John Winter's latest house recalls the ideas of Frank Lloyd Wright yet satisfies the Building Regulations
There are perhaps two kinds of architects: those that grew up playing with Lego bricks and therefore tend to see architecture as solid stuff, a kind of sculpture, and those who had Meccano and gained an obsession with steel and the nature of structure.
John Winter is certainly one of the latter kinds of architect, a British descendant of Mies van der Rohe's clarity of structure and the experiments of the Californian case study houses in the '60s.
Ever since his own steel-framed house, clad in Cor-Ten on the edge of Highgate Cemetery in the mid '70s, Winter has stayed truthful to his love of structure and the use of steel across a lifetime in practice.
His latest house is in a very rural location in Hampshire. It is for a young couple (well, a couple in their forties and in the midst of a self-confessed mid-life 'crisis' that has led from high-powered city life to a sleepy hollow) and recalls Mies' Tugendhat house at first glance, with a long, light steel pavilion atop a masonry base.
The site was a disfigured scrap yard, a blot on the landscape, and Winter's achievement in persuading the planners to allow such a modern house in a conservative locale is slightly diminished when he relates that the planners gave consent as 'the new construction could not possibly be worse than the existing situation'. A tree-planting scheme was also conditioned into the consent to prevent the completed house being seen from the road.
The house is split-level, with the base given over to a photographic studio and guest bedrooms held within a brick structure dug into the ground (actually, much of the ground was filled-in from a mountain of spoil from the adjacent plot). These rooms are no fuss, of painted brick internally with mid-height linear windows, simple and effective. The upper level is without doubt where the architect's heart lies and this is really the house itself, in a tripartite steelframed pavilion of car port, master bedroom and living block, each, perhaps unnecessarily, 300mm higher than its neighbour.
This combination of lightweight and earthbound recalls the ideas of Lloyd Wright's 'prospect and refuge' - the basic human need for both the safety of the cave and the need to view the horizon - and it certainly works well here as the openness of the steel-framed spaces is dramatic and beautiful. The enthusiastic clients effuse over how the architect has used a lifetime's experience to create a straightforward modernism that enjoys flat roofs without leaks.
Though highly architectural, it does not merely stand as an ego trip for a young Turk working out his personal agenda, a tendency the clients feared with younger architects.
The main living pavilion is square on plan, a glazed enclosure beneath a floating roof, expressed in turn as a series of steel 'I' beams projecting fore and aft over two goalpost structures. The living area, slightly curiously, faces west across a neighbouring executive dwelling in brick and fake flint, with dining and kitchen tucked around the south-facing garden side. The bedroom pavilion also dwells beneath the same floating roof, while the final element, a carport, strips things down to the frame itself. The steelwork was painted a beautiful Cherokee red but, after some alarm from neighbours and thanks to the clients' non-confrontational nature, they have taken on the task of repainting all steelwork in grey. This works well too, although the current white and grey interior is a little sterile.
The projecting roof both recalls the seminal image of Koenig's Stahl house hovering above the lights of Los Angeles and simultaneously amazes in the current tyranny of British building regulations, which forbid any cold bridging of structure. Sleight of hand is at work here: it creates the look yet fulfils the Part L needs. In fact, the steel 'I' sections that fly across the pavilions and project outside are not one single element. A cunning detail at window head height allows a clean break between inside and outside, with the outer section welded and cantilevered from the supporting beam.
This is clever and effective yet intellectually worrying. We all learn that great architecture is based on truth of expression, from 'form follows function' to 'less is more', yet when you really look hard at the seminal works of modernism, the sleight of hand is endemic. Mies' Barcelona pavilion was imagined as a flat concrete slab but was in fact steel and timber, and Rietveld's Schroder house was seen as concrete planes Built above a brick base, the house has an oversailing steel roof on which the beams are not, in fact, continuous, so that the design can comply with Part L but ended up in brick and render. So this detail is forgivable, but still leaves a question.
Perhaps the nature of expression in structure cannot be reconciled with over-zealous building codes and architecture will evolve a different language. But though this house is slightly nostalgic, its elegance of expression indicates a sad loss in the future.
John Winter has created a modern house in Hampshire that has clearly delighted his clients, extends the Case Study house programme into the 21st century and tackles the onerous Part L problem with some concession to purity. For all of this, he should be congratulated.
CREDITS John Winter Associates ENGINEER Techniker An exposed steel frame that fulfils insulation requirements Set on a sloping site, the house is on two levels: a solid level containing guest bedrooms and studios and an upper level, a series of three delicate Miesian pavilions housing in turn a carport, the master bedroom and the main living spaces.
The lower level has insulated masonry cavity walls. The upper level structure is a steel frame of 70 x 70mm SHS columns which support eaves beams of paired back-to-back 260 x 75mm PFC channels. These channels in turn support a series of 254 x 146mm universal beams on which rests the roof structure - profiled steel deck, tapered rigid insulation and single-layer membrane.
To allow the roof to extend beyond the walls yet comply with the new Part L requirements of the Building Regulations, the architect has designed virtually two independent structures with insulation running continuously between them. The 50mm gap between the inner and outer back-to-back channels is filled with insulation; directly above an insulated gap separates the inner section of the universal beam from the cantilever section which supports the roof overhang. Both sections were site-welded to the top flanges of the inner and outer channels. Fixed thermally broken aluminium top lights run between the universal beams.
The walls of the bedroom and living pavilions are largely glazed with a thermally broken doubleglazed aluminium system of fixed and sliding units. The 70 x 70mm SHS columns, which take the main load of the inner back-toback channel, are set towards the inside of the windows.A series of 76 x 38mm RSC channels is set towards the outside edge of the windows; they take the minimal load of the outer back-to-back channels and also act as mullions.
The space created between column and channel is filled with insulation. Each corner column is clad with a pair of cut-down and welded125 x 75mm RSAs with an insulated space between.