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Is Platform 5's Backwater a continuation of the Norfolk Broads aesthetic?

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At Backwater Platform 5 Architects has created a house surrounded by water, says Laura Mark

The Norfolk Broads is Britain’s largest protected wetland and third largest inland waterway. Its status as a national park makes it a particularly sensitive location for new-build developments. But despite this, the last few years have seen it become the location for a number of iconic modern homes. Two of these have even gone on to be Manser Medal winners: Knox Bhavan’s timber-clad Holly Barn in Reedham – which Grand Designs presenter Kevin McCloud called a ‘poetic exercise in wood’ – picked up the award in 2006; followed by Acme’s Hunsett Mill at Stalham in 2010.

It is Acme’s transformation of a Grade II-listed mill keeper’s house, which the Manser citation described as ‘more akin to a piece of art than a piece of rural, domestic architecture’, that formed the inspiration for Platform 5’s Backwater.

Located around eight miles away from Hunsett Mill, Platform 5’s holiday home sits, as its name suggests, on a backwater on the edge of Wroxham Broad. Surrounded on three sides by water, the small plot of land is accessed by a single-track private road that serves a handful of homes located on the water’s edge.

Acme

Acme

When Platform 5 co-founder Patrick Michell found the site, it contained a small 1950s bungalow, but this had been empty for more than two years and was seriously dilapidated. Michell was looking for somewhere to build a holiday home for his young family, which could also be let out to others in an attempt to recoup some of the build costs. He also wanted to explore the holiday home aesthetic and is attempting to use the home as a prototype for more holiday lets.

Planning restrictions in place on the Norfolk Broads meant that he could only build something similar to what had been there before. ‘Planning was relatively easy,’ says Michell. ‘We had some negotiations about height, roofscape and materials. We had wanted to go for a wriggly tin roof but the planners did say no to that.’ He also benefited from supportive neighbours who were obviously just happy to see anything on the site other than a slowly rotting bungalow.

Building this close to the river’s edge meant the risk of flooding had to be taken into consideration. The scheme has been lifted up to the level of a 1-in-1,000-year flood, and timber landscaping to the waterside of the house negotiates this change in levels between water and living space. The jetty at the back of the house will get covered by water in winter but the deck is unlikely to be covered unless there is extreme flooding.

The water also affected the house’s construction, with foundations proving tricky to engineer and taking months to complete. The house sits on peat and the contractor therefore had to pile down 10m to the rock below. A steel frame sits above this like a raft on to which the timber-framed house’s main structure then sits. It also had to be constructed from materials that were small enough to be transported by a Transit van as access was restricted – meaning all timber and steel lengths had to be calculated accordingly.

The whole house was orientated around the river, with large expanses of glazing looking out on to the broads. Large overhanging eaves mean there is always covered space to sit close to the water’s edge. This elevation does feel less successful though and that might be down to the scale and materiality. With time it will weather and this will probably help – at the moment the overhang combined with the differing forms and materials feels awkward.

The house has been orientated around the river

Essentially the house is made up of three modules, each expressed by the cedar-clad pitched roofs at its front: the bedrooms and bathrooms are all located in one; another contains the kitchen and dining space; and the final one has a living room and study-cum-den area. Internally the space is light and this is exaggerated by the choice of pale whitewashed oak floorboards and light grey painted walls.

The internal layout means different activities can take place simultaneously without disrupting one another – for example children can be put to bed while a dinner party continues in the living space beyond. But I do wonder how much the layout of the house has been compromised by the desire for it to appeal as a letting property. They have obviously needed to increase the number of beds and at times these can feel as if they have been squeezed in or that the space may have had a more appropriate use.

It’s no longer the waterside boathouses but barn-like roof profiles that are fast becoming the area’s new vernacular. This scheme repeats the aesthetics of the Manser Medal-winning schemes of Acme and Knox Bhavan but I can’t see it being described with the same gushing prose of ‘poetic’ or ‘a work of art’. Internally the house is beautiful with a clean and modern aesthetic, but I leave thinking it doesn’t quite live up to the external rigour of its forbears.

Site plan

Backwater by Platform 5

Backwater by Platform 5

Ground floor plan

Backwater by Platform 5

Backwater by Platform 5

First floor plan

Backwater by Platform 5

Backwater by Platform 5

Section A-A

Backwater by Platform 5

Backwater by Platform 5

Section B-B

Backwater by Platform 5

Backwater by Platform 5

Details

Backwater by Platform 5

Backwater by Platform 5

Backwater by Platform 5

Backwater by Platform 5

The house is a timber frame structure sat on a steel subframe which spans between the pilecaps.

A few steel elements have been introduced to minimise structural depths on the large glazed openings. The deep canopy is supported by joists on a localised steel frame, which is thermally broken as it moves from inside the insulated envelope to the outside. The cantilevered tip of the canopy is supported on vertical plywood fins to reduce it to a slim edge.

The insulation and vapour barrier lines are carefully maintained to achieve air tightness under 3m3/(h.m2) for the efficient use of the ventilation system with heat recovery.

The base of the sliding doors is supported on a timber dwarf wall, the joint with the floor is kept rigid by bolting joists and studs around steel plates welded to the top of the steel subframe.

Patrick Michell, co-founder, Platform 5 Architects

Backwater by Platform 5

Backwater by Platform 5

Source: Alan Williams

Landscape designer’s view 

Backwater is nestled firmly in among typical Norfolk Broad habitat: alder, birch and acres and acres of Norfolk reed, with native water lilies dominating the calmer parts of the broad. To use your run-of-the-mill pretty flowers here would be wilfully going against nature, and in any case the flanking flower beds are partially submerged – hostile terrain for many of the pretties.

My plant palette had to harmonise with Backwater’s environment, thrive in semi-aquatic conditions and yet be attractive to the residents. Using native species as a guide, I chose ornamental versions to create a kind of pseudo-native scheme. For example, instead of using dominant species alder (Alnus glutinosa), I chose the selected form Imperialis – known for its elegant habit and dissect foliage. Instead of our native flag iris (Iris pseudacorus), I used Sibiriian iris (Iris sibirica ‘Tropic Night’) to introduce blues into the scheme. The results are a garden-like, near-native scheme; pleasing to the eye and harmonious with Backwater’s watery environs.

Tom Hoblyn, Thomas Hoblyn Landscape and Garden Design

Backwater by Platform 5

Backwater by Platform 5

Source: Alan Williams

Project data and suppliers

Start on site September 2014
Completion May 2016
Gross internal floor area 165m2 (house), 20m2 (boathouse)
Form of contract ICD WCD 2011
Architect Platform 5 Architects
Client Claire Michell
Structural engineer Morph Structures
Planting designer Thomas Hoblyn Landscape and Garden Design
Quantity surveyor Richard Utting Associates
M&E p3r
AV consultant Buth Robinson
Flood risk assessment Evans River and Coastal
Party wall surveyor David Bullen
Ecologist Wild Frontier Ecology
Main contractor Wroxham Builders
Spiral stair EeStairs
Architectural and internal metalwork K Rackham & Son Engineering
Steel frame Newnham Structures
Sliding glass doors Maxlight
Water borehole Panks
Triple-glazed windows Velfac
Barn and entrance doors Acre joinery
Joinery Windboats
Ironmongery Allgood
Barn door sliding gear Krownlab
Shingles John Brash
Lighting Atrium, Deltalight, Davey Lighting, Tom Dixon, Collingwood, John Cullen Lighting
Sanitaryware Duravit, Catalano, Hansgrohe, Dornbracht
Worktops Silestone
Tiles Solus
Limestone Gareth Davies
Decking Gripdeck
Fireplace Westfire
Annual CO2 emissions 14.26kg/m2

Backwater by Platform 5

Backwater by Platform 5

Source: Alan Williams

 

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