When a couple couldn’t find the right site by the sea they decided to bring the water to them. Lyons Architects made it happen
The clients of Blackbird, a new build house near Kemble in the Cotswolds, had wanted a house by the sea for their next home. They are a couple, one an artist and the other coming up to retirement. Unable to find a suitable plot by the coast, when a paddock with planning permission came up for sale in a village near to where they lived, they went for it.
That was in 2016 – the year Hamish & Lyons (now Lyons Architects, this with Hamish Herford) completed Stepping Stones, a house raised on stilts above a manmade lake in Hurley, near Maidenhead. This was the inspiration the clients of Blackbird needed. Initially they had pursued the home they sought by redesigning a traditional house with planning permission via the council, but this was leading to a bulky building that wasn’t working. They decided to reassess and in 2018 were introduced to Lyons Architects by a mutual contact. The sight of Stepping Stones sparked the idea of making a lake to fulfil their desire to live by water. The lake is approximately 32m in diameter, 2m deep. It is fully lined, so really it’s a pond.
Until you realise the lake is manmade you might think that because of the relationship of Blackbird to the water, the house fully maximises its setting. Knowing it is manmade could make it whimsical – and yet it doesn’t. The site is rectangular. On two sides, including the one running behind the main road through the village, it is bordered by a 15m-deep strip of protected woodland that had to be preserved. Separated by tall trees to the west are other houses, while out the back to the south are fields.
When the clients bought the plot, this view over the gentle valley was closed off by trees. As the lake was created, the excavated soil was shifted to create a topography that accentuates existing level changes and opens the view. This had the added advantage that the house could be built, like Stepping Stones, on steel frame stilts, raising it from the ground to minimise its concrete footings and their embodied carbon. The water also reflects light into the building, has submerged heat pump pipes in it, helps cool the house in summer and blurs the woodland boundaries, drawing the house further into the landscape. As well as the clients, a host of wildlife has moved in.
From the entrance in the north west corner you realise none of this. The first view is of flourishing wildflower meadows planted with native species designed by Fox Fernley Landscape Office, either side of a sweeping gravel driveway. Nestled between the banks is what appears to be a modest chalet on legs. A balcony wraps around at the upper level, protected by an oversailing roof. All black except for the natural timber soffit, the building has just a few shapes – the low hat roof, boxy central volume, two large square windows and a chunky handrail. The building looks so embedded it could have been there for decades.
Visitors approach via a car port underneath. In front of them a simple main entrance opens onto a corridor hallway paved in terracotta. Ahead is a completely glazed view between the stilts out to the other side – a rowing boat casually moored between them. There’s a utility, plant room and oak tread stair to the first floor to the right.
This might be the everyday entrance, but the best way to arrive is to walk back round the drive and up the long steps over the embankment between the olive trees. This path takes you to the whole being of the project; the lake and view to the valley. The luscious green transforms into a watery landscape – grassy edges blur into the reeds and butterflies are replaced by dragonflies. The house too turns from a modest chalet to a hovering Japanese-inspired Californian Case Study House. As you step onto the deck suspended over the water, the building reveals itself – 40m long with a double hipped roof overhanging at either end with a 1m deep terrace. Exterior walls are clad in Kebony vertical charred timber planks; the roof is covered with black diamond aluminium interlocking tiles. The references for the project are about plumage and aeroplanes but the need for them falls away.
From here steps lead up to a slightly off-centre four-part sliding glazed door. The width of the opening informs the width of the external steps and deck. This window is replicated on the other side of the building across the living space, connecting it visually to the water and woodland, the house deftly squeaked between. There is no guttering; rain soaks away into the lake or woodland.
The flatness of the water is echoed in the flatness of the building’s platform. It’s all on one level, just positioned perpendicular and rectangular. The lake laps at its feet. From this rear view, the building is surrounded by shrubbery and trees, dark like a shadow, and the symmetry is tempered by a hierarchy of windows, as practice founding director Nick Lyons explains: ‘They are full-height in the kitchen living space, shortened at the bottom for the study and studio to create a cill and shortened again top and bottom for the bedrooms.
Entering at deck level, you go straight into the living space. The kitchen, with its granite-topped 4.2m-long island and solid walnut fronts is to the left, the dining area in the centre and the sitting space on the right, lightly separated by a green oak column. The ceiling is open to the rafters, showing the roof structure, while the floor is black oak band sawboards. One aspect of the brief was to be able occasionally to bring together several generations, yet be comfortable for two people. Spaces in which to put a sleeping bag have been maximised, including a mezzanine above the rear wall full-height units in the kitchen which is accessed by a ladder, and will double as a library. Beside the kitchen on the pond side a series of pocket doors leads through two guest bedrooms to the study. On the woodland side, a corridor gives access to the studio. Concertina doors separate this from the study, allowing them to become one larger triple-aspect space when required. Guest bedrooms each have their own mezzanine for more sleeping space.
On the other side of the living space is the master wing with a dressing area that runs the full depth of the building, its own bath and shower room, and bedroom that looks over the pond and woodland. Joinery throughout is birch ply, matching the soffit. Finishes are in natural materials, including stone, marble and tadelakt in the bathrooms. Furniture is an eclectic mix of antique and mid-century. Furnishings are mostly white or natural tones, but the house is packed with paintings, ceramics and interesting objects. Light and airy spaces flow freely, making the home feel suitably relaxed.
The building has been designed to prepare for the future too, with the ability to live only on the upper floor with level access from outside. It is low-energy and super-insulated. On a bright early summer day with the windows flung open, the atmosphere is a compelling blend of serious architecture and laid-back living.
Total contract cost £1.125m
Cost per m² £5000
Architect Lyons Architects with Hamish Herford
Structural engineer Momentum
Landscape architect FFLO
Environmental/M&E engineer QODA
Arboricultural SJ Stephens
Ecology MD Ecology