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Vaulted House by vPPR Architects

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vPPR has once again proved it can handle a difficult infill site with this light-filled home, says Laura Mark

BRIEF • ARCHITECT’S VIEW • ENGINEER’S VIEW • WORKING DETAIL • RELATED PROJECTS IN THE AJ BUILDINGS LIBRARY

vPPR has become the go-to practice for tricky, constrained and tight sites, claiming a 100 per cent success rate on its planning applications. This project – a house on a plot in Hammersmith, previously home to a garage – was no different. An overlooked site – check; multiple party walls – check; and a feisty residents association – check. It was a chance for the young practice, which earned a name for itself with its 23-party-wall-busting Ott’s Yard scheme, to prove it could do it again.

The firm, Emerging Architect of the Year in the 2015  Women in Architecture Awards, puts its planning success down to consultation. ‘By getting the whole community on board, they feel like they have a say and that someone has listened to them,’ practice co-founder Tatiana von Preussen says.

The vaulted house is overlooked by flats and surrounded by terraced homes, so its realisation relied on effective consultation. The local residents’ association was known to be vocal and objections were anticipated. Previous failed proposals for the site included homes and even a school. Von Preussen describes how the practice took time to visit neighbouring properties and held cheese and wine evenings for neighbours to come together and discuss the scheme.  The approach worked. At planning the scheme received numerous letters of support from local residents.

Vaulted House by vPPR

Vaulted House by vPPR

Different shades of grey accentuate the roof shapes

As with its triangular Ott’s Yard house, bold geometric forms figure in the design. Key to the scheme is its vaulted roof, from which the house gets its name. Residents had previously looked out on to the garage’s tired old ply-membrane roof, and the practice felt that by giving them something more pleasing and interesting to see, it would ease their anxieties about the development.

The vaults demarcate what could easily have become a vast and sprawling space

In its place, the architect has provided a sculptural outlook with different shades of grey ply-membrane cleverly used to accentuate its lines. Originally the plan was for the whole roof to open up and slide away, but this proved too expensive and the idea was scrapped. It was a good move. What has been achieved is simple and well-detailed without the need for flashy gadgetry. Instead, at the top of each roof vault is a rooflight, which floods natural light into the space below.  These shapes are meticulously carried through in the design of the rest of the house. They are seen in the floor, which was carefully laid to reflect the vaults above, and again in the fireplace.

The house, hidden from the street behind a plain door, has been created from the garage’s existing walls. Due to contamination the site had to be excavated to 1.5m and the earth removed, tested, and treated. The walls were underpinned.

Vaulted House by vPPR

Vaulted House by vPPR

The house is entered from a courtyard concealed behind a garage door

This excavation allowed the architect to introduce a basement level, which houses the scheme’s four bedrooms. ‘We didn’t want it to feel like a basement,’ says von Preussen. It doesn’t. Each bedroom has large external glazing with access to one of two courtyards. It creates light-filled spaces even at this lower level.

At one end of the house a playroom opens out on to the larger of the courtyards and is filled with playthings. The space, which at first appears small, contains a trampoline, footballs and scooters, and the children use its solid surrounding walls to play ball games. The master bedroom also opens onto this chaotic realm. Von Preussen says vPPR originally planned for it to be a calm oasis, with plants climbing the walls.

Also opening out on to this courtyard is the master bedroom and looking out from it you can imagine vPPR’s vision for a calm oasis. But this is a family home; the space is well used and has been adapted by its owners.

Vaulted House by vPPR

Vaulted House by vPPR

Courtyards within the existing garage walls provide light to the basement level

A second courtyard in the centre of the house’s plan is surrounded by the three children’s bedrooms. The expansive glazing allows them to see into each other’s rooms and creates an extension of their space.

At the upper level, planning restricted any new windows being added into the external walls, but the practice succeeded in adding a narrow clerestory where the brick walls meet the roof.  This line of glazing accentuates the vaulted roof, while, combined with the rooflights and the glazing around the double-height courtyard spaces, it cleverly fills the open-plan living space with light, despite the general lack of exterior fenestration.

It is here that the roof form is put to good use.  The vaults demarcate what could easily have become a vast and sprawling space.  The roof lines mark out the edges of the kitchen, living and dining areas without the need for walls or partitions.

Vaulted House by vPPR

Vaulted House by vPPR

Double-height courtyard spaces are surrounded by large expanses of glazing

With this house, vPPR has created a modern family home but, despite community support, it almost didn’t go ahead.  The tucked-away site was originally found by a developer, which commissioned vPPR after seeing its Stephen Lawrence Prize-shortlisted Ott’s Yard scheme. The practice won planning for the house, but the developer decided not to press on with the build, concerned that the contaminated land might prevent it making a return on its investment.  

That could have been the end for the scheme; but a local family, which had outgrown its home around the corner and was looking to upsize, spotted the planning application and bought the site, retaining vPPR to complete the project.

Despite having 11 party walls, contaminated soil, and being bordered by an electricity substation, the build was apparently simple. ‘Nothing went wrong,’ says von Preussen.

Through its attention to detail, canny community consultation and strong forms, vPPR has again shown it can create beautiful architecture on the tightest of urban sites. As its projects mature, with a clear progression from the geometrically mannered Ott’s Yard to this pared-back home, it will be interesting to see how a larger, non-residential job would fare in the hands of vPPR.

Vaulted House by vPPR

Vaulted House by vPPR

Upper ground floor

Vaulted House by vPPR

Vaulted House by vPPR

Lower ground floor

The brief

Vaulted House is a new-build four-bedroom family house, located on an infill site, hidden behind a garage door in Hammersmith, west London. It was previously a diesel-contaminated taxi garage, surrounded by 11 party walls and overlooked by 24 neighbours. A series of sharply detailed vaulted roofs define different living zones on the open upper-ground floor. Rooflights at the top of each vault flood the landlocked site with daylight. Large courtyards bring light into the bedrooms on the lower ground floor. The roofs are covered in a striking chequered pattern of single-ply membrane. The vault geometry repeats in details of the house, including the fireplace, floors, windows and entrance.

Tatiana von Preussen, director, vPPR Architects

Vaulted House by vPPR

Vaulted House by vPPR

Perspective view

Architect’s view

A series of vaulted rooflights transfers natural light into the land-locked, former industrial site, sheltered from the road by quiet residential gardens. Hidden behind a plain garage door to the street, a secret courtyard forms the entrance to this unusual and distinctive house.

The site is a former taxi garage designated as contaminated land. All 1.5m of excavated soil had to be tested and carefully disposed of. The garden walls have been underpinned rather than demolished.

Few exterior windows are permitted in the perimeter wall, so the manipulation of daylight via the roof drives the design. Communal living functions such as dining, sitting, reading and cooking are contained on the upper floor in an open‑plan expanse. Rather than being divided by rigid walls or levels, the different living zones on this floor are demarcated by light transmitted via the vaulted rooflights.

The rooflights have been carefully calibrated to spotlight different activities throughout the day, according to the shifting angles of the sun. Morning light floods the kitchen, courtyard and breakfast areas, while the evening sun illuminates dining and library areas. An even north light bathes the study and entrance hallway. Light is transferred to the ground-floor bedrooms via a series of glazed, planted courtyards. Interior double-height spaces, each with their own spectacular vaulted roof, contain sculptural stairs and a slide, enabling the speedy dispatch of children to the lower floors at bedtime.

The site’s design constraints were dealt with by treating the roof as the primary facade. A steel and timber frame spans off the existing walls to create the roof and floor structure. The roof is constructed from plywood over timber joists, covered with insulation and single-ply membrane. The roof’s geometry appears simple but is in fact incredibly complicated. It was modelled in 3D software, which enabled precise back-and-forth between consultants to ensure the huge steel beams were completely hidden in the crisply angled finishes inside and by the roof finishes outside.

The vaulted roofs are covered with two tones of single-ply roofing membrane to produce a harlequin pattern, breaking up the large area of roof and greatly improving the outlook, which was previously on to rotten asphalt roofs. Inside the house, the vaults meet at sharp plastered edges, concealing the downstand beams, rather than expressing them. Vault-like elements are repeated obsessively at each scale of the design, forming sculptural chamfered edges to the windows, fireplace and  TV wall.  The timber floors are laid in a cross pattern that reflects the vaults above them.

The project has already won an RIBA London Regional Award and led to our practice being awarded RIBA London Emerging Architect of the Year. It has also been longlisted for a Manser Medal.

Tatiana von Preussen, director, vPPR Architects

Vaulted House by vPPR

Vaulted House by vPPR

Section A-A

Engineer’s view

The existing building occupies an island site enclosed on all sides by terraced gardens and other properties. The structure consisted of perimeter masonry walls supporting a steel truss roof. The building was originally used as a garage, complete with car pits, and as a result was contaminated with hydrocarbons that had to be removed before construction could start.

To create the necessary floor heights, the ground level was reduced, which meant the perimeter walls had to be underpinned. This underpinning also increased the foundations’ capacity to carry the additional loads of the new building. During demolition the existing roof trusses where left in place to temporarily brace the existing walls before the new structure was built. This simple approach meant no temporary structure was needed.

The building’s superstructural design is very simple. The existing masonry walls running around the perimeter were retained and used to carry the majority of the building’s weight, with a steel frame inserted internally to support the timber joist structure of the roof and floors.  To reduce the spans an additional line of columns was added through the centre of the building. This meant the steel beams could be lighter and smaller, allowing them to be moved by hand – essential, given the enclosed and difficult-to-access site.

The external galvanised steelwork structures of the balconies and staircase were carefully designed to be simple and elegant while dealing with the issues of cold bridging at the junction with the external envelope of the building.

Tom Steel, Heyne Tillett Steel

Vaulted House by vPPR

Vaulted House by vPPR

The timber construction of the vaulted roof forms

Working detail

Vaulted House by vPPR

Vaulted House by vPPR

Section through external wall, roof and clerestory

The most complex part of the project was to conceal the steel structure within a crisp, angled plaster finish from below and a sharply defined faceted roof finish from above, rather than expressing upstand or downstand beams. We spent a great deal of time working through every beam position to ensure each one fell within the roof build-ups, some of which become quite thick in places.

Large steel frames provide the main structure for the roof vaults, filled in with timber joists glued and screwed to plywood. The roof is a warm roof construction, with rigid insulation above the angled timber deck. The roof is finished in two tones of simple single-ply membrane to create a harlequin effect.

To the west side of the site, a clerestory window with concealed frames gives the appearance of a floating roof from the outside and provides high-level views from within.

The whole building is sunk by half a storey to sit within the existing perimeter walls. These walls, which are load-bearing, are underpinned to provide the half-basement level. The half-basement is fully tanked, with a sump pump for emergencies.

Tatiana von Preussen, director, vPPR Architects

Covert_House_by_DSDHA

Covert_House_by_DSDHA

Covert House (2014) London, by DSDHA

Ott_s_Yard_by_vPPR

Ott_s_Yard_by_vPPR

Ott’s Yard (2013), London by vPPR

Folded_Roof_by_Knott

Folded_Roof_by_Knott

Folded Roof (2012), London, by Knott Architects

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