Knox Bhavan creates just the right balance of aesthetic delight and essential practicality for an artist and author living with life-changing injuries
On arrival, the Little Big House personifies its name. Set back from the road on a T-shaped footprint, it has a modest street presence, but the dramatic cantilevered roof sweeps out to greet you with a big statement of intent. Bold and ambitious, it is the culmination of a challenging and inspiring journey between Knox Bhavan and its client, Henry Fraser. Fraser is an artist, author and motivational speaker and was the inspiration for the West End musical The Little Big Things. It’s an impressive CV for anyone, but especially given Fraser’s pivot following a life-changing accident that left him paralysed from the shoulders down.
Culmination, however, feels the wrong word. From the start, this house was about ambition, hope and life. Knox Bhavan became involved, pro-bono, with the family soon after Fraser’s accident to help adapt the family home. The opportunity to develop a purpose-built home allowed Fraser to take his next step to independence.
The Little Big House, in a quiet lane, replaces a 1950s bungalow which Knox Bhavan concluded could not be retrofitted and adapted sufficiently to meet the requirements. The newbuild is a fulfilling and energy-efficient lifetime home made using modern methods of construction.
Budget constraints drove the design towards a prefabricated timber cassette system, developed in a partnership of Knox Bhavan, BlokBuild and Price & Myers, and produced by a bespoke digital pattern. That provided the efficiencies, minimal waste, speed of construction and high thermal performance. It has been combined with PVs for energy collection and air source heat pumps to supply the heating and cooling for the controlled environment that life changing injuries require. So far the expansive opening glazing and thermal performance seem to be enough not to need the cooling much.
The swooping roof creates a sheltered arrival point, specifically protecting Fraser from the weather and leading through the entrance gate into the first courtyard to the front door. The floorplan is orientated to suit the sun path and allows the central living space to straddle peaceful courtyard gardens on either side.
The external envelope reflects the overall design and offers the first evidence of design sensitivity throughout. The reflective aluminium roof soffit contrasts with walls clad in warm timber – technically challenging while creating a welcoming, highly functional sustainable home. The rainscreen cladding is larch, treated with SiOO:X to provide a natural barrier further protected by the extended eaves.
In its close relationship with the client, Knox Bhavan has understood the brief and requirements and sensitively implemented them to retain a sense of home while meeting everyday needs.
Clear vistas through and across the house give Fraser maximum visibility – impossible with a conventional cellular floorplan. From the art studio to the right of the hallway you can see into the kitchen, bedroom and garden beyond. A pocket door divides access as required to separate use and provide privacy. A discreet staircase allows carers up to first floor kitchenette and bedrooms, which is neatly tiered to gently overlook and add height above the central living hub.
The house is a masterclass in subtle accessible design, which only comes from a full absorption and understanding of the specific needs, avoiding institutional standard responses. Doorways are wide enough to allow wheelchair access and oversized pocket doors function as sliding walls, allowing flexibility, maximum manoeuvrability and freedom. Door handles, used by carers, are standard knobs. Flush detailed joinery conceals hoists that pull out onto what appear at first sight to be concealed lighting tracks, to be accessed only as needed but not left on display. Such features are sensitive to Fraser’s needs and those assisting him, without defining the aesthetic or overpowering the design.
Close attention has been paid to the location and design of the principal bedroom suite where Fraser spends a significant proportion of his time. The bathroom takes prominence on the corner with an expansive glazed corner into the garden that is a calm and serene space to start the day. Both spaces take advantage of the orientation to bring in light and connect to the garden.
The modest first floor adds two bedrooms to those on the ground floor, as well as a kitchenette and small dining/study space for guests and/or another carer. Once installed, the lift will connect the ground floor to this area, reflecting Fraser’s will to access every part of his home and always looking to the future.
This is a house for a positive man with an exciting life ahead. Its polished concrete floors and sliding glazed doors open the central kitchen and dining area to the courtyard and garden spaces either side, inviting – almost demanding – social interaction and life to enter. The material selections are not just clean and practical, but the aesthetic choices of a young man who wants to make a home with a bright future. The display case of colourful objects, at the threshold between public and private, embody the character of the owner which pervades the design. The layout is a meticulous translation of the client’s brief and requirements and a celebration of that day-to-day experience. It is filled with natural daylight and the double height central space feels bright and optimistic.
Fraser has been on an incredible journey and this house feels like the culmination of that experience; it embodies the hope, zest and drive that he has for life and living.
Rachel Coll is a director at Tigg Coll Architects
Total GIA 226m²
Predicted on-site renewable energy generation 6,400 kWhr/yr
Upfront carbon (cradle to practical completion A1-A5) 268KgCO2 eq/m²
Architect Knox Bhavan
Structural engineer Structure Workshop
Landscape designer AJG Design
Services engineer Paul Bastick Associates
Quantity surveyor Ian Thomson & Company
Contractor Philiam Construction
Timber frame engineer Price & Myers
Timber frame contractor BlokBuild