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Design for exposed sites: NORD’s Shingle House

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[Technical& Practice] NORD’s Shingle House responds to building on Britain’s only desert, and is inspired by the site’s poetic qualities, writes Felix Mara. Photography by Charles Hosea

In his book House, Form and Culture, Amos Rapoport emphasised the influence of cultural factors on architectural form and challenged the view that it is determined by physical environment. It is interesting to look at NORD’s Shingle House in the light of his thesis.

This four-bedroom holiday home, commissioned by Alain de Botton as part of his Living Architecture programme (AJ 21.10.10), is situated in Dungeness, on the Kent coast; Britain’s only desert. It is exposed to wind and salt spray, frequent drought and temperatures ranging from -5 to 25 °C. This isolated terrain of shifting shingle is thought to be over three miles deep, with limited bearing capacity, and there is no surface water or foul drainage system.

NORD founding partner Alan Pert observes the way other buildings at Dungeness respond to functional requirements: ‘the distance between neighbours and lack of defined boundary, the traditional “hut” form, the door within the roof gable accessed by a ladder or steep steps (net loft), the painted chimney, the porch, the painted window frames, the use of timber construction, the functional add-on.’

NORD was also attuned to the poetic qualities of Dungeness, its bleak landscape and Lilliputian miniature steam railway, but decided not to retain the existing buildings on the site. ‘The starting point in the development of the design was to make a huge improvement to the efficiency of the previous house’, says Mark Bell, project architect at NORD.

Taking advice from contractor Ecolibrium Solutions and the building control officer, NORD emulated local practice by casting a 300mm-thick reinforced concrete ‘marsh’ slab directly on top of the shingle and coating its vertical face with black bitumen. There is an air-source heat pump and underfloor heating above the slab, which is thickened to support an exposed concrete chimney containing a flue for a wood-burning stove and soil and vent discharge pipes. There is also a sunken bath in polished black concrete, which was cast off-site and craned into position. The shingle acts as a natural soakaway for surface and rainwater drainage and there is a cesspit below it for foul and grey water. 

The highly-insulated superstructure has a timber frame with I-joists and red cedar vertical rainscreen cladding shingles which wrap round the eaves to form the roof with the slightest of overhangs and no gutter. There’s no overhang at all where the roof meets the gable walls, where the rainscreen construction is finished with 25 x 50mm cedar sections. The timber cladding was pre-coated with a falun black paint and two additional coatings were applied after installation as weather-protection and preservative. A heat-recovery system for hot water is built into the external wall construction.

As a safeguard against the marine environment, the bespoke folding doors, which form picture windows, are black anodised aluminium rather than timber. The purpleheart timber specified for the internal floor is able to stand up to this environment where it is used to form external sills and seating. 

NORD found inspiration in the context of Dungeness – in its history, fishing industry and role as a nature reserve. But architecturally, the Shingle House is much more ordered and significantly larger than any other house in Dungeness. Such a highly controlled response is typical of the practice’s continued exploration of the poetry and rhetoric of Functionalism, and the climatic extremes at Dungeness have helped NORD to take this further. No doubt the photographer Eric de Maré, arch-documenter of Functionalist architecture, would have been impressed by the Shingle House.

Key points

• High thermal efficiency

• Marsh slab cast directly onto shingle

• Same construction for external walls and roof

• Specification for marine environment

‘A protective black coat’: Alan Pert, founding partner, NORD

“The blackness of Dungeness can be seen in the variety of sheds, huts, garages, storage containers and boats. The lighthouse, Derek Jarman’s house, Garage Cottage, Simon Condor’s black rubber house and the abandoned boats all share the common black aesthetic.

“Traditionally people on this part of the coast used tar paper and pine tar as a protective coating to shacks and cottages. It was originally used as a water repellent to coat fishing boats or nets and the left-over tar was applied to houses. It was made in kilns, by stacking the timber densely over holes in the ground and then covering it with dirt and moss. Tar paper was made by impregnating paper with tar, producing a waterproof material typically used for roof construction. It was also used as underlayment for timber shingles.

“This simple protective coating to guard against the weather, preserving lightweight timber skins, has created a family of associated structures, forming a strong visual identity across the settlement. Charred, tarred and painted, the blackness becomes a protective layer and, through its familiarity across a range of objects and structures, creates a simple and functional vernacular.”


Start on site November 2009
Contract duration 1 year
Gross internal floor area 183m2
Total cost Not supplied
Form of contract JCT 2005 without quantities
Client Living Architecture
Architects NORD
Structural engineer Jane Wernick Associates
M&E consultant ZEF
Airtightness 2.67m3/h.m2 @50pa
Main contractor Ecolibrium Solutions
Quantity Surveyor Boyden & Company
CDM coordinator Anglia Surveyors
Predicted annual CO2 emissions 3,000 kg/m2

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