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House of the Year: first two homes on shortlist revealed

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Caring Wood in Kent, by James Macdonald Wright and Niall Maxwell, and Shawm House in Northumberland, by MawsonKerr Architects, are the first of seven projects to be shortlisted for the 2017 RIBA House of the Year 

The shortlistings were announced during the first of a four-part Channel 4 series Grand Designs: House of the Year.

Houses on the seven-strong shortlist will be revealed each week on the programme, whittled down from a longlist of 20. These included homes by Carmody Groarke, Coffey Architects, Tonkin Liu, Lisa Shell Architects, Ann Nisbet, Sandy Rendel Architects, Ström Architects, and Chris Dyson Architects. 

The RIBA House of the Year is described by the institute as ‘the UK’s most prestigious award for a new house or extension’. Last year the award was won by Richard Murphy’s own house in Edinburgh, which RIBA president Jane Duncan said was ‘part jigsaw puzzle and part Wallace and Gromit’. Other past winners include Skene Catling de la Peña for Flint House (2015), Loyn & Co for Stormy Castle (2014), and Carl Turner Architects for Slip House (2013).

The winner of this year’s award will be aired in the final episode of Grand Designs: House of the Year on Tuesday 28 November.

Part 1: RIBA House of the Year shortlist

Caring Wood by James Macdonald Wright and Niall Maxwell

Caring wood 1156 james morris pressimage 5

Caring Wood by James Macdonald Wright and Niall Maxwell

Source: James Morris

Caring Wood by James Macdonald Wright and Niall Maxwell


This unique house seeks to re-envisage the traditional ‘English country house’ in the 21st century to meet the needs of three generations of the same family. The jury was impressed with how Macdonald Wright and Maxwell had manipulated space and scale to balance the need for grandeur with intimacy – from the soaring spaces of the piano nobile to the living spaces partially embedded in the hillside below. As a result, the two architects have designed a house of over 1,400m² which nevertheless feels like a home.

The house is modern but has clear links to the Kentish rural vernacular and local building traditions. Externally, the form of the house uses the traditional oast house as a form generator, which would have been used for kilning hops as part of the brewing process. On entering, there is a framed view of a traditional oast in the distance. The house comprises four towers with an interlinking roof and these are sentry points in the landscape with distinct personalities.

The jury was also impressed with the quality of the build, the level of craftsmanship and the rigour of the pared-back palette of materials employed throughout. It is a composition of locally sourced handmade peg clay tiles, locally quarried ragstone and locally coppiced chestnut cladding. It is a rich, warm palette which ties the house to the Kent countryside and speaks of ‘place’. The towers together with the interlinking roof are clad solely in clay tiles, which the architect describes as a ‘tablecloth being draped over the terrain’. The simplicity of this visual device is very effective and the attention to detail in the way the roof is peeled away in places to acknowledge window soffits or other openings is exemplary. Internally, acoustics and manipulation of daylight are carefully considered.

The extensive landscaping surrounding the house is still in its infancy, yet there is already evidence as to how this will help to seamlessly connect the house to its setting, a year or two from now. It provides a carbon neutral response to climate change. The form of the building was developed around a central courtyard with oast towers providing summer cooling by passive stack ventilation. Caring Wood’s sustainability is addressed through low energy design and the use of clean green technologies, and in the regional application of building form, material choices and detailing.

Shawm House by MawsonKerr Architects

Shawm house 1460 rob rhodes pressimage 1

Shawm House by MawsonKerr Architects

Source: Rob Rhodes

Shawm House by MawsonKerr Architects


It isn’t often that you visit a self-build or professionally procured house that is immaculately constructed, sensitively conceived and has heart and soul with which evokes an emotional connection.

Shawm house has a remarkable story. While living and working on the site, Richard Pender built the house to provide a more manageable home for his ageing parents. He has delivered a building that tells a story at every turn. You feel connected to the history of the Pender family, the historic farms and bastilles visible across the Northumbrian fells, and are provided with a wonderful series of carefully framed views of the rustic landscape.

Working in partnership with Dan Kerr, the project architect, Pender has developed from scratch an enviable understanding of construction methodology and technologies, new practical skills and an undeniably keen eye for detail. The building was constructed by Pender on site, in an existing barn where he structured a bespoke jig to enable him to create the building’s timber frame, before applying timber cladding to create a house that connects to immediate features such as an existing walled garden and also sits comfortably in the landscape context.

The project team has combined its knowledge of Passivhaus construction with an ethos for sustainable design, and aligned this approach to a strategy for using materials available on site and from local sources to conceive a truly sustainable, low-energy and low-impact proposition. The execution of this design is of the highest quality, the exceptional understanding of construction sequencing and co-ordination and tightness of details has led to an exceptional build quality delivered by hand.

Beyond the remarkable achievement of constructing this building with little support from professional contractors, Pender would not have been able to deliver the project without the practical knowledge and careful attention offered by the project architect, and the timely and thoughtful input from his parents. Kerr managed to retain an architectural vision whilst planning how Pender could build the structure himself while ensuring that his parents’ carefully considered needs were adequately accommodated. The level of consideration given to the construction process and interfaces between materials new and old is understated yet beautifully composed. Nothing is overstated, yet emphasis, legibility and clarity are given to each element with a balanced and pleasing weighting.

Shawm House will be a perfect home for Pender’s parents and is indeed one of Northumberland’s finest homes.

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