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HOME WORK

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buildings - In 1995, Richard Murphy converted an Edinburgh mews into a single-bed house and moved in. The exercise has been repeated in a mews opposite

Built of Caithness granite in the 1820s, these two of many 8 x 5m terraced buildings lining Royal Terrace Mews originally each comprised a high ground floor for carriage and horses, with a low hayloft above. Murphy's two shells differed mainly in their facades. For the earlier conversion (AJ 21.09.95), a concrete lintel spanning the whole facade had already been inserted at the old first-floor level, with original stone and windows above, and these had to be retained. Murphy set back a new facade beneath it, a second lintel (in steel) marking a new, lower floor level and supporting the sliding garage door on big rollers.

The facade of the latest house was more dilapidated, so there was permission to rebuild, allowing a more balanced composition, though with less sense of layering. Two steel joists now define the original and new floor levels. Above, the stone required by the planners was, says Murphy, 'against our wishes' and has been designed as 'an ironic element' between RSJs, with glass block panels either side.

The sections of the two houses are broadly similar, but occupied differently. The groundfloor rear space is inevitably rather cut-off behind the garage and entrance, but had nevertheless been made into the dining room and kitchen the first time around. In the new mews, this space is the en-suite bedroom. Its isolation is also addressed, both by sight lines above the fitted wardrobes to the clerestory windows of the front facade and by a light slot down from the kitchen above. (The rear ground level is too high to allow a bedroom window. ) This use of less-than-full-height wardrobes is part of a general moving on from one house to the other, from more straightforward, well-detailed fitted units earlier to more freestanding elements with a sculptural life of their own (also providing much more storage). With such a small building, the temptation might have been to maximise sight lines and transparency by minimising such solid elements and using transparent balustrading between levels. By contrast, Murphy's use of solidity is more complex and subtle - spaces are to some extent self-contained, while maintaining a Loosian connection, creating a succession of shifting vistas as you move around the total volume. This effect is enhanced by a new layer here, in the form of an office platform perched above the living space. The use of mirrors, such as on the gables immediately below the ridge and on some front-window shutters, adds to this complexity, and increases the house's apparent size.

It is instructive to compare Murphy's approach with the many conversions and extensions of Georgian and Victorian houses we visit, where the near-universal response is toward a simplifying minimalism and transparency. This does add a new type of spatial experience to a dwelling. But Murphy's mews houses suggest other light-filled possibilities of space-defining and connecting, of enjoying spatial complexity.

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