Hackney Backhouse is a brave, imaginative and contemporary back-garden house that volunteers itself to the street through louvred screens of weathering steel, affording fleeting glimpses into the house to passers by. The two-storey, three-bedroom family home is neatly tucked onto a 11m by 8m site in a Hackney Conservation Area, formerly occupied by a run-down garage and workshop.
Keen to avoid divorcing the house from its context and its neighbourhood, Guttfield Architecture designed a house with a direct visual relationship with the street – the house is part of the street and the street part of the house. A screen of vertical corten louvres between the house and the street is intended as a simple device to moderate this two-way relationship, firstly by actively engaging the street and secondly, by bringing the street into the house, all while retaining privacy where needed.
To actively engage passers-by, the vertical louvres have a kinked profile which give the screen a dynamic, twisting appearance that might catch the eye of a pedestrian and in doing so cause them to glimpse into the house. The shape, spacing and orientation of the louvres carefully manipulate views in and out of the house - pedestrian passers-by are offered a peek into the house, whereas cars and bikes travelling at a higher speed struggle to see in at all. If somebody wants to stop and gaze into the house, they can. However, the louvres are angled away from the nearest houses on the street meaning there is no line-of-sight and the screen is designed to preserve privacy in areas of the house where it is important.
The screens also bring the street into the house, drawing the unpredictable external environment into the interior architecture. The main living spaces enjoy a rich backdrop of passers-by, weather conditions and neighbouring buildings, all framed by the corten screen.
Beyond the corten screens, a glazed front door and floor-to-ceiling glazing in the ground floor living areas continue the visual connection with the outside. The layout and glazing are designed to make the external materials of brick and corten visible from and almost part of, the internal spaces. This adds richness and drama to the interiors, which in contrast to the exterior, are restrained, mostly white surfaces. During the day the rich tones of the south facing weathered steel screen are highlighted by the natural light, which casts striking shadows onto the clean walls of the living spaces. At night, the artificially-lit interior spaces come to life and enliven the streetscape.
Inside, the large areas of glazing (which can be used without the need for curtains or blinds to provide privacy) makes the lightwells feel part of the ground floor layout and helps the plan feel more open and spacious. The ground floor is largely designed as one open-plan space to make best use of the limited space on the small site, containing distinct areas for the living room, dining, kitchen and entrance hall. Seamlessly detailed rooflights featuring concealed lighting are positioned in the corners of the plan farthest from the screens, bringing additional light down into the dining area, living area and stairwell. Basement level, which houses three bedrooms and two bathrooms, is arranged around two secluded external courtyards which allow ample daylight into the spaces. The courtyard spaces also provide vital external amenity and cycle storage space.
The house has a materials palette of ochre brickwork, anodised aluminium windows, weathering corten steel, concrete floor tiles and both oak and white joinery. Tactile fittings such as handles and handrails are picked out in brass. A lightweight suspended white steel staircase features inset concrete tile treads and a solid brass handrail. A white steel ship’s stair provides a means of escape from the larger lightwell in the event of fire.
Sustainability has been carefully considered with the low energy house boasting photovoltaic solar panels, super-insulation, triple glazing and underfloor heating. A sedum green roof reduces water run-off from the house which fills the entirety of the plot.
Guttfield Architecture, a young architecture practice based in Berkshire, began to consider the relationship between the house and the street at the outset of the project. Analysing the historic planning consent of the site revealed a design that, like many back-garden houses in London, almost completely turned its back on the street, effectively hiding itself behind a wall and taking light only from rooflights and internal courtyards. To preserve privacy, views into the house from the street were all but eliminated, meaning the house would have had limited outlook and would have felt confined and disconnected from the street.
The house, with a gross internal area of 112 sqm, was completed within a strict £500,000 budget -especially challenging as the design required building to the full extent of the site, up against neighbouring buildings and the road, and given basement construction is inherently more complicated and expensive.