The Arts: Architecture: People in Glasshouses. ; the Architect Graham Phillips Has Designed and Built a Flat-Topped Glass Menagerie as His Dream Home. Will It Point to a Bolder Future for Self-Build Housing, despite Land and Money Restrictions? by Nonie Niesewand

By Niesewand, Nonie | The Independent (London, England), March 13, 2000 | Go to article overview
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The Arts: Architecture: People in Glasshouses. ; the Architect Graham Phillips Has Designed and Built a Flat-Topped Glass Menagerie as His Dream Home. Will It Point to a Bolder Future for Self-Build Housing, despite Land and Money Restrictions? by Nonie Niesewand


Niesewand, Nonie, The Independent (London, England)


A long low glass box of a suburban family house touching down lightly in front of a great sheet of water looks expensively out of reach. At pounds 480,000 for a four-bedroom 2,500 metre square family home, it is. But the cost would be double if architect Graham Phillips had not built his dream house himself.

Designed just like a kit house but on a customised steel frame instead of a timber A-frame to give it its mathematically flat roof, it was raised in just 72 hours one weekend like the Amish barns of Pennsylvania; and all built with what self-builders call direct labour and materials - that is, cutting out the contractor.

Bereft of a forest of columns, thin glass spans across the lakeside facade and all along the back where the bedrooms face a private courtyard; a transparent home stretched between two long thin masonry side walls that slide out beyond the glass like screens. It is never clear where nature ends and the house begins. It appears to float.

All through Phillips's years in Hong Kong as a senior partner at Foster and Partners, he was dreaming of building his own house outside London. Early self-build exhibitions at Crystal Palace put him off the "repro" period pieces cloned without craftsmanship in modern materials, but convinced him that he would have to design his own "truly modern house" using the same modular techniques as kit builders.

So he began with a perspex cube, shaving and refining it until he had the long low glass box that would enable certain customised parts to be ordered and built by daily rate workers under the supervision of a site construction manager.

Now his three children, the iguana and the Alsatian live in the flat topped glass menagerie that he and his wife Diane call Skywood House. Within, no light switches intrude - there is a hidden bank of them - and there are no radiators because limestone slabs hide underfloor heating. He has furnished it with classics from Le Corbusier and his own architectonic furniture, simple stone or wooden blocks that follow the grid plan of the floor, some flat blocks raised high as beds, others low as coffee tables.

Finding the site was the hardest part. Estate agents' blurbs proved economical on the truth. That bungalow on a plot "fit for redevelopment" proved to be sandwiched between two narrow houses on a small strip of land with the main plot being a field at the back without planning permission. It took 18 months to find four and half acres of land at Denham in Middlesex in a green-belt area which prevented building the double height rooms with a mezzanine floor that he wanted.

Landscaping the site involved such Sisyphean tolls as making water flow uphill to fill the lake that distances the transparent house from passers- by. More about privacy than being precious, he dug that lake with a JCB and lined it with bin liners before filling it with water. Every birch and bush was moved to make the route to the house circuitous and ensure an undisturbed life.

This is a house of great beauty, that doubles as a brilliant example of what self-build houses could be like, rather than the boring chalets under pitched roofs of the Little Chef school of architecture that housing kits still offer.

Houses of the future could well be built by their owners and Britain is a nation of DIY enthusiasts. We spent pounds 8bn last year on house renovation materials from home centres. At the last roof-count of new houses in 1999, 35,000 were self-build, mostly in Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire, Cornwall, Devon and in Scotland where there are plots of vacant land. At pounds 55 to pounds 70 per square foot, self-build houses save from 20 to 30 per cent on current house prices.

At the biggest ever national self-build event, the National Home Building and Renovating Show, which closed yesterday at the NEC in Birmingham, 116,000 enthusiasts came to learn about building the house of their dreams themselves.

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The Arts: Architecture: People in Glasshouses. ; the Architect Graham Phillips Has Designed and Built a Flat-Topped Glass Menagerie as His Dream Home. Will It Point to a Bolder Future for Self-Build Housing, despite Land and Money Restrictions? by Nonie Niesewand
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