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An Englishman's home

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In an unusual twist, English Heritage is the client for this restoration, conversion and extension of a house for its own office use, undertaken by van Heyningen and Haward Brooklands, a Grade II-listed 19th-century gentleman’s residence in suburban Cambridge, is the new east of England headquarters for English Heritage (EH), now merged with the Royal Commission on the Historic Monuments of England.


EH’s brief to architect van Heyningen and Haward (vHH) was multi-layered. Partly it was social, providing shared accommodation for the former separate organisations, which had, on occasion, somewhat different agendas. Partly it was functional - Brooklands had been home to the commission in this region since 1996 - but housing the combined workforce would require conversion and extension as well as providing an occasion for some restoration.


In addition, EH saw the chance to create a model project for others to look to. As EH’s Richard Halsey emphasises, ‘using historic buildings is very much our message’.


EH wanted to show that it is possible to economically adapt such buildings, of which there are many, for contemporary office use.


And in the new work, says Halsey, ‘we weren’t looking for early 19th-century pastiche but contemporary architecture’.


For their own projects with historic buildings, many architects find that EH’s agenda is more open to building change than that of the local conservation officer.


So too at Brooklands. As we shall see, local conservation officers pushed EH (as client) more toward straight conservation on some fronts than it intended.


Brooklands was built between 1825 and 1827, architect unknown, extended before 1888 and again after 1906, then requisitioned and altered during the Second World War. Located behind a high boundary wall, approached from the west, the building prospect at the start of the project was asymmetrical. The house had to its left (north) a run of ad hoc single-storey outbuildings leading to an imposing stable block. (Other small outbuildings were attached around the stables too. ) Beyond the single-storey run was hidden a neglected walled garden.


Broadly, vHH’s project has been to sweep away all the outbuildings to leave the house and stable block uncluttered, make the walled garden usable again, extend the house (already in office use) to its rear alongside the south side of the walled garden, convert the stable block to office use, and design a new link building between house and stable block as an entrance and shared space.


It is not just that no clear route existed through the house that could have made its front door work as the project’s main entrance. The new link building is much nearer to the centre of gravity of the group of buildings.And it plays a symbolic and practical role in bringing together the former staff of the commission and those from EH.


Reorienting the entrance is reinforced by redesign of the front garden, some of it yet to be completed. However, the essential relationships between house, walled garden, stable block and surrounding garden remain.


There was no money to do much more to the main house beyond improving disabled access and upgrading WCs. The main change has been to the loggia at the southwest corner, built after 1906, then crudely walled in during the Second World War as a cinema. This masonry has been removed and a glass wall set behind the original line of columns, creating a meeting room.


Ventilation is provided via separate ventilating hinged panels, an approach followed too in the new extension to the rear (east) of the house. That single-storey, flat-roofed building sits alongside the walled garden, where the garden wall has been reconstructed (in lime mortar, without movement joints). Though creating problems elsewhere, the fact that the house/extension floor is 1m above the walled garden (and link building) allows the extension’s north windows to sit above the garden wall while internally they have normal sill heights.


There are matching windows to the south, rather than following the full-height glass of the adjacent loggia, a necessity given the desk layout and the risk of summer overheating. Also, the Feilden Clegg Bradley housing being built very close by argues for some built-in privacy. However, brise-soleil (which the conservation officer would have preferred to be a pergola) are due to be installed this month.


Externally, the rear house extension is unambiguously new, a white box (Sto rendered) contrasting with the house and stable block brick. Internally it is of masonry with framing of steel portals, a device also used in the link building.


Removal of outbuildings increased debate about the appropriate treatment of existing brickwork. All has been washed, but not scraped to remove traces of the past such as roof lines and paint, leaving a ‘collage’ effect in places, particularly marked in the walled garden.


Internally, the modern upper floor of the stable block has been lowered and upgraded. Blocked window openings have been opened up. It was the intention of vHH to introduce double glazing with superimposed window bars as a response to EH’s desire to cut energy consumption, but ultimately both EH and the conservation officer preferred single glazing, which required a relaxation of the Building Regulations. Internally, the thick brick walls are left uncovered, except for dado timber boarding with dado trunking.


The roof has been insulated and boarded between the existing scissor trusses, which required a new stepped eaves detail to accommodate the greater construction thickness. There is a new continuous rooflight along the north slope (the conservation officer wanted roof windows); vHH often uses toplight to change the dynamic of spaces. Overall the wood and brick aesthetic helps retain some of the workaday character of this building’s origins.


The new link block is uncompromisingly different: flat-roofed, framed in steel portals with structural glazing vertically butt-jointed using black mastic. The glass was fitted with solar film but the occupants soon removed it, preferring greater transparency and dealing with solar gain by opening the windows. The solid attached entrance porch echoes that of the existing house (that porch a later addition). Sawn York stone for the floor inside and as an apron to the front was an upgrading of specification won by the conservation officer.


The transparency of this new block serves to lightly link the house and stable block while opening up views through to the walled garden. As an entrance it pushes staff together; as a space it has potential for meetings, exhibitions and social use; and there is a small kitchenette behind a screen wall. Such uses have started to happen. (There is also a disabled lift for the 1m rise into the house. ) While the link building has more of a machine aesthetic than other parts of the project, the care in detailing shows through (see Working Detail, pp40-41), sharing some of the hand-built feel of the rest of the buildings. The clear articulation of elements from vHH also gives a consistency to the differing detailings in different areas. The project is not expensive, nor precious; it lets the layers of past use show through, building on them as others will no doubt do in future. As a model project it has balanced the inevitable conservatism of conservation voices, sensitively but not timidly restored and converted, and boldly built new. Others can dare to do likewise.

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