts and Crafts of it all. There is underfloor heating and a big extract fan in the conservatory dressed as a bug - essentially this is a very low-tech house. In common with many architects, Chetwood's exercise here in zoomorphism (he is also exhibiting at the current V&A Zoomorphic show) is essentially only visual, without the process of life - the animal characteristics of evolving, of responding, of learning. No artificial intelligence here. The unfolding wings are kinetic sculpture, not smart shading.

Getting this far is, even so, an amazing achievement. Chetwood hopes to evoke an attitude like his own amazement on first seeing the Pompidou Centre. Not surprisingly, not every neighbour shares his enthusiasm for the exploratory - often weekenders themselves too but more intent on rural escapism.

He is discreet about this, since they must continue to coexist. The planners would not let Chetwood knock the house down but accepted wrapping another design around it.

Chetwood's house is a one-off, no more the start of a new movement than were the works of Mackintosh or Gaudí, and for some of the same reasons. His programme has wider application, in its exploring of the personal expressive possibilities of the architect-artist, one not inhibited about wearing his art on his sleeve. If he has a message for us, it is surely 'lighten up'.

CREDITS

PLANNING PERMISSION 1997 PROJECT DETAILED DESIGN 1997-1998 START ON SITE 1999 TOTAL COST £500,000 CLIENT Laurie Chetwood CLIENT, ARCHITECT Chetwood Associates: Laurie Chetwood, Roz Marzano, Christoph Recktenwald, Martin Herbert, Stuart Cross, Mike Vines STRUCTURAL ENGINEER WSP - butterfly structure Furness Green Partnership - staircase Gledsdale Associates - house conversion ECOLOGICAL CONSULTANTS Christopher Betts Environmental Biology MAIN CONTRACTOR Crisp Interiors SUBCONTRACTORS AND SUPPLIERS Conservatory Mag Hansen; walkwayWill Engineering; staircase Mayflower; canopies Lucas Sails, Stewart Signs,3M; fibre optics Crescent Lighting; butterfly superstructure Hilsea Engineering; glass furniture Rankins Glass; bathroom fittings Fisher Scientific; fittings C&M Smith; galvanised steelwork Doncaster Laser Logistics; slate suppliers McAlpine Slate; laser fabrication CR4; tube and conduit Abbey Hose; stainless steel components Jakob Inox Line; roofing Cobsen Davies; electrician Miles Electrical; carpet Natural Elements; architectural metalwork Shireoaks Engineering; sound system Alpine

WEBLINKS

Chetwood Associates www. chetwood. co. uk

WSP Group www. wspgroup. com

Christopher Betts Environmental Biology www. christopherbetts. com

Crisp Interiors www. crispinborst. co. uk

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