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Red House, Dorset, by David Kohn Architects

Red House, Dorset, by David Kohn Architects

Red House, in rural Dorset, is a rustic and refined four-bedroom family home 10 years in the making. The clients, a gallerist, an accountant, and their growing family, purchased a crumbling stone and concrete render cottage and its narrow site in the summer of 2011.

Over a subsequent decade they worked with three different architects and their neighbour, the former planning officer for North Dorset, on four different schemes. In their search for the perfect collaborator to help realise their perfect country retreat they were led by the belief that ‘the relationship with the architect is just as – if not more – important than their style and credentials’.

 

The chosen collaborator, David Kohn Architects, comes with this and a list of accreditation to match. More importantly, the client had previously crossed paths with the architects, who had refurbished their central London gallery during the practice’s formative years.

David Kohn Architects was established in 2007, and completed the Mayfair gallery in 2011, just before the Dorset cottage purchase. In the decade since, the London-based practice has worked internationally on arts, education and residential projects, including a trio of rural retreats in Devon, Norfolk and Buckinghamshire.

Of these, Stable Acre in Norfolk – coincidentally also commissioned by a London gallerist – sows the seeds for Red House. As at Red House, Stable Acre is built on the footprint of its predecessor, replacing a 19th century stable block.

Viewed from the landscape, both homes are characterised by their simple, pitched volumes and a concise palette of materials, assembled with care and flair. Red House reads as the young, bolder sibling to the generations of traditional cottages found on neighbouring plots: long, narrow, two storeys, gabled, weighty, with chunky timber-framed windows, rather than expanses of glazing, and an oversailing roof, punctured by chimneys.

The focal point of each home is an ample ‘tent-like’ room with tall, pitched ceilings, white-painted masonry walls, classic furniture and views towards the distant landscape. At Stable Acre, the tent is the lengthy living room with a sculptural central fireplace; at Red House, this drama is reserved for the tranquil, voluminous first-floor master suite and its corner hearth.

Generosity is found not just in the scale of the homes, but also in the details of their construction. Each deftly tiptoes between the comfort of cosy cottages and an austere industrial aesthetic, echoing features and finishes of their owners’ London galleries.

Red House’s clients purchased the site intent on creating a quintessentially ‘English country house, to be used in the way that people use the country in the 21st century’. They sought ‘simple, functional, practical and intuitive’ features that reminded them of childhood holidays and their grandparents’ homes: a home that shows signs of life and grows more beautiful with ‘knocks, scrapes and patination’. Even the Aga is the same pale yellow as a grandparent’s.

Finally, given its exceptional location, their home needed to be exuberant: it was not to be an ‘apologetic and timid underground house covered in turf’.

A rising, hedge-lined lane leads to the home; the arresting green of the roof’s underside peaks out on approach. An understated entrance leads onto a lightly-landscaped plateau that straddles the lane. A raw iron gate softly creaks and swings gently, and sand-coloured pebbles crunch pleasingly underfoot. Every element and every surface intentionally evokes the feel of a humble countryside cottage, rather than an overwrought contemporary take on one.

Retaining walls are built with Dorset Durlston stone, quarried locally in the Purbeck Hills, readying the grounds for their next phase. An ecologist, arboriculturist, and a landscape designer have been enlisted to create a lushly-planted garden bisected by a banked and winding path leading to a whimsical spiralling mound created from excavated soil. A single 360 degree loop leads to a circular podium at its peak, overlooking the Cranborne Chase, a fantastic feature that would seamlessly find a place in a Charles Jencks garden. In quintessentially English fashion, the landscape’s lead designer has a client list that includes the Royal Family and The Crown Estate.

Red House is rich with history, reference, and familiar flourishes, yet remains individual, unique. Irregular, geometric, green-painted windows echo the late 19th century Arts and Crafts architecture of CFA Voysey. The intricate and expressive façade features a patchwork of imperial brick separated by pale, meandering, lime mortar joints. Alternating stretcher and soldier panels suggest the sequence and order of the plan.

The house was fabricated using UK-sourced materials with the windows made in Derbyshire, the blocks in Leicestershire and the bricks in West Sussex. The sole relief in the principal brick façade is an apse beside the entrance that shelters a concave slatted seat complete with welly-washing equipment, and soon to receive a mural from one of the gallerist’s renowned artists.

Internally, the effect is mirrored. A convex seat of solid, stained blue timber provides storage for coats and wellies, fanning out towards the staircase opposite. The high-backed seat sits between the central entrance lobby and a utility room that each fall within one of the six ‘service towers’ that order the plan over both floors. They contain washrooms, abundant storage and a lift, freeing the habitable rooms from clutter and creating a more flexible environment for occupants and a vast collection of contemporary art. For this reason, the clients’ favourite room is the meticulously arranged pantry.

A staggered enfilade of relatively small rooms pepper the plan. Diagonal connections and an absence of doors allow people – as well as lively end-grain larch floors and painted blockwork walls – to seamlessly flow through them. Two muted sitting rooms bookend the ground floor, each brought to life with characterful rugs, European mid-century furniture and fine art. The heart of the home is a utilitarian kitchen with stainless steel surfaces and a snug dining area adjacent, recessed into an ‘eccentrically sized’ bay. Bays are occupied entirely, becoming rooms, not add-ons.

A grand, ash stair, with a graphite grey checkerboard runner, follows the curve of a bay as it gently ascends to the first floor. The semi-circular stair finishes with an off-centre platform providing the perfect vantage point to appreciate the rolling fields beyond. This level accommodates an office, laundry room and bedrooms with entirely tiled en suites, along an arrow-straight, vaulted corridor. The arrangement appropriately feels more private, contrasting the feeling of fluidity below.

Each room has a tailored relationship to both its pastoral setting and the particular way that the owners wish to live. Post-planning and prior to tender, the clients asked the architects ‘are we building the best house possible?’ The proposals subsequently underwent a thorough examination and a number of subtle but notable tweaks, including the incorporation of patchwork brickwork. As a result of the clients’ conviction, and the architect’s ingenuity, today proudly stands an evocative hilltop home, every bit as exuberant as the client dreamt a decade prior.
Nile Bridgeman is an architect at Gatti Routh Rhodes and co-founding member of Afterparti

Architect’s view

In naming The Red House we sought to unashamedly tie this new construction to a story about English domestic architecture that stretches back to Hermann Muthesius’ 1904 ‘Das Englische Haus’ and beyond. Muthesius called Philip Webb’s 1860 Red House in Bexleyheath, ‘the very first example in the history of the modern house’. It was preoccupied both with vernacular traditions of housebuilding and also with unifying the plan and use of the house through ‘material, colour and mass’.

From a distance, the new Red House is true to type, a solid, brick-chimneyed affair under a pitched roof, looking much as a child might draw it. On closer inspection, many of those house signifiers are further exaggerated – the green eaves are excessively broad, the bay windows too numerous and the red brickwork used decoratively at super-graphic scale.

On entering, the ground floor reveals itself to be a single enfilade of spaces without doors, each separated by pairs of storerooms. Each space enjoys a specific relationship to its garden setting and landscape views. Nonetheless, with a nod to the Smithsons’ 1990’s Put-Away House, the organisation and self-presentation of the house reflects the clients’ interest in precision storage and society’s present day preoccupation with the accumulation of consumer products.

Like many architects starting out, houses were some of the first commissions we received. In 2022, the practice will be 15 years old and, despite working on larger civic projects today, houses remain an important part of our work. The Red House is the fourth in a series of rural houses the practice has completed. This allows us the opportunity to trace our thinking about how we live today through built form while providing a testing ground for ideas that will be realised at different scales in other projects.
David Kohn, director, David Kohn Architects 

 

Sustainability

We were asked to redesign a 515m2 house with a basement, which had extant permission on the site. Driven by a concern for long-term energy efficiency, we persuaded the clients to omit the basement, creating a compact home almost half the size. Through enfiladed interiors, the ground floor feels generous, while the narrow plan ensures all spaces are dual-aspect, providing natural cross-ventilation and excellent varied daylight. A deep, internally glazed lobby provides a welcome buffer to limit heat loss.

The house, sited on a hill in an exposed location, has 1200mm-deep eaves, so the façades are protected from the elements and overheating is minimised during summer months. Inside, the concrete blockwork is left exposed, avoiding unnecessary plaster finishes and maximising the thermal stability of the interiors.

The house was fabricated using UK-sourced materials with the windows made in Derbyshire, the blocks in Leicestershire and the bricks in West Sussex. In the gardens, stone walls are built with Dorset Durlston stone, quarried locally in the Purbeck Hills. The builders were local too, and crafted all joinery elements within the house.

All the excavated soil was kept on site. A landscape gardener usedg the spoil to create a spiralling, climbable mound in the north garden to extend panoramic vistas. The original deep concrete foundations were redesigned to steel piles, reducing the embodied carbon in the groundworks, while making it safer to build.

Traditional lime mortar was used in the clay brick walls to minimise the number of movement joints. The slate roof discretely houses the local bat population, with almost half the loft providing a permanent roost, and other nesting sites covertly designed into the brickwork, eaves and roofing – to meet the diverse needs of four different species.
Jennifer Dyne, project architect, David Kohn Architects

 

Clients’ view

Having worked with David on commercial projects, it was a reasonable assumption that we could work together on a house. We had never done this before, and our naivety as clients and David’s experience needed to be bridged gently. David’s extensive knowledge of architectural history made it exciting and motivating for us as every design decision was explained in its academic context. We wanted to create something of lasting value which would stand up to scrutiny.

David listened to our needs and took our list of wants right back to their core: how did we want to live, and how would the house achieve that. When the house was built, many elements surprised us with their beauty and functionality. For example, the master bedroom was unexpectedly cavernous and with a beautiful ceiling line, and the staggered enfilade arrangement of rooms downstairs works unexpectedly well and prevents there being any dead or closed-off spots in the house. David’s advice to have a smaller house than we’d originally asked for was sound: the house will never feel too big and will meet all our needs for space.

Our experience of working together is that both architect and client need to be committed to making the relationship work. Architects have knowledge, and clients for our type of project are generally ignorant; we only build one house in our lifetime, and we have no training to understand the process. We built the house we wanted and needed, but it is absolutely David’s design.
Private clients and homeowners

 

Specialist’s view

The Red House garden is a long, crescent-shaped, sliver of rising ground bisected by a picturesque country lane. The house sits pertly in the south-west corner of the south garden: it has been designed to borrow panoramic views in all directions of Cranborne Chase. Old, clipped box and species rich-hedges define the boundaries of the south garden. These bristle with a great diversity of plants and animals, insects and invertebrates; they also conceal stone-walled, sun-trapping terraces (one embedded in the hillside), winding grass and gravel paths, semi-dwarf fruit trees and luxuriant, informal planting.

The north garden has yet to be fully elaborated. Though enclosed by trees and hedges on three sides, it is more open to the public gaze. Like the south garden it, too, enjoys long vistas. The western half is given over to a gravel yard for parking, while the eastern half is proposed to be laid out as a vegetable garden. A rustic seat will be placed at the easternmost tip of the ground to command views down the lane and over south garden and beyond.

Our single greatest contribution to the project has been, however, more strategic, and occurred early on in the planning process: we recommended that the proposed dwelling should be rotated by seven degrees to make the most of its narrow plot and its remarkable views. The architects and the clients were receptive to the suggestion: the house was pivoted – to great effect.
Todd Longstaffe-Gowan, landscape architect

 

Working detail

The detailing of the Red House started with traditional house building conventions – cavity wall construction with a timber framed slated roof. The details were however  elevated by finer nuances to the brickwork, exposed concrete block interiors and a deep overhanging roof that needed extra restraining to restrict the upwards lift.

The alternating brick bond added complexities, notably the need for additional bed joint reinforcement (a woven fibreglass product was used to accommodate the curving walls) but also concealed movement joints, and emphasised the curved bays. Brickwork details were celebrated with corbels, arches, header coursing and angled specials, which required precise drawings to explain the different coursing and setting out of each detail. The main contractor, Ken Biggs Contractors, found scrupulous bricklayers who were dedicated to the craftmanship the design demanded, expertly overseen by Biggs’ dedicated site foreman Andy Nicholls, and contract manager, Ross Mallon.

The apse, an inverted bay adjacent to the front door, provides a covered cantilevered bench with space for a tap to wash and remove wellies. The rear of the apse is rendered on 100mm bricks to ensure the render sits flush with the lower courses of 110mm facing brick. The apse features a traditional self-supporting arch, behind which the ceiling is formed by a series of rendered concrete lintels. Above this another lintel, spanning the internal blockwork, provides support for the reading room that sits directly above. This detail is one of many that conveys a mix of traditional construction with modern building technologies that make the house feel a strange hybrid of the traditional and contemporary.
Jennifer Dyne, project architect, David Kohn Architects

Project team

Project data

Start on site August 2018
Completion October 2020
Gross internal floor area 252m²
Construction cost Confidential
Architect David Kohn Architects
Client Private
Main contractor Ken Biggs Contractors
Structural engineer Momentum
M&E consultant SGA Consulting
QS Peter Gunning & Partners
Interior design 8 Holland Street
Building control Assent Building Control
CDM consultant Insight CDM
Landscape architect Todd Longstaffe-Gowan
Ecologist AEWC
Arboriculturalist Barrell Tree Consultancy
CAD software used Vectorworks
Annual CO2 emissions Unavailable
Energy use 161.57 kWh/m²/yr

Building study: Red House, Dorset, by David Kohn Architects