Architecture

Bringing the house down

As urban architecture reaches ever-greater heights, a new generation of country homes seeks to preserve rural, often protected, landscapes by burrowing downwards. Dominic Bradbury reports on what lies (elegantly) beneath.

April 21 2011
Dominic Bradbury

Building a new country house has always been a balancing act. The question of how you can build a house in a place you love without offending the landscape that enticed you there is something architects have grappled with for centuries. Now, in an era of rising eco-sensitivity, a new way of creating beautifully conceived but sensitively designed rural homes has begun to flourish. The country house is going underground.

This move towards undercover homes is international, but in the UK it has assumed a particular importance. British towns and cities continue to grow, but building a one-off country house on a greenfield site has become close to impossible, particularly within Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, given all of the planning restrictions in place to protect landscapes under pressure. Folding and tucking a new home into the earth itself offers one dramatic and green way forward.

In the Chilterns, within 150 acres of picture-perfect farmland, pasture and beech woods, Lady Helen Hamlyn has built a house, designed by Robin Partington with the lightest of touches. Holmewood House is largely hidden within the gentle folds of the land itself, topped by a green roof strong enough to support the weight of the soil and grass, as well as a tractor. From a distance, this building disappears into the landscape yet has a unique beauty and quiet sense of calm.

“It is very peaceful,” says Lady Hamlyn, who is chairman of the Helen Hamlyn Trust, which supports restoration projects and design initiatives in the UK and India among its educational and cultural projects. “You can see how beautifully it sits in the countryside, which is very simple but very satisfying. But with the height of the ceilings inside and the amount of light, you don’t ever feel that you are underground. The south-facing part of the house, which holds all of the principal rooms, is glazed so the sun comes streaming in all year round.”

Paul and Helen Hamlyn had hoped to build a country home within easy reach of London and found the idyllic spot. After Paul died, Lady Hamlyn decided to continue with the project, but ideas for a house above ground were rejected by the local planning authority. She had a very clear idea of how the interiors of the house would be designed and even the antiques that would anchor each room. So the prospect of having 150 acres and no possibility of building the home that she wanted was a great disappointment, until Partington came up with the idea of integrating the house into the land itself, which helped overcome planning issues.

“We had the simple idea of taking a scalpel to the landscape, lifting the edge like a duvet and sliding in Helen’s diagram of how she wanted to live and that’s exactly what we have,” says Partington. “For this site it was absolutely right. Burying a building in the ground has been done many times before, but the results often look crude and hurried. Here, we had a 150-acre estate to play with and enough of a lead up to the building to get these sensuous curves wrapping around and over the house. You need a lot of space to get that to work.”

The highly tailored interior of the house is designed around a central atrium, topped by a skylight, as well as a retractable floor that can become a reflecting pond or swimming pool at the touch of a button. The walls are lined in a carefully sourced French limestone, which is dry jointed without the use of grout, while bespoke switches and controls are discreetly set into these textured surfaces. The living room, library and study all face southwards – with a panoramic view across wild flower meadows – and can be easily connected or separated by retractable walls.

One of the greatest surprises of the house lies in the successful combination of contemporary forms with traditional materials, as well as Lady Hamlyn’s collection of early-English furniture and tapestries. “I call restoring historic buildings – and creating contemporary ones – my hobby and my late husband used to call it my obsession,” says Lady Hamlyn. “I have collected things over the years and knew where I wanted to put every single one of them, so the rooms were designed around the way that I wanted to live in the house.”

Flexibility was a key part of the design, as the house is also used for meetings and away days by the Helen Hamlyn Trust and members of the Hamlyn Centre at the Royal College of Art. But for much of the time this is also a private retreat and one that celebrates and respects the landscape in which the house itself is seen as a guest.

The subtlety and discretion of this way of building were also explored in another pioneering house, but in a very different kind of landscape. Villa Vals is a home belonging to and designed by Dutch architect Bjarne Mastenbroek, set into the slope of a mountainside in the picturesque Swiss resort town of Vals. It was completed in 2009, but Mastenbroek and his family had long been tempted by the idea of creating a home here, close to the renowned thermal baths designed by architect Peter Zumthor.

“The town has these traditional farmhouses with green pastures between them, forming empty spaces,” says Mastenbroek, of SeARCH architects. “We really wanted to preserve the purity of the land between the existing houses, while designing a house that was environmentally efficient and sustainable.”

Collaborating with architect Christian Müller, Mastenbroek pushed the house into the mountain slope, creating a sunken circular opening in the land that preserved an uninterrupted view of the rugged landscape. Within the opening – bordered at its highest point by avalanche nets – Mastenbroek built a self-contained terrace and a façade clad in natural stone and glass. This open and translucent front brings natural light into the heart of the home. Burying the house within the earth helps to keep it insulated and warm, even in the winter months, while the building is powered by green energy from a local hydro-electric station.

“But for us it was not sustainable to leave the house empty for three-quarters of the year when we are not using it,” says Mastenbroek, who furnished the comfortable and stylish interiors with work by a range of Dutch designers. “So we decided to rent out the house when we are not there. We’ve found that the house really does appeal to people. It gives you a feeling of being comforted and feeds into something that runs quite deep within us and that’s nothing to do with the architecture. It is curious and amazing.”

At the same time, Villa Vals is more open and transparent than many traditional chalets in the area, undermining the myth that underground houses tend to be dark and dingy. The same is true of the house that architect Helen Seymour-Smith designed for herself and her family in Gloucestershire. Despite being largely underground, the house is bordered by a large sunken courtyard and all the living rooms and bedrooms face south, so that lack of light has never been the slightest problem.

“We moved into the house last May and didn’t actually have any light fittings until August,” says Seymour-Smith, who has her own architectural practice. “We were very happy without lights all that time. All of the main rooms have floor-to-ceiling glazing, so we don’t feel as though we’re underground. It’s much lighter than most houses.”

Seymour-Smith built the house underneath a derelict barn – which will soon become an office for her practice – on her parents’ farmland. As it sits on top of a prominent hill, surrounded by picturesque fields in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, planning consent was always going to be a major challenge, but the local authority was won over by an outstanding design and the decision to sink the house into the site.

“I don’t think we would have got through planning permission without the idea of submerging the house,” says Seymour-Smith. “But as much as anything we felt strongly ourselves about not impacting on the landscape. We did have to do a lot of excavation, but we didn’t have to take any spoil off-site, as it could all be reused there. It’s more expensive to dig a big hole and then spend a lot of money on waterproofing it, but in our case it was entirely worth it. Also, we do only have a single aspect to look out onto but we are very happy with it.”

With triple glazing and plenty of insulation, as well as mechanical ventilation with heat recovery, solar hot water and a bank of photovoltaic panels, the house has plenty of green attributes.

In north Norfolk, architect Tom Ground took a similar approach when he designed and built Sedum House, which is pushed and partially sunken into the site of a former sandpit. Here, the bedrooms and other parts of the house are buried under soil and a sedum-planted roof. Skylights bring extra light into this section, and are strong enough to stand on, while large sheets of glass to the front of the house bring in plenty of sunlight.

Ground was confident enough of both the waterproofing and the technical systems needed to protect the house that he did much of the building work himself. “It is fun living underground and it gives you a different perspective on the world outside,” says Ground, of CAM Architects. “Our three daughters love the house – and I get such happiness seeing them running in and out and enjoying it.”

Coastal locations are another sensitive area where the idea of submerging new homes has a lot to offer in terms of preserving environmentally sensitive areas. On Phillip Island in the state of Victoria, Australia, architect Barrie Marshall of Denton Corker Marshall created a weekend and holiday house that disappears into the dunes on the island’s southern shore. From the beach, the house is all but invisible, a low black line that merges with the colour of the rocks, while the roof is coated in scrub grass, with just a sculptural metal chimney flue emerging from the dunes.

“I was very conscious of the fact that the house is in a great setting,” says Marshall of his home (which is featured in my and Richard Powers’ new book, New Natural Home, Thames & Hudson, £19.95). “We’re in a rural area on a crescent bay with a sandy beach that’s great for swimming, fishing and surfing. There’s nothing worse than going to a beautiful place like that and looking back and seeing a two-storey monstrosity of a house looking as though it owns the whole beach. Our home is very well disguised.”

Locals call Marshall’s house “the bunker”, yet from within the sense of light – along with the beautifully framed views of the sea – is a delightful surprise. A sunken courtyard to the rear of the building allows light into the house from windows front and back. Again, the amount of soil and vegetation on the roof helps insulate the house and keeps energy bills down.

But even close to the city, the idea of bringing the land up and onto the home can help to soften and integrate. On the outskirts of Madrid, architectural studio A-Cero has used ramps of soil and grass to create an organic coating juxtaposed with the concrete angles of other parts of the building. Together with landscaped green terraces and a planted roof – also used for mounting photovoltaic panels – the visual impact of this substantial family home is reduced. The house becomes a piece of land art rather than an alien object dropped onto the site.

As a way of building homes that helps to preserve the landscapes that tempt us, undercover homes are increasingly enticing. One size doesn’t fit all, but with the green benefits they bring, undercover homes have never looked so good. “It’s not a panacea for building in the countryside,” says Partington. “If a client came along and said they wanted the same again, it might well be that the landscape has different qualities and would need a different solution. The challenge is to get into the specific feel of the countryside in a particular place and do something that feels right.”