Gregory Phillips Architects was approached to design a five-bedroom, modernist home in a suburban village in Berkshire, England. Occupying a spectacular woodland site overlooking the Thames, it replaces an existing dwelling that one of the clients had grown up in.
The clients wanted to build a house that would take advantage of the site and allow them to entertain and accommodate guests, but primarily function as an intimate working home for their family of six.
The building’s concept was conceived with two faces – a public side fronting the road, made up of a series of solid forms, largely constructed from handmade brick.
In front, an entrance courtyard softens the approach and forms a strong rationale with the streetscape. The rear of the building by contrast is light and open, formed of two projecting ‘floating canopies’ – timber cubic forms with minimal structure beneath that maximise the views across the garden.
It was important to the clients that their home could accommodate a large number of guests or on other occasions very few occupants, without feeling empty. The house consequently features a double-height hall which forms the centrepiece of the building and includes six-metre tall sliding glazed doors, providing a theatrical connection to the mature garden.
This space serves a dual purpose; it acts as a generous circulation space, revealing the expansive views of the site to the user, having entered the house through a modest entrance lobby.
Secondly, it provides a dramatic reception and dining space when required. Externally, the hall provides a visual break in the facades, allowing the building’s mass to remain modest.
This organisation of public and private sides was followed through in the building’s plan. Guest accommodation, a play room and utilitarian spaces are on the public North side, and family living spaces and bedrooms overlook the secluded South-facing garden.
The interiors are calm and use neutrals to create a modern, relaxing finish where the views through the floor to ceiling windows are the star.
To build a house of this size on a plot protected under TPO, it was imperative to conserve the natural beauty of the site. Further, the clients wanted ‘to be able to run their hands through the treetops’. The subsequent designed ensured that no trees required removal and the landscape would envelop the house.
To achieve this, the structural design was carefully considered, resulting in the use of a thin concrete raft-slab constructed on mini-piles above the existing ground level. This innovative solution allowed the house to be built in close proximity to the tree canopies and avoid impacting their roots. Generous new planting directly outside the ground floor glazing enhances the connection to the garden when inside the house.
Balconies at first-floor also provide a tactile experience in the landscape. Sheltered within the timber-cladding – akin to a tree-house, they provide shade for the bedrooms and expansive glazing below.
In winter, the low sun provides warmth to integrated bench seats, encouraging their use all year round.
The clients wanted a modern building, but one with a sense of character and timeless quality. Thus, a restrained palette of ‘raw’ materials was used. Handmade bricks and thick-cut sections of cedar are used to clad highly-insulated lightweight walls between a structural steel frame.
The air-tight envelope is completed with solar-controlled glass. Internally, the air quality is maintained using a whole house MVHR system and concrete floors and furniture provide thermal mass and visual simplicity.
Berkshire House aims to be an exciting and bold alternative to typical suburban architecture.