Acting as client, designer and main contractor, Terry Pawson has created a house in Wimbledon which fuses many influences into a complex spatial composition on a narrow, steeply sloping site Architects' houses are a familiar London building type. From John Soane and William Burges to Ted Cullinan and Michael Hopkins, architects have housed themselves memorably in the capital. Terry Pawson's house at Arthur Road, Wimbledon, a recent RIBA Award winner, is a notable addition to this select canon of work.
Architects' own houses are typically highly subjective works, and sometimes quite extreme ones in which personal preoccupations can be pursued without the constraints imposed by clients. (Spouses could be a restraining influence, but Burges was a bachelor and Soane a grieving, and obsessive, widower. ) In this light, it is perhaps hardly surprising that some of the most influential and radical British architects of the modern era - the Smithsons, James Stirling and Richard Rogers, for example - have opted to adapt existing houses rather than face planning battles with cautious local authorities.
It was in Wimbledon, a mile or so from the Pawson house, that Rogers completed a notable house in the late 1960s, not for his own occupation but for his parents. Clearly inspired by the Case Study houses he had discovered during his post-AA sojourn in the US, the Rogers House is an elegant glazed pavilion sunk from view in a lush garden close to Wimbledon Common.
In contrast, Terry Pawson's house is located in classic suburbia - a steeply rising avenue of prosperous villas, extending uphill from Wimbledon Park tube station. There are remnants of Georgian development, but most of the extant houses date from the 1900s on, with plenty of Neo-Tudor in evidence.
Pawson and his wife moved to Wimbledon some years ago. They had found the site at Arthur Road occupied by a former stable block, converted to a cottage, with a long, narrow garden behind. The house, modestly refurbished, became their home, but problems of subsidence eventually drove them out and the building was demolished.
Having resolved to build a new family house on the site, Pawson was immediately confronted by major constraints. The site was very narrow and quite steeply sloping, while the proximity of a large Edwardian villa meant that rights of light had to be respected. Local authority planners were, however, receptive to the principle of a new, uncompromisingly modern house being built there and a process of consultation helped win support from neighbours.
In common with many projects of this kind, the Arthur Road house was a considerable time in gestation - and in realisation.
Pawson was running a busy, middle-sized practice and the house had to wait when other jobs took priority. He had resolved to manage the project personally, hiring subcontractors and direct labour as required. The house was eventually completed late last year.
No room in the house is more than 5m wide. The plan is necessarily linear: as Pawson says: 'The section is everything.' The positioning of the front elevation was determined, to a large extent, by the existence of a fine mature oak tree which partly screens it from the road.Much thought, it is clear, went into the design of this elevation, informal and asymmetrical, yet clearly intended to make some reference to the suburban vernacular with its tradition of applied timbering. The particular form of the timber cladding on this facade (using unseasoned oak boards), Pawson says, owes something to David Chipperfield's Henley rowing museum, a building he particularly admires. The flush windows are also carefully considered (see Working Detail, page 34).
By placing all the bedrooms in a fourstorey tower, a lightweight timber structure facing the road, Pawson produced a house that has all the scale of the big 1900s villas in the vicinity. The tower contains a bedroom and bathroom at each level and is topped by a roof terrace - from here you can peer down into the top-floor bathroom through a glass ceiling.
A full-height staircase hall, top-lit, forms a connection between the tower and the main living spaces - living room, dining area and kitchen - which are contained in a third element - a two-storey pavilion which steps down the slope and is linked at the lower level to a generous garden terrace outside.
The kitchen is more than 3m below the level of the road and entrance hall. The pavilion is covered by a concrete barrel vault, with external planting to soften its impact. A clear route through the building extends along the northern perimeter, passing through the hall and leading visitors to the staircase, which leads down to the sociable domain of the dining area and garden terrace.
In the hall and living pavilion, concrete is used structurally and, in fair-faced and exposed form, to generate the aesthetic of the interior. Pawson cites Tadao Ando as an enormous inspiration: 'His wonderful way of framing views, bringing the outside and inside together and forming dramatic enclosures.' The timber tower, he admits, makes reference to the contemporary Swiss school with its rich materiality.
There are also, almost inevitably, Kahnian touches, while Pawson sees the 'assembly of pieces' which make up the house as rather Stirling-esque. Such is the way with architects' houses: the influences acquired during decades of education and practice tend to emerge. The Arthur Road house is, however, a mature and well-orchestrated work in which these influences are integrated and subsumed into a creative whole.
John Soane's museum in Lincoln's Inn Fields has long been one of Pawson's favourite buildings. He sees his own fullheight hall as a place which, one day, may be filled with works of art - for the moment a relatively small number of artworks are displayed quite sparingly in key locations around the house.
'Soane', Philip Johnson once declared, was 'a ceiling architect' - his interiors so often derive their drama from the effects of natural light, introduced via domes and rooflights. In Pawson's house, a full-height void between the hall and kitchen pours light down into what would otherwise be an oppressive space.
Daylight is, indeed, used skilfully throughout the house. In the living room, which perches above the kitchen on a concrete slab, light is supplied through a clerestory with opaque glazing along the southern elevation (which adjoins a private road serving a new housing development).
The result is a very calm, even light, appropriate for a space which feels like a potential oasis of calm in what could be a lively family home. From this level there is a view right across the dining area to the landscape beyond, deliberately framed by a monumental window. This is an unashamedly theatrical gesture, a little artful, perhaps, but justified by the views across south London that are on offer.
'I always think and draw in three dimensions, ' Pawson says. The Wimbledon house reflects his approach to design in terms of its spatial drama. Pawson is no minimalist, and his architectural approach has clearly romantic and expressive undertones which are (mostly) kept under control. It is in the staircase hall that the real drama of the house emerges most strongly - the concrete stair itself is vertiginous enough to worry the nervous. (The handrail is minimal - Pawson says that he got used to its being without one but had to bow to the inevitable. ) Exposed concrete is a major element in forming the character of the house, but its impact is softened by the extensive use of well-crafted timber for floors and built-in furniture - workmanship throughout the house is of a high standard. Pawson says that 'not trying too hard' was part of the agenda - what he wanted was a liveable house for his family.
Judging by recent batches of RIBA Awards, the one-off private house remains a fertile area of development for younger British architects. Pawson's Wimbledon house lacks the single-minded drive behind recent houses by, for example, David Adjaye and Hudson Featherstone. The tension behind the tower house form and the spreading horizontal pavilion is never quite resolved.
Yet Pawson has responded with remarkable vigour to a suburban setting which generally induces inertia, producing a house of distinctive character against all the odds.
London's suburbs contain surprising numbers of individual, often-idiosyncratic houses: Pawson's house is a worthy addition to the canon.
Architect-client as contractor
The single family house has always offered the opportunity to investigate complex architectural relationships within a modest but dense architectural composition.While acting as the architect, the client and the main contractor creates a particular freedom to explore ideas and construction techniques, the intensity and single point of responsibility for all aspects of the building design, procurement and funding also create their own problems and constraints.
In practical terms, the building was procured over an extended period of time by using a combination of direct labour and specialist contractors to carry out specific operations. As the building was not too large, this generally worked well and gave flexibility to change or adapt an element without the normal contractual penalties. It also provided the opportunity to develop details on site from a practical, rather than a theoretical or 'textbook', viewpoint, and to be actively involved on site and to personally fabricate some elements of the building - an activity whose loss in the education of architects is often bemoaned within industry.
The management of the process was carried out on a part-time basis at weekends and early mornings only. This was not ideal, but was a necessary consequence of the constraints on both time and finance.
The need to consider the cost, sourcing, delivery, site storage and practicality of every item supplied to site also changes the perception of what is drawn and, ultimately, gives a better understanding of the materials and details used.More time spent on the procurement and materials supply issues would have been useful, and would certainly have improved the overall efficiency of the process.
Adopting a part-time, 'self-build' process is not a general solution applicable to most buildings but it does offer advantages in controlling the build quality and to achieving a spatially sophisticated building on a very tight budget. It also offers one of the best opportunities for architects to take on the historic role of masterbuilder and to get closer to the materials and processes that are the alpha and omega of architecture.
The structure of the house comprises three quite distinct components: a concrete podium ground floor and basement; a timber-framed superstructure to the front three storeys; and a steelframed external envelope enclosing the main double-height spaces at the rear.
The original house on the site had a history of settlement problems and had been substantially underpinned, although investigation work by ourselves could not conclusively determine the cause of these settlements.
The architects wanted a simple form to unify the lower ground floor spaces and link with the upper storeys using a central staircase. After a series of conversations on the relative merits of various materials, concrete seemed the obvious choice.Given the concern about the site's geotechnical problems, we decided to use a reinforced concrete structure throughout, including the ground floor, and this was designed to be a watertight box to serve not only as structure but also as the damp-proofing system.During excavation for the new basement, we found that the original house had been built on an extensive land drain system, still being used unknowingly by some adjacent much older properties. This had no doubt caused the previous movements.
The central staircase structure comprises a vertical spine wall, from which the flights and landings cantilever.Because of the construction sequencing, it was decided to construct all of the concrete elements in one phase, creating the locally well-known sight - the 'staircase sculpture'.
The composition of the architectural form required timber cladding to the tall three-storey component. In the same way as a simple constructional logic determined the material for the base of the building, the same thought process seemed to determine that if the cladding was timber then the superstructure should also be timber. A simple platform frame system was used, with timber stud walls and timber-joisted floors.
The central circulation space was to be clad in brick.However, glass slots and recesses in the ground floor storey made a load bearing masonry solution inappropriate. An intricate 'necklace'steel frame was devised, comprising a continuous torsion ring beam around the base of the brickwork. This needed to be carefully integrated into the fabric of the external walls, and provided a plastic form that resolved a number of potential conflicts between the structural requirements of the various components that meet in this zone.
The steel solution followed for the rear low-level extension, providing a lightweight counterpoint to the dense concrete podium.
Bob Barton, Barton Engineers
PROCUREMENT Architect as designer and main contractor
NET INTERNAL AREA 186m 2
BUILD COST £320,000
CLIENT, ARCHITECT, MAIN CONTRACTOR Terry Pawson
STRUCTURAL ENGINEER Barton Engineers
SUBCONTRACTORS AND SUPPLIERS
Groundworks and concrete works Addington Formwork; demolition Democare; general timber supply Chelsea Timber Merchants; steel frame TR Engineering; bricks NBS Group, Baggeridge Brick; ply and board materials Richard Russell (Panels); oak cladding Layton Timber; stainless steel cladding fixings Stainless Threaded Fasteners; glass and glazing Compass Glass; rooflight, sliding door, windows Sunfold Systems; louvre windows Ruskin Air Management; doors Carlton Smith; stainless steel kitchen, handrails, cladding Terry Gregory; general building George Ford, Mike Gibbons; general building fit-out Atrium Construction; underfloor heating system Eurogauge Co; roofing, planted vaulted roof Index Building Products; external paints Keim Paints; ironmongery Hafele, Lloyd Worrall; basins Aston Matthews; baths, WCs, etc W Fayer & Sons; taps, bathroom sundries Vola, Edwins Bathrooms; slate floor finish Kirkstone; oak flooring Havewoods; plasterboards Franklin (Sussex), British Gypsum; glass mosaic tiles Edgar Udny & Co; lighting Concord; mirrors Wimbledon Glass; living, dining room furniture Ligne Roset; bedroom, hall furniture Co-existence; driveway, tarmac UK Surfacings; insurance DMS Services
Terry Pawson Architects www. terrypawson. com
Barton Engineers www. bartonengineers. co. uk