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History revision

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Building study

Wakelins is James Gorst Architects' reworking of timber-framed cottages, complemented by a beautifully crafted modern addition A decade or more ago James Gorst might have been fairly described as an intelligent traditionalist, whose architecture, in a pared-down Classical manner, eschewed replication and decorative pastiche in favour of a dialogue with the sublime geometries of the Classical tradition. Gorst's 'architectural journey' then took him on to a flirtation with Edwardian Free Style, which was reflected in the intriguing house he designed at Glebe Place in Chelsea, completed in 1997. The Prince of Wales, it seemed, warmed to his work, but its essentially progressive character was unacceptable to the Prince's design gurus, who apparently ruled out Gorst for a major phase of work at Poundbury.

Whithurst Park Cottage in Sussex (AJ 29.11.01) was the product of Gorst's maturity, explicitly non-historicist, drawing on the work of modern architects that he admires, notably Louis Kahn and Peter Zumthor. Not that Gorst has any regrets about his past excursions into history. 'The lessons and sensibilities derived from absorbing myself in those pre-existing traditions do carry over and inform the current practice, ' he says.Wakelins near Wickhambrook in Suffolk, which is part new-build, part radical reconstruction of a group of timber-framed cottages, continues his pilgrimage. (Sandy Rendel and Stephen Tierney are other members of the project team. ) Gorst's childhood was spent in East Anglia (where he still has a retreat) and he has a feel for the region and its traditions.

The client for Wakelins is an American, resident in Britain for many years, who had been dividing his time between London and Suffolk and was anxious to find a larger house in southwest Suffolk. When first seen by Gorst and the client, Wakelins was superficially unappealing, despite its Grade II listing.Originally a group of cottages with medieval origins, it had been crudely extended and altered.

A coating of cement render had accelerated the march of dampness and rot through the timber frame. Gorst proposed removing later accretions, stripping back what remained to the frame and extending the house in a modern manner - with the unsightly additions removed, the house would be too small for the client's requirements. His proposals won support from English Heritage and amenity societies. The Ancient Monuments Society said it was 'a fascinating and exciting scheme by an architect with an established reputation in handling listed buildings with both sensitivity and flair'. Though there were the inevitable objections from neighbours.

Initially there were ideas for leaving the historic timber frame exposed externally, but in consultation with conservation planners it was agreed to re-render the listed building using lime render in the local tradition. The uncompromisingly modern nature of the new extension was broadly welcomed by planners and local councillors and work was able to start on site in 2001. Consent was also given for the conversion of an adjacent barn, also in poor condition, for use as a staff residence. The applicant was advised to investigate reports that great crested newts, a protected species, were breeding in a pond on the site.

Once the lean-to additions along the south side of the house were removed, the condition of what remained was found to be worse than expected. There were no foundations. About 40 per cent of the timber frame was beyond repair and had to be replaced with English oak, jointed and pegged in the traditional manner, in a reconstruction operation extending over nearly six months. Installing foundations and a new soleplate meant propping the timber frame.

Here, as throughout the project, the architects worked closely with the 'superb' local firm of FA Valiant and Son as general contractor. The results of the collaboration are evident in the outstanding craftsmanship seen throughout the reconstructed and extended house.

Since Wakelins was essentially an amalgam of what had been quite humble dwellings, there were no interiors of note. The main staircase dated only from the 1970s and formed an intrusive presence at the centre of the house. Gorst relocated the stair to the building's southern edge, where it is lit by a full-height window that, he concedes, owes something to the inspiration of Lutyens. The planners rejected a proposal that the window be more strongly expressed, breaking the roofline, but internally the stair certainly provides a sense of light and openness.

In structural terms, the stripped-down timber frame provided a flexible envelope (conventionally divided by non-structural studded partitions) that adapted easily to a non-compartmented modern lifestyle. Most of the ground floor is now occupied by the interconnected kitchen and dining room, with an informal area for relaxing and listening to music beyond the reconfigured entrance hall to the east. A further lounge area and two bedrooms occupy the first floor, with a third guest bedroom at attic level. Internally, the repaired timber frame has been left exposed in a way it would not have been in the past. The contrast between old and new timbers is apparent.

Externally, a 100mm layer of 'breathable' sheep's wool insulation fitted between new exterior studs gives the building environmental credentials it hitherto lacked. Over this, lime render was applied onto stainless-steel mesh.

More insulation was packed into the roof, clad in locally made clay tiles. Both the chimney stacks, which had been cut down and much altered, were rebuilt as emphatic external features. The removal of the additions along the south side of the house has made the interiors far lighter; the client wanted generously day-lit spaces. Windows are single-glazed and have leaded lights, a feature that Gorst 'agonised' about, toying with the idea of plain casements.

However, he points out that the small panes of handmade glass provide an attractively dappled light when the sun shines. Moreover, the use of leaded panes seems to heighten the contrast between the restored old house and the new house that adjoins it to the east.

Gorst was insistent that, leaded panes apart, new elements should be clearly contemporary.

'What is new had to be clearly expressed as such, with no attempt to soften its impact', he insists.

Equally the new addition was envisaged as an uncompromisingly modern building. It might have been more emphatically detached from the old fabric had the two been connected at one level only, but this would have been at the expense of practicality and convenience. The diagram of the addition takes its cue from the axis of the existing house.A double-height, toplit central space, reminiscent of that at Whithurst Park, divides it into two rectangular zones. That to the north is more enclosed and secretive, with narrow slit windows, while that to the south, with the library at ground level and the master bedroom above, is transparent, open to the landscape through large areas of double glazing which give fine views over the garden and surrounding fields and woods.

The level connection between old and new was achieved by excavating the site of the addition to a depth of about half a metre. The new wing is essentially a prefabricated softwood timber structure, made in a boatyard in Beccles and erected on site in 10 days. Gorst sees it as a modern expression of the timber-building tradition, formed on a well-insulated frame clad in oak boarding and with a minimal amount of structural steel. The flat roof is sedum-planted.

The former barn, now occupied by a member of staff, is a striking marriage of old and new in its own right. Again, new foundations had to be laid and up to half of the timber frame replaced. Internally, it is now lined in fireproofed birch ply covering a layer of insulation.

Locally produced clay paviours have been used for the floor in the main living and kitchen area, laid on a screed that incorporates underfloor heating. The oak boarded screen that forms a sheltered entrance area for the barn was a testbed for the use of the same material on the cladding of the main house.

Given the extent of reconstruction of the existing house (which remains listed), the project ended up by creating, as Gorst freely admits, 'two new, connected houses'. In many respects this was a dream commission. The architect was instructed not only to design a great deal of fitted and moveable furniture but also to select other items of furnishing, floor coverings, light fittings and even cutlery and linen. Security, lighting and sound systems are controlled by a central computer system.

The marriage of old and new that is now Wakelins is a surprisingly seamless one, with a clear spatial flow between the restored and the entirely new elements in the house. Gorst has created a house for a particular lifestyle, comfortable but not showy, one that is rich in enjoyable and memorable spaces and equally rich in the pleasures of texture and form provided by fine craftsmanship. There is nothing sentimental or folksy - it wears both its age and its modernity with ease. Oh, and the greatcrested newts are still there, undisturbed by a couple of years of work on site.

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