Birds Portchmouth Russum conjures a domestic gem on a compact site in north London
Birds Portchmouth Russum’s Wood Lane House in Highgate, north London, is a deft composition of spaces and materials that are cleverly assembled to provide a bespoke family home.
Drawing on the context of eccentric villas that line the southern edge of Wood Lane, the house juxtaposes an orthogonal piano-nobile with an elliptical ark hovering above, says Birds Portchmouth Russum. Exploiting the narrow site that slopes to the south, the house is entered at a raised ground floor from the street via a bridge. Staircases in the entrance lobby give access to the bedroom floor below and living spaces on two levels above. The ramped footbridge signals the departure from the prosaic world and the commencement of an extraordinary journey across a metaphorical seascape.
The entrance hall is articulated as a rippling shoreline and a ‘lighthouse’ marks embarkment up a stepped gangway to the fantastical double-height ark above. At its prow a projecting balcony views the stepped garden below. An open stair ascends to a semicircular deck with its totemic bay tree. A teak ramp ascends to the circular winter garden, floating beneath a crystaline observatory that enjoys vertiginous views.
The Wood Lane site is in a prominent yet sensitive location in the Highgate Conservation Area. A well-trafficked footpath leads from Highgate underground station past the plot’s southern boundary. The entrance facade is set back to provide on-site parking beneath the semicircular bay of the cantilevered timber structure. A totemic tree on the projecting bay creates a surreal presence facing Wood Lane, and on the garden side the bay is crowned by a crystalline conservatory containing exotic plants to present a dramatic spectacle for tube users.
Conceived as an urban prototype, the accommodation is planned with bedrooms at lower ground floor level and the living areas above within an open-plan timber shell that receives sunshine and daylight throughout the day. The house contrasts tightly planned functional spaces with generous living areas and employs pioneering prefabrication to achieve quality and economy. The lower two storeys comprise engineering brick walls tied by steel beams, while the upper two are built with a timber monocoque shell prefabricated in panels and assembled on site. Despite the complexity of the structure with its semicircular bays and barrel-vaulted roof, only two dimensional curves were used, so plywood sheeting could be be screwed and glued to the CNC-profiled softwood ribs.
The upper ground entrance level contains the home office. On the lower ground floor are two bedrooms with en suite bathrooms and associated laundry and boiler cupboards. A stepped gangway in the hall ascends to the barrel vaulted double height living space which leads to a projecting balcony overlooking the tiered garden and footpath below. A teak stair ascends to a semi circular terrace which enjoys the setting sun. A teak ramp then leads to a hovering dais containing the elevated circular winter garden set beneath a crystalline crown.