House awards go underground

This year sees one of the oddest shortlists ever for the Manser Medal (awarded as part of the Stirling Prize awards), for the design of a house. Of the five contenders, unusually, not one is in London, four are partly buried. Which says a lot about the ingenuity architects are using to deal with planning restrictions
Hill Top House in Oxford
Up for Stephen Lawrence Award: Hill Top House in Oxford
This year sees one of the oddest shortlists ever for the Manser Medal (awarded as part of the Stirling Prize awards), for the design of a house. Of the five contenders, unusually, not one is in London, four are partly buried. Which says a lot about the ingenuity architects are using to deal with planning restrictions.

In Gloucestershire, David Russell architects buried a modern house under grass roofs cut into the hillside, so as not to overwhelm the small gatekeeper’s cottage it is attached to. In East Sussex, a timber-lapped extension by Duggan Morris to an old oast house is partially buried out of sight.

In Cornwall, two ‘solar-gain’ houses overlooking Porthtowan, again timber clad, by Simon Condor, are sunk back into the steep hillside, while in France the oddest Hobbit house has two metres buried to get around French height rules.

All very ingenious. The only house sitting right on top of the land is the Dune House at Dungeness, where there are fewer restrictions.

In the Stephen Lawrence Award shortlist (the award for any project under a million-pound budget was set up in memory of the young man who wanted to be an architect), there are two interesting houses.

In London, King’s Grove SE15 is a rigorous brick house, built by an architect couple that knew exactly what they wanted. Reached by a lane through back gardens, this secretive, modern, modest box of a two-storey house has huge picture windows, and fine detailing such as brass door-handles. Its interior is cleanly shaped, light, and perfectly finished.

In Oxford, Hill Top house has a real London look. Concrete-cast with metal cladding, this big family house which appears to have landed in a middle-class Victorian street has a spectacular back, with an angled extended section with huge sliding windows to the terrace. It offers the best of both worlds, a modern house in a residential setting, that would make you want to meet the neighbours.

Meanwhile, in Kensington this week the ground was finally broken for the revamp of the much loved, copper-roofed Grade II* listed Commonwealth Institute, which will become the new home for the Design Museum, giving it three times more gallery space than its previous home at Shad Thames.

The fusty, crowded interior that most adults distantly remember from a school trip, will be opened up. The shiny new interior is designed by John Pawson, and the opening has been pushed back from its 2014 date to 2015. Part of the deal, in which the original owner, Chelsfield, has donated the site, plus a further £20 million towards development, will be housing.

It’s good to see all these projects under way in defiance of a sluggish economy but taking advantage of continuing low interest rates while that sun shines.

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