Set in a secluded Hampshire valley, a very contemporary home blends into its rural setting thanks to a design by two architectural practices that echoes traditional local buildings. James Parker reports
TEXT JAMES PARKER IMAGES RICHARD CHIVERS
Astrikingly modern house has arrived in the South Downs National Park, its brick walls helping offset the design’s contemporary, rectangular lines and blend into this very rural, isolated setting. In a picturesque part of the world that sees few planning permissions granted, the fact that this home got the go-ahead (despite admittedly on appeal), is a coup for both the client and architects involved.
Woodcote House is located just north of the village of Upham, near Winchester, and replaces a small cottage, plus a handful of other brick buildings, that had fallen into disrepair. In 2017, work started on the new, four-bedroomed house, which would have a modern open-plan layout to suit the couple who now live there. They run an agricultural equipment business, which came in handy demolishing the existing buildings and clearing the site.
The project kicked off when the clients approached Richard Rose-Casemore, director of Winchester-based architects Design Engine, when he gave a talk locally, and asked if he would be interested in taking on the project. However, with the firm normally specialising in larger projects, they offered it to architect Paul Cashin to deliver after they had taken it through planning; he formerly worked for Design Engine but had formed his own practice in 2012.
This being a very early project for him, Cashin had little in the way of relevant schemes to show the clients in order to convince them of his credentials. However, a two-way relationship of trust developed between architect and client during the early meetings which pervaded the whole project, including the dealings with the building contractor (Wickham-based Baker Newman, recommended by Paul) further down the line.
The 250 m2 footprint of the new house would be the same as the combined area of the cottage, garage and barn it replaces. With the owners putting their faith in Paul, he pushed for a low-profile, flat-roofed contemporary building – and importantly, one which made the most of the great views.
Choosing a local builder proved to be a bonus, with Baker Newman delivering the goods in terms of the attention to detail needed for a high quality finish. Paul is full of praise for their work, also the fact that they were “really flexible about the costs, and the programme.” Having originally only planned to take on the building’s frame and exterior, after being introduced to the owners Baker Newman ended up doing the whole project, “and did a great job.”
Having designed an unconventional modern structure however, getting through planning would be an unenviable task. It was refused at the first time of asking, to no-one’s surprise: “You just don’t get to do that in the South Downs,” says Paul. It went to appeal and got through with the help of a planning consultant, who made two key arguments, firstly that it was a replacement dwelling – helping to deal with the problem that it was much bigger than the cottage.
A further argument that helped swing the balance was that the rule around a new building not being any bigger than what it replaced was based around creating affordable housing in the area, but “no-one was going to be able to claim this was affordable housing stock,” says Cashin. He says the consultant made the case that this effectively rendered the policy void in this situation. The architect has advice for others facing a similar challenge: “You don’t argue against the policy, you argue with the reasons behind it.”
Inspired by contemporary European residential architecture, the architects created a striking, minimalist form that bedded down into the hillside site, with trees sitting behind it. The house’s long single-storey section replaces the barn and double garage, and attached, sitting at the top of the site where the cottage was, is a two-storey building containing the bedrooms.
From a distance, the silhouette would be similar to what people had previously seen on the site. However, the house departs from tradition in many respects, intended to provide a “sculptural” overall look with the building being viewable from all sides due to the isolated location. It’s not completely monolithic; the square two-storey section cantilevers to the north side, and openings are “carved” out, says the architect, such as the oriel window that sits at the top of the stairwell, framed – as are all the windows – by slim, dark aluminium. The attention to detail within the design is evident in how the brick walls are framed with matching, specially fabricated aluminium copings.
The low-rise section is glazed to both sides, looking out to the gardens and short flights of steps to north and south. It encloses the open kitchen/dining/living space, with central bi-folds blending the interior with the exterior. These open onto a sheltered patio and outdoor dining area to the south, adjacent to the entrance, and a lawn to the north.
MATERIALS & SUSTAINABILITY
In creating a decidedly modern family home, the architects were still “conscious of trying to bring the old house into the new.” Brick was therefore the obvious choice for the main material, echoing the former cottage and local Hampshire buildings. A Michelmersh rustic facing brick (Freshfield Lane First Quality Multi) was chosen to create virtually all the building’s cladding, bar a couple of aluminium panels.
However, in order to achieve a more textured visual result, the designers specified the joints to be raked out by 10 mm, providing “much more depth and variety,” says Cashin. The project’s structural engineer specified a steel truss frame to provide the cantilever, as well as large spans of up to 11 metres. The cavities are extra-wide at 250 mm, hiding all the guttering within to not interrupt the exterior aesthetic, as well as housing large amounts of insulation.
Although no longer mandatory, the building has been designed to Code 4 of the Code for Sustainable Homes. The 8 metre stairwell provides night-time ‘purge’ ventilation via an openable roof light and a tilt/turn window on the north wall of the ground floor, providing a chimney effect. Water for the property is supplied from a combination of a borehole and an aquifer.
With great views of the open countryside to the north and west, the design provided large amounts of glazing, particularly for the ground floor living areas. A corridor runs along the southern side of the ground floor, open to the living spaces and forming a ‘spine’ leading from the front door to the stairs. An uncovered car port to the west of the ground floor gives the potential to convert into a further reception room in future.
The house’s layout overall is somewhat openplan, but also provides “a series of distinct zones,” says architect Paul Cashin. Ascending the stairs, the rooms “increase in intimacy and privacy,” culminating in the first-floor master suite. The split level of the ground floor, due to the gradient, helps to signal more of a ‘private’ area; up just a few steps of the staircase are the two ground floor ensuite bedrooms (one is currently being used as a home office). There are two further bedrooms with ensuites on the first floor.
The free-flowing ground floor space is framed by a kitchen at one end and a fireplace at the other. Cashin says the design serves the major requirements of modern homeowners: “To do all of your cooking and eating and leisure in one area and move between spaces easily, that’s what people want.”
The fireplace and bathrooms feature bespoke joinery, and despite the fact that the property is not overlooked, the owners wanted curtains, partly to minimise heat loss. Cashin says they also help to protect the property: “they can shut the whole house down when they are away travelling, which they do a lot.” He is a firm advocate of bespoke curtains over blinds, being “much more luxurious,” and believes they are seeing a comeback as a preferred option for contemporary properties.
The glazing to the bathrooms is one of the most daring parts of the design, being completely unobscured, and floor to ceiling in the case of the master ensuite. However, as Paul Cashin says, “there’s no one to look in!” The addition of some ‘brise soleil’ external shading does protect the modesty of users of the freestanding bath from the road to the north west, otherwise there’s an uninterrupted view of the landscape.
One of the most visible examples of the interior’s precise detailing is the timber-treaded staircase, which has a recessed handrail plus a shadow gap. This provides an elegantly understated visual result, and an unimpeded view up the stairs, plus the practical benefit of avoiding snagging clothes! The stairs are embedded with soft LEDs to gently illuminate the stairwell. “It took a lot of time to get right, and a lot of conversations with the builder.” There are also shadow gaps around the home’s full height doors, rather than architraves, adding to the clean lines of the spaces.
The interior is painted a “yellowish white,” to the homeowners’ preference, a choice which Paul Cashin admits “slightly worried” the designers. However, they reportedly “really like” the colour now; Cashin says it helps in softening the minimalist feel that the design has produced, such as the level ceilings throughout. The owners have provided their own varied range of furniture, acquired from their global travels.
In terms of landscaping, it is still a work in progress, however the owners have planted what’s “almost an orchard,” says the architect, admitting it “will take a few seasons to bed in.” The external areas around the previous buildings were very overgrown, and the topsoil was not great, so the lawned areas have been returfed and resown.
TRUST IN THE TEAM
Trust characterised the relationships on this project, and was key to its success, says Paul Cashin. The owners are “trusting people,” he says, “and that’s really to their benefit.” He asserts: “If you had a client that was in any way controlling, I don’t think it’d be anywhere near as good.
“There’s a reason why projects are successful, it’s because they have good clients.” The collaboration fostered on this project meant that a candid, open dialogue was achieved, including with the builder, who provided an ‘open-book’ approach on costs.
Due to the healthy relationship, an informal ‘labour plus materials’ approach to the contract was possible with the builders. Cashin says that in this situation, “It’s more about people liking each other and working with each other than it is about getting contractors in place.” An example is when the owners had to go away for “four or five months, and just told the builders to stop. They said fine, we’ll go and work on something else, they boarded up the site – you wouldn’t get that with a formal contractor.”
As an architect, he says that sometimes the key to a self-build project is “about getting the right kind of contractor to meet the right kind of client. We’re almost trying to matchmake them.” He says the best approach for such schemes from his firm’s perspective is to “find characteristics and personalities that work together, and design the building around that.”
Cashin is critical of TV shows like Grand Designs for in his view wrongly over-dramatising the process of self-building. “Why as an industry would we portray it in such a way? If you get people who know what they are doing it shouldn’t be anywhere near as bad as that.”
The architect believes that self-builders have been “misled” into thinking that they need to feel empowered to take on the running of all aspects of projects themselves, while a more fruitful approach is to work collaboratively with designers and builders. He says “we’ve had projects where they were going to do it all themselves, and didn’t believe anything we said.”
Woodcote House was clearly the opposite of that approach. Says Cashin, “this client listened to everything from every consultant, took opinions, made decisions, stuck with it and let us get on with it.” He asserts: They’ve ended up with a successful project because they trusted us.”