Brixton's ice cube house: futuristic and super energy-efficient
You wouldn’t expect to walk past a futuristic house on an ordinary Victorian street in south London, yet there it is: three “ice cubes” balanced on top of each other, jutting out slightly towards the street. This is the Brixton home of architect Carl Turner and advertising executive Mary Martin, who have been together for 25 years.
Even though the milky glass panels in which the Slip House is clad give it a rare appearance, they are not what makes it so futuristic. What puts it ahead of its time is its mix of energy–efficient credentials, making a highly desirable model for a family terrace home that is almost energy-bill free. It has a ground-source heat pump; a soakaway front yard for rainwater harvesting, so most water used is recycled; PVT panels (a combination of solar plus voltaic) on the decked, glass-screened roof terrace; and a little meadow-roof outside one bedroom.
The insulation is so good and the house so draught-proof that it meets code five in sustainability (super-high) and is often comfortably warm inside in winter with no heating on at all. It is, says Carl, one of the UK’s most efficient houses.
But none of this would be any good if it looked like a badly knitted jumper. The interior is modern and tranquil, an effect helped by its structure of concrete panels that came on a lorry from Cornwall, fixed to a steel frame, with a concrete staircase running up one side of the building, like a strip of folded paper.
The concrete is softened visually by being polished. The walls are white, interspersed with sliding doors of gently whitened birch ply, all done by Carl and his team over a 14-month build completed in 2012, when Carl took the summer off and his brother, Neil, was site foreman.
A downstairs kitchen for the architecture office has cupboards in the same birch ply with a sheet of laser-cut three-millimetre steel on top. “Why spend £50,000 at Bulthaup?” says Carl. The couple have plenty of money-saving ideas. For key things that get a lot of wear, they spend money: Vola for taps; Duravit for ceramics. But for easily replaced items, such as light switches, they just use the cheapest they can find.
Right along the side of the concrete staircase run walk-in rooms for the ground-source heat pump, the office library and a bathroom, all sliding away. On the middle floor, the main bathroom is completely open in the heart of the space but can be enclosed with two sliding wired-glass walls, which are very Japanese. Yet it’s also practical: half the big mirror opens as a cupboard. Two bedrooms “bookend” the bathroom.
The living room takes up the top floor, where it enjoys the best light. Here, the couple’s joiner made a kitchen island and the stunning table and benches, all in the same signature birch. With two giant artworks by Darren Almond, this is a sophisticated space, highlighted with an Eames rocker and a nice big Mags sofa.
Yet this house, which is up for a Stirling award, nearly didn’t happen. Mary and Carl had been looking for a plot for years. Meanwhile, they were serial renovators, moving 12 times in 25 years, learning what they really wanted, and boosting their savings. Then in 2006 they did up a barn in Norfolk “out of frustration”.
But they then got their break. A London estate agent said a sale had fallen through — a Thirties house with a very long garden that could be cut off at the end, with street access. The couple leapt into action.
“It was a derelict hovel,” Carl says with relish. “When we went to look, the guy was in the bath.” They bought the house at once, did it up and resold it, keeping a plot of land at the bottom, which meant they got it for “free”.
The next thing was the planners. “Lambeth is notoriously conservative,” Carl says. “But we won them over with the idea of rebuilding a terrace where there was a gap, and we tried to answer all their concerns. For example, Mary wanted a roof terrace, but planners worry about those in terms of overlooking, so it has a 1.75m opaque glass enclosure. In a sense, that drove the rest of the exterior design.”
While the Slip House currently stands alone, it won’t for long. Carl’s practice is building a house next door for their neighbour, and hopes one day to complete the rest of the terrace, with different, but efficient, houses — but not all necessarily to this extremely high level. Says Carl: “It’s easy to say that all buildings should be zero carbon, but in practice, because not everyone has infinite time and money, you just get as close as you can.”
The Slip House is undoubtedly special, and part of that comes from how personal it is. “When you are the client,” Carl explains, “you can push the boundaries, and take risks.
“This house had to work really hard, as an office, as a home, as a showcase and as a prototype for our ideas. We wanted a building that gives something back. That’s quite a tall order for one little building.”
The project's costs:
House costs: Thirties house bought for £475,000 in 2006. Renovated for sale and sold for £500,000 — but with a “free” plot of land created
House shell: £450,000
Fees: about £50,000
Architect’s fee: not incurred, but it would be about 10 per cent (£60,000)
Current value: £1.5 million
The project's suppliers:
Carl Turner Architects: ct-architects.co.uk
Concrete stairs and Omnia precast slabs: cornishconrete.co.uk
Joinery: Roy Middleton (roymiddleton.com)
Colourwash/stain on birch and decking: mylands.co.uk
Ground-source heat pump and PVT panels: artizanheating.com
Glass panels all round: from linituk.com
Linit panels installed by: j-carchitecturalltd.co.uk
White bathroom goods: duravit.co.uk
Vola taps: atvola.com
Eames Rocker: from scp.co.uk
White paint: dulux.co.uk
Mags sofa: by Danish designer Hay at madeindesign.co.uk