Timber construction works for Orchard House – and the planet

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Words:
Isabelle Priest

Beasley Dickson Architects’ modern, beautifully detailed intergenerational home in Benenden, Kent, shows you can have it all by building with light renewable resources

As I make my way from London Charing Cross Station to the village of Benenden in the Kent countryside, Extinction Rebellion’s planned two-week shutdown of central London hasn’t quite got under way. It’s Monday morning and the usual clash of workers and tourists is unfolding in Trafalgar Square under the autumn sun. By the time I return from my visit to Orchard House, however, the roads all around are closed off by armoured vehicles. At the top of Whitehall, eight police officers surround a hearse containing a coffin inscribed ‘Our future’. People are demonstrating, shouting and singing – 135 have been arrested. As more of the erratic weather that characterised the previous week closes in, the crowd dwindles in response.

In choosing private homes to feature in RIBAJ, it is easy to opt for environmentally agnostic houses – massive weighty ones made of concrete and steel. Given the planning process, many of the projects completing now were designed years ago, and often the opportunity of building a single-family dwelling is considered as exceptional by client and architect – a one-off that excuses it from wider considerations. But with the recent belated recognition of the climate emergency that would be wrong. Hence it was not only the timber cladding but the timber frame of this building that turned the project from a maybe into a definite. It shows how a large middle class detached home can have it all yet be executed in light, renewable resources. The elegant external 1960s architectural overtones added to its curiosity. 

Sustainability was not, however, the primary objective of Orchard House’s architect Beasley Dickson or its client. The latter was a pair of retired prominent journalists, the parents of practice director David Dickson. They had acquired a habit of living in timber houses, first on the east coast of the USA, then in an 18th century listed farmhouse in Kent, a county that abounds with timber clad and framed vernacular buildings. And they had had a lot of exposure to the contemporary timber clad architecture of North America.

‘We always wanted to build our own house,’ says Hilary Wilce. ‘Martin wanted views and it was time to do something new.’ They found the site while they were living again in the US. It was everything they wanted – a former orchard, semi-self-seeded wooded 0.8ha plot on the edge of a village with views to the south of neighbours’ red tiled roofs and to the north towards denser woods and the weald. Their son’s practice was, of course, the only architect they considered. Yet by that time, living in a glassy condo in downtown New York, they had realised the benefit of open plan and of living with the outside coming in, and wanted that too.

The site had a small, damp 1950s house on it so the planning strategy was for a replacement dwelling. Any proposal was restricted to the height of the old roof ridge, 6.5m (though they gained a little ceiling space by moving the house further into the plot to take advantage of the slope). The new house could not be more than 1.5 times the footprint of the old. Then there was the invisible line across the rear northern half of the long site where the contours fall away – they could built up to this, but not over it. The bit beyond was considered more akin to agricultural land than residential.

 

Kitchen sink overlooks the front door to the left. Hardwood iroko cladding, Douglas fir window surrounds and the softwood frame can all be seen at once.
Kitchen sink overlooks the front door to the left. Hardwood iroko cladding, Douglas fir window surrounds and the softwood frame can all be seen at once. Credit: Agnes Sanvito

The brief called for a house appropriate for a retired couple but generous enough to accommodate surges in guests and ‘not feel baggy’, explains Dickson. It had to be open plan, but not feel undefined and like living in only one room. It had to have lots of light, but not be like an aquarium. It had to feel constantly part of the outside, but not have wrap-around floor-to-ceiling glazing. Bedrooms could operate as studies, but they had to be the same size and have the same view to stop bickering over who had the best. It had to be timber clad, but not need painting or treating; Dickson senior and Wilce had had enough of that. 

It also had to accommodate a possibly less mobile and able future for the clients: that they could live on one floor if they had to, and that there would be space for a lift and a potential annexe for a live-in carer. ‘It was important that it should operate for the average buyer in the area too,’ adds Wilce, ‘a family with two children moving from Camberwell.’ Dickson and Wilce also wanted a conservatory, so the design needed to incorporate one without it appearing like the usual bolt-on. 

With so much at stake, it was decided that the other director of the practice, Melissa Beasley, would act as the intermediary in the case of profound disagreements. There weren’t any. Instead the design emerged out of deep family history and knowledge to fill the permitted space from the inside out. The roof became flat to accommodate the 2.9m ceilings that encourage creative thinking. The volume followed a similar elongated V-shape plan to the existing house and attached artist’s studio, the angle between the two wings reminiscent of Amyas Connell’s 1931 High & Over modernist house in Amersham.

 

  • The side entrance could allow the music and boot rooms to be become an annexe.
    The side entrance could allow the music and boot rooms to be become an annexe. Credit: Agnes Sanvito
  • The main front door, again sliced in, with a view of the stair through the window.
    The main front door, again sliced in, with a view of the stair through the window. Credit: Agnes Sanvito
  • The recurring motif of corner post with windows either side, here in the kitchen.
    The recurring motif of corner post with windows either side, here in the kitchen. Credit: Agnes Sanvito
  • Looking the other way from the kitchen to the dining area and conservatory beyond.
    Looking the other way from the kitchen to the dining area and conservatory beyond. Credit: Agnes Sanvito
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Viewed from the lane, Orchard House is set back on the site with one long elevation along that invisible planning use line, parkland falling away down the slope to the north, the southern lawn set between the wings, parking on the other side. At the point of arrival, however, around a separate garage/workshop constructed using the same timber frame and iroko wood cladding as the main building, only the end of one wing is visible, the other just pokes out around the opposite side. Together the volumes appear as a small informal cluster of pavilions, the two ends stepping down to reduce massiveness. Overhanging timber canopies stretch out to allow the landscape to slip past underneath and for plants to grow up for solar shading. 

The end of the drive takes you to the preci­pice where the main entrance is cut away from the turn of the V, away from the arrival elevation. The opening in plan forms a sense of enclosure before you enter, enhanced by the sliced-in front door with a built-in bench to the right, and ensures visitors step into the centre of the house. Inside, the ground floor maximises views to the south and west, while on the first floor the focus is to the north and east. Views and connections all around the house pass through the double-height hall that brings the components of the building together, and between the open treads of the gracious curving steel and wood stair.

Downstairs there are only three principal rooms. The music room can be shut off with the boot room and WC with shower to create an annexe for a carer or nanny. The sitting room sits at the most southerly part of the house and a kitchen-dining space leads into the glazed conservatory that was such a challenge. The larder and utility room interrupt what could have been a huge single space. Instead areas connect visually via full-height pivot doors and through the expanses of glazing out and back into the house. Door heights drop down for the music and sitting rooms to create an increased sense of intimacy and cosiness. Upstairs, the north facing wing is devoted to the master suite; the guest bedroom faces south and the study bedrooms east.

 

The stair is beautiful when seen from outside but is less successful in its positioning so close to the glazing on the ground floor.
The stair is beautiful when seen from outside but is less successful in its positioning so close to the glazing on the ground floor. Credit: Agnes Sanvito

Externally, the arrangement of timber boards on the facade does a similar thing. The mix of horizontal and vertical with portrait and landscape oriented glazing keeps lines of sight satisfyingly looping around and over the building, interrupted only by the sunken back doorways to the kitchen, annexe and boot room. The method not only creates interest, but the longer and shorter board sections were an efficient use of timber. The two red brick chimneys, one for each wing, conceptually lock this lightweight building into place between them. Likewise, the softwood timber structure, Douglas fir cills, window and door backs and surrounds maintain material connections between exterior and interior. The repeated corner detail with glazed panels either side of a timber post is a motif used at large and small scales throughout the building, always giving that extra unexpected aspect in, out or through. At scale, for example by the kitchen sink, it’s majestic, whereas by the entrance it’s rather cute. 

Internal finishes are simple – oak floors, plasterboard, tradesman kitchen units and doors, deeply fossilled light grey kitchen worktops quarried from the same source of stone Michelangelo liked to use. There’s a laundry shute, interfloor lofts snuck in above WCs and other more practical rooms to store suitcases and the paraphernalia not required every day. It’s easy to see how liveable the building is for its current owners or anyone else. The house is a smart, exquisitely detailed suburban villa, but it is of the orchard and countryside too. It shows there’s an architectural way in timber, which we need to attempt now more than ever, for all.  


IN NUMBERS
£650,000
total contract cost
260m2
GIFA
£2,250
cost/m2 

Credits

Architect Beasley Dickson
Client Martin Dickson and Hilary Wilce
Structural engineer Foster Structures
Doors + fixed windows Graham Nunn Joinery
External cladding Brooks Bros

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