Carl Turner

Related Project:
Frame House

Ioana Marinescu

This was the first free-standing new building produced by our studio and came about through a friendship. I first got to know Simon and Sarah through my wife Mary and the four of us soon became friends. Cassion and I had recently gone our separate ways and, as Mary and I shared dinner one night with Simon and Sarah, their project became the incentive to establish Carl Turner Architects.

Simon and Sarah lived ( and Simon worked) in a converted industrial building almost opposite the eventual site of the house, and had bought the site a number of years earlier. It was a small L-shaped parcel of land tucked behind a pub and, although it already ahd planning consent for a four-storey house, Simon and Sarah were worried that at only 4.5 meters wide at the front, it was too narrow to create a good home.

The brief was to create a two bedroom home with garage, and we took the existing approved planning scheme as a starting point because its general approach seemed logical. The site was deep but narrow, and only had light available from the front elevation. With a bit more work, it was possible to bring light in through the roof or through a rear courtyard at the upper level.

The diagram thus arranged itself as an inverted house, with living space on the top two floors connected to a roof terrace and bedroom on the first floor with garage and utility space at ground level. As a four-storey building is deemed ‘tall’ by Building Regulations, a framed approach was required. Simon had already ruled out timber as too flimsy, so we had to choose between steel and concrete. The clients were by now renting a flat in the Barbican in the City and were falling in love with concrete as a material.

At that point we decided to work with concrete and create a ‘frame’ which would be exposed in places revealing the construction process and working with a series of textures and finishes. We believed in the idea of a building that would have an instant patina, as if some existing found structure had been converted. Its tall facade also references the narrow Georgian houses and the warehouse architecture characteristic of the area.

The building was originally free-standing with three blank facades with a fully glazed front façade acting as a light box to the street (a new housing block now wraps around the house). As the floor-plates of the house were small we limited the materials to render and glass externally, with concrete and painted plaster internally. The bespoke, deep framed windows American Walnut windows act as a link between the interior and exterior and were handmade by furniture maker Simon Kidd in a small yard opposite the house. Walnut is also deployed throughout the house for specially designed furniture.

Working with in-situ shuttered concrete on such a small site was a challenge as contractors who are able and willing to tackle small builds like this are rare. Our studio acted as main contractor and we found a firm of old school Irish concrete experts. They had never worked on a building where the concrete had been left exposed, so Simon took them off to the National Theatre to show them what was possible. We did a lot of reading about concrete ourselves and began to learn quickly. We took on as much of the risk as possible and, with a lot of help and instruction from us, they agreed to give it a go.

We went through lots of discussion about shuttering, release agents, types of sawn timber, phenolic coated plywood and so on. The final result employs 100mm vertical swan board-marks in the ‘circulation’ spaces, leading the visitor from the front door, along a widening corridor up a shallow ramp and up a spiralling staircase. The board-marks emphasise the vertical nature of the space and continue out into the rear top floor courtyard and up onto the roof terrace. The stainless-steel balustrade and lighting both continue this vertical linear theme.

The stair treads are ground through the aggregate to produce a Terrazzo effect. All ceilings are exposed concrete shuttered against a staggered grid of phenolic plywood panels creating an ultra-smooth, glossy ceiling. The lift shaft was cast without a finish as it was to house temporary storage until the day it was needed, once old age and five flights of stairs became too much. When it popped out of the mould it was so amazing Simon decided to leave it as a light well. We then sand blasted it to clean up the concrete creating yet another texture.

The house has also been engineered to take another possible two floors in the future. By designing in thinking about the longer term and changing lives, it is a true lifetime city home.

At the start we all had to agree to play nicely and never fall out if we worked together. I am glad to say we are still friends, and Simon and Sarah have been exemplary client–always striving for excellence and prepared to back the project with the funds required to finish it to an exceptional level, even through tough times. The house was short-listed for RIBA London Regional Award in 2012 and has been published worldwide. It was also Highly Commended by the Concrete Society in 2012 for the quality of the concrete finished.