Loader Monteith restores Peter Womersley’s High Sunderland

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In 1955, Bernat and Margaret Klein knocked on the door of a house ‘floating above the trees’ near their home in West Yorkshire and asked for the name of the architect. The house was Farnley Hey, designed by Peter Womersley for his brother, John. Farnley Hey’s floor-to-ceiling windows, its split-level […]

In 1955, Bernat and Margaret Klein knocked on the door of a house ‘floating above the trees’ near their home in West Yorkshire and asked for the name of the architect. The house was Farnley Hey, designed by Peter Womersley for his brother, John.

Farnley Hey’s floor-to-ceiling windows, its split-level interior, and the ‘flow’ of its spaces so impressed the Kleins that a week later they invited Womersley to design their home and studio. Their site was on a densely wooded, isolated plot near Selkirk in the Scottish Borders. Bernat Klein was to become an internationally renowned textile designer and Margaret a talented knitwear designer. Both took inspiration from the colours of the native plants and woodlands that surrounded their new home. High Sunderland was Womersley’s first private commission and, in conceiving ‘The See-Through House’, Shelley Klein writes, her father, mother, and the young architect ‘hit it off immediately’.

Womersley was inspired by the setting and the idea of a house that connected with the woodland, melding the interior with the exterior. He prepared numerous sketches on graph paper, setting out on a strict 8ft grid, and used a timber structural frame, painted white. The post-and-beam structure ‘framed and re-framed’ views of the woodland. Ceiling-height coloured timber and glass panels were set within the frame and the interior was planned around a cleaved central axis, with two wings. The master bedroom was located at one end and the children’s playroom and guest bedroom at the other, each with their own courtyard and terrace. A sunken living room, kitchen, and dining room connected them.  All ‘unnecessary’ doors and corridors were eliminated and bespoke furniture, sliding panels and cabinets separated and defined spaces and edges. Inside, the walls were panelled in rosewood and walnut, with pale travertine and timber floors and obeche timber ceiling panels.

Locals would call it ‘the James Bond House’ and, for Bernat Klein, it signalled the future. High Sunderland was also a workplace where the Kleins could design, hold fashion shows and entertain business clients. Womersley also designed the nearby Bernat Klein Studio 15 years later, which is sadly now in a ruinous state.

 

Bernat Klein lived in High Sunderland for 56 years. He died in 2014, aged 91. His wife Margaret had died eight years earlier. Shelley Klein remembers her father being so attached to High Sunderland that it was ‘impossible to separate the two’. She says: ‘My father was the house. The house was my father.’ She recalls that her father was a ‘maker of his own landscape’; he permitted no ‘messy’ plants on kitchen shelves and her own Victorian chairs were expelled from the living room.

Locals would call it ‘the James Bond House’ and, for Bernat Klein, it signalled the future

In 2017, the by then Category A-listed house was bought by Juliet Kinchin and Paul Stirton, Scottish historians of architecture and design. Juliet was a curator at MoMA and Paul was a professor at the BARD Graduate Center in New York. After 13 years in the USA they wanted to return to Scotland and at first had no intention of buying a Modernist house. But they found High Sunderland ‘breathtaking’, particularly the experience of being surrounded by an ‘arena of foliage’ in its setting of spruce and beech trees.

The couple were aware of Bernat Klein and Paul had visited the Klein studio, just a short walk away from High Sunderland, and, as a young engineer with Arup, had worked with Womersley on his Western General Hospital. Both judged the building to be of national importance, considering it not simply a house, but rather a ‘habitat’, created by a gifted young architect for an uncompromising client with a scrupulous attention to detail.

Although acutely aware of the Kleins’ aesthetic from the start, the new owners sought to find ‘a way of living within it’. Having bought a Category A-listed structure, they understood the limitations of what they could and could not do but found that ‘challenging and refreshing’. They had a 13,000-book library to accommodate, paintings by Selkirk artist William Johnstone to hang on the panelled walls, and their own furniture to fit within what was already a highly personalised interior.

First, they had to renovate parts of the existing building fabric. Masonry needed to be repaired, the house had to be completely rewired, and the underfloor heating renewed. During work to resolve minor leaks in the flat roof a fire broke out, which destroyed the obeche panels above the living room, buckled the steel roof trusses, and wiped out the insulation. Water used to extinguish the fire damaged much of the walnut and rosewood panelled walls and it became clear that much more than minor repair work would be required.

Ranald MacInnes, head of place at Historic Environment Scotland (HES), then stepped in. HES supported the project and recommended Loader Monteith as architects, having worked with them previously. Iain King, an experienced conservation architect, who had worked on the rebuilding of the fire-damaged Mackintosh Library at the Glasgow School of Art, had also joined the practice.

When the fire damage was being assessed, the owners were still in New York and visiting High Sunderland once a month. The architects carried out the clearance and advanced works, relying on ‘late evening and early morning phone calls’ for progress reports. King recalls that Juliet and Paul considered themselves to be ‘custodian clients’, who kept close and were focused on the detail. He says: ‘They questioned us on nearly everything to ensure that we were doing the right thing by the house.’

When the renovation began, Paul returned from New York and set up in the half of the house unaffected by the fire. Meanwhile, Loader Monteith recorded every aspect of the structure in preparation for planning and listed building consents.

 

They prepared a ‘best practice set of detailed proposals’ for the renewal and uncovered the original published construction details in a 1959 Swiss periodical. This allowed them to identify where changes had occurred over time and to better understand Womersley’s original design intent and reinstate some of the lost features.

South Borders Council and heritage officer Mark Douglas were also supportive and, although significant parts of the house had to be stripped out, the architects’ stated intent to restore High Sunderland on a like-for-like basis gave them comfort.

Sadly, Womersley’s original flat roof could not be sustained, as the pitch needed to be increased and insulation added, which would affect the slender fascia and the edge of the building. It had been designed as a cold roof but the higher level of insulation now required meant that it needed to become a warm roof. The architects investigated Womersley’s treatment of edge details on his other houses, resulting in a compromise close to the original. The roof work also gave the architects the opportunity to replace and reroute services, which would otherwise have been problematic, given the building’s Category A listing.

Initially the architects were concerned that they might not find contractors locally who would be able to do such specialised conservation work. However, Laurence McIntosh, the joiners and cabinet-makers, who re-made the Mackintosh Library at the Glasgow School of Art, were appointed as main contractors under a traditional minor works contract.

The building was made wind- and water-tight and slowly – given the volumes of water used to extinguish the fire – dried out to maintain a balanced humidity level and to prevent condensation forming on the surviving fabric. All waste material was removed and anything that could be re-used was retained.

Specialist conservationists Crick-Smith led on decontaminating, recovering and cleaning of materials and surfaces in the wing of the house most affected by fire, working with Laurence McIntosh, and were able to remove the acidic water run-off, particularly on the book-matched panelled walls. Original walnut panels, fitted furniture, timber floor, wall finishes and ceiling were saved. Nearly half of the ceiling is new material, finished in situ to marry with the existing.

The travertine floor to the living room proved to be the most difficult to restore and, according to Matt Loader, ‘multiple methods were tested to remove or neutralise any acidic contaminants to avoid discoloration of the tiles beyond their natural worn patina’. He adds: ‘Crick-Smith, who specialise in testing and researching historic finishes, analysed the damaged timber and historic paint finishes  and were able to reinstate the original, softer white tones on the exterior and interior of the living room.’

Multiple methods were tested to remove or neutralise any acidic contaminants

Juliet and Paul are now in residence and living permanently in High Sunderland. They say: ‘The house is stunning in all the four seasons of the year but particularly spectacular in the snow. And the colours of the mature beech trees in autumn are incredible. There is no light pollution, so at night you see the stars and the full moon is dazzling.’

It is clear from the completed photographs that Loader Monteith has done an exceptional job for their clients, respecting both the Womersley and Klein heritage.

Alan Dunlop is the founding director of Perthshire-based Alan Dunlop Architect

 

 

 

Architect’s view

Any proposal of a rigorously Miesian-planned modernist house like High Sunderland needs to be addressed in a similar manner – with rigour and meticulous attention to detail. Our approach for both the restoration of the fire-damaged interior and in developing proposals which required change and adaptation was to be as imperceptible or ‘invisible’ as possible while maximising the improvement to the fabric and reducing the energy consumption of the house. Otherwise, we risked negatively impacting the architectural integrity and significance of the building. At the outset, any downtakings required to stabilise the structure were limited to what was necessary to ensure a level of asset protection. Any material deemed suitable for re-use was identified and set aside. Damaged material which survived was identified and analysed. What this study identified, which is often the case, was that timber species in the listing designation and in early publications were incorrectly identified. Crick-Smith, which specialises in testing and researching historic finishes, was engaged to analyse the damaged timber and paint finishes. Through this process we were able to reinstate the original softer white tones on the exterior and restore the damaged timber interior linings and fitments of the living room. As the walls are single-glazed, the opportunity for fabric improvement was limited to the roof. We converted the previously cold roof to a warm roof. We introduced a new underfloor heating system to the sunken area of the living room to act as a heat basin.
Iain King, project architect, Loader Monteith Architects

 

 

Conservation consultant’s view

Our involvement was to check that all was well during this first major overhaul of the building. We were fortunate in having copies of some original construction drawings. This information, tested through targeted opening-up work, enabled a good understanding of the structure to be established.

The structure is very simple: it is a box, having load-bearing walls of timber-stud construction with a flat roof of either timber or (for longer spans) lattice-steel joisted construction. The roof acts as a structural diaphragm, transmitting lateral forces to the racking panels of the load-bearing walls. Connectivity between structural components is basic carpentry or simple, bolted connections. The existing structure was concluded to be sound and our intervention was limited to dealing with localised timber decay that had arisen from long-term exposure to water ingress plus adding the bolts that had been overlooked originally.

Like many mid-20th century buildings, its capacity to accommodate additional load is limited. Our focus was to check that the weight of new insulation on the roof would not present problems. A detailed appraisal of the joist capacity, underpinned by load capacities identified in contemporary technical literature on similar joists we were able to find, showed that the additional construction could be accommodated without recourse to strengthening work.This work was a good example of how detailed investigation into an existing structure and reference to primary source material allows a light touch to be adopted in the care and rehabilitation of existing buildings.
Steve Wood, technical director – conservation, David Narro Associates

 

 

Environmental consultants’ view

The use of an Air Source Heat Pump (ASHP) on the development provides an efficient, low-carbon source of heat for use within the building. The new heat pump supplies both heating water serving a new underfloor heating installation and domestic hot water serving the bathrooms.

The Scottish Government aims to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2045. As part of this process, there will be policies and targets put in place which will push new developments and existing buildings to move away from fossil-fuel based heating systems such as gas, oil or LPG.

Potential alternatives will include electric solutions supplied by an electricity grid that will have been largely decarbonised due to the significant contribution from renewable technologies onto the network. The use of an ASHP system ensures an element of future-proofing in line with scheduled updates to the Scottish Building Regulations. The installation of new insulation will also help to reduce operational and whole-life carbon emissions associated with space heating. The main lounge area was previously heated by direct electric underfloor heating, with very little insulation within the floor make-up. The design of the new installation incorporates much-improved thermal insulation in line with modern day standards and piped underfloor heating. This incorporates floor surface temperature control to protect the original solid hardwood timber floor, and room temperature control to avoid overheating and energy waste.

An old external roof-mounted water tank was removed and the building now benefits from direct mains water-fed sanitary appliances. This avoids issues such as solar heat warming of the old tank in the summer months and provides much improved water pressure for the building.

The electrical installation was renewed throughout the house and upgraded to current electrical safety standards.

Other improvements included the installation of an automatic fire detection system and some lighting upgrades.
Mark Napier, director, and Jordan Todd, energy engineer, Harley Haddow Consulting Engineers

 

 

Working detail

We carried out extensive research into the design of the house and Peter Womersley. Matthew Wickens of Bath University was kind enough to assist us in this by providing his dissertation and source material.

We were able to recover the original published construction details in a 1959 Swiss periodical, Bauen + Wohnen, which also allowed us to identify where changes had occurred. This allowed us to understand Womersley’s original design intent and reinstate some of the lost features, such as the master suite brise soleil (its removal had compromised the structure to the front of the house) and a ply fascia which had been replaced some time previously with UPVC.

The eaves detail illustrates how we have changed the existing cold flat roof (near-level and susceptible to interstitial condensation) to a warm roof, set to falls using bonded high-performance tapered insulation and with a single-ply membrane over. The height of new roof build-up and set-back was determined by establishing the optimum height before it became visible. The leading edge of the roof and fascia was reinstated as per the original arrangement and an aluminium trim over the timber frame was introduced to protect the wallhead and frame.

The living space historically made use of electrical underfloor cabling in the floor screed to heat the space. This was largely destroyed in the course of extinguishing the fire. Rather than lifting the travertine floor we uplifted the timber floor to the sunken area and built up a wet underfloor system with insulation beneath.
Iain King, project architect, Loader Monteith Architects

 

 

Project data

Start on site:  August 2019
Completion:  August 2020
Gross internal floor area:  273m2
Construction cost:  £290,000
Cost per m2:  £ 2,000
Architect:  Loader Monteith Architects
Clients:  Juliet Kinchin and Paul Stirton
Structural engineer:  David Narro Associates
M&E consultant: Harley Haddow
CDM co-ordinator:  Loader Monteith Architects
Historic finishes:  Crick-Smith
Main contractor: Laurence McIntosh
CAD software used:  AutoCAD

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