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House of the Year 2023 shortlist: a delicate frame floating in the landscape

How was it possible to design a roof that thin? Construction quality and poetic attributes praised at Níall McLaughlin Architects’ Saltmarsh House. Close collaborations were critical and enjoyable, says project architect Alastair Browning

Credit: Nick Kane

Saltmarsh House, Isle of Wight
Niall McLaughlin Architects for private client
Contract value: Confidential
GIA: 106m2

Built in the grounds of a large 19th century house on the edge of a tidal lagoon, Saltmarsh House provides compact guest accommodation in three timber pods – a cabin-like bedroom, kitchen and bathroom – beside a long glass-walled dining room with a copper-clad roof of intersecting pyramids that recalls the garden’s original glasshouses.

Treading lightly in such a sensitive setting, the architect conceived the building as a delicate floating frame, open to the landscape. A timber deck cantilevers from quadripartite steel columns composed of 42mm tubes, which branch into a cat’s cradle of metalwork outlining the triangular roof planes and serried skylights. Deep eaves shelter a veranda that wraps the dining room and an outdoor terrace. Glass walls pass through the centres of each skeletal column cluster to preserve legibility of the structure from both inside and out. Fine tolerances were achieved through offsite prefabrication by specialist contractor Millimetre.

The geometric order and warm larch linings make for a restful but unobtrusive interior that allows guests to appreciate the outdoors – an effect enhanced by three large motorised windows can that drop below the deck to admit the breeze and the scent of the sea. At night, wooden panels pop up from the sills for privacy.

The House of the Year jurors were greatly impressed by the delicacy of every detail. ‘I stood outside Saltmarsh house and wondered inwardly how it was possible to design a roof that thin,’ said one. They praised the quality of construction, and the mutual respect and shared ambition between the architect and contractor that it demonstrates. Equally important are the building’s ‘poetic’ attributes, from the materials palette that harmonises with the earthy colours of the mudflats, and the watery reflections in roof windows, to the diffused light and sense of calm that permeate the interior.

  • Credit: Nik Eagland
  • Credit: Nick Kane
  • Credit: Nik Eagland
  • Credit: Nick Kane
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Three questions for Alastair Browning, project architect at Níall McLaughlin Architects

What is your favourite feature of the house?

The site is very special and being inside the house allows you to be both sheltered and absolutely immersed in an extraordinary landscape. The focus is drawn outwards towards the saltmarsh – to the water that periodically floods across the mud, the light reflecting off shallow pools and the birds that temporarily call these pools their home. The sense of time in the house starts to drift away and you find yourself adopting the slow oscillating rhythms of the incoming and receding tide.

What was the greatest challenge of the project?

The aim was to create a structure that felt as light and delicate as possible, as though it floated above the grasses and had just simply been placed beside the saltmarsh. We enjoyed tuning the steel frame to be as slim as possible, to get a tensile wiriness reminiscent of the spokes on a bicycle wheel. Achieving such lightness while achieving the requirements of a contemporary home was a big challenge but we were very fortunate to be working with an excellent team of engineers and builders. With the right team, almost anything is possible.

What lessons from the project could be applied elsewhere?

Good projects are an outcome of a dialogue and it’s important to have the confidence to allow the design of the house to emerge out of that conversation. This requires the architects to be good listeners. First, to listen to what their client has to say, and to the site, and then to the engineers, makers and specialists that really make the project happen. At all points, this conversation is an opportunity to iterate the design and restate what the project could be. The success of this project comes from a very close and enjoyable collaboration between client, designers and makers. It required an environment where everybody could trust each other and felt invested in creating something special.

  • Credit: Niall McLaughlin Architects
  • Credit: Niall McLaughlin Architects
  • Credit: Niall McLaughlin Architects
  • Credit: Niall McLaughlin Architects
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Credits

Contractor Millimetre
Structural and civil engineer Smith and Wallwork
Environmental and M&E engineer Ritchie + Daffin
Planning and heritage consultant Montagu Evans
Landscape architect Kim Wilkie
Consultant ecologist Jonathan Cox
Approved inspector Butler&Young/ Socotec

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