Avant Garde Rentals and Granny Flats

Cutting Edges

Spring fever is upon me and I am distracted by thoughts of traveling the world — so the New Yorker article by architecture critic Paul Goldberger about modern holiday houses in England captured my imagination immediately. He describes spending the night in an unusual new house called The Balancing Barn, designed by the Dutch firm MVRD. Situated on the Suffolk coast, it is, in his words:  “a shiny metal structure that sticks out over a hill, less a barn than a covered bridge that stops in mid-air.” The  image below shows just how startling it is, with a child nonchalantly swinging from the underside of the cantilever — as if an updated Alice has stopped to play while the Mad Hatter — now an avant-garde architect — is up in the kitchen putting the kettle on.  Paul recounts how surprisingly comfortable and even conventional the house is inside, despite the startling appearance of being suspended over nothingness. There is however, a window in the floor of the living room that connects guests to the ground even as it reminds them that they are lolling over a void. Talk about a new perspective! I think a weekend here would be very refreshing. This structure is part of a not-for-profit organization called Living Architecture, the brainchild of writer/philosopher Alan de Botton whose insightful and beautifully written 2006 book The Architecture of Happiness explores how architecture affects and even defines us.  The idea of  balance in building design, which is the subject of one chapter, appears to have been taken quite literally in this particular commission! The house sleeps eight people and rentals are for four nights. (Cantilever photo and interior view from Designboom; aerial shot courtesy Living Architecture.)

De Botton founded Living Architecture as a way to help people experience modern design first hand. A cool idea. There are several other rentals in the collection. Shingle house, by the Scottish firm NORD Architecture, situated near Romney Marsh in Kent (the shingle name refers to the pebbly site, not the siding material) is a series of simple gables — almost like an arrangement of toy blocks. The interior is all white with a handsome U-shaped kitchen that opens toward the beach. Deftly placed windows here and in the dining area frame the views like paintings. The handsome banquette saves room and with the white-painted vertical board walls makes the small space seem larger than it is. Dune House in Suffolk, by the Norwegian firm Jarmund/Vigsnaes Architects, resembles a Rubik’s cube that has been pulled slightly apart and set on a glass base. The living room includes a sunken area in front of the fireplace — the return of the “conversation pit” from mid-century modern design. The master bedroom includes a sculptural freestanding tub with its own view of the sea beside the door to the water closet and shower — truly this gives new meaning to the phrase “bed, bath, and beyond.” (Previous six photos courtesy Living Architecture.) Three more holiday houses are in the works and are slated to open by 2012. The Living Architecture website provides comprehensive photo tours of every rental — excellent homework for anyone thinking of building a new house. Meanwhile I need to start saving up for a fact-finding trip…

Essential New Books on Granny Flats and Cottage Style

Two excellent books recently came across my desk. The cleverly titled In-Laws, Outlaws, and Granny Flats (Taunton Press, 2011) by Michael Litchfield, a founding editor of Fine Homebuilding magazine, is a comprehensively illustrated guide to the design and building of backyard cottages and additions for aging in place. Interviews with families who have completed this process  show that the trend is well under way. A thoughtfully designed in-law unit or granny flat makes it possible for seniors to live near family members without losing their independence. Communities  across the country are changing their zoning laws to allow the greater density that backyard cottages produce. The changes are long overdue. Chapters range from basement remodels and garage conversions to stand-alone structures — with a wide variety of case studies for each type of dwelling unit. For more ideas take a look at our own Granny Unit Collection, including the Inspired In-Law Cottage by Larson Shores Architects, which comes in four different styles and plans. The L-shaped version, Plan 507-3,  is 500 square feet, includes a kitchenette that’s part of  the  living area, and has decks on two sides.

Storybook Cottages: America’s Carpenter Gothic Style by Gladys Montgomery (Rizzoli, 2011) explores in detail the mid-nineteenth century houses that were built from pattern books like Andrew Jackson Downing’s The Architecture of Country Houses, published in 1850. Originally from the British Isles, the Gothic Revival flourished in New York and New England but the best known example is the farmhouse in Eldon, Iowa, famously painted by Grant Wood as “American Gothic.” Now I wonder what the farmer and his wife would think of sleeping in Alain de Botton’s Balancing Barn? The pitchfork makes me a little nervous but I’m sure they would make sure to stow it tines-down before turning out the light.



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