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Building study: Arts and Crafts redux by Napier Clarke

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At Pennycroft, Buckinghamshire, Napier Clarke’s five-bedroom house has updated William Morris’s legacy, says Owen Hopkins


William Morris has a lot to answer for. His fetishisation of traditional crafts and design, as a reaction to the upheavals of the Industrial Revolution, still has a remarkable hold on the British psyche.

Morris (1834-1896) abhorred industry’s effects on design and craftsmanship, both in terms of aesthetics and in the division of labour that marginalised traditional skills. He yearned for the Middles Ages, when craftsmen were free to create, unrestricted by the demands of industry. While Morris was critical of the effects of the Industrial Revolution, he was not inherently opposed to the machine as an aid for the craftsman, nor in fact to commerce. Relatively early on he established a company to produce and sell his designs. These are still in production, though now shed of their radicalism and moral urgency and operating in the realm of pure aesthetic, but with a lingering connection to the authentic.

I begin with this digression, because it takes us to heart of the questions raised by Pennycroft, the private house in Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire, completed by Napier Clarke Architects late last year. The town, which lies in a valley in the Chilterns, is best known as the location of the home of Roald Dahl, and is where he wrote his most famous works. The site of the house lies about a 10-minute walk from the train station in an Area of Special Character, so designated because of its Arts and Crafts architecture. This ensured that the new house – Amy Napier and Steven Clarke’s first new build since setting up their practice in 2014 after 10 years each at Hopkins Architects – would have to follow the area’s strict planning policy and as such is described by its architects as ‘a contemporary interpretation of the local Arts and Crafts architecture’.

Clever detailing allows the interaction of forms and materials to remain as clear as possible

Pennycroft replaces an undistinguished 1930s building that was tucked away at the back of the plot. The new house lies more or less in the centre, with its wide expanse providing a barrier between the adjacent road and the back garden. The site slopes west to east and Napier Clarke has taken care to cut the house into the hill, while ensuring that all the spoil remains on-site, landscaped into earth banks that will come alive when planted.

The composition from the front of the house is a clear one: a brick base punctured by large windows; an upper level of timber panels with a staccato run of clerestory windows; and a large V-shaped window jutting out above the sloping roofline. Clever detailing allows the interaction of forms and materials to remain as clear as possible.The robust yet finely finished front door – the only bit of timber to break into the brick base – opens onto a vaulted, double-height entrance hall, with corresponding V-shaped window on the opposite side of the house, rising above a gallery/walkway that links the upstairs spaces. 

Pennycroft jan17 mg 6197

Pennycroft jan17 mg 6197

Source: Joakim Boren

Immediately upon entering one is conscious of being at the intersection of two cross-axes: one extending on the ground floor level to the sitting room that makes up the short arm of what is actually an L-shaped plan; and the other that runs along the main front of the house leading to the large open-plan kitchen and dining/sitting area and the children’s playroom beyond.

The kitchen is very much the heart of the house and in summer, thanks to the very large sliding windows, its already generous volume will extend even further into the patio and lawn that are partially enclosed by the L-shape plan. The staircase, in contrast, is understated, lying to the right of the entrance hall at the end of the corresponding axis that runs along the back of main block of the house. At first glance, it might seem a missed opportunity not to have taken the admittedly obvious option of integrating it in the double-height entrance hall. Yet the restraint pays off in the way the staircase subtly demarcates the distinction between the open living spaces downstairs and the more cellular sleeping spaces upstairs. 

The five bedrooms are arranged along the front of the house and again reached axially, almost like a series of dormitories, with the gallery/walkway separating the guest room from the family’s accommodation. A niche has been left for a spiral staircase to the large loft space should further accommodation be required in the future.

In many ways Pennycroft is really two houses: one that is wholly contemporary and one that’s Arts and Crafts

The upper storey does not extend to the sitting room, which provides the short arm of the L-shape plan. It is deliberately separated from the main body of the house, appearing almost like a later extension, and is reached via a glass link with framed views either side of the patio and soon-to-be vegetable patch. The room itself is vaulted, with the ceiling facing simply grooved MDF panels painted white (as in entrance hall). By this point the white interior borders on the monotonous, and it is a shame that the ceiling is not articulated further. But, because it is a steel frame structure rather than the traditional timber construction the Arts and Crafts influence might suggest, there is relatively little to articulate in that sense. The interior’s natural – one might even say ‘authentic’ – state is actually the white plasterboard that permeates much of it.

In many ways Pennycroft is really two houses: one that is wholly contemporary and one that’s Arts and Crafts-inspired. Externally, these two houses interact: the chimney stacks are articulated separately from the house in the traditional way, yet are topped by crisply contemporary caps. The brickwork is used as a kind of a quotation (brick lintels are conspicuously absent from above the windows), yet the variable colour of the Bovingdon bricks, lime mortar and clever choice of Flemish bond offers a rich patina.

Inside, in contrast, the contemporary takes over almost entirely, with the reverse side of the Douglas fir front door almost jarring in the otherwise white space. Some might see this as a deficiency, a contradiction even. But on reflection it is this hybridity that lifts this house from simply being an exemplary family home. I would be interested in seeing this contemporary interplay of the Arts and Crafts as both aesthetic and ideal pushed further: the idea of a house being both one thing and another.

Owen Hopkins is senior curator of exhibitions and education at Sir John Soane’s Museum and was previously architecture programme curator at the Royal Academy of Arts.

Napier clarke site plan

Napier clarke site plan

Project data

Start on site August 2015
Completion September 2016
Gross internal floor area (370m2 + 60 m2) 430m2
Construction cost £800,000
Construction cost per m2 £1,860,47
Architect Napier Clarke Architects 
Client Private
Structural engineer Donald Mcintyre Design
Services engineer Matters Group
Landscape architect (concept) Napier Clarke Architects

Client’s view

We selected Napier Clarke following a short selection process because we liked Amy and Steven’s approach to design and felt they best understood our brief and constraints. We were also keen to support a new practice. We soon felt we had made the right decision as we enjoyed the design process and loved the final design for its use of space and contemporary approach to the location’s prevailing Arts and Crafts style. 

For design and construction reasons, we employed a project manager to work with Steven to tender and appoint trade contractors directly. We feel this approach was important to achieving some key aspects of the design and finishes within our budget and appreciate the additional input required from the architects and other consultants.

We enjoyed being part of the fortnightly site meetings and seeing the build develop. It helped us feel part of the build to understand decisions taken on site. We are very happy with how the spaces work for us as a family. Amy and Steven have really captured the essence of how we live. 


Napier clarke drawings for web3

Napier clarke drawings for web3

The project is constructed from a lightweight steel frame infilled with highly insulated timber panels and sealed with a Tyvek membrane to minimise air loss. A further layer of insulation is located in the cavity and an air gap. The external face is constructed from Flemish bond local brickwork and lime mortar to dispense with the need for movement joints.

At the lower level, the brickwork is punctured by metal/timber composite Velfac windows and then separated from the roof with bespoke FSC Douglas fir windows and panelling. A painted red metal gutter lines the eaves of the roof.

 At ground level there is a concrete slab, with insulation above and a screed with underfloor heating, finished with a white oiled European oak floor.

 At first floor level the Posi-Joist system allows for service distribution and 100mm Hush Acoustics insulation and is finished on the underside with plasterboard. Above is underfloor heating within insulation and carpet covering.

Donald Mcintyre, Donald Mcintyre Design

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Those photos show absolutely no connection to Arts and Crafts whatsoever, and William Morris' name has been used solely as clickbait.

    Apart from the material change on the upper level and the gable roof, which aren't even specific Arts and Crafts elements, the building has more in common with modernist homes. The bathroom is stark and white and shows no craftsmanship at all. The brick parapets, non-overhanging eaves, and the chimneys are all very contemporary design features that are a dime a dozen. The windows, lacking in cornices or moldings or lintels are similarly contemporary and commonplace. There is no evidence in any of the pictures of ornamentation or the use of decorative arts.

    What's next? An ode to Norman Foster, the great Arts and Crafts architect?

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