There is a golden allure to architecture that sings rather than shouts. For new-build houses, in particular, there is an increasing interest in buildings that have a modesty of scale and a true sensitivity to their surroundings. Cabins, pavilions and crafted studios are very much in vogue, and for those who want more living space the notion of a compound house, which combines a number of these smaller structures on one site, has been gaining ground over recent years.
Creating a curated collection of smaller buildings, rather than one super-sized dwelling, offers many advantages. A mini campus of lodges allows for greater flexibility in placing pavilions in sympathy with the tucks and folds of the landscape, positioning each according to framed views and sight lines. Breaking up the mass and scale of a house into a series of individual modules allows these to disappear into the landscape, rather than seeking to dominate it, and leads to a far more intimate sense of connection with nature itself, with courtyards, decks and outdoor rooms sitting in the spaces between them.
These modern homesteads offer a special way of living. Just as designer resort hotels are increasingly turning towards a compound model, offering a series of villas or lodges that provide privacy and individual living space, the same is true of contemporary modular homes. Guests or older children can be provided with their own home in miniature, while their hosts retreat to a separate haven. One pavilion might hold a communal lounge, while another might contain a gym, home office or studio. The flexible living patterns offered by the compound house extend a far greater sense of freedom than one static building, with its clear and familiar hierarchy of rooms. Clustered dwellings echo the romance of farmsteads, rural hamlets and traditional assemblies of modestly scaled buildings, which helps root them in history and memory.
This is certainly true of Dominic Houlder’s home on the Isle of Skye, off the western coast of Scotland. Designed by architect Mary Arnold-Forster of Dualchas, the house is divided up into three distinct parts, with each single-storey element clad in larchwood. One pavilion holds the main living area, including the kitchen and a home office for Houlder, who is a business consultant and a professor at the London Business School. A second pavilion is lightly connected to the first by a shared hallway and holds two bedrooms, while a third pavilion nearby is currently used as a gym.
“If you look at some of the old ruins of the croft settlements on Skye and elsewhere in the Hebrides, then you will see a very similar pattern of small buildings gathered together,” says Houlder, who has known the island for decades and now uses the house as his primary residence. “You might have a byre and two or three cottages on the same site, so in a sense it’s harking back to a building pattern from 150 years ago and before. From the standpoint of daily living, it’s also very handy to be able to move from one space to another, especially if you are combining work, socialising and relaxing at home. Making that switch is a great pleasure. One of the things that really appealed to me about the design was the idea of the Highland croft revisited, and you wouldn’t get that if it was all one house, which would look quite ungainly.”
With various parts of the house carefully orientated to make the most of the stunning views, the use of low‑slung buildings and traditional materials helps tie Houlder’s home to the landscape. A dry-stone wall around the compound also serves an important purpose: “We use this kind of compound ‘device’ to break up a big brief, so we can minimise the impact of a building on the landscape,” says Arnold-Forster. “Quite often I get the sense that clients want to build a small house, but then describe a brief for a large one. Breaking the house up into smaller units really helps; I would also be uncomfortable about being the person who builds a big house in this kind of landscape.”
Similar impulses drove the design of Nick and Nadja van Praag’s home on the island of Vinalhaven in Maine, which sits within another area of great natural beauty. The van Praags are based in Austria, but lived in America for many years, with Nadja working as a designer and Nick working with the World Bank in Washington DC before joining an NGO. They bought a 1960s “modernist jewel”, as Nick puts it, on Vinalhaven some years back and later they also managed to buy some adjoining land that had once housed a mobile home.
The family commissioned architects Go Logic to design a guest house on the site, composed of a series of three timber cabins partly inspired by Alvar Aalto’s 1950s design for his own summer house in Muuratsalo, Finland. Project architect Riley Pratt designed two bedroom pavilions and a lodge with a communal living area and kitchen, all connected by timber decks looking out across the landscape.
“We built the house so that our grown children and friends can join us in the summer, when we try to spend two to three months in Maine,” says Nick. “The new house is an ‘extension’ of our main house, which is 150 yards away, and when Riley started talking about Aalto’s summer house and the idea of a settlement or hamlet, we loved it. The design provides both proximity and privacy, as well as the feeling of completeness and self-sufficiency. It sits lightly on the land and works well with the local vernacular of pitch-roofed fishermen’s workshops. Each of the structures fits nimbly into the landscape, and having your own bedroom and bathroom while sharing the living quarters is the perfect combination for people who want to be together, but not every minute of the day.”
Individual lodges and studios can also be useful for those who work from home, with pavilions providing standalone offices, libraries or art studios. Photographer and artist José Manuel Ferrater, who is based in Barcelona, created a house in three parts by the sea at Les Cases d’Alcanar, on the Costa del Azahar. Designed by his brother, architect Carlos Ferrater, a founding partner at OAB, it offers a weekend and summer retreat, with the view to the sea filtered by a grove of mature palm trees. The house itself consists of a combined living room and kitchen in one pavilion, a master suite in another and a third holding a painting studio, with a small guest bedroom beyond. Together, the three single-storey structures form an elegant triptych floating upon an elevated timber deck, while the house and studio offer a peaceful creative environment.
“At any time of day or night and during any season of the year, you feel a sense of excitement at the experience of being there,” says Ferrater. “I always paint when I am there. I have three favourite spaces: inside the painting studio, among the mulberry and lemon trees for dinner, and then sitting in the living room with a view of the garden and the sea.”
The impetus for a secluded creative space also lay behind the design of two studios in Suffolk in the UK, designed by Soup Architects. The new timber and steel painting studios for two artists, who needed quiet working environments, sit within the gardens of the family’s original 1960s home. The homestead also includes a summer house/guest house and a garage doubling as a workshop and wood store.
“It’s a very tranquil and peaceful setting,” says architect Jamie Le Gallez. “Rather than the studios being positioned in the most picturesque section of the site, they look onto it. The overall concept was this visual link through the landscape, with subtle changes in materials, from the red cedar shingles on the main house to the vertical cedar on the summer house and black faux timber on the artists’ studios.”
US-based architect Peter Rose designed a house of many parts for his client – an American living in London – on another sensitive site on Martha’s Vineyard. The house is composed of six concrete boxes connected by a Douglas fir‑ceilinged hallway, with separate single-storey modules holding the bedrooms, living room, kitchen, study and dining room. Commissioned to replace an ageing house on the site that had been owned by the family for many years, the new home was designed to be sensitive to the landscape on the one hand, but also so that it could, potentially, be moved piece by piece if the coastal bluff on which it sits were to erode over the coming years.
“We wanted to step the house down and follow the slope of the landscape,” says Rose, “as well as reducing the scale of our intervention on what we felt was a delicate, even fragile, but extraordinarily beautiful site, so that it could be unobtrusive on the edge of the ocean. The strategy we devised was to design the house as a series of discrete parts, seamlessly assembled so as to make a coherent whole, but structured so as to allow the parts to be lifted off by crane and placed piece by piece on a new foundation. Concrete, a material we felt would work visually in the rugged landscape, became the means of rendering the parts strong enough to make this strategy possible.”
These formations tend to work best in rural settings, where there is plenty of space for the pavilions to breathe. Yet compound houses are also making an occasional appearance in more urban or suburban settings. Architects Paulo Lago de Carvalho and Susana Lages Correia of Prod Arquitetura & Design in Portugal designed a new house near the city of Porto for a family of three generations who wanted a home where they could spend time together, while still enjoying their own privacy. The family owned some land that had once been part of a farm, although the pace of development in the region means that the area is no longer as rural as it once was. With mature trees and views over the valley of the River Sousa, the site is enticing and full of memories for the family.
Working around the trees and an existing farmhouse, now owned by the client’s brother, Lago de Carvalho and Lages Correia designed a house composed of four distinct pine-clad, zinc-roofed pavilions bound together by a glass linking structure and bordered by an open terrace and a more sheltered deck. The House of Four Houses features a living room house, a dining/kitchen pavilion and two further buildings holding bedrooms for members of the extended family. The pair of daytime pavilions is more open in character, providing spaces where the family as a whole can come together, while the bedroom units are more private and insular in nature.
“We have space enough in the living room, kitchen and outside to be together as a family,” says Lago de Carvalho’s client. “There are compulsive readers in the family, music lovers and the younger generation with their games and Xbox, so having these distinct pavilions rather than one traditional house is a key advantage for us. And we really enjoy the fact that the house is never the same, but changes with the light and the seasons.”
Passing from one pavilion to another via the central glazed link adds to the rich experiential quality of the house. “The link is also a very important space in the house,” says Lago de Carvalho. “The different volumes of the house are separated at a critical distance and the glass link is a special space with a hybrid character that feels both internal and external, where you experience very different feelings walking from one ‘house’ to another. This close relationship with the landscape makes it an ever-changing space during the day and night.”
There is a sense of adventure and discovery as you move between the different structures. The feeling of freedom generated by such multifaceted houses, which are much more than the sum of their parts, becomes one of their greatest attractions.