Made of Kent

Architects James Macdonald Wright and Niall Maxwell have reinterpreted the regional vernacular in a rambling country house

Buildings.

Words
Richard Reid

Photos
James Morris, Heiko Prigge

Caring Wood is a large country house – some 1500 square metres internally, excluding an estate lodge and outbuildings – located in 84 acres of rolling Kentish countryside. It has been designed by James Macdonald Wright (of Macdonald Wright Architects) and Niall Maxwell (of Rural Office for Architecture) for clients who have a passion for classical music and fine art and wanted a home-from-home for their three daughters and their respective families. The brief was that the house should be an outstanding design rooted in its context, and a carbon-neutral building on a fully sustainable estate capable of responding to future climate change.

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The winding entrance drive is on high ground along the north-west of the property, and passes through a landscape to which the client has added 25,000 mixed native trees, 25 acres of wild meadow and an orchard of 500 cherry trees. The ground falls eastwards as you approach, offering brief glimpses of the house between bands of trees, with the North Downs in the distance, and then, round a bend, a more inclusive glimpse of the house – a large, interesting-looking structure from which a series of turrets or ‘oasts’ protrude.

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The area abounds in vernacular structures with similar features. The new house brought to mind something equally big – the Great Coxwell Barn, which William Morris described as “unapproachable in its dignity, as beautiful as a cathedral” – as well as the group of square oasts at Great Dixter. From a distance, the tile-hung ‘oasts’ of Caring Wood also reminded me of the thirteenth-century belfry of the church at Brookland, shingled top-to-toe in wood.

The architects’ influences are the Arts & Crafts designers inspired by Morris and Ruskin: Webb, Shaw, Lutyens, Voysey. Equally the rich and varied vernacular buildings in the surrounding countryside were crucial references – the tile-hung houses, great catslide roofs and outshuts.

While local building precedents were an influence on the Arts & Crafts architects, their interest was, as Ronald Brunskill has pointed out, “chiefly in evidence of an attitude of mind. These designers were following romantic writers such as Thomas Hardy in finding significance in the ordinary vernacular buildings”. Here, the architects have gone further. Louis Sullivan’s ‘form follows function’ line might be questionable as a general rule, but all vernacular buildings are functionally determined, and that’s what makes this house so interesting. Its pragmatic organisation avoids the danger of “falling into sentimentality… or the empty vagaries of historicism” that Kenneth Frampton warned against while championing a cultivated regionalism as an alternative approach to architecture.

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The house is basically a square in plan, designed around a central court and built onto and tucked into the side of a north-facing slope. There are three floors in total, rotated within this square and accessed by a grand flight of stairs and a lift. The four ‘oasts’ – one for each family – appear as detached structures on the entrance level, with the four corners of the main structure repeating fragments of this form to provide additional ventilation, as well as to add light and vertical emphasis.

The entrance, from the south-west, leads to the more ‘public’ part of the house that pin-wheels around the central court and comprises a gallery space and concert area, with a grand piano and 50 seats. A grand flight of steps, widening as they descend, leads down to the principal living area with kitchen, dining, sitting area, library and the central court and kitchen terrace.

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On the lowest level are a snooker room, cinema and guest accommodation, and entrances to the north and east oasts. At various levels more intimate terraces project outwards from the four oasts and the sitting room, like the ramparts of a castle, controlling the views and the experience of the surrounding landscape.

Despite its great scale, there is a modesty and intimacy to the house as it lies tucked along a defile screened by woodland, with the vernacular cloak of ragstone walling, catslides and oasts anchoring it in the landscape. To keep the large building cool in summer, it is semi-submerged to minimise its south-facing aspect and make use of cooler airflow on the north-facing slope. Passive cooling is further improved by the thermal mass of the screeded floors and concrete structure of the central building (the upper parts are formed of cross-laminated timber). Natural ventilation is facilitated by opening vents in the central courtyard and the oast towers, whose height creates a stack effect, further enhancing natural ventilation. Having reduced energy demand to a minimum through efficient fabric, form, orientation and services, the architects added solar thermal and photovoltaic panels, providing net negative carbon emissions. A traditional ha-ha helps to screen the array from the landscape.

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James Macdonald Wright refers to the “free-style” character of English country houses post-1860, and in terms of the overall abstractness and simplicity of Caring Wood externally, and the richness and drama of the interior, precedents such as Castle Drogo and Lindisfarne Castle spring to mind. The barn-like roof is clearly drawn from the agricultural vernacular, but internally the spaces have an almost monastic formalism and drama, with encircling routes, double-height spaces and balustraded passages that help distinguish the more public and formal areas from the private and more intimate spaces. (I am also reminded of Louis Kahn’s unbuilt Dominican Motherhouse, with its four corner towers and skewed arrangement of enclosed buildings and rooms).

Buildings.

James Macdonald Wright refers to the “free-style” character of English country houses post-1860, and in terms of the overall abstractness and simplicity of Caring Wood externally, and the richness and drama of the interior, precedents such as Castle Drogo and Lindisfarne Castle spring to mind. The barn-like roof is clearly drawn from the agricultural vernacular, but internally the spaces have an almost monastic formalism and drama, with encircling routes, double-height spaces and balustraded passages that help distinguish the more public and formal areas from the private and more intimate spaces. (I am also reminded of Louis Kahn’s unbuilt Dominican Motherhouse, with its four corner towers and skewed arrangement of enclosed buildings and rooms).

Buildings.

This clever combination of two apparently different kinds of architecture recalls another precedent – Lutyens’ Homewood (1901), a house with a traditional exterior of gables and shiplap boarding, while inside the plan is more formal and classical, revealing itself externally only in a two-storey pilastered garden elevation. At Caring Wood, the combination of a modernist, white-finished interior, with skewed walls and sculptural double-height spaces, and a ‘traditional’ exterior wrapped in ragstone, peg-tiles, catslides and segments of oasts, exemplifies the ethos of Frampton’s Critical Regionalism. William Lethaby once said that “Behind is custom as in front is adventure”. The architects of this house have held onto custom while guiding their clients on a long and successful adventure.

Additional Images

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Credits

Architects
James Macdonald Wright and Niall Maxwell
Project management and design advisor
Macdonald Wright Architects
Executive architect
Rural Office for Architecture
Structural engineer
Price & Myers
Main contractor
Cardy Construction

Cross-laminated timber
KLH
Roof tiles
Keymer
Terracotta floor tiles
Robus Ceramics
Rooflights
Glazing vision, The Rooflight Company

2017-06-16T17:33:47+00:00

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