Caring Wood, Kent review – rebirth of the English country house

macdonaldwrighs - Caring Wood is a country home for three generations of the same family


Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Caring Wood, Kent review – rebirth of the English country house” was written by Rowan Moore, for The Observer on Sunday 11th June 2017 07.00 UTC

Paragraph 55 of the National Planning Policy Framework, formerly Planning Policy Statement 7, formerly Planning Policy Guidance 7, also known as Gummer’s Law or the Toffs’ Charter – conceived 20 years ago, amid the dying embers of the John Major government, by the environment secretary John Gummer – is a weird, quasi-feudal kink in the British planning system. It says that you can build a big, isolated house in the countryside, contrary to the usual ban on such things, if you can prove that it is (whatever this may mean) “of outstanding architectural quality”.

Although it doesn’t specifically exclude beautiful bungalows or lovely little cottages, the risks and costs of proving your case (perhaps £100,000 in professional and legal fees) mean that only rich people can play this game, and it’s only worth doing if you end up with a big house. Which was Gummer’s intention, as the policy’s original wording states: “This means that each generation would have the opportunity to add to the tradition of the Country House which has done so much to enhance the English countryside.”

In the Blair era it was spotted that to allow a privileged few the pleasure of creating a rural homestead, when it was denied to everyone else, wasn’t very New Labour. Except, it turned out, that it was. After lobbying from Norman Foster and others, it was decided not to repeal the policy but only to change the wording, so as to encourage “innovative” and “groundbreaking” design. In other words, the wealthy could still exercise architectural droits du seigneur on the landscape, but it should be in the best contemporary style.

Despite this clause, the policy tends in practice to engender neoclassical mounds of bombastic gloop, but occasionally a house comes along that fulfils the twinkle in Gummer’s eye. Caring Wood in Kent , a house seven years in the making and, at 1,450 sqm (not counting a separate estate manager’s house), about 13 times an average three-bedroom home, can – large and conspicuous though it is – fairly be said to enhance the countryside in which it stands. Granted permission under PPS7, it is a setting for and representation of civilised life,.

It was made for a couple who wanted a house for themselves, where the families of their three children could spend time together. The plan – in which a sociable central block is framed by four corner pavilions, one for the older couple and three for the younger ones – is an ideal diagram of family relationships. They also wanted it to serve their love of music and art, so it includes a gallery and recital room, where people from the neighbourhood can come and hear performances.

The house aims for maximum consideration of the landscape and the environment, with an electric car-charging point, ground source heat pumps, arrays of solar panels, walls thick with insulation and exceptional levels of airtightness (so as not to waste heat), which required a specialist team of four people to check. It has a boiler room like the engine house of a ship, full of sophisticated equipment to achieve maximum efficiency. The house and garden have a pond to manage the run-off of water, and bat roosts, beehives and orchards of sour cherries. 27,000 trees have been planted on the 84-acre estate, and what was a terrain of polytunnels, battery chicken sheds and intensive agriculture has been nurtured into wildflower meadows.

Caring Wood: the recital room
Caring Wood: the recital room, where people from the neighbourhood can come for performances. Photograph: James Morris

The architects are the client’s son-in-law, James Macdonald Wright, and Carmarthenshire-based Niall Maxwell. Their influences included the Arts and Crafts architecture of the young Edwin Lutyens, which seeks to connect building and garden, and the oast houses that dot the Kent countryside. The main materials are Kent clay tiles, ragstone and sweet chestnut boarding from neighbouring Sussex, contributing to an expressionist, perky collage of reddish angularity with green nature. Sharpness of detailing and freedom of form return the project to the present and undercut its incipient quaintness.

Outside it is almost all roof, a Roofy McRoofFace of a building whose slopes reach close to the ground and which brings out the expressive range of clay tiles: a hard material that can look variously soft, angular, planar and volumetric. The ubiquitous surface also does a nice job of unifying the eventful skyline, a crystallised version of soft Kent hills, in which oast-like towers – each covering one of the four corner pavilions – grow out of a lower, broader roof. The house is built against a slope, which means that some of its rooms are half-buried – from certain angles some of the quasi-oasts look like separate buildings, and nicely frame glimpses of the horizon.

Caring Wood’s white interior
Caring Wood’s white interior. Photograph: James Morris

The interior is as white as the exterior is red-brown, somewhat like the inside of a chestnut to its shell. It contains a roaming, up-and-down series of spaces that run from the part-public places for performance and art through gregarious living areas, to a hidden central courtyard for sitting and thinking – the whole is a running-around landscape for children, with hiding places, and a wandering zone for adults, with eight staircases.

Not every detail is perfect, and there are some relationships and transitions, especially into the gardens formed around the house, that should work better. But what might have been a bloated farmhouse is a generous and enjoyable building, which, while dissembling its bulk, is also confident and singular.

Thank you, Gummer, for this. Perhaps a way could now be found to democratise PPG7 and its heirs: to allow communes or co-housing of exceptional architectural quality perhaps? One can but dream.

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