SUFFOLK (UK) - dRMM's Sliding House might be the most perfect cross between theatre, architecture and boy's toy ever built.
Ross Russell is a man not easily put off by a challenge. In fact, by the end of my visit to the Sliding House, his newly built home in Suffolk, I get the distinct impression that, on the contrary, a good old challenge has an irresistible attraction for him. Ross not only project-managed the construction of his home which, besides the main house, has an independent granny annexe, a freestanding garage, and, of course, a magnificent sliding outer skin that magically transforms the whole. He also did all the joinery, laid the floors, 'filled the gaps' left by contractors, and instructed his engineers on how to design the motors that move his twenty-ton roof. And those are just a few of his achievements. Amongst his contractors he was known as 'Mr. Millimetre', and rightly so, judging by the quality of his work. One cannot help but be impressed: this is a man who had no previous experience in the construction business! His wife Sally seems to have caught the building bug, too – she says that 'it would be a shame not to do it again', but advises starting with 'someone else's house first', to get a little experience.
At the moment Ross is fitting out the master bathroom, complete with recycled panels 'made of old yoghurt pots', though Ross modestly claims that his isn't a 'green' house, regardless of his plans for a wind turbine at the end of the garden, and ideas for solar panels. A geo-thermal heat pump and argon-filled double-glazing are already in place.
When the Russells decided to leave London behind (though they keep the town house in a central North London area) and more or less retire, they bought a site that had on it a run-down bungalow, a derelict barn and a caravan that had become a permanent feature. The site had planning permission for a new house and conversion of the barn into a granny annexe, but the Russells wanted something a little more interesting. dRMM's Alex de Rijke went to school with Ross and was duly asked to prepare designs. The initial concept was for a 105-metre linear arrangement of house, swimming pool (unasked for by the client), greenhouse, and not one but two sliding roofs on rail tracks, extending the entire length of the plot. This ambitious project was scaled down to fit the client's budget, although Alex de Rijke is optimistic that his client is now hooked on building and will eventually return to the larger scheme.
What has been built to date consists of three solid volumes: there is the main house which faces south-west and is almost fully glazed; a garage clad in bright red timber and set off-axis to one side; and, towards the road, the granny annexe. The three can be linked by means of the sliding element which is folded over the house and annexe, and which is also faced with timber.
A few compromises had to be made along the way to convince the local planning authority that a contemporary house would fit into the Suffolk landscape; pitched roofs, timber cladding, and the elongated footprint were more or less dictated to the architect, but dRMM managed to subvert those standards and design a stunning ensemble with a striking colour scheme and an amusingly monopoly-like garage building.
It is of course the sliding skin, built from an insulated steel frame complete with window and door openings, that makes this house special. The mechanism that sets the movement in train is operated simply by pressing a button on a remote control which activates four small battery-powered motors linked to metal wheels which sit on tracks either side of the house. And off it goes, all twenty tons of it, beeping like a reversing lorry, moving slowly away from the granny building, exposing the garage forecourt, sliding over the main glass volume, and creating an enclosed forecourt in front of it, which from the garden now looks like a stage complete with proscenium, while on the first floor the master bathroom is revealed, turning it unexpectedly into an open air space (imagine having star-lit baths up there!).
This isn't just as far from the conventional country home as you can get; this is probably the most perfect cross between theatre, architecture, and boy's toy ever built.
May | 2009 | United Kingdom | Cordula Zeidler