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Nothing Matters

July 2018 Issue

In the 1960s, shortly after leaving medical school in London my father bought a small ruin on a rain-soaked plot of land in Wales and started to repair, or more accurately rebuild, a house. Last weekend, nearly 60 years later, I began the process of emptying that still unfinished house as my brother and I prepare it for further renovation, most likely for letting, or sale. Broadly speaking this involved creating the largest bonfire I’ve ever made and torching most of the house’s contents.

My father was a hoarder, carefully spending hours collecting bent nails and broken chairs, but now none of that stuff matters – it’s all gone. But that’s fine – he seemed to enjoy it enormously at the time – and the memories remain.

The catharsis of emptying the building revealed the house afresh and for the first time I was able to understand what the house showed me about the man who made it. An unexpected experience which helped to explain to me why, despite having spent many happy months there as a child, I’ve barely visited as an adult.

I was surprised to discover that it was when the house was most empty of all his actual ‘stuff’, when there was nothing there at all, that so much of his life became visible. As a boy he’d been separated from his father and forced to flee Hong Kong when the Japanese invaded during World War II and then became a refugee, slowly making his way back to England via Australia and Sri-Lanka before ending up in academia at Cambridge University for the rest of his life. The trauma of those early experiences and his subsequent craving for security and seclusion is visible throughout the architecture of the house.

It’s a house that constantly turns in on itself – shying away from the world and forcing you to shape your habits, and even your body, to its form. This is perhaps most obvious on the first floor where all the windows are below eye-height – meaning you have to stoop to look out – bending your body down in submission. This is something I wouldn’t have noticed as a child of course – when the windows seemed massive - but as an adult it’s suffocating.

To his credit the site is beautiful but being perched at the western end of the black mountains means that it receives the first squeeze of pretty much every fresh rain cloud coming in off the Atlantic, making the site both sodden, and barely visible. Not that the view can be enjoyed much anyway, the house is completely shrouded in trees which have grown darker and denser over time, and the main outside seating area is a small terrace to the rear, enclosed with metre thick walls on all four sides.

The house is long and thin, and while it is quite big on the outside it feels much smaller on the inside, courtesy of those thick walls and the decision to make the main entrance on one of thin ends – leading to the need for a long corridor along the length of the house on both floors.

A corridor too narrow to pass in.

The corridor is in turn subdivided by doors, which are everywhere, sometimes with 2 in parallel on the same door frame!

But why am I telling you all this?

Because it’s so often the stuff that we don’t see, the stuff that isn’t there, that is most important to creating the homes we live in and the communities we’re a part of.

In a house the most obvious thing that ‘isn’t there’ is the space itself – the rooms between the walls. So try thinking harder about what that is and how it works. How can we make the menial details of life either be more special or take less time. As a studio we’ve spent hours thinking about how long any single domestic act takes (ironically?) – and this has changed how we design our houses.

How long does it take to do the washing? Well it’s longer if you have to carry the washing up and down stairs to a washing machine – so we’ve now ended up putting washing machines on the first floor with the bedrooms, or we’ve included laundry chutes from the first-floor family bathroom to a utility on the ground floor.

How long does it take to make a cup of tea? A lot less time if you have a boiling water tap and the cups, tea, fridge and bin are arranged into a neat pirouette of sequential actions.

And what also of corridors? – the dead space between the rooms in which you’re otherwise actually living.

Well how about getting rid of them entirely? Open plan living might not suit everybody but there’s an alternative - perhaps counter-intuitively this is to make the corridors wider, so they start to become a space in themselves – this is done expertly in the larger apartments of Edinburgh’s Georgian new town – where the front door often leads into a hall so wide in can act as a dining room.

Those are also apartments where the proportions are generous – large rooms have height as well depth so that you really feel you’re in a space, not just a sliver of floorplan. In some designs we’ve manipulated the sectional arrangements of apartment buildings so that for every 3 floors of bedrooms there are 2 floors of living room – putting the value into the living space where it’s most appreciated and squeezing down the height of the bedrooms where it’s not.

In my own house the bedroom IS tall however, exploiting the eaves of the roof space where it would be too low to be useful as a loft – but it’s also generous in plan as well – at about 40 sqm. Most recently I saw my own son looking at our house, perhaps a little like I had done in Wales at his age:

‘You could put a whole house in this room dad!’ he yelled - and I told him he was pretty close to the truth, it’s bigger than the National Space Standard for a studio flat, but I was also reminded of the time I spent on a Welsh mountainside holidaying in a caravan, all 12sqm of it, on my dad’s construction site.

There were 4 of us in it, but in truth it was mostly just for cooking and washing and we really lived in the field around it – the largest living room you could imagine – with just that small bit of stuff, that caravan, in the middle.

And what became of it?

We burnt that too.

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