Mike and Diane Smith thought their home of 40 years was forever, until the idea of a new-build project on the Dorset coast took hold
Between the beaches known as Steamer Point and Avon, near Christchurch on the Dorset coast, soars Friars Cliff, a property hot spot. It’s just the kind of place you might decide you want to retire to. That is exactly what Mike Smith, a retired oil-company executive, and his wife Diane, a one-time art history lecturer, have done – except that they are not exactly retiring types.
Not for them a cosy period villa; nor a uniform semi. When moving from their family home (Georgian, with a much-loved garden), they decided to invest in something they had always hankered after – a truly modern house. As practical people do, Mike and Diane drew up a list of musts. ‘We’re not getting any younger,’ says Mike, ‘so we wanted to be close to shops. We also wanted it to be low maintenance and heat efficient. Plus, we knew we needed four bedrooms for visiting family. It couldn't be too big for us to manage and it had to be child friendly as we have lots of grandchildren. We wanted plenty of light and we needed it to be designed so that one day, if it became necessary, we could live on just the ground floor.’
Having found their site, they got in touch with architect John Pardey. His practice won the Welsh RIBA Award in 2013. ‘We like his work,’ says Diane, ‘and our ideas aligned with his approach: nothing too purist, too hard or too show-offy.’ At their first meeting, the Smiths still didn’t describe a specific look, leaving that up to Pardey. ‘It was more that we outlined how we wanted to live,’ says Diane.
From Pardey’s perspective, the first meeting with clients is critical. ‘I like to meet them in their current home,’ he says, ‘because it tells me so much about who they are.’ He started with the idea of building an inner courtyard. ‘This,’ he explains, ‘allowed a living space that would benefit from light coming in from the north, while gaining sun from the south, too.’
The lower storey wraps around the contained courtyard, which provides a Zen-like place of calm for the family to relax in. On warm days, glazed doors in the living room can open up into the space, creating an indoor-outdoor room. The house has been created with a low, wide base, with a lighter, floating box above it set back a little from the ground floor print. The base is clad in an insulated, self-cleaning, white acrylic render system that blends into the local vernacular. 'The colour picks up on the seaside vocabulary of nearby white buildings,’ says Pardey.
Covered in warm red cedar, the upper storey overhangs the southern part of the courtyard, providing shade to the living spaces. The front is crisp, with hints of the abstract Twenties-Thirties international style, while the back two-storey section is more Scandinavian calm meets Case Study House – both of which have been big influences for Pardey. ‘I look to the modern past,’ he explains. The Case Study Houses were constructed between 1945 and 1966 in Los Angeles, in a concept that came from John Entenza, the contemporary editor of Arts & Architecture magazine.
With the aim of redesigning the modern home, Etenza commissioned the best architectural talents of the time – including Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen – to create 36 designs for homes that could be easily and economically built. ‘Steel and timber were the materials of choice,’ says Pardey. ‘It was all about the steel frame; and this is what I used here.’
With planning permission in place (a smooth process, thanks to recent approval of other modern houses close by) the build began, and took just under a year. Just as Pardey had planned, the completed form of the house is very open. From the front lobby, a service corridor runs towards the kitchen, with the courtyard lying along one side, surrounded by glazing that floods the space with light.
To the other side lie useful spaces: a boot room, WC, pantry and utility. The corridor has the same floor tiling as the courtyard and the open-plan kitchen, dining and living room at the back, giving the whole space a unified feel. A pale oak staircase rises from the dining area, with thick birch-ply bookcases at the top. A row of narrow windows beneath the shelves give a view of the garden as you climb.
At the top of the stairs hangs a Muranochandelier, purchased on Diane and Mike’s honeymoon. ‘We weren’t sure if it would work in this house,’ Mike says, ‘We’ve had to lose a few old pieces, but it has been revealing how others, such as our Arne Jacobsen and Gio Ponti chairs, have blended in so well.’ It’s that blend that makes this house work so well. Inside, its long interior views always lead towards light.
With the absence of skirting boards, the floors and walls join together seamlessly. From the outside, the house is so different from its neighbours that some might say that that’s where the blending ends. ‘Some say a spaceship has landed,’ says Mike. ‘Modernism isn't for everyone.’
But many stop to look at the house. ‘Everyone has an opinion on it,’ Diane says, ‘so we always invite them inside. They all say the same thing: “Wow”.’
To read the full article, pick up the January/February 2017 issue of The Selfbuilder, out on January 2nd 2017.