Grand Designs’ Kevin McCloud talks Britain’s House of the Year 2015
It is a curious paradox that, while so many of us want to own our own homes, so few get to build one. Finances and the planning system seem to conspire, with the result that personalisation of where we live is frequently restricted to some amateur interior design. But there is a way to get just what you want, and that means starting from scratch. Often, it starts with finding a site in a spot where you can really see yourself living – perhaps a spot that the commercial housebuilders have overlooked. In cities such as London, frequently it is an infill site, with completely different challenges to those looking for a rural retreat and views of rolling hills.
And that challenge of actually getting the home you want, designed and built, has been celebrated recently in Channel 4’s House of the Year series. Having showcased seven of the best designs, the winner, Flint House, was finally announced to the nation yesterday.
Supported by the Royal Institute of British Architects and led by Grand Designs compere Kevin McCloud, the series has shone a light on the style of those with the fortitude and finances to build a bespoke home. Sponsored by Hiscox Insurance, the award is the latest incarnation of an annual search for excellence in housing design that RIBA has been running since 2001.
The best new homes come to life when a client trusts an architect, who then successfully extracts and interprets their brief. “Architecture’s benefits are huge. It is one of the great noble arts,” insists McCloud. He’s seen many versions of this client-architect relationship over the years as he filmed series upon series of Grand Designs. And while some are not well founded, the best of those relationships deliver “commodity, firmness and delight” – the three essential elements of great architecture declared by Roman architect Vitruvius. A smart architect will repay his fee many times over, declares McCloud, by delivering a truly enjoyable home, filled with subtle elements that work just right for its residents.
While there was variety in the homes nominated for final consideration, many go down the modern route of creating large, open living spaces. “There’s a willfullness about open plan,” says McCloud, who still wonders what life in such big, open spaces is really like. We all need somewhere to retreat to, he insists: “For so long, I’ve personally advocated the snug or the study.”
Getting a mortgage for such a home remains a challenge, as banks tend to hate anything remotely out of the ordinary. “It is improving slightly,” says McCloud, with several smaller building societies prepared to lend to this niche. “It’s a shame that the mainstream banks – with the exception of Lloyds – do not.” He notes that self builders are four times less likely to default on their mortgage, compared with the average lender.
“There were many buildings that didn’t make it onto the long list, there are a lot of good buildings out there,” he laments. “It’s always difficult to work out why something’s been excluded.” It is also important to remember they were designed and built as homes, not as architectural trophies. “Yet fundamentally, all these buildings are a joy to see.”
And see them you can. Many of the homes that feature in the RIBA competition sign up to Open House, the annual tribute to great architecture that opens up usually private buildings for viewings for one weekend every autumn.
Rising out of the ground as if hewn from it, this Buckinghamshire home is created in the form of two wedges. Using local materials, the walls are built of knapped flints at ground level, switching as they rise to chalk blocks. The rising roof appears as a series of steps and terraces, creating further open living space. Inside, the flint theme continues on feature walls, while a stream meanders through one corner of the home. “Expectations were high,” said the judges of their initial look at photographs of the project; on visiting this dramatic home, they were clearly met.
New meets old as a successful experiment combining prefabrication and retained historic elements, all in the Kew conservation area. A bold design was the result of input from the client – a structural engineer and boat restorer – and a shared interest between client and architect in prefabrication. Careful consultation ensured neighbours were prepared for the surprise of a home formed largely from steel that weathers, or rusts, and fills a tight urban site. The accommodation is in two wings, linked by a glazed walkway, while dimpling of the steel cladding provides a beautiful, dappled light to parts of the interior.
Blocks of brick and planes of glass are intermingled in this design on a London mews site. A home that really is deceptively spacious, the house has a basement including a swimming pool, and uses a deep bore ground source heat pump to provide greener heating. A central lightwell surrounded by glazing brings natural light all the way down into the building, with its double height kitchen and dining space, with architecture the judges describe as having “sophistication and delight.” On the top floor, a sitting room opens out onto a secluded south facing terrace.
Looking out to the Mourne Mountains in County Down, this house keeps itself very private with its solid white gables and walled yard facing the road. Arranged in two rectilinear blocks, the space between has been used to create an entrance hall and trapezoidal shaped music room. The judges noted that the simple, elegant form of the building and its pared back interior was enhanced by the well executed detailing “with evident local skill and obvious pride” that is a credit to architect, client and builder. Carefully positioned windows grab light at different times of the day.
Built on a limited budget and reusing old farm buildings, The Mill is a holiday home on the Scottish borders that its client wanted to be simple and utilitarian. By working with existing openings in the stone walls, a form evolved that has split the floor levels, creating an elevated living room that makes the most of the view. The structure is essentially a new, insulated timber building slotted within the stone walls. To create sufficient space, the addition is extended upward with a “top hat” of further dark timber beneath a slate roof, while inside pine, plywood and polished concrete are among the finishes used.
A roof of complex triangular panels of cross-laminated timber both echoes the peaks of the Alps, much loved by the clients, and nods to the undulating form of the backdrop of trees. A modest exterior respects the West Sussex country setting, while hiding a home full of modern materials and technologies. The timber clad first floor oversails the glazed open plan living area on the ground floor, while a striking double height atrium links the two floors and throws light into the interior. Outside, a formal garden has been laid out around the home, contrasting with the views of rolling fields.
Squeezed into the landlocked site of a former taxi garage in Chiswick, this family home needs to find its light and views in ways far more imaginative than traditional perimeter windows. A virtue is made of the challenge with six individual pitched roofs, each topped by a glazed rooflight, with the design seeking different light for each space, depending on the time of day it’s used. Between these vaulted roofs are spaces creating garden courtyards, which throw light down into the basement bedrooms. The jury declared it “a sophisticated piece of urban infill bursting with clever details.”