Wednesday23 July 2014

Pitman Tozer Architects’ lean, green sliver of a house in west London

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Architect Luke Tozer did not stint when designing his own house to strict environmental standards on the very narrowest of sites

Just how tough on themselves do architects have to be? The site of Luke Tozer’s house, designed for his own use, is 2.4m wide and in a west London conservation area. Three of his neighbours are powerful members of the local residents’ association, while another, with whom he shares a party wall, is a busy, noisy pool hall.

But that’s not enough: the house had to have as low a carbon footprint as feasible. But setting yourself hard tasks has never provided an excuse for failure: you have to make it all work, and Tozer has come out of it all with a beautifully planned and built house — a tour de force of the architect’s skills.

The site was split off from its host villa many years ago for the construction of a small cottage at the end of the garden. This has produced an L-shaped plan for the house: the 2.4m section, formerly the side passage, runs into the rear half of the villa’s garden, which spans the site’s full width.

The narrow part of the site is essentially a variety of terrace house, rooms front and back with a staircase across the middle. Entry is at lower ground level and leads straight through to the wide kitchen and living spaces at the heart of the site. The shape and awkwardness of the site are reminiscent of Caruso St John’s Brick House, but the aims are different. Where the Brick House sets out with a Lewerentzian discipline to brickwork, the Tozer house is relentless in the pursuit of minimising carbon emissions.

The four-storey staircase acts as a stack for passive ventilation in hot weather

Three 50m-deep boreholes generate the 12kW required for all heating — underfloor throughout — and domestic hot water. Walls are lambswool-insulated, external walls Sto-rendered, with high performance glazing. The U-value for walls and roofs is a commendable 0.15W/m2K, making those of us shovelling fuel into Victorian houses green with envy. Beneath the paved patio sits a rainwater storage tank, from which water is drawn to serve the loos. Photovoltaics would have covered the roof, but strong objections were made on visual grounds, and this proved a fight too far. The staircase, running through four storeys and acting as a stack for passive ventilation in hot weather, was prefabricated by Tin Tab in Sussex from laminated board — from a sustainable source, naturally.

All this technology was new to Tozer, who worked with Arup on the feasibility study and Richard Pearce for the design. As with other aspects of the project, Tozer felt that his own enthusiasm and application would compensate for his initial ignorance, and he proved to be right.

He was generous enough to extend this belief to his choice of main contractor. Nathan Brown had only just set up on his own when he was given the contract. Faith in his commitment was rewarded with excellent build quality and management skills that brought the project in on time and within budget. One dodge used on this heavily restricted plot was a site office on wheels, moved about as required to allow efficient access and materials storage.

The current preoccupation with green technology has replaced an earlier generation’s striving to emulate aesthetic exemplars. The result is something closer to conceptual than to conventional art: the consequences are often invisible, generally subtle, so that one needs a crib sheet to “read” the design. The system of values it represents is, in the spirit of modernism, ethical — but with the difference that it is quantifiable. And it can be a restless kind of beauty. The availability of cheap wireless energy consumption monitors means that one can sit anywhere in the house and feel smug or fret about just how much energy it is consuming at any given moment.

When a building’s beauty is its efficiency, things are harder to express

If this is a tendency towards a new brand of functionalism, it is one which as yet lacks a formal language of expression. Who knows if one will be developed? When the beauty is in the pipework, you bring the pipes to the fore, and when the beauty is organisational, you make external and internal volumes correspond. When the beauty is efficiency, things are harder to express and tend towards the evanescent: the frost on a well insulated roof lasts well after its profligate neighbours’ roofs are wet with meltwater — the fact is always there, its expression is fleeting but it is on the very borders of intention and artifice.

Externally governed

Conventional aesthetic issues are here, too, externally governed by the coercive nature of our planning system. To Tozer’s initial proposal of a “black” facade to maintain conceptually and visually the gap between houses, the locals countered with a demand for “something traditional” — something old! The result is a compromise, but one that works pretty well. In a nice touch, using the fact that the front skin is a rainscreen, internal rooms are vented not through window frames but rather through the screen’s cavity.

Back at the fat part of the site, the living room can be opened up to form a unified space with the patio, making a space that goes from one storey to two and up to the sky. Interior spaces are unified by the conventional technique of white walls and minimal detailing, all of which is well executed. While not overly ambitious in terms of aesthetic programme, it is a perfectly civilised way to package what is a remarkable achievement of political persuasion and technical courage.


Architect Pitman Tozer Architects, M&E engineer Arup (feasibility only); Richard Pearce & Associates, Structural engineer Richard Tant Associates, Party wall surveyor Dunphy & Hayes, Main contractor Brownstone


Heat pump Geothermal International, Rainwater harvesting system Envireau, Staircase Tin Tab, Windows Seufert Niklaus, Sliding doors Alco Beldan


Readers' comments (3)

  • The fact that the neighbours are complaining like crazy about the owners wish to put pv panels on the roof, whilst parking their range rovers outside, tells us more about greed and selfishness than we would perhaps like to hear. We need legislation that favours PV and solar water heating panel installation on roofs. Something that requires strong justification for preventing it. it is after all FREE zero-carbon energy!

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  • Both online and in the newspaper, have you accidentally replaced the first floor plan with another third floor plan?

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  • I am currently about to start on site a similar sized private residential scheme with very green credentials and would be interested in contacting the main contractor on this project. You mention at the top of the text that it is Brownstone but suggest it is Nathan Brown within the text. Can you clarify who were in fact the main contractors and how I may get in touch with them. Thanks, Beth

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