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On site: Peter Zumthor's Secular Retreat

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Laura Mark visits Living Architecture’s latest project - the much-anticipated Secular Retreat by Peter Zumthor


On a secluded hillside site in south Devon, Peter Zumthor’s first permanent UK project is taking shape. The huge concrete forms will eventually become the Secular Retreat, the latest holiday home in Alain de Botton’s Living Architecture offering.

The site has expansive views in all directions, and Zumthor’s house has been configured to make the most of these while also relating to a small octagonal-shaped wall area and the Monterey pines planted around the garden’s edge, which were both part of the site’s original 1940s house.

The walls and main structure of Zumthor’s house have been built from rammed concrete – a rare building method here in the UK and one that was not without its challenges concerning supply of materials and finding the right skilled labour to meet the architect’s precise requirements.

An on-site batching plant had to be used to produce the concrete since local suppliers could not commit to providing the high proportion of white cement used in the mix. Two silos on site – one containing white cement and the other GGBS – were the only way to ensure the quality and supply of the rammed concrete. This also meant the mix could be tailored, dependent on external weather conditions, to create a consistent colour and texture throughout. The contractor also had to stockpile sufficient materials, even going so far as to buy the seam of sand at the quarry that would ensure a consistent colour of sand for the duration of the project.

The rammed concrete has a beautiful texture which varies as it progresses up the wall, its colour staying consistent throughout. It has a majestic and stone-like quality while also feeling of the earth.

It wasn’t just the rammed concrete that challenged the contractors. The enormous cast-concrete roof required a number of large concrete pours. Huge steel beams were used to support the roof’s cantilevers while the concrete was curing. No piece of formwork for the roof was the same, and its irregular geometry can be seen in the joint marks across the soffit. It required skilled carpenters to get it right and to meet the high expectations of Zumthor’s studio.

It has not been an easy project, and there will no doubt be many more challenges to come, but this scheme will be one to keep an eye out for when it completes later this year. I can imagine architects will flock to see a piece of Zumthor in the UK, and I do not expect it to disappoint. 

The Secular Retreat by Peter Zumthor

The Secular Retreat by Peter Zumthor

Source: Jason Orton

Project data

Construction start on site June 2014
Gross internal floor area 375m2
Architect Atelier Peter Zumthor and Partners
Executive architect Mole Architects
Local architectural adviser (concept stages) David Sheppard Architects
Client Living Architecture
Structural engineer engineersHRW incorporating Jane Wernick Associates
M&E engineer Transsolar Energietechnik/ Integration (UK)
Quantity surveyor KM Dimensions
Main contractor (groundworks and concrete frame) Woodmace
M&E contractor Murch & Baker Heating
Landscape designer Rathbone Partnership

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