The project is for the construction of a new 800 m2 house on an enclosed back-land site in Notting Hill, London, for a family of two academics and their two children. The clients had previously lived in typical London vertical town houses of up to five stories, and wanted the house to be connected and interactive by being more horizontal. The brief required a very private house for the family to live and work in, a suite of living rooms, a kitchen, two studies, a library, dining room, chapel, five bedrooms and bathrooms, a swimming pool, courtyard gardens, garage, wine cellar, laundry rooms and plant rooms.
We worked for over a year with the client to find the plot of land which with the restrictive planning laws in the UK would allow a contemporary structure to be built. We had experience of working with back-land sites (essentially redundant factories or warehouses in residential areas) in London, and concentrated on these in our search. The site we eventually found was ideal as the planners would only allow a single house on the site and was very well located in an area well known to the clients. However as is typical of back land sites, there were problems of access, overlooking and overshadowing to overcome, as well as a requirement for fourteen different party awards with neighbouring owners.
Traditional design processes tend to start with the design, then evaluate their success. This will often lead to inaccurate assumptions and is prone to preconceived thinking. We realised very early on in the design process that this site was intrinsically linked to the surroundings by daylight, sunlight and view criteria which change throughout the seasons, and these dominated the design approach. Our aim was to attempt to avoid falling into ‘default’ solutions to this design problem through a process of detailed analysis of site and brief prior to any design phase. Following earlier research work carried out at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London into computationally generated solar form, which is inspired by the morphogenetic processes of nature, we have built computational models that, through a ‘generate and simulate’ cycle, are able to explore the space and optimise potential proposals.
The orientation of the site runs almost east-west, and looks towards the more open sides of the site to the south. However, the site is heavily overlooked and overshadowed on the south and west elevations and it was critical to maintain privacy, whilst optimising daylight and sunlight penetration into the house, as cultural opacity in the UK demands sun and daylight to enter the site, to be redistributed, to be contained, and to change perceptions about life in London.
We were trying to create an architecture of local adaptation. We defined a general framework that held everything together (not physically; more visually), but that also allowed everything to change depending on the local as well as the global environment. Our framework ended up being a 3d grid which itself became adapted to the local and global environment – the grid spacing, the angle of the roof, etc.
Our starting point therefore was to represent the empty volume of the site as a three dimensional grid of voxel data points (3d pixels) each consisting of a range of varying attributes. Working with the environmental engineers, Arup, a detailed environmental analysis for each individual voxel on the site was carried out. This analysis produced a database of solar and daylight conditions throughout the year, taking into account weather patterns specific to London. Such environmental data is large and complex and therefore the computer becomes an ideal tool for hypothesising and extrapolating possible proposals. Database mining software tools for the extraction of generalised conditions and conclusions from the environmental data were developed by ourselves, as well as a number of visualization tools to understand the data more fully. Some critical discoveries were made during this period which greatly influenced the final form of the house.
Subsequently, the client’s preferences and lifestyle were superimposed onto this environmental data. This led to the emergence of a project that was tuned to both the three dimensional environmental conditions and the brief. The section became inverted, placing the bedrooms on the ground floor and the living spaces on the first floor, essentially a double height ‘piano nobile’. The inward looking nature of the site in conjunction with the inverted section led to the development of a completely glazed ‘sky facade’ roof to the house. This ‘sky facade’, the only visible facade, was seen as an environmental moderator, filtering sunlight and daylight through layers of transparency and opacity. Three different densities of fritting were allocated to the roof panels according to criteria from the rooms below. Solar optimised terraces and gardens created internal courtyard volumes into which the surrounding spaces face.
Photo © Helene Binet.