5 houses by 5 practices: The Tree House by 6a architects
The Tree House was developed in response to the mother of a busy family, who is reliant on a wheelchair and was finding herself increasingly confined to a single room.
Her home is a pair of small Grade II-listed 1830s brick weavers’ cottages, joined together in the 1970s as part of the GLC homesteading scheme. The ground floor rooms of the two cottages are on different levels and both are half a storey above the rear garden.
The garden was reached via steps from an opportunistic scaffold veranda on chunky concrete columns - the legacy of the previous owner, a builder. From here our client would spend time looking out from beneath leafy vines across the unruly tree and flower-filled gardens, which all connected together with openings for neighbouring families to pop in and out.
Our brief was to find a way of connecting the original ground-floor rooms and to provide a new master bedroom and wet room at ground floor with direct access to the garden, while keeping the informality of the existing family home. We wanted the accessibility requirements to be a positive architectural driver, making the house better than it had been previously. To this end we recentred the whole house around the garden.
The Tree House winds down around the trees, cinching itself in to get around a sumac tree, which sits centrally, and breathes out again to accommodate a generous bedroom and bathroom below a eucalyptus. The bedroom faces onto a deck into the garden; it looks back to the house where the old concrete columns have been reused to support a new timber-framed glazed veranda, which ramps between the two existing ground-floor rooms and connects to the Tree House. The existing kitchen, people moving through the house and even the street beyond are all glimpsed from the bedroom. The dark timber-painted frame of the veranda seems to recede visually, allowing you to see past it to the original brickwork of the cottages’ rear walls.
The new construction is reversible, meeting requirements for listed building consent. It is timber-framed on timber foundations and clad in reclaimed jarrah skimmings. Internally it is simply detailed with exposed timber joists, softwood boarding and plywood floor, all painted white to provide a softly textured backdrop to the many framed views of trees from within. The garden and all ground-floor rooms are fully accessible by wheelchair. Roses and jasmine will be encouraged to climb back over the timber south-facing elevation of the Tree House, as they once did over the south-facing garden fence.
Stephanie Macdonald, director, 6a architects
Client’s view, Rowan Moore
Good architecture, goes the mantra, needs good clients. Well, we tried. Especially as someone who holds forth about good and bad architecture, and good and bad commissioning, I should set a good example.
Writing about architecture usually means that you know a lot of architects, so we started with a very long list. We then came up with a shortlist of three, and went to see them and their work. Each would have done a good job, with different strengths in each case. We chose, without being able fully to articulate our reasons, 6a.
The project was blessed by some very direct constraints - access needs, the geometry of ramps, the desire to avoid much-loved trees, the need to stay low when we got near our neighbours’ fence - which are usually good protection against randomness and vapidity. The main hazard, apart from the fact that reconciling these constraints might actually have been impossible, was that I am myself an ARB-registered architect, even though I haven’t designed anything for years. I have also spent time contemplating the house, and thinking of the many different ways in which it could be extended or altered.
So I downloaded all my ideas early on, in ugly sketches: a lift that was also a room, as the house Rem Koolhaas designed in Bordeaux; a thickening of the rear elevation with an extra layer, in the style of Lacaton & Vassal. I invited 6a to borrow or ignore from them. They then, with infinite patience, worked through a huge number of options for addressing our complex demands, until they came up with the bold but responsive solution that we have.
Apart from being very good designers, they brought to the project the ability to see things and take risks that we could never have imagined. We fretted about losing too much garden, in the best, south-facing part, but they plunged the building into it, which means that we can enjoy the garden much more thoroughly, and that previous neglected parts now get more attention. The garden, actually smaller, feels bigger.
I continued to throw in ideas, a few of which stuck, and most of which didn’t. I also acted the critic: I thought, wrongly, that there were too many windows, that 6a was guilty of the student habit of sometimes trying to make buildings respond to every eventuality. I pointed out that there was something awkward about a slate roof originally proposed for the glazed gallery, and the roof was changed to glass, but I later tried to get a solid roof reinstated, as a cost-cutting measure. I was, thankfully, unsuccessful.
‘It’s all about teamwork,’ is the other mantra, which is also true. This is a genuine collaboration involving 6a, other exceptional consultants, the really good builders at John Perkins Projects, all working with a will and insufficient financial reward, and accommodating neighbours. Together with 6a we shared the early delusions about cost, without which many construction projects would not happen, and there was a little pain when the delusions were shattered. On the other hand, knowledgeable observers have guessed the final cost at three times what it was, which is what I call value for money.
Rowan Moore is architecture critic at the Observer and author of Why We Build
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