A discreetly sited holiday home in the Sussex woods uses the latest technology to disappear when the bats come out
Wandering disorientated along the quiet ridge road between Hastings and the village of Fairlight, it’s gradually becoming clear to me that Looking Glass Lodge’s promise to potential guests of an experience in splendid isolation is not an empty one. And once I come across the small access road taking me down through the trees into the valley’s side, I am not disappointed either.
Client Rick is the third generation to live on the edge of Mallydams Wood. His grandparents helped to establish its RSPCA centre decades before and his grandmother still lives back up the track next door to Rick and his partner Lindsey’s place; both homes enjoying wide views over the landscape they all hailed from. Originally a field, the oak, larch and evergreens among which Looking Glass Lodge now nestles were mostly planted by the family, wishing to draw Mallydams further up the hill to hide the converted barn and coach house that would become their homes.
To help generate the revenue needed to preserve their woods, the couple hatched a plan in 2018 to create a holiday let, and began to look for an architect who might do it. Michael Kendrick, who had been featured on the 2017 Channel 4 show ‘Cabins in the Wild’ as one of the eight architects building chalets for a luxury retreat in Wales, was the one who caught their eye.
Commissioned initially to design it on an exposed site overlooking the AONB, it took a year for Rother District Council planners to kick the idea into the long grass – for its exposed hillside position rather than the idea of a holiday let per se. A year and a half later, the unplanted clearing in their woods higher up proved to be more viable. But even then, explains Kendrick, it was won with onerous planning conditions – notably that it not only leave no trace if removed but that while there, with resident bat populations about, it leave no trace at all by night.
How the cabin’s sizeable expanse of south-facing floor to ceiling glass wall meets that condition might at first confound a guest but it’s an answer that will reveal itself to them gradually over time. More obvious for this ‘hovering’ cabin is Kendrick’s structural steel design: four ground beams set atop screw piles, off which spring four pairs of angled columns. Less apparent are the bolted steel ring beams and columns that form the cabin box, all discreetly hidden in a thick, highly insulated timber skin clad in stained cedar slats that run round the sides and underside of the floating box.
As the visitor enters through a large, softly gliding glazed door on the ‘land’ side, those slats do too, running neatly along the ceiling soffit – a way of bringing the outside in that acts in subtle counterpoint to the singular move of the great glass expanse before you.
Twelve metres long and running floor to ceiling, the effect is of a Cinemascopic view into and over the canopy of the woods, with some of the trees almost close enough to touch. Yet aside all this undisturbed nature, the 50m² single volume gives a sense of restrained luxury. Engineered oak floors that may feel indulgently warm underfoot are counterpointed by simple plywood, lining the walls and used for kitchen cabinets and the storage wall that separates the living/dining space from the ensuite bedroom. The architect designed simple sliding vent openings in the cabin’s walls, which are activated manually by a timber spigot that acts in simple opposition to high-end dark brassware and a feature black steel fireplace. The exposure of bathing in a decadent oval free-standing bath by the glass seems barely mitigated by the sheer, pale green muslin drape that can be drawn in front.
But come night, darkness falls. Kendrick’s solution to the planners’ bat stipulation was to source and install the UK’s latest example of stealth glass. Electrochromic SageGlass might be manufactured in America while being controlled remotely in Switzerland but it’s the tiny sensors on the roof of the cabin here that detect the all-important dusk, and trigger the ceramic-impregnated glazing to begin working its magic, darkening over the space of 20 minutes, to render all the cabin’s internal lighting invisible from outside. And so it remains, cosseting occupants and local wildlife until dawn triggers the reverse effect, gradually lightening to welcome the sunrise in true colours.
Of course, innovation comes at a price, albeit here a surprisingly low one due to the manufacturer’s wish to showcase the product – but even at £70,000 and with Covid sending material prices skyward, the cost was significant enough to shift the client from the original intention of having the lodge built, to project managing it all themselves. For Kendrick, it meant a return to the drawing board to make a contract set legible and buildable for a lay-person, and for Rick, Lindsey and their families, it meant digging the hole for the septic tank and its long cable trench from the house, insulating the 330mm thick walls and installing the flat roof’s vapour control layer. They all mucked in where they could.
Lindsey says that the process, while occasionally fraught, felt a galvanising one for the whole family, recalling in accelerated form, the protracted barn renovation done by her husband’s grandparents decades before. That, and the woodland around that they had planted – with its serendipitous clearing – combine to create a future reflection that played its part in making the improbable possible.
Gross external area 61.5m²
Total cost £250,000
Cost per m² £4065
Architect Michael Kendrick Architects
Client Looking Glass Lodge
Structural engineer Momentum
Glazing The Door Co
Carpentry Ben Rootes Carpentry
Bespoke joinery Johnson Bespoke
Steel frame Arc Fab Sussex
Screwpiles The Great British Ground Screw Co
Building Control East Sussex Building Control Partnership
Main contractor Client self-build