“Yesterday I climbed the hill and became aware of my endurance through a battle between my will and the slope. I stopped and paused. Today I walked down the same hill and by instinct I paused at the same spot. When the place of natural repose is the same as mans repose, the hill is marked by the dimension of man. Here is where the house will be erected.” Sverre Fehn The Thought of Construction
How do we choose to touch the earth with our massive constructions of masonry, timber, stone and steel that we call homes?
As a building designer, I have addressed this question over the course of my professional career for more than 35 years. Termed as “biophilic design” this kind of approach speaks about architecture and design with a reverence for nature.
What is a hill? Nature and place and building sites are seldom flat and level in the part of the UK where I live. There are hills. Hills in wooded areas and hills by the seaside and hills in the cities. Hills have a base and sometimes they plateau or have a ridge or a peak. Hills have a relationship with the sky, the sun and the wind and the horizon and the trees and plants and animals that inhabit their different orientations and configurations. Hills generally have paths that lead from top to bottom.
What is land-fall? Land-fall is a way to think about hills and architecture. Its about thinking about our place on the hill, our physical and mental (and for some spiritual) feelings about walking up a hill, pausing and resting on a hill or looking out towards the sky and horizon. Its also about considering how we choose to build our homes or other structures in this kind of setting.
Here are three projects that are close to my heart and demonstrate three different attitudes about the hill and about landfall.
Extension to a small terrace house in Cornwall:
The project was an existing Victorian terrace house that backed up against a steep hill and very long and thin garden that the Clients loved though had a difficult access to. The Clients were looking for a way to better utilize their sunken garden and to reconnect with the hill and long garden behind their house.
From a visitor’s perspective the design works a s follows:
Entering the house the visitor arrives at an existing staircase. From the bottom the staircase the visitor looks up to the landing. The landing has doors which lead out onto a deck and from there the stair continues merging with the landscape and up the hill. From the entrance there is a clear visual connection connecting the stairs of the house with the stairs on the hill.
2. Continuing past the stair through a hall leads the visitor to a garden bath (below
the new deck above). A timber privacy screen has been built at the terrace
boundary providing a private garden space for the owners. The bath is located next
to a concertina window overlooking a planter. In the summertime it can be opened
and become part of the garden and the act of bathing is back to nature with fresh air
Extension to a small detached house in the suburbs:
The project was an existing detached two-bedroom house in a suburban setting that backed up against a gently downward sloping, long and thin garden. The house had been constructed on a plinth at the rearwith an elevated terrace that isolated the house from the garden. The Clients were looking for a better way to connect the house to the garden using natural materials, a better flow at ground floor level and additional bathrooms and master bedroom at first floor level. From a visitor’s perspective the design works a s follows:
Entering the house the visitor arrives at the vestibule. From the vestibule there is a view through the kitchen and lounge connecting with the garden. Looking at the section, the slope of the existing hill is brought inside the house with a set of stairs located at the junction of the existing house and the extension. Stepping the floor level down at the new lounge level increases the ceiling level and prominence of this space and its connection with the garden.
Looking at the plan and the section an expansive open plan space has been created by the removal of the walls between the kitchen and the lounge and the dining room. Sitting in the lounge the visitor can look up to the kitchen and dining room spaces or out to the garden terrace which steps down to the lawn. All three platforms focus on the garden.
The project is clad in larch timber with window openings that are placed for light and views.
New house on a river in Devon:
This last project was for a new detached home overlooking a river in Devon on a challenging and steeply sloping site. The brief included looking for ways to connect the house with the garden and as well to integrate a small swimming pool into the design.
From a visitor’s perspective the design works a s follows:
The house is located part way up the hill and not at the top of the site.
The house provides a straight line, a kind of datum which underneath, the hill and landscape flow below.
Looking at the section, upon arrival from the entrance vestibule, visitors have a clear sightline to the elevated garden above. The house forms a courtyard shape around this garden.
The swimming pool connects with the river below both by its positioning and as well the minimum detailing allowing the outside in.
To sum up, when we consider land-fall and placing new homes or extensions on sloping sites in our office, we think about:
Positioning the house and forming the house with sensitivity to its natural surroundings and place.
The sky makes a room when experienced from a deck or a platform. We think of it as the design saying “yes to the sky”, “yes to the horizon” and “yes to the hill”!
Considering how the building meets the ground and touches the sky and turns a corner.
Believing that architecture is primal and for the spirit and inextricably tied to the landscape and the nature that surrounds it. The recent trend in green architecture has decreased the environmental impact of the built environment, but it has accomplished little in the way of reconnecting us to the natural world, the missing piece in the puzzle of sustainable development.