The architect’s vision for Lower Giles Farm house near Bolton got diluted by the client's self-build, but the dilemmas resonate with many
The type of grass on the ground floor roof of this house balancing over the moors north of Bolton in Lancashire is the project’s story in microcosm. Architect Mark Percival of Manchester-based practice architecture:m had planned that the initial bright green grass would evolve, mixing with seeds blown in from the surrounding landscape. It would become longer, coarser, more diverse and colourful. Its super flat terrain would become mushier and lumpier too, merging with the moors beyond. But the clients, a couple who until moving here lived in a three-bed suburban home in the town, won’t let that happen. ‘I’ll be plucking it out myself,’ one responded to Percival’s suggestion that moss be allowed to slowly bed in.
The football-pitch-pristine versus moorland rooftop speaks volumes about the house in the photographs before you. Lower Giles Farm is a new Paragraph 55 home that has taken years to come to fruition. The clients had not intended to build, but while driving past scouting for a home to buy, they saw the plot for sale – a three hectare site down a rugged track. It only had a tumbledown building on it and didn’t come with planning permission, but the couple had realised that neither the small rooms nor the challenge of ‘getting clean’ the types of properties available nearby – old stone cottages, barns and farmhouses – really suited them. They bought it, originally to rebuild the ruin.
Architecture:m came on board in 2012 on the recommendation of the client’s planning consultant. By that time it was clear rebuilding wasn’t possible. The brief called for four bedrooms, a gym, lots of storage, views and consideration of the owners’ cats. The architect’s idea was to push the building to the far end of the site, to the edge of a steep ravine, so the owners could fall asleep listening to water rushing down the winding gorge. It would be upside down, light and open upstairs, heavy and semi dug into the rock downstairs; 160 piles made it possible.
Approached from the moors, the house first appears like a tiny solitary glass and steel matchbox sat weightlessly in the landscape, delicately placed on the grass next to a naturalistic pond. Coming down the track, the ground floor reveals itself as a blank reddish stone wall wrapping around the drive, garage on one side, the entrance set back in the corner, the pond and glass box above. Just about visible through the glazing, the stone carries up from the ground floor to become an internal wall. Move to the other side of the house and the upper floor soars over the valley, hanging precariously like a boulder pushed up from the rocky stream during the last Ice Age, the stone wall below becoming part of the crag.
Inside, the view down the corridor transports your eye through a mid grey all-tiled interior to the wilderness beyond. To the left past massive dark framed sliding doors is an open-air courtyard, again completely tiled, a stainless steel kitchen tucked in behind the front wall. Three bedrooms with their own shower rooms and doors onto the clough come off the long side of the opening. The gym and another bedroom loop round overlooking a field of ponies. The study comes off to the right, the cinema and its LED star-lit ceiling and plush whisky cellar/panic room beyond (apparently all the rage in the region). This all feels like a different building, the cold wipe-clean surfaces nothing to do with the sponginess and roughness of the grass, trees and stone outside. Everything is slick – framed views, high contrast, shadow gap details, gloss surfaces – an overwhelmingly hygienic, white and grey gallery.
Between these rooms, continuing the line of the bedroom corridor, is the stained timber stair to the perched glass box. You have been teleported from the underground to a large single space that could be a rooftop city restaurant – grey tile flooring, shining white kitchen units, squishy velour sofas, yellow accent lounge chairs, cushions and dining table banquette. But you are in the landscape, the charming soakaway pond on one side and the gorge crashing past under the balcony to the other. Also you aren’t. It’s warm, dry and still. All the comforts of contemporary life are here. Step onto the cantilever and you’ll soon be reminded it’s artificial. It’s exhilarating. There’s no buffer between landscape and building.
Yet, there are two ways to think about this house and it comes down to the fact that it was self-built by the client and his builder friend. The first is that it does everything it wants to in this rather mad and majestic setting and is a pretty astonishing accomplishment. The macro moves are all there. The other way comes back to that grass on the roof – between what was planned and what wasn’t, in the decisions made on site while the owner and builder were present and the architect wasn’t. Some questions of its architectural integrity arise. You may spot some differences between the architect’s and client’s intentions, others you may not. The stone slip dressing, for example, should have been dry stone wall. The balcony was an unforeseen addition that meant the structure had to increase from 350mm to 600mm. The rusticated reconstituted stone corners should have been slips carefully mitred. The all-grey tiled walls and floors were the clients’ choice too – Percival would have preferred plaster, maybe a timber floor. In places this leaves the building a bit chunky, more urban than envisaged: Manchester on the moor. Grouting doesn’t line up either.
The result is that the project reflects diverse personalities. But for the architect, the differences between what was planned and what has materialised have to be a shame. It’s easy to imagine how it goes; no matter how convincing the arguments deployed by the architect, the client is steadfast. Some alterations, like the balcony, are obviously fun. Yet it makes one wonder how many clients truly understand the point of an architect beyond maximising floor area for financial advantage and getting a scheme through planning (which took four years). With its copious bedrooms, 771m2 floor area and lone glass box ‘iconic’ appearance, the house certainly considers monetary value at one level, so must be critiqued regarding that as well. I’d say it misses out on the added zing that comes when building with near-complete integrity from concept to detail. That approach may look like less personalisation to the financiers, but could, for example, also mean full wheelchair accessibility, which this house does not have but could.
So now Percival’s plan is to work on how to design buildings that leave less room for clients to change things as they go along. He wants more control over the final aesthetic. This building is a testament to such a strong architectural concept and to Percival’s straight-up character that he can tell the clients this and they all remain on good terms. It may be a client’s house and a client’s money, but Percival’s creation, practice and livelihood come out of it too. He’s going to proceed by investigating the possibilities of prefabricated timber panels.
Engineer James Crosbie Associates
Main contractor Kevin Whelan Construction
Planning consultant Graeme Luxton Consultancy
Piling Total Piling