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Manser Medal – AJ House of the Year winner revealed

Cork House by Matthew Barnett Howland with Dido Milne and Oliver Wilton has won the 2019 Manser Medal – AJ House of the Year

A remarkably successful experiment in sustainable architecture, the 44m² scheme in Eton saw off six other impressive new homes to scoop the prestigious prize.

Since 2001, the accolade has recognised the best and most innovative completed houses in the UK. It was named after the renowned British architect, former RIBA president and Royal Academician Michael Manser (1929-2016), and became part of the AJ Architecture Awards earlier this year. 


Cork House was built on a small island in the Thames for two of its three designers – Barnett Howland and Milne. The judges praised it for its whole-life approach to sustainability with its solid walls and roof built from a single plant-based material.

Following an exhaustive research project, involving the Bartlett School of Architecture, the University of Bath and engineer Arup, a kit-of-parts approach was developed to construct the house by hand on site, using prefabricated cork bricks without any glue or mortar – similar to ancient methods of building and likened to a ‘giant organic Lego system’ by the architects. 

The expanded cork they used exemplifies the project’s whole-life approach. It is a bio-material and a waste product of the Mediterranean’s highly sustainable cork forestry, which harvests the cork bark every few years without damaging the tree. This approach is also reflected at the opposite end of the structure’s life cycle. Cork House’s dry-jointed construction system means the cork can be reused, recycled or ‘returned to the biosphere’ through composting, the architects say.

The sheer level of thought that has gone into the project, which was also shortlisted for this year’s RIBA Stirling Prize, is also evident to those lucky enough to visit the house and its quintet of crowning Mayan-style pyramids.

Cork House by Matthew Barnett Howland with  Dido Milne and Oliver Wilton   DWG 3

Cork House by Matthew Barnett Howland with Dido Milne and Oliver Wilton DWG 3

Sitting close to Barnett Howland and Milne’s existing home, a Grade II-listed mill house, which dates back to the early 19th century, Cork House represents a sensory experience, rich with soft acoustics, the interplay of light and shadow and the feel and smell of the cork itself. The way it sits in its lush garden setting, the Gothic silhouette of Eton College Chapel in the distance, is also hugely successful.

For the judges, it represents a ‘wildly original’ piece of architecture with a deep sense of environmental purpose. ‘The parts of the house that aren’t cork lift the cork and the level of detailing throughout is exquisite,’ one judge remarked. ‘The architects have designed something that instinctively appeals to you, based on a natural and ancient technique of building.’

While there may not be enough cork available for it to become a material for volume housebuilders, the judges felt that Cork House provoked exactly the kind of debate the construction sector needs to be having.

Another judge added: ‘The architects asked exactly the right questions of our industry. And they produced something beautiful.’

The medal-winner was revealed along with the victors on the other AJ Architecture Awards category winners at an exclusive gala dinner tonight (20 November 2019) at Exhibition London, Shepherd’s Bush.

The Manser Medal – AJ House of the Year judges

  • Teresa Borsuk, senior advisor, Pollard Thomas Edwards 
  • Tanvir Hasan, deputy chairman, Donald Insall Associates
  • Kirsten Lees, managing partner, Grimshaw
  • Alan Shingler, partner, Sheppard Robson

The Manser Medal: previous winners

2001 - 1A Merthyr Terrace, Barnes, by Studio Bednarski
2002 -
 Brooke Coombes House, west London, by Burd Haward Architects
2003 - Anderson House, Fitzrovia, London, by Jamie Fobert Architects
2004 - Black House, Cambridge, by Mole Architects
2005 - Stealth House, Southwark, London, by Robert Dye Architects
2006 - Holly Barn, Norfolk Broads, by Knox Bhavan Architects
2007 - Salt Water, Blackwater, by Alison Brooks Architects
2008 - Oxley Woods, Milton Keynes, by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners
2009 - Gap House, Bayswater, London, by Pitman Tozer Architects
2010 - Hunsett Mill, Norfolk Broads National Park, by ACME
2011 - Hampstead Lane, Highgate Village, London, by Duggan Morris Architects
2012 - Maison L, Versailles, France, by Christian Pottgiesser, Architecturespossibles
2013 - Slip House, Brixton, London, by Carl Turner Architects
2014 - Stormy Castle, Gower, Wales, by Loyn & Co Architects
2015 - Flint House, Waddesdon, Buckinghamshire, by Skene Catling de la Peña
2016 - Outhouse, Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire, by Loyn & Co Architects
2017 - House in Coombe Park, Kingston, London, by Eldridge London
2018 - Red House, Southwark, London, by 31/44 Architects

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