A modern French home

Vicky Thornton's decidedly modern home was designed to blend perfectly with its rural surroundings, while maximising the views


Petit Bayle, France, is the location of architect Vicky Thornton's home and there's been a real effort to make it part of its locality. This dramatic building, like an irregular wooden box on top of a bed of stone, is made from regional materials as far as possible and was built by local people. Its exterior is uncompromisingly modern. Indeed, when the lights are on at night, it's almost space age. Its roof is shaped like a valley, with large futuristic flanges on either side of the signature balcony. But the ground floor is made of the local stone, recycled from a nearby house, the chestnut cladding comes from the Dordogne region, and the roof is planted, so that you won't even be able to see the property on Google Earth. 'It's a wonderful area,' says Vicky, who spends her French days making ceramics and cycling around its lanes. 'There's always a market on somewhere, whatever day of the week.' She knew the site from old as her parents had a house next door; a historic property made of local stone. 'I always noticed that their house was very good in terms of thermal control,' she says. 'It's cool in summer which is a big thing here as it gets so hot.'

build 1

IAn adjacent spare parcel of land offered the chance to build, so Vicky designed the three-bedroom property on two storeys, the bottom one stone, the first floor mainly wood, with plans to harness the strong southern sun by way of solar thermal panels installed on the wing-like roof. She included three terraces, to connect the indoor and outdoor spaces; to make the wider environment as much a part of the design as the house itself. As she wanted the house to be as sustainable as possible, Vicky installed various capturing devices. 'There are two storage tanks for water, to flush the toilets and irrigate the garden and green roof,' she says, and the solar thermal panels on the roof go down to a collector to fire the hot water and potentially also the underfloor heating (which she augments with an efficient woodburning stove). The heating isn't actually needed too much: 'It's very well insulated and the solar control is done via the shutters.' The oak-framed windows, made by a local craftsman, are designed specifically to accentuate the views, to the extent that the reveals of the lower level windows have been chamfered to – as Vicky puts it – 'scoop the view into the frame.'

build 2

Inside, the mood is functional but warm, and one notable aspect is that Petit Bayle is what Vicky calls a finish-free zone. Nothing is painted, she has minimised the maintenance by using self-finished materials. The walls upstairs are made of OSB – oriented strand board – a material usually used for hoardings. 'It suits the character of the house.' The flooring throughout is polished screed, and the joinery is in phenolic (resincovered) ply – again, self-finished in a purplebrown colour. 'You often see white spaces full of timber furniture,' she says. 'This is an inversion of that idea: the furniture is white and the walls are darker.' The only exceptions are in the bedroom, where the OSB is painted white for calmness' sake; and on the doors, painted a strong yellow throughout. Elsewhere, the interior tries not to upstage the views. The lighting is concealed in wall voids or is in standard lamps, and Vicky has tried to keep the furniture to a minimum.

Petit Bayle is not yet complete; one day, Vicky will install a ground source heat pump. There's already a place for it, just as there's a site for a natural swimming pool and an orchard. And she also plans to put a kiln in the house – as well as being an architect, Vicky is also a potter – some of her work can be seen on the shelves. Meanwhile, she's content just to sit in her living room and enjoy her tremendous gallery of views.

Architect Thornton in association with Jef Smith of Meld Architecture (020 7490 5249; meldarchitecture.com)

Alan, who’s a tutor at Queen’s University in Belfast, has been studding the local landscape with modern buildings since returning to Ireland from London with his family in the late Nineties. He bought this plot for £55,000 and spent the next two years, and £250,000, creating what can only be described as an architectural anomaly. As fellow architect and friend Patrick Lynch says, ‘It’s completely bonkers.’ The house hovers, dark and menacing, over the landscape. Its arrow-slit windows and jagged profile conjure up thoughts of armour, battles and even Darth Vader. Despite this apparent nonconformity, it also sits comfortably within its landscape; at night, it almost disappears. ‘In scale it matches the front elevation of the neighbouring Masonic hall,’ says Alan, ‘while the form, with its pitched roof and gable presented to the road, follows local traditions.’

The graphite-blue fibre-cement tiles that clad the exterior are indigenous to the area, appearing on a number of pub extensions and a police station in Belfast. ‘I was impressed with the way the material dappled with age,’ says Alan. ‘Our tiles have only a 10-year guarantee. We could repaint, but I like the idea of them fading, as if the building will shed its darkness as it becomes more accepted within the community.’ The house has the air of an impenetrable fortress yet, in common with many of Alan’s projects, there is a complete contrast between the exterior and interior. Stepping from the porch through the large glass front door, you are struck by the light, airy and playful interior. The ground floor consists of a large open space, roughly dissected into a formal living room, dining room, kitchen and TV area. The room partitions vary in height and angle, allowing views through the entire length of the interior and also providing blind spots for privacy. If the communal aspect gets too much, the TV area can be completely shut off from the kitchen, thanks to discreet built-in doors. ‘Spatially, my work has become a lot less formal since my days in London,’ says Alan. ‘The spaces were very precise, whereas here it’s as if you’ve taken the architectural tray and given it a good shake.’


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