In the quiet of the Suffolk countryside a family home has been carved from the footprint of a farmstead and a Second World War hangar site. It has also inspired London-based Studio RHE to develop a new way to address the national housing shortage
Words by Cate St Hill
All Images – Dirk Lindner
Not far from the Suffolk coast, down a winding lane deep in flat, picturesque Constable country, sits Wood Farm, a minimal, rural retreat surrounded by gently rolling fields. From afar, the building’s series of black, pitched roofs may look like a cluster of traditional farm buildings, but on closer inspection the building’s clean lines, cantilevered roofs and glass-walled barns mark it out as an altogether more contemporary affair.
Designed by London-based Studio RHE as a family home for founder and director Richard Hywel Evans, Wood Farm is sited on the footprint of an old farmstead built in 1949, its original red bricks saved and reused to form the new wings of the house after it was demolished. Hywel Evans and his wife, artist Rachel Shaw Ashton, were visiting friends in the area when they fell in love with the small village of Iken and the surrounding, sinuous estuary of the River Alde. A rare, secluded site, once a turf farm, came up for sale and they snapped it up in a bidding war with another prospective buyer, also from London. ‘It’s in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and everyone said you won’t get planning. I love this idea that this collection of agricultural buildings were always here and it disguises this,’ says Hywel Evans. ‘We spent the whole summer meeting everyone and then we put in the planning application and it went straight through.
An elegant marble arch and glistening swimming pool references Studio RHE's work on exotic resorts
'I’m trying to get this hybrid nature,' continues Hywel Evans: 'it has this local vernacular, and the way that marries with these super modern lines that also have vernacular lines and shapes.'
Space for a lake was dug in the grounds, to create enough fill to raise the building 1.5m above the local area’s low-lying flood plain. Only a black, corrugated aircraft hangar, built by the Royal Engineers in the Second World War, and now a space for games and entertaining, remains of the original outbuildings.
Elements of the home frame views of the landscape
Through the glazed entrance that links the various scattered wings of the house, a propellor handmade of wicker references the building’s history. Here old fuses with new and various influences converge together; from the driveway at the front, the reclaimed red brick gives the appearance of an elegant country farmhouse, but step round the back, where the view unfolds to rich, unspoilt English countryside, and the building opens up to reference the luxury, far-flung resorts Studio RHE has become known for.
Half the house is dedicated to a large family wing, centred around an open kitchen and dining area looking on to a swimming pool, with a bedroom wing and studio space coming off of it. It’s divided from the guest wing, comprising three bedroom suites with their own kitchen and living area, currently used by Hywel Evans’ grown-up sons, by a huge copper door with an eccentric gun handle.
Large panels of glazing slide from the corners to merge the boundary between inside and out
From the glazed link entrance — a central axial point for the house — you get a view straight down the fields to a cluster of three old oak trees in front, as well as through the main living space to the swimming pool and greenery beyond to the right, and also into the hangar to the left, which has been punched through with a window to get a glimpse of a stream.
‘The thing we’re really embracing is landscape and planting, the important part of this thing settling into the land,’ explains Hywel Evans. The wings are arranged to create sheltered courtyards so you can always find a space out of the wind. A fire pit in the garden provides the perfect vantage point to watch the sunset, while the master bedroom, with a studio space above for Shaw Ashton, has the big, show-stopper view, taking in the sunrise every morning.
Flos lights hang among the wooden beams above the Bulthaup kitchen
The exterior, frameless glass walls of the main living space dissolve as you walk further from the entrance, opening at the corners to blur the boundaries between inside and out. The same wood-effect porcelain tile flooring carries outside, while rough, textured materials — black zinc and oak in the living space, corrugated iron in the guest loo — are seamlessly brought inside so you don’t know what’s internal and what’s external. ‘It’s a marriage of all these materials that I think are interesting and exciting. Actually the way they all intersect, and contrast and contradict, and live together, is great,’ says Hywel Evans.
Even the Kartell furniture outside has a cosy, domestic feel, with oversized lamps and generous outdoor sofas. A bright, marble-effect ‘Miesian’ arch, clad in porcelain tiles, projects over the deep-blue swimming pool, so suddenly it feels like you’re not in England at all. A waterfall cascades down the marble wall, which can be used to project films on to. Muses Hywel Evans: ‘One of my great heroes is Australian architect Glenn Murcutt and I worked in Australia when I left the Architectural Association. I learned so much from their way of working and embracing the vernacular.’
Material finishes on the soffits and walls are seamlessly brought in from outside
Back inside, the wooden, pitched ceilings — the rustic timber frame exposed in the kitchen and clad in wood in the living spaces — give a sense of volume and height. The Bulthaup kitchen is lit by an assembly of hanging Flos pendants. Says Hywel Evans: ‘One of the things we do as a practice is really think about ceiling lines. So often you’ll see a modern home with a flat, white ceiling with spotlights; it hasn’t been considered — what about the feeling of the space? If you said to someone our living room is 7m high, you’d think that’s ridiculous, but it has this familial feel.’
It is the same feeling that Hywel Evans is trying to capture in his new business venture. This personal passion project has given birth to another concept, a new modular housing brand, nHouse. Inspired by the lessons learned at Wood Farm, nHouse — ’n’ standing for new — is an offsite-constructed home that seeks to address the UK’s house-building crisis. It’s made of four CLT (cross laminated timber) modules delivered by lorry and lock together, taking just three days to assemble on site. The pitched roofed, open-plan homes can be detached or grouped together to form a terrace.
‘I set myself a target: can I build a 100 sq m house, three bedrooms, three bathrooms, for £195k?’ says Hywel Evans. ‘It’s the Grand Designs effect; no one wants to live in the same house as their parents, they want something different. You can buy a kit home and you can buy a HUF Haus that’s £900k, but there’s not much in the middle.’
The front entrance of the house presents a more traditional frontage, reusing the red bricks of the original farm buildings
In August the company reached its crowd-funding target of £500,000 on platform Crowdcube — a third of the investment needed — and is developing two prototypes, already with letters of intent for more than 1,000 homes. Potential buyers and developers will be able to customise designs with add-on extras and a kit of parts; different cladding materials, kitchens and gadgets such as smart locks and robot vacuum cleaners. ‘The analogy is building a car,’ concludes Hywel Evans. ‘The idea is that nHouse will become a brand that actually supplies these things as well.’
If nHouse manages to capture some of the best moments of Wood Farm — using form and proportion to create something lofty, airy and spacious, combining materials to fuse inside and out — then Hywel Evans is on to a winning formula.