This month Harris Calnan talks to Dominic McKenzie Architects about his groundbreaking design for the Eidolon House which was built by Harris Calnan and is the recent winner of the Sunday Times Home of the Year Award. HC: Did the client knock on your door asking for a very large mirror or was the brief more complex than that? DM: The client wanted the project to achieve two things: first, they wanted to transform an existing house which did not work very well into something that they would be happy to live in for the rest of their lives; the second part of the brief was to try to make as many meaningful connections as possible between the house and its unusual surroundings.
HC: Was your choice of mirror-polished stainless steel in someway a reaction to the other contemporary buildings that are nearby?
DM: The facade of the existing house owned by the client was rather ordinary and dull, especially so when you considered the quality of both the Eldridge Smerin House - also built by Harris Calnan - next door and the Grade II* Listed John Winter House down the road.
All of our initial thoughts and ideas were guided by the principle of wanting to make the house connect with its natural surroundings. At first we looked at green or living walls, where the whole facade is comprised of real plants, but technically that was just too complicated and we were worried about the risk of ending up with a wall full of dead plants, or a “dead wall” rather than a living one!
We also considered timber cladding to refer to the woodland opposite, but in the end our preferred idea was to literally reflect the trees opposite using a mirror facade. With a mirror you could use the facade of the house to capture and highlight those surroundings, whether that was by echoing the movement of the wind through the trees or by reflecting the changing colours of the seasons.
I think the idea surprised us as much as it excited the client because immediately we saw that not only did it make a connection with the surrounding nature, but it also added something new and interesting to that fantastic collection of contemporary buildings. John Winter’s house further down Swains Lane is also a steel clad house, but there he uses rusted corten steel, rather than mirror polished stainless steel so it felt appropriate at this material level too.
HC: Were there any technical challenges to overcome?
DM: We did our research and we approached a number of manufacturers that had already done similar things so we knew it was achievable.
The detailing is actually a fairly simple rain screen system using stainless steel trays that are wrapped around marine grade plywood baseboards which are then, in turn, fixed back through the existing insulated render wall.
We sought advice from TRADA as well as stainless steel specialists during the detailing phase of the project.
From a cleaning point of view, it is no different to cleaning a glass facade so every six months professional window cleaners are called in and in no time it looks as good as new.
HC: Are you keen that the house changes as little as possible over time?
DM: Not really – we are expecting some change. Whilst the stainless steel cladding is likely to change little, the oak cladding that makes up the rest of the elevational composition, has not been treated and will be allowed to weather. Ultimately, it will change colour and become silver which I think will compliment the stainless steel very well. The fact that the materials of the elevation can reflect both the physical and temporal qualities of the natural environment that surrounds it is, I think, crucial to what makes the project so interesting.
HC: Many of your other projects are characterised by very large window or door openings and often it seems that they are the absolute largest that they can possibly be. This is also true of the doors that open out from the lounge onto the terrace in this project. Is this a theme in all of your work?
DM: In all our projects we try to connect key rooms with the wider surrounding landscape or garden. On some of the London house types that we work on, it is not always possible to add additional space and the existing interiors are often quite small and dark. Also, they may have a very charming garden or outdoor spaces that are under-utilised and so we try to make the most of these by creating views onto them or bringing in more light from them, both of which help to expand the feel of the inside space even if it stays the same size.
HC: How important is it to introduce an element of fun into a design?
DM: On one level, designing someone’s home is a serious business - it is probably their single biggest investment and so you have to treat that responsibility carefully. But ultimately, I think the most important thing about any design is that it has to make people happy and humour can definitely play an important role in that.
Contemporary architecture can sometimes be rather cold and po-faced, or fall into the trap of looking great in a magazine but not be so great to live in. We are all for being playful, or doing something unexpected, but hopefully in a carefully judged and sophisticated way.
Our aim is to create surprise and delight in our projects – whether at a small scale with a house shaped entrance door for a cat in our Vauxhall project, or at the scale of a building with a mirrored façade capturing and celebrating its beautiful natural setting in Highgate.
Dominic McKenzie was talking to Ryan von Ruben for Harris Calnan Construction. If you would like more information about the Eidolon House, you can watch this video.