South East Festival of Architecture
23 May 2009
Juhani Pallasmaa, the Architectural theorist and writer, states in his seminal book Eyes of the Skin that “life enhancing architecture has to address all senses simultaneously and fuse our image of self with our experience of the world…articulates the experiences of being in the world and strengthens our sense of reality and self. To him Architecture is a whole bodily experience and the architecture that considers this is holistic (Pallasmaa, 2000). In times where the Architect is more in touch with a computer screen than the sense of the world, it often hard to find buildings that attest to Pallasmaa’s discourse. As you may have read in previous articles on Boidus there are some works which do match the dialogue of Pallasmaa such as those by Peter Zumthor, Sarah Wigglesworth and Carlo Scarpa.
Recently, as part of the South East Festival of Architecture Richard Hawkes, and his family, threw open the doors of their new house nestled amongst the shallow hillocks of Kent. You may be familiar with Hawkes’s home as it was featured on Channel Four’s Grand Designs. More recently Boidus ran an article on the discussion that took place between Hawkes and Kevin McCloud at the Grand Designs Live Event at Excel.
Green Fields and Oust Houses
The journey to Crossway begins in Camberwell, and takes in several bustling Boroughs of London. The bustling city is soon left behind for the relative tranquillity of the green pastures of Kent. Crossway is just beyond the village of Staplehurst along winding country lanes. It is surprisingly well hidden to the casual observer with only the uppermost portion of the building visible beyond the birch trees. Unlike the neighbouring badly converted Oust Houses, Crossway not shouting and screaming for attention, it is merely having its own conversation with the surrounding landscape.
This becomes apparent when viewed from the surrounding fields. Sitting in a natural basin it seems to emerge organically from the landscape.
A Language of its Own
The tour of the house is conducted by Sophie Hawkes. It soon becomes apparent that this is more than just an experimental passive house with an experimental brick arch. This is a much loved home that is growing with the Hawkes family. As such the Architecture has emerged with a close examination of the family and how they wish to live. This is the fruit of the decision to leave behind London life.
The arch is sculptural and magnificent and gives this house a language quite unlike anything in the area. The red tile structure freely envelopes 2 box like volumes below. This is a self supporting cantinery timbrel vault, 8 m in height and 20m long; consisting of 26000 hand made local tiles. It was built by laying tiles one on top of the other in three layers. It is not a new method of construction but an ancient method commonly used in Catalonia. There are several majestic examples employed by Spanish Architects Rafael Gaustovino and Antonio Gaudi.
Above: Work by Rafael Gaustovino from here
Spirit of the Meander
The bold striking form of the arch against the timber volumes creates a very simple tectonic form. This language is continued within the house. The entrance door is set into an extruded brick and timber clad box on the north side of the house. Stepping from the bright exterior into the windowless box is at first a gloomy experience. However as your eyes adjust you are soon greeted with the spaces beyond. The entrance is a strong point of orientation with visual clues to all parts of the house. As a casual observer there is a desire to meander amongst the spaces beyond as Hawkes has invested enough clues to entice investigation.
What captures the attention is the stair case. The stairs invite views to the upper floor and to the timbrel vault. The vault and the stair are constructed in the same manner and complement each other. As a piece of sculpture the two forms compliment and contrast like the forms of a Barbara Hepworth Sculpture.
Arrangement of Spaces
The ground floor consists of living spaces at south end of the house, benefitting from generous daylight, and ancillary space to the north side. It consists of a living room and an office at either wing under the arch with a kitchen, and living room at in volumes between. The plan is resolved well to hide a utility room and a bathroom. Each space is invested with little touches of character. For example the living room is like a light box thanks to the granted window that frames southerly views over the fields beyond. The dining room exposed to the arch creates a formal yet surprisingly intimate space.
The first floor opens up to the brick arch, which invest the spaces with luminance and a liberating atmosphere. It consists of the master bedroom, the children’s bedroom, a bathroom, and an ensuite guest room. The ensuite is neatly hidden by a hinged panel that when open closes off the room to the rest of the house, providing privacy. The master bedroom sits in the volume above the living room. Like the living room this is like a lens focussing views over the countryside. An ensuite and a toilet are neatly inserted into the space. A glazed skylight over the toilet will invite long contemplation of the brick arch.
A ladder grants access to a terrace that sits a top the volume containing the master bedroom. This has been re appropriated as the home for Richard Hawkes’s telescope. One can imagine this space developing in future as it becomes more lived in. At present it is also where the PV-T systems are mounted.
Hawkes goes to great lengths wherever possible to express the majestic tiles and his choice of supporting finishes is exemplary. Local materials have been used throughout this house. The arch is made of Kent head tiles and the volumes have a skin of English Cedar from Suffolk. The cedar is vertical finger joined and recalls the tradition of Kentish weatherboarding. In this instance not painted white but left to weather to a silver colour. The volume that encloses the entrance consists of East Sussex brick. Even the lime based mortar is ethically sourced. On close inspection it contains glinting flecks of crushed recycled glass.
The tile stair has a sumptuous finish of FFC Kerto Ply treads and balustrades. The balustrade is supported on steel banisters with flax rope from nearby Chatham Dock strung between. All elements are recycled emphasising the ethics of each choice. It is a sensuous experience to climb such a beautiful crafted staircase that emphasises the haptic qualities of the whole house.
Even the living spaces are well finished and appointed. For example the living room contains all the necessary requirements of a family home without appearing to be a showroom as some homes that feature on Grand Designs may appear. Her you will find a Le Corbusier chair sat next to children’s toys. It is comfortable and it is practical, as well as refined a diligent. These are spaces for living in.
“…not a big beard and saddles building…”
What is meant by this is that it is a sustainable building built on the Passivhaus principle but it avoids the cliché of the Earthship, and the standardisation of the characterless Passivhaus models.
The Passivhaus principle is simple. A lightweight structure, usually of timber, is highly insulated and tightly sealed. It ventilated by mechanical means as fresh air is pumped around the house. Argon filled triple glazing allows maximum penetration for natural light whereas the north faced is blank to avoid heat loss.
Crossway takes this methodology and enhances it to create a healthy living environment. The day of the visit is warm and the sun is out. When invited into the house the building is comfortable to be in. The thermal mass of the tiles means it is great for fabric energy storage ironing out any great temperature fluctuations. The windows are also open which means that the Passivhaus doesn’t have to be a sealed vacuum. The only problem is that family chickens wander into the housing causing an audible interruption to the tour. But that is only downside to the environmental strategy. It is a noticeably fresh comfortable environment to be in.
The ground floor utility room is home to the Mechanical Ventilation Heat Recovery (MVHR) unit which is 91% efficient. The PV-T system mounted on the roof feeds the system with heat. The thermal store works on paraffin wax which is more thermally efficient than water. As a back up a Molten Salts thermal store is used. This is even more efficient than the paraffin wax. A biomass wood chip burner is also on hand should there be a need for it. The wood chips are currently be used as cat litter which implies that it is somewhat redundant. In fact the house is so efficient that it will become a net exporter to the grid subject to utility company approval. This is thanks to the PV-T system.
”life enhancing architecture has to address all senses simultaneously and fuse our image of self with our experience of the world…articulates the experiences of being in the world and strengthens our sense of reality and self”.
Juhani Pallasmaa. Eyes of the Skin. 2000
When is a house a home? A house is a home when a design emerges from a page and is invested with the same care and diligence as it took to design it. It is when the lived experience matches the intention. You can see that Hawke’s went to great lengths to resolve a building that would not be contrived or out of place, but to provide a home for his family that would represent a conscious choice of life. In doing so he has sculpted a building and invested it with meaning that will live with the family for many years to come. As the garden grows and the building beds down, so the family will grow and their experiences will enliven this quiet corner of Kent. It is part of the family now.
This is a life enhancing home that answers a great many questions about modern house design. It is environmentally efficient without resorting to environmental led design. It builds on ancient traditions that are effective in other parts of the world and mixes them with local materials, crafts and construction skills. Yet it is not a conventional Oust house, like its near neighbour, but an innovative beautiful tectonic piece of sculpture. This is quite a commendable achievement.
Boidus would like to thank Richard Hawkes and his family for inviting us into his home. We would also like to thank Sophie Hawkes for her enthusiastic and diligent tour.
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