Making an Invisible House doesn’t just need glass and mirrors. For owner/designer Steve Smith at the follow-up to Ghost House with BPN Architects, living trees are all part of the illusion
In 2003 nightlife entrepreneur Steve Smith bought a property called Cedar House, ten minutes’ drive outside Leamington Spa at Moreton Paddox. The house was on land that was formerly part of a stately home which had been sold off as parcels from 1959 and over time became a kind of private village.
The houses on the former estate are of variable quality. Cedar House is a 1980s modern vernacular house of no architectural interest, but it came with a lot of land which was used first to build Ghost House with Birmingham-based practice BNP, and now Invisible House.
Ghost House, shortlisted for the RIBA House of the Year in 2019, is a veritable James Bond villain bunker entirely in exposed concrete, entered through a black reflecting pool. Such radical houses don’t come easily; Smith describes the battles with the local planning authorities to get it realised. It was built under Paragraph 55 (now Paragraph 80) regulations which allow newbuild rural houses provided they are of exceptional quality. The endorsement of the ‘RIBA House of the Year’ shortlist is proof that it qualifies for this.
Invisible House is located in a prominent corner position directly opposite the entrances to Ghost House and Cedar House. Given this location you can see the creative impulse to try to make a new house disappear – to make it ‘invisible’.
Smith thought there would be no chance of getting a second ‘exceptional’ Paragraph 55 house directly opposite Ghost House and the process of getting planning permission was similarly tortuous. With help again from BPN, he won the backing of the local council’s design review panel, only to be refused by a single planning officer. The scheme was eventually won at appeal.
Invisible House is entirely single storey, arranged as a cluster of seven individual pods/rooms scattered seemingly haphazardly across the site. The pods are joined by glazed corridors, creating a sequence of connected rooms. Reminiscent of a Sanaa design, the loose arrangement of elements provides a flexibility of architectural form which allows the house to weave between the mature trees retained on the site. It also breaks down the overall mass, making legibility of the whole more difficult and aiding its invisibility. Additional semi-mature silver birches planted around the house further dissolve its appearance.
The house is raised above the ground on mini-piles which are set back and lost in the shadows, so the house apparently floats above the ground. Above the mini-piles, a raised steel deck with walls or tubular steel columns supports the roof. Site-made SIP panels are used for solid areas of wall behind the cladding.
The quality of the exterior cladding is superb; tight joints and a flat surface create a perfect mirror appearance when seen from outside, but look transparent from inside. Smith cites Tham & Videgård’s Swedish ‘mirrorcube’ hotel as a precedent. The cladding is divided into three zones – a 330mm base hides the floor build-up, the glazing zone is 2700mm high, and a 330mm top band obscures the roof structure.
The house is entered in the middle of the seven pods via a front door that is a seamless mirrored panel indistinguishable from the rest of the cladding except for a small keyhole. Steps up to the raised deck are reminiscent of Mies’ Farnsworth House in Illinois. On entry, walls, ceiling and resin floor are black. Thin strip lights set into the ceiling point towards the rear garden which forms the beautiful backdrop for all the rooms in the house.
Walls throughout are clad in timber battens – spray-painted black or white – rather than plasterboard which gives the interiors a rich tactile quality. Bespoke powder-coated steel door handles match the battens precisely, a sign of the rigorous attention to detail that characterises Smith’s projects.
In the glazed corridors there is an immediate feeling of disorientation – like a fairground hall of mirrors
Leaving the black entry hall we head into the right-hand wing of the house towards the kitchen. In the interstitial glazed corridors there is an immediate feeling of disorientation – something like a fairground hall of mirrors. Views of the garden are interrupted by mirrored exterior flank walls; push doors ahead and behind are also mirrored with no handles.
The kitchen/dining room beyond is the biggest pod, its resin floor and wall battens all white to match the kitchen units and counter. Given the size of the pod the window feels a little on the small side and perhaps rooflights or another window could have been introduced – though this might have marred the building’s exterior appearance. But this is a minor niggle.
Beyond the dining room is the living room, also in white. The final room in the sequence is a bedroom with an integrated ensuite carefully detailed with matching white tiles and sanitaryware. The bathroom door is tiled on the inner face, with a bespoke door handle matching the tile grid precisely.
Returning to the entrance hall, we enter the other wing. Here the glazed corridor unexpectedly splits around a planted exterior courtyard, creating a very successful moment. Beyond are a study and two more bedrooms in the same palette of white timber battens and resin floors.
The rear garden is reached via sliding doors, down suspended steps from each of the key rooms in the house. It is beautiful with the mature trees and new birches. The entrance hall pod hovers over a water feature that disappears under the house.
While in the garden we discuss the perceived problem of birds flying into the mirror cladding. Smith tells me that in the six months since the completion of the mirrored cladding there have been no incidents of birds flying into it. This matches the experience of my client for our 2013 project Eidolon House, who says: ‘I can’t think of a single occasion when a bird flew into the mirrored front of the house’.
After our tour of Invisible House, Smith shows me around the Cedar House site opposite, which he is starting to think about redesigning. It is an incredible hillside plot and the project will no doubt become the final part of an exciting trilogy of exemplary contemporary houses.
Overall, Invisible House is an extremely impressive work of architecture. It is radically conceived in plan and followed through with a great rigour and attention to detail. Following the success of Ghost House, this surely also deserves to be a contender for the RIBA House of the Year.
Total build £900,000
Cost per m² (all figures approximate) £3000
Designer Steve Smith
Architect BPN Architects
Setting out RGI Surveys
Structural engineer Momentum Engineering
Landscaping Rosebank Landscaping
Screw piles Quadrabuild
Kitchen Reflections Studio
Glazing In A Glaze
Mirror facade Thermospan