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Two's company

Double House by Woolf Architects is a project of two adjoining houses in northwest London, a modern reworking of the brick house, focused on its garden spaces

It is rare to hear a kind word for the RIBA's Clients Advisory Service - 'never heard from them', 'not our sort of work', etc. Jonathan Woolf is not complaining. The Double House's client brothers and their young families were initially looking for white Modern, admirers of Barragßn, and were given a list of about 20 architects. They whittled this down to three: Woolf Architects, John Pawson and Munkenbeck + Marshall - this despite Woolf having a track record in house conversions and extensions but no new buildings. But the clients appreciated that Woolf would be able to give single-minded commitment to this, its major project.

Woolf also managed to persuade the clients to shift to brick externally, as a material of lower maintenance that ages more gracefully; the colour of the handmade brick harmonising with the tree bark on site.

However, the use of matching coloured flush pointing and simple rectilinear openings gives external surfaces some of the monolithic, planar quality of white Modernism, if more Scandinavian than Mediterranean.

There was a 1970s house on this site, which had been demolished and planning permission obtained for a four-storey Gothic(ish) pile. After purchasing the site, the clients went back to the planners for permission for something lower. Originally the site was in the gardens of a grand country house, long demolished. Only part of the 18th century tall brick boundary wall remains, now a screen wall between road and site.

Once past this wall with its solid gate, a granite sett slope channels you up hill. There is a level change of 9m ahead (east-west) as well as level changes across the site. Once past the garage, with a ceramic studio and workspace hidden behind, the new garden screen wall leads on to become the north wall of the two connected houses. Only their entrances, at the party wall, and one guest room window pierce this wall. (The guest room in the other house is daylit by an enclosed patio. ) This north face toward the neighbours and the resulting approach are, as Woolf himself says, 'austere'.

In overall architecture, though not in layout, the east house, which you come to first, and the west house are alike. Woolf made the argument to the clients that if they wanted two significantly different houses they would probably be better with two architects.

In layout, both houses begin with a toplit, double-height entrance, with all other principal rooms addressing their respective gardens. To the east the focus is on a copper beech said to be 180 years old, with the roof of the outbuildings beyond finished in loose slate fragments. To the west an old English oak is the focus; to the south the immediate garden is a shallow strip but the fence has been replaced by railings so that the adjoining heathland becomes borrowed landscape.

Several of the new larger plants in the garden are heathland species.

Woolf's response to the slope is one of the key factors in giving these houses individual characters. With both entrances at the centre of the terrace, the ground slopes up toward the entrance of the east house, making this entrance the shallowest space on its ground floor; room floors then step down the hill.

For the west house the slope continues on up past the entrance, and so the entrance is its tallest space, the room floors stepping up.

Neither entrance feels cramped, because of their area and double height, with a retractable glazed rooflight. The west house uses this area for formal dining.

Internal surfaces are plain plaster with flash gap detailing (the west house has shallow timber skirtings, one of the few differences in palette between houses), white downstairs, with Pietra Serena stone floors. But not austere: more a neutral setting, softened by the chunky window frames and curtains and by the display of a wide range of art and family objects. The privacy of the upstairs is emphasised by relatively narrow, enclosed staircases, kept bright by the skylighting. Walls upstairs are a warmer colour. The spare bathroom fittings include elegant ceramic basins, designed and made in the family.

These two houses have a narrow internal connecting passage between the entrances, off which is the stair down to the 15 x 4m basement pool that lies beneath the west house.

Relatively low-ceilinged when you are standing on the pool edge, if different seen from the water, the concrete-walled volume is atmospherically sky-lit at either end. At the party wall a light shaft is concealed between the houses.

There is a glass-floored area at the pool's west end immediately outside the family room. The pool is the only air-conditioned space.

This pool was cast within 9m sheet piling, creating an anchor for the Double House's ground slab with trench footings, avoiding piling for the steel-framed structure. Woolf was keen on the flexibility of steel framing from its experience of residential lofts - the ability to create long spans, to refine the layout at a late stage and to make changes in future years. While perimeter walls are of cavity brickwork, internal partitions are, flexibly, of steel stud and plasterboard. The steel frame is not expressed, just part of the background atmosphere of the built fabric At 400+m2 for each house, spaces are, of course, generous, but without spatial heroics. These are first liveable family homes, sitting easily in their garden settings.

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