‘The See-Through House’ in the eco-age

ECAN’s (Edinburgh Chartered Architects Network) visit to High Sunderland near Selkirk in the Scottish Borders was a timely reminder that architecture is not just about retrofit, energy saving and ecological design.
I consider myself lucky to have been educated at a time and a place when ecological design was way down the agenda. The planet was not so lucky. It meant we were free to devote all our energy to design. We were spoiled.
While walking around the Category A-listed house High Sunderland and looking nostalgically at the old A1 blueprints lying on the designer table, I was reminded of my first year at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London where my tutor would pore for hours over large plans of Italian Renaissance churches, Le Corbusier houses and La Scarpa museums, drawing our attention to every small detail that fed into the narrative of the overall design. Articulating space was what it was all about and this house is a legacy of that mindset.
Peter Womersley’s High Sunderland, built in 1958, is another beautifully articulated piece of architecture with not a wall or a step out of place. It’s a simple, box-like design inspired by the likes of Alva Alto and Mies van de Rohe but with the complexity of spaces and views that make me wonder why Womersley is not more widely recognised. Good architecture does not need flashy design. Good architecture sits comfortably in the landscape. That doesn’t mean it has to blend in.  It can also mean that it contrasts with the landscape – in the case of High Sunderland, the contrast between the hard, horizontal lines of the 1950s house and the gentle curves of the Border landscape and the verticality of the trees.
The relationship with the outside at High Sunderland is well-considered. The main living space is sunken  a fashionable, Scandinavian influenced device of its time – from where Bernat Klein, the internationally-renowned textile designer for whom the house was built, would watch fashion shows in which models displayed Coco Chanel couture made from his cloth. Views from this sunken area and the main ground level, from both standing and seated positions, have been carefully considered. For example, when seated in the sunken lounge your eye skims over the landscape in one direction whereas in the other direction the low-level cupboards are perfectly aligned with the low window beyond, enclosing the sunken area more to give it a snugger feel. The décor includes textiles which were specifically designed, dyed and woven by Klein.
The house was recently sold to the architecture and design historians Juliet Kinchin and Paul Stirton, whose appreciation of it and enjoyment of the spaces is evident. They have embarked on a restoration project, with the intention of improving the building’s energy efficiency, following a serious fire in 2017 and years of neglect. This is hard to achieve without impacting the architectural integrity of the house. So far, they have carried out various improvements including reroofing the original part of the house to achieve a higher level of insulation. However the large amount of single glazing in the original house, with such little airtightness that the glazing can be seen to move in high winds, means that heat will be leaking into the surrounding woodland. The new owners admitted that they have noticed little difference in temperature since the roof was upgraded and wear jackets to keep themselves warm in winter. I don’t envy them – juggling energy efficiency and respect for the original design is a difficult balancing act.
Sustainable renovation is going to be the way forward for the built environment, not new-build as we were taught at architectural school. The UK government needs to take VAT off extensions and refurbishments (rather than only new-builds being VAT-able) and invest heavily in retrofitting the country’s existing housing stock. Grants should be made available for this before they are awarded to renewable energy schemes. With a really well-insulated and airtight house it doesn’t matter where the energy comes from – well, not so much anyway.
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