A grass-topped refuge on the Essex coast brings sand, light and space to Walter Menteth’s unique take on shape and colour, writes Rory Olcayto
My first encounter with a Walter Menteth building was in my own neighbourhood of Peckham. The bold, sculptural form of the supported housing scheme on Consort Road, amid the light-industrial mess of south-east London’s badlands, was a reminder of how good design can turn nowhere into somewhere, space into place.
Better still the building sparkled – literally. The architect had laid vertical slabs of Tarmac, embedded with glistening aggregate, to enhance the white-rendered elevations. This, I thought, was damn good architecture, with an almost Peter Zumthor-like sensuous materiality: simple, imaginative, unexpected and brave.
Menteth’s latest project, Dune, a studio in the garden of the Mowings house in Brightlingsea near Colchester and the focus of this study, is in many ways Peckham’s extreme opposite. Where that project was tough, urban, monochrome and brownfield, Dune is a gentle refuge. Its bristling green-roof and render in a rainbow splash of colour sit in the midst of a fairytale landscape in the grounds of a large house. Yet once again, at first sight, the feeling is quite unique.
The site itself is beautiful. The Mowings towards the end of a country lane and because of the surrounding estuarine landscape, its context is defined by the strong horizontals of the sky, water and mud flats, and enjoys a sharp, eastern seaboard light.
The grounds are shaped by a series of terraces, the result of earlier sand excavation since planted to form a landscaped garden with woodland areas. There are piles of bright orange and yellow sand next to this, which change in shape and colour as the seasons pass. A grass embankment forms the southern edge of the site, evoking sand dunes with its flowing shape. The studio is midway along the embankment, built directly above an existing garage. The ground level of this structure is nearly five metres below – a condition the architect has exploited.
The building, now transformed with a splash of lime green paint, is essentially a traditional garden room, with a few extras. There are several distinct spaces within. Three of these are placed within the timber-laminated main room and comprise a north-lit painting studio, a window seat and storage archive, and a kitchenette. Menteth says this corner, an eyrie, is inspired by Ottoman houses, ‘with their windows over the water, fine views, low sills and upholstered benches’. The view here is not the Bosphorus of course, but the pretty Arcadian garden and the estuary beyond.
The studio is enclosed under a monopitch roof rising to the eastern corner with a clerestory at its apex. Such is the manner of detailing and its relationship to the overhanging soffit beyond that the ceiling appears to flow seamlessly out of the room.
Projecting south-east from this central room and served by a shallow flight of stairs, there is a top-lit washroom ‘tower’ nestling into woodland so one can ‘shower among the bluebells,’ as Menteth says. Its thin, vertiginous form stands in counterpoint to the main building, yet there is also a degree of resonance with the adjacent woodland treetrunks.
Between the tower and the main room there is a small balcony, a secluded external reading and painting space linked to the studio. To the south, and at a lower level, a ‘linear conservatory’ provides a wind lobby, potting shed and greenhouse for the garden. This space is built into the perimeter embankment and is earth sheltered. ‘It sits outside the thermal shell of the main room as an interstitial space,’ says Menteth.
The circulation works well and there is a genuine sense of revelation as the garden pathway routes through the conservatory and spirals into the main volume. The undulating, freeform roof is planted with coastal grasses and resembles an abstracted sand dune. It forms a laminated, solid timber monocoque structure perforated by the rooflight parallel to the embankment.
This design and build contract has led to a few disappointments. An ingenious ‘Polish gutter’ – a hollowed out log – foxed the builders and was omitted, and the shower tower is compromised a little by standard sanitary ware. The garden path too, has been rerouted away from Menteth’s original plot, which means less privacy in the shower should anyone decide to visit.
Are there any precedents? When pressed, Menteth, suggests Gerrit Rietveld’s Summer Beach House, ‘loose and aberrant from his usual style, sculptural and with multiple facades’; urban ‘parasitic structures’ and Zumthor, whose use of materials inspired the choice of weatherboard cladding.
The result is a unique, fresh take on contemporary Modernism, the likes of which you are unlikely to have seen before.
Architect Walter Menteth Architects
Site engineer Richard F Gill & Associates
Main contractor Colne Valley Properties
Laminated timber structure Eurban
Architect’s appointment August 2008 to RIBA Stage G
Planning submission October 2008
Planning Granted November 2008
Start on site June 2009
Gross internal floor areas
Main areas 81m2
Garage and garden storage (existing) 64m2
Contract The project was managed by the client with assistance from a one-person contractor
Doors and windows Fineline Aluminium (1.2w/m2K)
Fixed lights Heat Mirror insulating glass units by IQ Glass (U-value of 0.58W/mK). Installed by CSG
Louvres Naco Weatherbeta louvres by Ruskin Air Management
Roofing System by Protan. Installed by Roofline Group
Roof Landscaping BBS Green Roofing
Insulation Pavatherm Woodfibre Insulation & Sarking from Natural Building Technologies
Sanitary ware Ideal Standard
Ironmongery Hillaldam Coburn
Exterior wood treatment Falun paint in light red
Stove and boiler Monet wood burning stove and boiler by Hwam
Solar thermal array and system controller Kingspan Thermomax HP200