Build­ing mod­ern art in stone

The Daily Telegraph - Property - - Front Page -

If you want to build a home that has a sense of im­mor­tal­ity about it, build it in stone. From the Parthenon to St Paul’s, to the hum­blest coun­try cot­tage, it stands for so­lid­ity and au­then­tic­ity. Some cities or re­gions have such a strong as­so­ci­a­tion with a par­tic­u­lar stone that it’s al­most used as a short­hand for its en­tire char­ac­ter: what would the Cotswolds be with­out its golden lime­stone? Or Glas­gow with­out its rus­set red sand­stone ten­e­ments?

“Stone gives a sense of qual­ity, time­less­ness and per­ma­nence,” says ar­chi­tect Thomas Griem. “Its rel­a­tive weight sug­gests im­mov­abil­ity. The na­ture of the ma­te­rial, be­ing formed over mil­len­nia, means it car­ries a record of where it comes from – a his­tory dis­played in its for­ma­tions.”

Thanks to mod­ern build­ing reg­u­la­tions that re­quire homes to be highly in­su­lated, you are in fact more likely to use stone as cladding than as a load­bear­ing ma­te­rial. Ar­chi­tects are find­ing ex­cit­ing ways to build us­ing stone, merg­ing tra­di­tional, lo­cal ma­te­ri­als with mod­ern de­sign.

CaSA Ar­chi­tects re­cently com­pleted a project on the fringes of Bath that is a re­fined ex­am­ple of a mod­ern stone home. It com­bines stone in two for­mats: smooth ash­lar blocks (large, square­cut stones), and ir­reg­u­lar dry-walling, with a zinc-clad up­per storey. The house sits very well with its honey-col- oured neigh­bours, yet stands out for its crisp out­lines and swathes of glass. The stone acts al­most like a bridge be­tween the tra­di­tional char­ac­ter of the area and the mod­ern.

The dry-stone walls have that char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally ef­fort­less look about them, but to achieve this art­less im­per­fec­tion is not easy. Sam­ple pan­els were made up and ap­proved be­fore the work be­gan, so that there was an agreed fin­ished look. “It is im­por­tant to min­imise the num­ber of peo­ple lay­ing stone, par­tic­u­larly when us­ing walling stone,” says project ar­chi­tect Adrian BilesWood. “Dif­fer­ent peo­ple can lay it slightly dif­fer­ently, which varies the over­all ap­pear­ance – sim­i­lar to the vari­a­tion in peo­ple’s hand­writ­ing.”

De­spite the stone be­ing lo­cally sourced from a quarry in Tet­bury, Biles-Wood says that stone is one of the most ex­pen­sive com­monly-used build­ing ma­te­ri­als, due to the cost of quar­ry­ing, cut­ting and trans­port­ing it, as well as the on-site labour. How­ever, there can be cre­ative so­lu­tions that in­cor­po­rate less of it. “Some­times clients have to make dif­fi­cult de­ci­sions to bal­ance qual­ity and cost. This can be man­aged by the use of nat­u­ral stone in the key ar­eas, sup­ple­mented by al­ter­na­tives such as ren­der in the less im­por­tant ar­eas,” says Biles-Wood.

This less-is-more ef­fect was em­ployed by ar­chi­tects Maw­sonKerr for Shawm House, a prop­erty in Northum­ber­land. It is mostly tim­ber clad, but one gable end sits ad­ja­cent to an old stone wall, where a dry-stone waller was em­ployed to cre­ate a rus­tic-look­ing fa­cade. The wall is not a true dry stone; in­stead the mor­tar joint is set deeper, so it is less no­tice­able, with the gaps cast­ing shad­ows that change with the time of day. Us­ing lo­cal, ver­nac­u­lar ma­te­ri­als is nearly al­ways a win­ner with plan­ning de­part­ments, and self-builders like it too – peo­ple want to use some­thing lo­cal, but in re­al­ity there’s not much chance to do so. There’s a sus­tain­abil­ity ar­gu­ment too, since true eco-builders now want their ma­te­ri­als to have a “low em­bod­ied en­ergy”, which means ex­pend­ing as lit­tle en­ergy as pos­si­ble in their man­u­fac­ture and trans­porta­tion.

That can def­i­nitely be said about the Jer­sey gran­ite used by Hud­son Ar­chi­tects for Le Petit Fort, which has been re­claimed from the build­ing that stood on the site pre­vi­ously. The land over­looks the sea on Jer­sey’s west coast, and al­ready had a long wall, built in the Twen­ties. Ar­chi­tect An­thony Hud­son de­scribes it as “a folly with bat­tle­ments and ar­row-slits”. Hud­son’s idea was to build, at the house’s cen­tre, a square gran­ite tower that was en­vis­aged as a cas­tle keep, to com­ple­ment the cur­tain wall.

“Gran­ite is an in­ter­est­ing ma­te­rial. When it’s first quar­ried, it’s of­ten much pinker, and it ox­i­dises as it weath­ers. We wanted it to have that weath­ered feel, so it made sense to re­use as much as pos­si­ble,” says Hud­son. “As it weath­ers it also picks up mosses and lichens, which give it a slightly green­ish tinge and add to the beauty of it.”

Ar­chi­tect Cas­sion Cas­tle has a sim­i­lar ma­te­rial ap­pre­ci­a­tion for knapped flint, which he used for the Suf­folk house that he de­signed for his brother. The ground floor is cov­ered in flint, set into grey lime mor­tar, with a se­cond storey of black tim­ber.

“Up close, it’s lovely – brown, white, blue and grey. It al­most feels like scales,” he says. “There’s some­thing very en­rich­ing about en­gag­ing with a ma­te­rial that’s hasn’t come from a fac­tory.”

Flint gar­den walls were part of the lo­cal ver­nac­u­lar. It was up to Cas­tle to de­vise his own rules of how to lay one out.

“It’s very labour in­ten­sive, so the temp­ta­tion is to spread out the flint so that the mor­tar joints get big­ger. But the closer to­gether it is, the nicer look­ing it is,” he says. “I spec­i­fied the mor­tar gaps with the con­trac­tor, but I still had to con­demn a few pan­els that weren’t right. It turned out that all the pan­els I liked were by one par­tic­u­lar guy, so he and his mate ended up do­ing the rest.” A cou­ple of square me­tres can be done in a day, at a cost of £250 per square me­tre. “It’s prob­a­bly the most ex­trav­a­gant ele­ment of the house.”

Stone is also be­ing used as the defin­ing ma­te­rial for some in­cred­i­ble in­te­ri­ors – es­pe­cially for stair­cases – mak­ing a bold sculp­tural state­ment.

Jamie Fobert Ar­chi­tects cre­ated a sweep­ing ex­am­ple with a long, sin­u­ous balustrade in a rare sil­ver­grey traver­tine, a kind of lime­stone found near min- eral springs, for a project in west Lon­don. It looks mono­lithic, carved from a sin­gle block, but was in fact in­stalled three steps at a time, with the stri­ated pat­tern of the mar­ble closely matched to hide the joins.

Ar­chi­tect Amin Taha also worked with traver­tine to build a more com­pact stair­case for the re­fur­bish­ment of a Bayswa­ter town­house. With a balustrade made from spi­ralling brass bars run­ning up through the build­ing like a vor­tex, the stair­case’s sof­fit, or un­der­side, has been roughly tooled to look as if it came straight from the quarry, pro­vid­ing max­i­mum con­trast with the smoothly honed treads.

What’s next for stone? Taha is spear­head­ing a move­ment to bring it back as a load-bear­ing ma­te­rial, us­ing solid stone col­umns and lin­tels in­stead of con­crete and steel to build an of­fice block in Lon­don’s Clerken­well. On Kent’s North Downs, Cas­sion Cas­tle is work­ing on a new house made from a stone that seems im­prob­a­ble as a build­ing ma­te­rial. It will be made from chalk, which will be pul­verised, mixed with a lit­tle wa­ter and lime, and pressed into form­work. It ticks the box for “low em­bod­ied en­ergy”, since the chalk will be ex­tracted on site.

“It’s chalky grass­land, and we wanted to cre­ate some­thing that felt of its place, nes­tled into the land­scape,” says Cas­tle.

“There are chalk build­ings still around from the 19th cen­tury, but the chalk isn’t ex­posed on the out­side, so ours will be an in­no­va­tion. Mois­ture is the enemy, ob­vi­ously, so you have to stop ris­ing damp and have big over­hangs to pre­vent the rain soak­ing in too much. But it’s to­tally achiev­able.”

Thomas Griem’s work at Berke­ley Homes’ San­dring­ham House, main; Hud­son Ar­chi­tects’ Le Petit Fort in Jer­sey, below

Amin Taha’s stair­case in Bayswa­ter

A house by Cas­sion Cas­tle in Suf­folk with flint and tim­ber

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