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Building study: Coffey’s design for living

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Coffey’s thoughtful Modern Detached could well serve as an exemplar for the wider private house market, writes Catherine Slessor


History shows most great architects to be irredeemable egomaniacs. Frank Lloyd Wright once remarked: ‘Why, I just shake the buildings out of my sleeves.’ But, beyond the hubris, FLW also pinpointed an elemental truth about architecture. It is, as he remarked, ‘Life itself, or life taking form’.

This particular quote is used by Richard Weston in his introductory essay to the work of Phil Coffey, in a book produced in 2015 to mark Coffey Architects’ 10th anniversary. Wright’s aperçu is especially applicable to the design of houses, which, as for many emerging architects, forms a key source of Coffey’s work and an ongoing test bed for formal and intellectual enquiry. It is a familiar rite of passage. The dominant narrative of modern architecture can be condensed to a litany of dwellings: Savoye, Tugendhat, Fallingwater, Farnsworth, Eames: all waypoints on a historic trajectory, Modernist stations of the cross. 

Alighting on Coffey, the clients struck up a rapport, dropped plans to modernise and opted to demolish and rebuild from scratch

It’s a long way from Fallingwater to Harpenden, yet the idea of ‘life taking form’ is at the root of Modern Detached, a slightly prosaic name for a scheme aimed at tactfully reconceptualising the suburban family house. Thirty minutes out of London by train, Harpenden is a typical Home Counties commuter enclave, its rolling acres of overpriced suburban semis punctuated by golf courses and cricket clubs. A bucolic village green forms the town’s physical and existential heart, its vision of pastoral England at odds with the more drudging reality of modern commuter life.  

Coffey’s clients are a couple with two teenage sons who bought a nondescript suburban house with the original aim of modernising it. Alighting on Coffey through a trawl of architects’ websites, they struck up a rapport and opted instead to demolish and rebuild from scratch. ‘It speaks of a sense of ambition,’ says Coffey ‘and also that they trust you to do things.’ 

Through the televisual prism of ubiquitous housebuilding programmes, the process of achieving your dream home is now seen as a kind of mildly sadistic spectator sport, with spats, delays and cost overruns adding frisson to the proceedings. In this case, however, things went, literally, to plan. Once the final design had been agreed, the family had to decant during construction, so there was an obvious imperative to complete the new dwelling as quickly as possible. 

Coffey describes the Harpenden milieu as ‘unashamedly suburban’, encompassing a typical mixture of residual Arts and Crafts with more generic 1960s semis pulled from spec builders’ pattern books. Yet there was still the potential to devise a new suburban vernacular by synthesising Modernist precepts of spatial fluidity together with elements from the locale’s Arts and Crafts origins. 

12 modern detached by coffey architects @ tim soar

12 modern detached by coffey architects @ tim soar

Source: Tim Soar

‘We studied the symmetries, materials and massing of the surrounding dwellings,’ says Coffey, ‘and established a typological language that could be adapted for a modern dwelling’. In some ways, the abstracted Arts and Crafts exterior, with its dominant gables and vertically ribbed façade of mustard-coloured brick and blackened timber acts a bit like a Trojan horse, smuggling a voluminous, contemporary interior past the scrutiny of local planners. The use of light brick and dark timber codes rooms and circulation respectively, clearly articulating the distinction between the house’s served and servant spaces. Tautly detailed with depth and precision, the ribbed façade acts like suburban mashrabiya, admitting light and framing views for those inside while maintaining an hermetic imperviousness to prying eyes. 

The parti references the typical Arts and Crafts arrangement of a spinal staircase exposed to the street with rooms branching off either side. Here the scale and openness of the stair acts, in effect, like a luminous vertical living room rather than surly servant space, elevating both experience and function. Light penetrates through a large ocular opening, washing down through the triple-height volume and seeping surreptitiously into rooms. Four of the house’s five bedrooms are set on the street side behind the protective brick ribcage; the fifth is secreted in an attic storey accessed by a secondary stair ingeniously compressed into the width of the main stair hall.

Breaking the rigour of the ribbed brick box, the composite living, kitchen and dining space flows out to connect with the large rear garden. Effecting a nuanced transition between inside and out, it explores the concept of a deep threshold. ‘The threshold is where architecture happens; it’s how the building meets the horizon,’ says Coffey, citing a favourite example of Can Lis, Jørn Utzon’s 1972 house in Mallorca. Here, as there, living space percolates into the exterior, eroding the visual and psychological barriers between built form and landscape. A concrete floor extends into an external concrete terrace, while a long, low concrete bench forms a more explicit marker of the boundary between house and garden. Elliptical cut-outs in the bench follow the geometry of a specially designed elliptical table, so the two elements spoon into one another with a satisfying sensuousness. 

It would be encouraging to think that Coffey’s thoughtful design could act as a replicable exemplar for the wider market

Materials are predominantly monastic, with white walls, dark timber, raw brick and slim ‘bronze’ handrails (actually powder-coated steel, but convincing from a distance). Another ‘monastic’ touch can be found in the vertical slots containing openable grilles set beside panels of fixed glazing, a detail nicked from La Tourette. 

Robustly functional, yet full of spatial and material incident, Modern Detached is ‘life taking form’, a generous armature for quotidian domestic routine. With a budget of £800,000 it is not especially cheap, but neither is it in the league of the stratospheric trophy houses seen on TV. 

It would be encouraging to think that Coffey’s thoughtful design, or at least aspects of it, could act as replicable exemplars for the wider private house market, but it is an elusive ambition. Still glumly geared to nuclear families and lowest common denominator thinking, British housing is endemically haunted by a spirit of meanness and imaginative paucity across the spectrum. 

And, while quantity rather than quality is being politically prioritised, this situation seems likely to be perpetuated. Instead, perhaps like all the best modern houses, it is destined to remain the serendipitous outcome of an encounter between enlightened client and talented architect. At least Frank Lloyd Wright would understand. 

Project data

Start on site November 2015
Completion January 2016
Gross internal floor area 350m2
Form of contract Intermediate Building Contract with contractor’s design
Architect Coffey Architects
Client Yvonne and Robbie Anderson
Structural engineer Morph Structures
Quantity surveyor Stockdale
Approved building inspector Head Projects
Main contractor Conamar


External brickwork Anglian Light Grey by WH Collier
External timber cladding Russwood Siberian Larch 35 x 75 mm fins, stained with Protek Royal Exterior Black
External and internal metal cladding to walls and soffits 1.5mm-thick aluminium, polyester powder-coated with RAL 1036 Pear Gold 20% gloss
Roof tiles Acme Single Camber, Grey Sand Faced by Marley 
Polished concrete internal flooring and acid-etched concrete external flooring Steysons Granolithic Contractors
Timber flooring Antique natural white oak unfinished, E109UF, by the Solid Wood Flooring Company 
Stained timber internal panelling 18mm-thick A-grade oak panelling, by SMI Hardwoods, stained with Blanchon Aquateinte 2K Black & Blanchon black hard wax oil
12-person oval dining table Custom-made by MER Sevices. Base: PPC steel, RAL1036 Pearl Gold. Top: Black stained oak veneer
Brassware Vola, natural brass finish
Ironmongery John Planck, natural brass brushed finish

Engineer’s view

The attention to detail on the feature brick wall elevations asked interesting questions of the humble, load-bearing cavity wall: How to support the crisp, cantilevering fins at the front and back, the recessed stack-bonded courses on either side or the exposed brick lintels over the windows? And how to do it all without recourse to expensive brickslips or brick specials? 

The design team solved this by employing bed joint reinforcement at regular centres. This ensured a tight bond between recessed or stack-bonded courses, as well as enabling the brickwork to bridge over gaps and windows without the need for traditional lintels. The use of proprietary brickwork hangers and careful construction sequencing allowed the brickwork to be exposed from underneath. 

The shift from cellular upper floors to a more open-plan ground floor meant transfer structures were required to redirect the load on to hidden columns. The most onerous transfer was beneath the rear elevation, spanning 10m and supporting two floors and a full storey of masonry. The wide cavity and the junction with the kitchen roof did, however, provide a rather large – if unusually shaped – structural zone. The team used this to the full by fabricating a bespoke steel beam 350mm wide and tapering from 500mm to 250mm deep to fit exactly within this zone. This enabled the most rigid beam and efficient use of material.

Dave Heeley, Morph Structures


Coffey architects detail 5

Coffey architects detail 5

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