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House of the Year 2023 shortlist: Arts & Crafts with a contemporary twist

Rural Office’s Middle Avenue, Farnham, has comfort, craftsmanship and contextual awareness. Below, practice founder Niall Maxwell picks out his highlights

Credit: Rory Gaylor

Middle Avenue, Farnham
Rural Office for private client
Contract value: Confidential
GIA: 285m2

When the clients for this family home in suburban Farnham appointed Carmarthen-based Rural Office, their intention was to renovate the run-down inter-war bungalow then stood on the site. They were attracted by the architect’s rustic revamp of a Norfolk barn, which was one of the practice’s few completed projects at the time; the 2017 House of the Year winner Caring Wood was still under construction. Feasibility studies determined that there was little worth preserving, but the newbuild house has the craftsmanship, comfort and historic sensitivity that its owners had admired in the barn.

A 4m-high clay-tiled roof studded with patinated zinc dormers gives a subtly contemporary inflection to the Arts & Crafts style of neighbouring houses, as do crisp white-rendered gables and chimneys. The plan is organised around a triple-height hall which connects all levels of the house and the main living areas, as well as garden ‘rooms’. Bedrooms for the clients and their two grown-up children are tucked under the steeply pitched roof – tall, airy spaces given a more intimate character by a datum of dark through-coloured MDF.

Natural materials are in evidence throughout, detailed in a way that again recalls the Arts & Crafts movement. Light filters through basket-weave timber panels at the entrance. Oak marries the custom-made kitchen cabinets to partitions between the ground-floor rooms and the staircase, and harmonises with the brick-paved floors and hearth to make refined interiors that are understated but nevertheless warm and inviting.

‘Middle Avenue’s great success is that it evokes a sense of familiarity and responds to the language of the local vernacular, without being a slave to tradition,’ said the House of the Year jury. Jurors praised the way that familiar references are incorporated into a house with its own distinctive identity. The high quality of construction was also warmly commended. ‘Selection and detailing of materials gave the impression that this house would improve with the patina of age,’ said juror Jessam Al-Jawad.

  • Credit: Jim Stephenson
  • Credit: Rory Gaylor
  • Credit: Jim Stephenson
  • Credit: Rory Gaylor

Three questions for Niall Maxwell, founding director, Rural Office

What is your favourite feature of the house?

The house and garden is bounded by a dense laurel hedge. This acts as the datum, providing privacy on the site while acting as walls to garden rooms within, framing relationships with the internal spaces. The steeply pitched roof and white gables that face the two roads are the only visible parts of the house, as the ground floor is screened by the hedge. It is a homage to the Surrey vernacular, and a nod to the work of Harold Faulkner and Edwin Lutyens who worked on this patch.

What was the greatest challenge?

We adopted a fabric-first approach to the design, choosing materials to reduce the embodied carbon in the structure and to achieve high levels of thermal performance, helping to reduce the energy consumption of the building in use. Materials include Steico joists in the roof and walls, cellulose insulation infill and wood-fibre external insulation with breathable Baumit render. Building to passivhouse standard also helped with airtightness. This approach was new for the contractor which had limited experience od working with these materials, but their workmanship was exemplary and they embraced the challenge.

What lessons from the project could be applied elsewhere?

We have been exploring for some time, through this and other domestic projects in sensitive settings, how to balance lightweight construction with the use of traditional vernacular materials, in order to create contemporary, energy-efficient homes. This has a direct impact on the choice of complementary materials, and the unusually complex nature of the technical detailing. We are constantly refining this approach and testing new ways of solving technical issues that arise with each new project.

  • Ground floor plan.
    Ground floor plan. Credit: Rural Office
  • First floor plan.
    First floor plan. Credit: Rural Office
  • Site plan.
    Site plan. Credit: Rural Office
  • Section.
    Section. Credit: Rural Office


Structural engineer Fold Consulting Engineers

QS Martin Warren Associates

Energy performance assessment Bullocks Consulting

Landscape consultant Transform Landscape Designs

Main contractor Colemans Building Co

Joinery Old Oak Kitchens, and Palmers

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