Tony Fretton’s Wiltshire housing scheme flies in the face of local sensibilities to create a more sociable development, writes Ellis Woodman. Photography by Peter Cook
A series of houses and apartment buildings realised largely on sites in inner-city London over the past 25 years has secured Crispin Kelly a reputation as one of Britain’s more architecturally enlightened developers. However, recently his firm, Baylight, has also begun to explore the possibilities for development in rural locations - a shift motivated partly by the increasing difficulty of finding sites in the capital, but also by Kelly’s ambition to challenge the dismal quality of the UK’s volume housebuilders. It has proved something of a thankless task. When he submitted a planning application to build six eminently desirable houses on the edge of the Wiltshire village of Pewsey to designs by Tony Fretton, permission was refused solely on aesthetic grounds. He won at appeal - but only after the local authority’s expert witness had argued that the scheme would be visually unacceptable ‘anywhere in the Greater Wiltshire area’.
Formerly agricultural land, the site was purchased by Baylight after its owner had already secured planning permission for a development of a similar character to the houses that surround it on all sides. These represent a familiar suburban landscape of two-storey homes, each set within an encompassing garden and accessed by a serpentine road network.
The central ambition of Fretton’s project was to invest the development with a stronger collective identity, particularly through the creation of an outdoor space of a scale and sociability that transcended the access requirements of a rubbish truck. To that end, he has located the houses as close to the site’s edges as possible - a strategy that housebuilders’ typically avoid for fear of incurring opposition from neighbours - enabling the creation of a broad brick-paved surface that extends from the front to the back of the plot. Jørn Utzon’s developments at Helsingør (1956-60) and Fredensborg (1962-65), provided a particularly important point of reference in this choice - an influence that can be detected not only in the principal facades’ direct relationship to the shared space but in their detailing in a mellow blond brick trimmed with clay roof tiles laid on end.
Four of the houses are of a common format and distributed down one side of the paved area. A variety of detached three-bedroom row-house, they present a hybrid composition comprising a two-storey flat-roofed block at the front and a single-storey double-gabled extension to the rear - elements that Kelly wryly likens to a parish church tower and a pigsty. Extending laterally away from the gently sloping access road, each one stands a metre below the next, separated by a full-length band of garden. The stepping establishes a pronounced profile which each principal elevation echoes in turn through the placement of two misaligned windows. The pale pink finish of their frames establishes a chromatic relationship to the brick and roof tiles, while their double square format resonates with the broadly square proportion of the wall in which they are set.
While the low height of each house’s rear portion prevents it from casting its uphill neighbour in shadow, the towers provide tangential views to the elevated Upavon Down a couple of kilometres to the south. Each tower houses a double bedroom with en-suite bathroom, and opens on to a balcony detailed in the same language of close-packed timber verticals used in the entrance porch.
The downstairs rooms all address the garden by way of generously scaled french doors, the single aspect allowing each garden to extend hard against the blank north wall of its neighbour. While the downstairs bedrooms have flat ceilings with storage space above, the living room occupies the full volume framed by the pitched roof. Equipped with large south-facing skylights, it provides the plan with an unexpectedly dramatic point of focus. The room opens on to the kitchen - which occupies much of the lower floor of the tower - providing a view to the road by way of the kitchen window.
In the hope of cultivating a more sociable ambiance, Fretton was also keen to maintain a visual connection between garden and road, though a garage appended to each tower has compromised that relationship somewhat. Had the plot been fractionally wider, one could imagine the garages being productively relocated to the other side of the cul-de-sac.
However, it is only at the entrance to the site that there was sufficient width to allow a building to be introduced on this side. Accommodating three bedrooms over two flat-roofed storeys, it registers strongly on the approach to the site and, thanks to its elevated position, maintains a sentinel-like relationship to the other houses. Its presence has been made still more commanding by a high brick plinth which retains a narrow stretch of garden running along its south elevation. The windows both here and on the west elevation are plentiful and all extend to the floor. The double-aspect living room feels particularly expansive with four large openings onto the garden establishing a significantly greater area of window than wall.
The final house lies at the far end of the site at a point where the proximity of neighbouring properties prohibited construction over more than one storey. It is, however, fitted with a tall and eccentrically doubled-pitched roof: a form that harks back to Fretton’s Sway Centre for Visual Arts (1996). A centrally located hall extends to the roof’s top-lit apex, introducing an internal scale that belies the house’s status as a two-bedroom bungalow. The others have already sold to couples over the age of fifty and one can easily imagine this last remaining one providing an ideal retirement home for buyers keen to live on one level.
At £1,992 per m², the homes have been realised in line with volume housebuilders’ budgets, but Baylight estimates that the superior design has enabled it to sell them for 15 per cent above the standard market value. Robust, light-filled and laying the groundwork for a richly rewarding co-operative existence, they provide a living environment of a quality that is all too rare. We might well ask: does it really have to be so difficult?