Flint House in Buckinghamshire, England, designed by Charlotte Skene Catling
Flint House in Buckinghamshire, England, designed by Charlotte Skene Catling © James Morris

It’s like being in the World Cup of houses,” says Patrick Bradley, about being selected for the 20-strong longlist of the Royal Institute of British Architects’ Manser Medal, an annual award for excellence in residential architecture, a “best of the best” of RIBA’s regional awards. “To just get on the longlist is something every architect dreams of,” says Bradley, whose house built from four shipping containers, two of which cantilever over the others, is one of the most striking contenders.

The 35-year-old from Northern Ireland started his practice four years ago and works alone but is fast making a name for himself. His project, on his family’s farm in County Londonderry, appeared on the Channel 4 television programme Grand Designs last year and since then he has been offered commissions in 52 countries. “I can now pick and choose what I do,” he says. He has nine new projects on the drawing board. Despite all this, the Manser longlisting is what satisfies him most. “It’s a massive achievement. It’s like playing football with the big boys.”

Costing just £140,000, Bradley’s project, Grillagh Water House, is at the budget end of the list. The other contenders are vastly more expensive and they’re not all by “boys”.

Flint House, by Charlotte Skene Catling of London-based Skene Catling de La Peña, is perhaps the most distinctive house on the list. Built for Lord Rothschild on his Waddesdon estate in Buckinghamshire for an undisclosed sum, the flint and chalk-clad house is reminiscent of a ziggurat or Aztec temple. But although there are “spiritual” aspects to the fantastical design, such as the elemental grotto of earth, air, fire and water, Skene Catling’s inspiration was more down to earth.

Grillagh Water House in Northern Ireland by Patrick Bradley
Grillagh Water House in Northern Ireland by Patrick Bradley © Aidan Monaghan

“When I first went to the site it was the middle of winter and there was just a ploughed field and a few bare trees, but in the field were all these field flints — that was the clue,” she says. She intended the house to be a “form of geological extrusion where the building was rough and raw at its base and more refined as it goes up to chalk at the top.” The RIBA judges note “its construction seems to dissolve as it reaches towards the sky”.

Eighty tons of flint were used in its cladding, all handpicked from five English quarries and graded into eight colour tones. The project has helped to revive traditional craftsmanship. “A team of people had to be put together to work the flints, learning new skills,” says Skene Catling. As the building ages, lichens and mosses will grow on the flints, so it will become even more part of the landscape. “There’s something suffocating about buildings that are unable to reflect any passage of time,” she says.

Pobble House in Dungeness designed by Guy Hollaway
Pobble House in Dungeness designed by Guy Hollaway © Charles Hosea

Improving with age is a recurring theme. A material used to clad at least three of the longlist contenders was Corten steel, also known as “weathering steel”, which rusts to form a protective layer. “We wanted materials that got better with age,” says Guy Hollaway, architect of Pobble House, a beach holiday home at Dungeness in south-east England. “There’s lots of rusting metal and silvery wood in the boats on the beach and our materials reflect that.”

The steel’s colouration also appealed to Patrick Bradley who used it to clad his shipping containers. “Corten steel’s natural golden brown colour disappears into the landscape and so is a good choice of material for contemporary homes in rural areas if you have to convince planners.”

The material certainly helped sway planners in a conservative conservation area of London. Kew House, by architects Piercy & Company, places two large gable-shaped structures of weathering steel above the remains of 19th-century walling. The owners invited neighbours to the empty site, which had been derelict for years, to look at architectural models. “There’s a fairly entrenched view that only architecture that follows the forms and materials of the conservation area can make a positive contribution,” says Stuart Piercy. “We encouraged people to consider the house as a piece of sculpture, with particular reference to Lynn Chadwick [famed for his semi-abstract bronze and steel sculptures].” The strategy worked and the project was given unanimous approval thanks in part to “an ambitious design and conservation officer.”

Cefn Castell on the west coast of Wales by Stephenson Studio
Cefn Castell on the west coast of Wales by Stephenson Studio © Andrew Wall

As well as sculpture, the house seems to be inspired by set design and theatre. The steel is perforated with holes, the apparently random pattern of which derives from a photograph of the shade cast by the leaves of a tree in Kew Gardens. A glazed bridge connects the two steel forms so that the occupants are on view to the street as they move from one part of the house to the other.

Large glazed areas — usually for views outwards — and more conventional claddings are the order of the day for other contenders. Sussex House, by Wilkinson King, is clad in red cedar; Levring House, by Jamie Fobert Architects, another sculptural property in a London conservation area, is clad in handmade Danish bricks; while Cefn Castell, by Stephenson Studio, located on a cliff on the Welsh coast, is all white render and glass. The judges describe it as “a state-of-the-art contemporary home.” This is residential architecture as art gallery.

Dundon Passive House has a more homely look, with a pitched roof and neatly stacked logs outside the front door, ready for the wood-burning stove — its only heating. A trailblazer in terms of energy consumption, this is the first certified Passive House to appear on a Manser Medal longlist. Architect Graham Bizley of Prewett Bizley, who laboured on much of the construction work, says: “RIBA has always promoted sustainability and there have been ‘green’ houses and eco-houses on the longlist before but Passive House has absolute standards where you can measure performance.”

Dundon Passive House in Somerset by Graham Bizley
Dundon Passive House in Somerset by Graham Bizley © Graham Bizley

The house in Somerset, where Bizley lives with his interior designer wife and two children, measures about 285 sq metres and cost £485,000. It has “architectural ambitions but is modest,” he says of the two-storey, green oak home that is partly dug into a hillside so that it is barely taller than the bungalow it replaced. “A lot of Passive House people just design a box with south-facing windows and appropriate shading, but I’d like to think I’d be on the longlist even if [my project] wasn’t [certified to] Passive House [standard],” he says.

Which of the 20 will make the shortlist and which will eventually win will be revealed in the next few weeks. Other hopefuls include, in the words of the judges, the “thorough and meticulous” restoration of a substantial grade I-listed Lutyens house, by Frances and Michael Edwards Architects, and a small infill “courtyard house” of just 95 sq metres by Dallas Pierce Quintero.

The award can help shape the future of everyday housing. “Residential architecture definitely needs to get better here [in the UK],” says Skene Catling, whose creation is, one could argue, akin to the haute couture of housing. “Mass developments are pretty illiterate in terms of design, and pretty patronising,” she says. “The public is probably over that pastiche of what a home is.”

The Manser Medal provides inspiration for a more exciting direction. We could be building houses that represent (to borrow a term from Frank Lloyd Wright) “organic architecture”, harmonious with the landscape, yet unashamedly sculptural. And if they are so well designed that heating bills are next to nothing, that is surely a bonus.

Photographs: James Morris; Aidan Monaghan; Charles Hosea; Andrew Wall; Graham Bizley

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