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Cork House: Architecture Today review

Alex de Rijke admires the creativity and commitment in a self-built experimental house by Matthew Barnett Howland with Dido Milne and Oliver Wilton


Building a house made of cork might sound like a fairy tale story, like a gingerbread house. Or like the more familiar but inedible architect’s fantasy, the house made of glass, of which there are a great many examples.

But the cork house project by Matthew Barnett Howland with Dido Milne and Oliver Wilton is not an example of pursuing a subjective idea or an indulgence of patronage. The architects have, as an independent initiative, analysed an old material and explored modern ways of using it, as a didactic offering to the construction industry.

Cork House is not merely clad in cork externally, insulated with cork invisibly, or lined in cork internally. Several examples of deploying cork to improve the thermal performance or character of a more conventional construction exist around the world, and particularly in Portugal, home of the cork oak tree. But this is a house made almost entirely of cork. I make this distinction as an advocate of timber architecture in a market sated with rhetorical examples of ‘timber buildings’ which are actually a steel or concrete frame clad in wood, or a timber structure clad in brick. With global construction materials and methods increasingly criticised for carbon emissions, here is a unique example of an experimental house using only the bark of cork oak trees as a solid structure, insulation and finish, inside and out.

Cork House. ©2018 Richard J F Jones.
Cork House. ©2018 Richard J F Jones.

As a research project, the commitment was always going to be greater than the funding, so for the architect researchers, it meant building themselves something useful. A dog kennel scale prototype, followed by a larger module tested with ARUP, developed both detail and ambition to eventually become a dedicated small house project in the back garden.

But the building is not just a lesson in sustainability like a research thesis made three dimensional. It is a beautiful house, built with imagination and rigour, using a robot offsite and by hand in-situ. And the result of this six-year-long process is redolent with a particular quality of calm delight; partly due to the power of the material, and partly the evidence of the pleasure of making.

Standing inside, one can recall the architecture of Kahn or Soane in an enfilade plan of top-lit rooms. These repeated tall volumes, each with their oculus, and arranged in a row, create a choreographed sequence of spaces, from porch to bedroom. Externally the five repeated forms make a mock-monumental site boundary, effectively screening the garden from a neighbouring waterworks building. The risk that a corbelled compression structure, made of a dark, sound and light-absorbing material could become tomb-like has been skilfully avoided. Timber, glass and brass internal detailing all combine to enliven the daylight and acoustic qualities of the interior. The direct inspiration of stacked stone structures has here been symbolically transformed into celebrating life over death; a grown material arranged to give ongoing pleasure to the inhabitants, with the promise of another use in future.

Like Aldo van Eyck’s work, the visitor feels the design agenda has not only been intellectually consistent but deliberately humanising. But unlike structuralist examples, the warm cork block is way more sexy than concrete block, and doesn’t require additional cement, insulation, paint, cladding et al.

Cork House interior. ©Richard J F Jones
Cork House interior. ©Richard J F Jones
Cork House – a junction between two gardens. ©David Grandorge
Cork House – a junction between two gardens. ©David Grandorge
One could be forgiven for thinking that the Cork House, confidently poised on its mini piles on the damp riverbank grass, is buoyantly looking forward to inevitable floods; to floating away to the future with an ‘I told you so’ nonchalance to the drowned brick of conservative England.
Alex de Rijke
Director, dRMM

Eton town with neighbouring Winsor Castle are defined by the eponymous private school and monarchy respectively, bastions of British traditionalism standing either side of the ancient River Thames. Perhaps the very last place one would expect to be a site of modernity. Yet British culture has always excelled not only in eccentricity and individualism but experiment and innovation. Departing from the tradition of romantic empiricism, the back garden ‘laboratory shed’ model has here been replaced with a more methodical, self-critical and refined testing of an idea now realised, documented, and due to be monitored in use.

The architects, supported by ARUP engineering and UCL The Bartlett workshop, have constructed a small but precise manifesto for a completely different form of sustainable construction. The message is clear; a building made primarily of one renewable material, and only one layer thick. An old timber crop made modern. An assembly of digitally prefabricated blocks, with integrated hand-crafted components but no wet trades; a demountable, recyclable composition. A UK design demonstration of the potential of a carbon-negative material for a world looking for more answers to climate change.

Cork House: Architecture Today review

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Cork House: Architecture Today review

Alex de Rijke

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