The Twentieth Century Society

Review: lecture series ‘My House, My Practice’

Reviewed by Elizabeth Owen

I was brought up in a house designed by my architect father in the 1950s, so the Autumn lecture series ‘My House, My Practice’ – in which six eminent architects discussed designing and building their own homes – was of particular interest to me. How did they face the challenge of becoming their own client? This was an excellent series of lectures, of which what follows can be no more than a summary.

The six houses spanned fifty years, from 1964 to 2014, with five in Greater London and the sixth in Edinburgh. The subject of the first lecture was also the first to be built: by Ted Cullinan for his family on a small site in Camden Mews. Although planning regulations stipulated that the house should be set back from the front boundary, he got permission to place it front-to-back on the left (north) side of the plot, with a garage and garden on the south side. Seeing himself as both designer and master builder, he worked part-time with family and friends for two years, spreading the cost and working out the details as they went along.

The south-facing two-storey building has a cast concrete post-and-beam frame, with brick-enclosed bedrooms and bathroom on the ground floor, and a glazed timber first floor living area entered from an external staircase. Overhanging eaves prevent rain from rotting the timber and shade the interior from the summer sun. Both in design and construction, this house has been influential in the subsequent development of Camden and nearby Murray Mews.

Some three decades later, Sarah Wigglesworth and her partner Jeremy Till sold their Victorian house and bought a dilapidated industrial site next to the railway line in Stock Orchard Street, North London. They planned an L-shaped building to suit their busy lifestyle, with separate home and office wings connected by a dual-purpose dining and conference room. They researched green materials and technologies suited to the self-builder in an urban setting. Their questioning of accepted construction methods and use of experimental and unorthodox materials – mainly recycled – with walls of straw bales from a fodder merchant, gabions of recycled concrete, and cement-filled sandbags to screen against railway noise, led to the building being heralded as setting new standards of sustainability.

It was the childhood dream of Deborah Saunt to build her own home. Unlike Cullinan and Wigglesworth, who acquired previously built-on sites, Saunt and her partner David Hill sought out a large 19th century house in Clapham with an overgrown garden in which they could build.

Inspired by the house Saunt’s grandparents had built in Kenya, they designed Covert House, completed in 2014, a compact bespoke concrete pavilion, partly sunken for minimum impact. To make the most of natural light, its two storeys were stepped, with exterior courtyards connecting it to the garden, and roof lights and light wells helping to illuminate the white interior. An elegant white concrete staircase, cast in situ, is a particularly striking feature. Saunt, too, valued sustainability, incorporating a green roof and heat and rainwater recovery systems, and echoed Wigglesworth in her belief that simple green technology was best, as it was unlikely to break down!

Bill Dunster’s Hope House in Kingston-upon-Thames (1995) was described by Elain Harwood as ‘serious green business’. Built on a flood plain, it cost £85,000, with much of the work done by him and his father. The house is timber-framed with a full-height conservatory and a high-level gangway entrance. It is highly insulated, and was constructed as far as possible from reclaimed and locally sourced materials. It is constantly being environmentally upgraded.

Interested from his student days in holistic living, it was clear that Dunster viewed Hope House as a part of a new architectural language, a forerunner to his South London development, BedZED, Britain’s first green housing scheme. He went on to expound more radical solutions to inexpensive eco-living, as yet unrealised, ending his lecture with a plea to the UK housing industry to wake up from its slumber.

Believing that most architects design their own home only once, Richard Murphy was determined to incorporate his past architectural experience into his house of 2012-14, going so far as to rent and live in his own house conversions beforehand. Like Saunt, Murphy built in the garden of an existing house, in Edinburgh New Town. His design formed a mono-pitched bookend to a terrace of houses, hiding their blank gable end and continuing their indented ashlar base. He cited Sir John Soane’s house in London and the Maison de Verre in Paris as major influences; their complexity and ambiguity of space is evident in the house’s interior, with its spiral plan, staggered floor levels, disappearing corners and mirrored surfaces. It even boasts a Soanian wall, displaying a collection of small objects. The sliding planes, pivoting shutters and movable louvres also allow different spatial permutations according to seasonal use.

The series concluded, as it had started, with a house previously visited by C20 members, that of Richard Burton in Kentish Town. It had a wonderful sense of slow evolution, family involvement, triumph over disaster, and the importance of artworks as integral to its design. In the garden of their own home, Burton built a compact one-bedroomed timber-framed house with a brick base, of linear plan and flanked by a conservatory. In October 1987 the family carried their possessions through the garden to their new, as yet unglazed, home; that same month the Great Storm caused havoc, blowing off the temporary roof and extinguishing the lights. Building as he could afford, he added a studio in 1990 and an annexe in 2002, both respecting the fine old plane tree on the site. Keen to inspire the public with the possibilities of self-build, he has taken part in Open House weekend on a regular basis.