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Space odyssey

building study - Peter Foggo and David Thomas' pioneering 1960s Space House has been refurbished, gently reorganised and, dare one say it, improved by Lee/ Fitzgerald Architects

Peter Foggo and David Thomas were in fulltime employment for other practices when they designed Space House at East Grinstead, West Sussex, a speculative prototype for an army officer, built to a budget. It did actually function briefly as a prototype, with three exact replicas built at Holyport in Berkshire.

However, Space House has not been listed; it is unlikely that so much change could have been made if it were.

Space House today appears a close relative of the Californian Case Study houses, though Thomas cites Mies as prime inspiration. Space House shares the clarity of plan and expression of structure of these earlier houses, an approach Foggo and Thomas carried forward into their work at Arup, where they were to become directors. (Peter Foggo Associates was formed in 1989. ) Completed in 1965, the Space House is a raised, single-storey pavilion. Essentially the frame is four parallel front-to-back steel trusses, dividing the plan into three zones:

living, servant spaces plus entrances, and bedrooms. The rectangular trusses are braced with diagonal tie rods, expressed externally (predating Reliance Controls) and internally.

Front and back of the house are glazed from floor to ceiling and, remarkably, this single glazing is retained by its original neoprene gaskets, fixed direct to the steel framing. They remain in excellent condition.

To some degree the 'edge' to the architecture that comes with bright Californian light was muted under British skies. Black-framed (as were some of the case study houses) and with the cedar boarding varnished so that it never silvered, Space House looked less sharply framed than it does now in white. Black was what was practical at the time, Thomas points out. Inside, the flow of light from the storey-height glazing was muted by the use of timber boarding for floors, walls and ceilings, finishes that have darkened over the years.

When Andrew Spurgeon and Ann Kelly bought this house in 2002 it had also suffered several changes, mostly unsympathetically done - notably black-coated solid aluminium doors externally replacing glazed cedar ones and new solid beech doors inside, a refitting of the kitchen that prevented its use for dining, gluing fabric to some of the internal timber and changes to bathrooms.

Lee/Fitzgerald Architects won the job through recommendation by Foggo Associates, which it had worked with in refurbishing the earlier Foggo/Thomas timber-framed deck house, Sorrel House, at Bosham Hoe, also in West Sussex. The architect found itself with clients well attuned to the building, keen to retain and enhance the spirit of the property; it is unusual to find clients with bookshelves that include volumes on the Case Study houses and Neutra. They have been clear in their brief and lived here through the work, project managing it themselves. Emphasising lightness and the flow of space have been the key transforming ideas.

Painting the frame white is the most radical step, one that both emphasises that this is a framed house and makes it float more freely above the ground. External cedar cladding with a heavy build-up of varnish, some boards also water-damaged, have been removed, sanded and recoated so that they keep their panel-like quality. Irrespective of the original timber treatment, architects Tim Lee and Michael Fitzgerald of Lee/Fitzgerald question the use of untreated cedar, both for its uneven weathering and eventual splitting.

Especially in the central zone with its setbacks, the cedar walling reads through from outside to inside and the interior cedar walling has similarly been removed, sanded and coated, using a water-based satin finish that is visually very similar to the two-part cellulose treatment used outdoors (which can be over-coated when needed). However, not all interior cedar boarding was retrievable, due to the fabric glued to it. The compromise has been to reface the principal (truss) walls;

bedroom walls are almost all now plastered and white, as is the service core. The architect favoured more cedar reinstatement than the client, who wanted more of the lightness from painted plaster. Timbering only truss walls does have architectural clarity.

Also to improve daylight penetration, the yellowed British Colombian pine of the ceilings has been replaced with white plaster, edged with a cedar strip. It is a simplifying and reducing of the daylight gradient that helps, particularly, the deep through living/dining room feel more connected to the outdoors; it also raises the apparent ceiling height. (Timber floors have been sanded and resealed, with matt ceramic tiles used at some points. ) Other moves to increase the flow of space and light have been to remove the corridor doors immediately around the service core.

This now reads as a simple plastered white cube; core circulation is still a loop, but more legible. The kitchen has been refitted to pull units away from the glass, and full-height glazing with central glazed double doors has been added to the rear setback of the house to improve connection between the kitchen and garden. It was perhaps a response to the feeling about the British climate and outdoor living in the 1960s that Space House never had the opening glass walls of the Californian houses, just three single doors.

A large oval pool that had been added to the garden has now been removed. This allows the house to breathe a bit more but there will always be a sense of this house needing a larger site.

As you would expect, the new work is sympathetically detailed (the original already had flash-gaps around the doors).

Wall insulation has not been upgraded; the gasketed single glazing has been left. The warm-air heating system so far prevents condensation build-up. Natural ventilation comes from sets of vertical timber louvres, and double-skin pleated blinds help reduce solar gain; the clients have considered adding comfort cooling.

The two, somewhat cramped, core bathrooms have been reorganised as a larger bathroom and a smaller shower room, with appropriate contemporary fittings. Only in the core store/plant room can you still see the last vestige of the original timber floor, wall and ceiling treatment.

As an architectural experience the flow of space and light now feels more connected.

We await Thomas' verdict (Foggo died in 1993). As yet he has only seen images of the house, though he has written approvingly to the clients, and particularly mentioned to us the lightening of the ceilings.

It would be ironic if this house, framed for flexibility among other motives, had been listed and so frozen by the typical conservatism of conservation. This renewal of Space House is more in keeping with the original intent, its openness to change. If the result today is more international, less British, than it originally was, that has been a comfortable transition, not forced upon the house.

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