Village people

Caring Wood is four homes in one, intergenerational holiday living clustered like a hamlet on a Kent farm

Caring Wood’s distinctive form takes inspiration from vernacular Kentish architecture.
Caring Wood’s distinctive form takes inspiration from vernacular Kentish architecture. Credit: Heiko Prigge

Can a house be like a village? Perhaps – if it’s Caring Wood, the extraordinary multi-generational family holiday home in Kent.

Designed by James Macdonald Wright and Niall Maxwell and long listed for the RIBA House of the Year award, Caring Wood manages to be both one home and four at the same time. At 1443m², this generous country house accommodates an extended family of 15 arranged into four immediate family units – each topped by a distinctive oast-house roof – with shared communal space. Along with the dual-oast form of the nearby housekeeper’s lodge, the assemblage has the clustered effect of a small hamlet nestled into the hillside.

Macdonald Wright’s parents-in-law are the clients. They wanted a second home for themselves and their three daughters and their families, and asked him to find a site within easy reach of London. An added dimension was the inclusion of a semi-public performance space for chamber music recitals, as well as space to house the clients’ collection of modern art.

A simply furnished bedroom in one of the four oasts incorporated into Caring Wood.
A simply furnished bedroom in one of the four oasts incorporated into Caring Wood. Credit: Heiko Prigge

After deciding on a farm site near Maidstone with enviable views of the North Downs, Macdonald Wright invited Niall Maxwell of Rural Office for Architecture (with whom he both studied at The Bartlett and worked at Ellis Williams) to collaborate on the design – and provide necessary objectivity given his own family connection.

Both enjoyed the project’s luxuriously slow pace – design development took more than two and a half years.

‘The “slow architecture” process allowed us to work differently to usual,’ says Maxwell, who believes the project is a model for how small practices can deliver big buildings.

As a contemporary PPS7 house, the project had to demonstrate innovative and exemplary design. Despite the precedent of planning consent for a substantial new house on the site, the architect didn’t take permission for granted and went all out to create a carbon neutral home that was progressive yet rooted in local vernacular.

  • Caring Wood resembles a cluster of dwellings when viewed across the landscape.
    Caring Wood resembles a cluster of dwellings when viewed across the landscape. Credit: James Morris
  • The house occupies a sloping site with views towards Pilgrim’s Way.
    The house occupies a sloping site with views towards Pilgrim’s Way. Credit: James Morris
  • Each oast contains four private rooms to supplement the generous communal areas.
    Each oast contains four private rooms to supplement the generous communal areas. Credit: James Morris
  • Ragstone walls form a plinth beneath hand-made ceramic tiles.
    Ragstone walls form a plinth beneath hand-made ceramic tiles. Credit: Heiko Prigge
  • Windows and private terraces are carefully placed to avoid overlooking.
    Windows and private terraces are carefully placed to avoid overlooking. Credit: Heiko Prigge
  • The landscaping gives the impression that the oasts are separate buildings.
    The landscaping gives the impression that the oasts are separate buildings. Credit: Heiko Prigge
  • Detail showing loally-sourced sweet chestnut cladding alongside hand-made ceramic tiles.
    Detail showing loally-sourced sweet chestnut cladding alongside hand-made ceramic tiles. Credit: Heiko Prigge
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‘We’re trying to reinvent the English country house. I became interested in the idea of what that could be in the 21st century,’ says Macdonald Wright, who was clear from the outset that the new house had to be a ‘house of Kent’.

‘For me it was very much about working with local materials and working with vernacular themes. It has to be rooted in the place,’ he adds.

Macdonald Wright also had a long-held interest in the work of CFA Voysey, Edwin Lutyens and Richard Norman Shaw, and their influence can be felt in Caring Wood’s Arts & Crafts flavour – and in particular its distinctive roof.

The design team swiftly came up with the oast house concept, but initially shelved it on the grounds that this traditional building type was too obvious. However, it returned  to the distinctive form as an ideal way of realising the passive stack ventilation while  creating dramatic internal volumes.

  • The main staircase leads down to the communal family areas from the recital and gallery level.
    The main staircase leads down to the communal family areas from the recital and gallery level. Credit: Heiko Prigge
  • Views through and out of the house are carefully choreographed.
    Views through and out of the house are carefully choreographed. Credit: Heiko Prigge
  • The tranquil courtyard is the inner sanctum of the house.
    The tranquil courtyard is the inner sanctum of the house. Credit: Heiko Prigge
  • White walls accentuate the lofty volumes within the house
    White walls accentuate the lofty volumes within the house Credit: Heiko Prigge
  • Bedroom in one of the family split-level oasts.
    Bedroom in one of the family split-level oasts. Credit: Heiko Prigge
  • The unfussy interior has a simple materials palette including ceramic floor tiles and white walls.
    The unfussy interior has a simple materials palette including ceramic floor tiles and white walls. Credit: Heiko Prigge
  • View up to the top of an oast.
    View up to the top of an oast. Credit: James Morris
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Its first design arranged four distinct family quarters within a compact cluster set against the north-facing hillside. This was rejected by the client, who wanted a more spread out, village-like approach. The response was a dynamic ‘pin-wheel’ plan, with the four approximately 100m² wings more dispersed at each corner. The performance space and gallery lead off from the ground floor entrance, with a grand tapering staircase leading down to the main communal areas and access to three of the wings. The entrance to the grandparents’ quarters lower down the hillside is on the next floor down. Each wing has four rooms arranged over more than one level, all carefully oriented to avoid overlooking while maximizing the views. A green roof is pulled up over the entrance to the wings to give the illusion that they are separate buildings.

While the building form initially draws the eye, it’s the local materials that are the unassuming stars. The architects used stone from a nearby quarry for the ragstone walls combined with locally-coppiced, sweet chestnut finger-jointed cladding and 146,000 handmade peg tiles for the showpiece roof. Conceived as a cloak being draped over the cross-laminated timber structure, this undulating form lifts to form an ‘eyelid’ over some of the windows.

Visiting it this autumn, I was struck by the contrast between the generous social areas and cosier private spaces of the oasts – when only a few people are staying at the house, they can retreat to their own space rather than feel as if they’re rattling around. Which is just as well, for there is no getting away from the fact that Caring Wood is a huge house of many different levels, wings and orientations. There are no fewer than eight staircases and an abundance of hidey-holes – fantastic for games of sardines and hide and seek. It’s no wonder that the kids like to use walkie-talkies to locate their cousins.

Credit: Heiko Prigge

It does have a beautiful sense of calmness – the white-walled interior is simply kitted out with inset oak joinery and flooring of either clay floor tiles or engineered oak. As well as the pleasure of looking out over the countryside, the family can enjoy a fine terrace and pool complete with cascading water features. There is also an unusual, timber-lined courtyard tucked away at the heart of the plan without the distraction of the landscape views. This inner sanctum acts as a condensed cloister where the clients like to walk and talk, the sky visibly framed at the top of the high courtyard walls.

Macdonald Wright reckons it’ll take quite a few years for this house, and the estate’s 27,000 newly-planted trees, to bed in. But the clients are already delighted, even if they and their family are still working out quite how best to appropriate all the many spaces. And just as the sweet chestnut cladding and clay roofing will acquire their own patina as they age, so will the internal spaces as the family learns to grow into the house, slowly, over time.

Credits

Architects James Macdonald Wright and Niall Maxwell

Project management and design advisor Macdonald Wright Architects

Executive architects Rural Office for Architecture

Structural engineer Price and Myers

Services engineer Synergy Consulting Engineers

Acoustic consultant Neill Woodger Acoustics and Theatre Design

Ecological building consultant Conker Conservation

Landscape and ecology consultant Spacehub

Groundworks project manager Alex McLennan

Main contractor Cardy Construction

Groundworks and structure Hague Construction

Landscaping contractor Landform Consultants

Planning consultant DHA Planning