Gruff magic in Yorkshire

Words:
George Grylls

Understated from the outside, Tonkin Liu’s Old Shed, New House is a masterclass in curation of daylight – and winner of 2018's Stephen Lawrence Prize

Subtle changes in the stacking of the larch create an understated rhythm.
Subtle changes in the stacking of the larch create an understated rhythm. Credit: Greg Storrar

There is something particularly special about Yorkshire light. It rakes colour from landscapes that seem to harbour none and uplifts in a way that David Hockney can only aspire to capture in paint.

So it was disappointing that on the day of my visit to Old Shed New House, gruff and surly, Yorkshire decided to cloud itself in a foul grey. Throughout the afternoon it grew darker and darker until the rain finally appeared in the form of an apocalyptic downpour on the A1. All credit then to Tonkin Liu’s unprepossessing three-bedroom house which, despite the weather, presented a supreme lesson in the curation of daylight, as the project’s signature library positively beamed colour back into the gloom-shrouded countryside. The brief from the clients was for an affordable and comfortable house, whose architecture would emphasise the retired couple’s collection of artworks and books. Knowing the area from family holidays, they bought some land on the edge of a North Yorkshire village with access to shops and services but sufficiently removed to allow a feeling of bucolic seclusion. The project’s aesthetic was borrowed from two elements on the site: a copse of silver birches and the eponymous agricultural shed.

The form itself is deliberately unremarkable, recalling the functional vernacular of the previous structure. Exposed steel fins speak of a rugged unpretentiousness, while a black chimney pipe is allowed to impinge on the otherwise pure facade of shot-blasted larch. ‘We wanted to keep it no-nonsense,’ remarks Mike Tonkin, ‘it’s not trying anything.’ Yet the subtlety throws up great serendipity. The flutterings of silver and grey that run across the wood are supposed to echo the birches, but look closely under the rolling Yorkshire skies and you will also see soft smatterings of purple and blue.

Tonkin Liu’s supreme achievement here is to concentrate the limited budget on the creation of two exceptional spaces. The first, opened up at each end by two-storey windows, is a double-height axial corridor running from east to west, cleaving the house dramatically in two. It is as if Moses himself had sectioned the shed based on his experience designing a safe passage through the Red Sea. As you approach up a very slight slope, you feel as if you could continue walking right through the very heart of the building without deviating. Yet, contrary to expectation, you do not enter straight ahead, but through a little door nestled on its thinner side. It might have been nice to crown this corridor with a main entrance, but given that the kitchen counter at the distant western end of the perspective is nicknamed ‘the altar’, perhaps that whole experience would have felt a little too sacrificial.

Tonkin Liu’s supreme achievement is to concentrate the budget on two exceptional spaces

The gently sloping approach affords a stark view through the entirety of the project.
The gently sloping approach affords a stark view through the entirety of the project. Credit: Greg Storrar

The project’s pride and joy is undoubtedly the other double-height space: a library so beautiful that it really does elicit an envious gasp. No wonder everyone gathers in this kaleido­scopic room, the changing colours conjured by the fickle hand of the Yorkshire sky. The outside comes streaming in and the house comes out to meet it with a canti­levered pergola. ‘You feel like the outside is always part of the house,’ says the client, ‘even in winter.’

Light is what makes this room so special. On the library’s ceiling an interlocking grid dapples the sun down from the lightwells, recalling the clearings in the aforementioned birch copse; in keeping with the building’s Passivhaus commitment, the louvres along the south-facing glass wall are variously angled to repel glare on the hottest days of the year, but streak low bands of light in the winter months; and mirrors, mirrors and mirrors cover the bookshelves, reflecting back a Soanian depth of space that belies the library’s small footprint. In stacking the shelves, the idea of curating by colour of cover was rightly rejected in favour of a more practical organisation by author name, and the unintended effect is of measured polychromy. Nothing about this house is overbearingly insistent.

 

The library is so beautiful that it really does elicit an envious gasp

  • An open-plan dining room feeds off the central hallway and living room.
    An open-plan dining room feeds off the central hallway and living room. Credit: Greg Storrar
  • Door frames are painted white in an otherwise grey house as a way of harmonising with the paintings.
    Door frames are painted white in an otherwise grey house as a way of harmonising with the paintings. Credit: Greg Storrar
  • Windows and skylights abound in the impressive double-height hallway.
    Windows and skylights abound in the impressive double-height hallway. Credit: Greg Storrar
  • To access the upstairs bedrooms, you cross the library’s dazzling mezzanine.
    To access the upstairs bedrooms, you cross the library’s dazzling mezzanine. Credit: Greg Storrar
  • The bedrooms are functionally arranged to maximise storage space.
    The bedrooms are functionally arranged to maximise storage space. Credit: Greg Storrar
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The bedrooms of Old Shed, New House have been simply organised on the second floor to accommodate the grand gestures of the hallway and the library. Their triple-glazed windows are small so that ginormous coverings of glass can be afforded elsewhere without compromising the building’s ability to insulate effectively. In a way, the simplicity of the bedrooms does not matter. To reach them you cross an 80mm thick bridge across the hallway, and wander over the mezzanine level of that magnificent ­library. Old Shed, New House never lets you forget where its priorities lie.

It also never lets you forget the scenery. Windows are deliberately placed to open up perspectives onto select patches of countryside, providing ever-changing sources of comparison with the impressive collection of paintings, which are hung with a rhythmic syncopation all the way up the double-height walls of the hallway. ‘The windows onto views become further paintings,’ explains Mike Tonkin. Lo and behold, a rabbit in the neighbouring field positions itself flirtatiously in the frame, only to be replaced by a Stubbs horse a moment later. And the trees that fringe the southern side will sway with all the picturesque gait of a Hockney painting, and presumably, on a good day, with all the colour.


In numbers

210m² gross internal area

11.39kg/m² annual CO2 emissions

 

Credits

Architect Tonkin Liu
Client Private
Structural engineer Rodrigues Associates
Services Integration
Main contractor Vine House Construction

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