For Maich Swift, building a house on Wales’ beautiful Gower coast required not just a sensitive design but planning finesse too. But the effort launched the practice
On a misty winter day, looking up from the bay, the house goes in and out of view every few minutes with the mimetic shifting landscape around it, disappearing and reappearing like the ebb and flow of the tide. The sound of crashing waves is muffled by the rustling of bracken and heath trembling in the Westerlies. Quietly perched on the clifftop, the house sits above one of the most beautiful bays in Wales, the British Isles, even the world. ‘We've been coming here for the past four years,’ explains architect Paul Maich, one of practice Maich Swift’s two directors with Ted Swift. ‘It's just unique. The landscape doesn't stop surprising you; when you arrive, you note just how incredible it is.’
Dealing sensitively with the village of Rhossili and the exceptional scenic qualities of the site, which is in the UK’s first designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, was a key challenge on this project. The image of the house is so intertwined with the natural beauty surrounding it that the design had to be both subservient to the natural setting, and part of it.
This was a life-changing opportunity for Maich and Swift. A friend wanted a house on the Gower Peninsula in south-west Wales, and trusted them with its design. The commission was the pair’s ticket to establishing a practice together. They met at Caruso St John about a decade ago, where they worked on the Newport Street Gallery, developing a bond to outlast their time there.
The house was for a client with a young family, and their extended family and friends, with a brief for a series of spaces that would work together flexibly to serve the needs of all these users. From the outset, Maich and Swift knew planning permission would be difficult. There were 57 planning constraints on the site and it took two years to receive permission to build a new house and timber frame garage, and refurbish existing outbuildings. Knowing its support would be needed, the practice was proactive about engagement and went to the Design Commission for Wales early to involve itself in the process.
Pre-application suggestions included shortening the overall volume and reducing the scale of the kitchen outrigger to become more subservient to the rest of the house. All the key stakeholders were protective about the site, including the Gower Society and the National Trust, but locals gave the design positive feedback. Approval came from the café next door as the plan to move the volume improved its views of the bay. A leaky and deteriorated 1930s cement blockwork house had previously been on the site, and Maich Swift had considered whether it could be reused. But as the fabric was poor, and its positioning made large parts of the garden redundant, it was crushed down to make a hardcore base for the newbuild house instead. How buildings work and breathe is an important part of how Maich Swift wants to work: the practice starts each project by considering early design concepts, alongside material considerations and building physics – particularly carbon sequestering, using natural, breathable and recyclable materials.
The firm embraced the technical issues of constructing a house on such an exposed remote site and chose a solid spruce cross-laminated timber superstructure for its aesthetic qualities and its monolithic nature. It collaborated closely with Eurban, a solid timber construction contractor who helped it to learn about the material and its qualities. Intrinsic to the process was the decision to make the firm a named subcontractor, which meant the superstructure was installed quickly – crucially before the first lockdown.
Breathable and natural materials are used throughout. Windows, gutters, spandrel panels and fascias are powder-coated aluminium, set flush with a lime render that is applied to external wood fibre insulation, combining to make a taught, robust exterior skin.
Maich explains: ‘There are some wider influences on how the elevation is articulated, explored as a tight skin like a Ben Nicholson relief. And there are fine subtleties, such as where the top part of the building steps out by 50mm just so you have a play on light on that plane.’
A high-performing thermal building envelope reduces the energy demand of mechanical heating and ventilation systems, while an air source heat pump warms the space and water. This approach foresees carbon emissions reducing over the life of the building as the electrical grid decarbonises. This, and the carbon sequestering materials used in its construction, will allow the building to become net-zero carbon.
Approaching the house from either the road or coastal path, an external colonnaded sheltered canopy leads to the front door. From here the design opens up, creating a sequence of spaces on the ground floor. A generous kitchen and dining space with tall ceilings looks towards Worms Head, the furthest westerly point of the Gower, framed by the entrance colonnade.
Other ground-floor spaces navigate in a circuit around a central staircase with no doors between. Storage and services straddle a generous hallway to allow minimalist and open plan main rooms. The primary living space has stunning views towards the bay and the heathland, while a drawing room is tucked away next to the entrance, sunken by a metre to create a protective space within the landscape.
In the middle of the house the tall core comprises a pared-back stair flooded by light from a simply sculpted rooflight. Upstairs, a central top-lit hallway leads to bedrooms arranged in a pinwheel with washrooms in between to maintain privacy. Fanlights above the doors share light between the rooms.
The bedrooms occupy the corners of the building below a pitched roof punctuated by large square windows. The architect plotted out the views from each room to look at their relationship to the landscape. Close views and then longer views were all considered. The neighbouring heathland becomes a close-up abstract view from the master bedroom window, juxtaposed with views to Rhossili Bay and Worms Head positioning you in a very different landscape on the other elevation.
Stripped back materiality and fittings give the exposed structure a strong presence throughout. Ever-present is the architect’s interest in nuts and bolts – the practice even designed the beds, including the children’s bunks. Detailing and finishing have a certain minimal and austere quality; light fittings are utilitarian with exposed bulbs. Bedroom doors of 42mm thick tribord are differentiated by painted shapes – triangle, rectangle, circle and semi circle to have their own identities. Turned maple door handles were crafted as perfect spheres with spindles going straight into the door without an escutcheon.
Variations of materiality see elements painted and boarded over, creating a collage-like relief to the interior walls. The result is a balance of material and the feeling of a canvas backdrop to the life of the client, with choices on furniture and artwork starting to emerge.
Maich Swift resisted the temptation for massive areas of glazing looking out to the bay, instead at re-interpreting the Welsh vernacular as a modern elevational composition. ‘The other thing that's quite unusual about the site is it is overlooked from nearly every aspect, and so we resisted making an object that is the same from all angles,’ explains Maich. A multi-faceted house results that can sit in many different compositions, nestling into its surroundings and navigating sensitively the relationship between building, village and landscape.
Solid, quiet, cosy and protective, the house provides a variety of spaces that explore key architectural themes of setting, approach, enclosure, composition and – crucially – home. The architecture created is simple yet striking, a house looking to vernacular design to find a modern, low carbon manifestation of its own.
Outside, although landscaping is not complete, the articulation of volumes creates little moments of privacy and pockets of space for activity protected from the elements; a canopy next to the garage creates a deck to sit on; a lower and upper deck and lookout are made by a renovated outbuilding. With this house, the garden is not just the garden, it is the wider landscape, the bay, Worms Head, the coastal path and the hills; it is everything.
Úna Breathnach HIfearnáin-Taoka is an architect and senior urban designer at McGregor Coxall and a RIBAJ Rising Star 2017. She previously wrote about her experience as an emigrant architect in the UK and how the numbers of foreign architects working in different countries across Europe compares.
1780m2 site area
218m2 GIA main house
21m2 GIA garage
7m2 GIA lookout
18m2 GIA gatehouse
Architect (& CA) Maich Swift Architects
Structural engineer Constant Structural Design
Mechanical and services engineer Gallese Design
Solid timber construction specialist and engineer (and named subcontractor) Eurban
Approved inspector Butler & Young
Planning consultant G Powys Jones MSc FRTPI Chartered Town Planning Consultant
Main contractor Paul Thomas & Sons
ASHP Limitless Ltd
Lime render system Lime Green
Internal and external lighting Ifö Electric AB
Internal timber linings & doors Tilly Naturholzplatten
Timber flooring Russwood
Walls 0.17 W/m2K
Floors 0.14 W/m2K
Roof 0.13 W/m2K
Windows/doors 0.70 W/m2K