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Manser Medal shortlist: Downley House by Birds Portchmouth Russum Architects

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Downley House, Petersfield, Hampshire by Birds Portchmouth Russum Architect. Photography by Nick Kane

Downley House is a new country house built in the South Downs National Park. The client held a limited competition for a new home on the site of a ruined house with tranquil yet playful spaces of natural textures, contrasts and indigenous materials.

Alone among the contestants, BPR elected to retain the existing ruin as a romantic folly to screen the new house from the neighbouring houses. The principal architectural ‘parti’ establishes a promenade from the vehicular approach through to the pastoral landscape. The drive arrives at a circular stone forecourt, with a garage set into the hillside. An oak pergola leads through an inner garden court enclosed by the ruin. The three-storey, cylindrical entrance hall leads into a double-height, barrel-shaped dining hall. Beyond that the primary stair ascends within a cylindrical tower to a roof garden overlooking the landscape. A staircase from the upper roof terrace bridges across to the hillside.


The house is composed of three primary elements: the Guest Wing and the Family Wing, containing living areas and bedrooms, are arranged either side of the double-height Dining Hall. The clients are wine connoisseurs and the hall echoes the elliptical form of a foudre - a giant barrel. 

To expedite construction the house was constructed of cross-laminated timber (CLT) panels, prefabricated in Switzerland. The guest and family wings are constructed of flat-pack CLT panels clad with insulation and finished with stone, oak cladding or render. The barrel vault was constructed of curved CLT panels fixed to laminated timber ribs. This was covered with insulation and clad with a copper roof.

The CLT structure is a sustainable, low-carbon product and many of the other materials are sourced locally. A combination of a ground source heat pump array beneath the adjacent wildflower meadow, a heat recovery air circulation system and well-sealed spaces has ensured that no heating was required throughout the house’s first winter other than to provide hot water. Sedum roofs help set the house into the rolling landscape.

Andrew Birds, partner, Birds Portchmouth Russum Architects

Read Jay Merrick’s building study (AJ 14.02.13)

Judges’ citation

This large private house is a tour de force in a technicolour architectural style that derives from that of James Stirling, from whose practice these architects emerged. An assemblage of strong primary forms, mostly cylinders and cubes, the entire structure, including curved elements, is of cross-laminated timber.

The procurement process was unusual. The client acted as his own contractor and project manager, and employed subcontractors directly. The architect’s working drawings are in the form of meticulous hand-drawn, coloured and mostly three dimensional details. Such architecture will not be to everyone’s taste, but this is a private house and the client loves it. It is sustainable, exceeding Passivhaus standards, entirely coherent, beautifully realised and, in its own terms, near perfect.

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