Chapter 2b ~ Rural Housing Handbook: Massing


We’ve now discussed the importance of the plan, the section, proportion and scale; the next important aspect that is the resulting combination of all of these is the buildings ‘mass’ and essentially its ‘form’. Notice throughout all of these chapters that we have had little discussion about what the building ‘looks like’. I suppose what the building looks like is an understandable request by a client but there tends to be a preoccupation with this as an overriding concern and it is I fear the problem with today’s rural architecture. As there are so few good examples of good rural design, the unknowing client will pick a house from what they’ve seen previously nearby or from a ‘plans book’; neither a great way of choosing what your house will ‘look like’. Commonly a house is chosen on the flimsiest of features – having two gables fronting the road for example.

In fact this ‘what it looks like’ is a bit of a red herring; as stated the plan determines the functions and organisation and the sections effectively determine the volume; effectively the elevations (essentially what the building actually looks like) are largely an end by-product. This method of working is common to Glenn Murcutt’s work where “elevations only emerge at the end, as the natural outcome of the process”. The thermal performance of the building probably has the greatest influence concerning how elevations (especially the area of glazing to wall) are treated. It is critical to understand how a building responds to its site, the wind and the sun and the two forthcoming chapters on these aspects will give more detail on this subject.

This isn’t to say that ‘what it looks like’ isn’t important; all houses need to have ‘kerb appeal’, subjective as this is and probably the most important aspect that defines a rural house is its ‘Massing’. As discussed above, the ‘mass’ or ‘form’ of a building essentially arise from the plan and section and it’s the architect’s skill that translates the clients requirements, the site constraints and planning requirements into a building that succeeds architecturally. There are however certain forms that are more acceptable in a rural setting and the purpose of this next section is to give a few examples and to explain the massing concepts that contribute to their success architecturally. The Cork Rural Design Guide has an excellent section that details familar vs. alien forms but the problem is that although documenting them in this way is an excellent starting point we should be careful not to fix ourselves rigidly on what we can and can’t do. What I am talking about here (and I’ve mentioned it earlier) is a more ‘mannerly’ approach to rural housing; an architecture that responds to it’s environment. This doesn’t mean something small or inconspicuous but something that when you look at it you say ‘Yes, that looks right in that place’. This ‘rightness’ transcends age or style and it’s something that most people will instinctively know as being ‘right in its place’. This ‘rightness’ is obviously subjective and the examples given below may not be everybodys cup of tea but to me they shout out as being the correct response to their environment. Notice that in each of these examples; they are not slavishly sticking to the past and they are forging a new way of looking at contemporary yet rural architecture:

Let’s first look at Mimetic House by Dominic Stevens Architect, Mimetic meaning exhibiting mimicry and with this house we effectively see a building imitating its background. Sometimes as an architect you see a house and say “god, I wish I’d done that” and this is such an example where the angled,mirrored walls reflect the grass around it and the tilted grass roof gives the appearance of an underground jewel being literally pushed out from the ground. The massing however won’t appear in any previous design or in any recommended ‘pattern book’, it is unique but yet this would also qualify as being completely suitable for its rural location.

Frequently I hear planners saying “Ah, that’s very nice but I don’t think that suitable for our county” – Mimetic House was done in County Leitrim for god’s sake ! As far as I’m concerned if it’s suitable there then it’s suitable anywhere !

Below are a few images of Mimetic House that I took for an article on contemporary iconic architecture for Self Build Magazine:

Mimetic House

Mimetic House - Dominic Stevens

Mimetic House

Mimetic House - 'Traditional Houses' in background

Mimetic House

Mimetic House - Dominic Stevens - blending into landscape

We as architects and designers need to push the boundaries more and not be satisfied with the small mindedness of planners not trained in architectural design. As you can see from the images above, non-familar shapes can work in a rural setting and it is up to us (as architects AND clients) to argue our case and convince any doubters that a new architecture needs to be formulated that goes beyond the familar and pushes the boundaries for houses that completely appropriate for 21st century living AND a rural environment.

The problem in my opinion is that we have seen the backlash against the poverty-stricken famine houses of our past which resulted in the hacienda style, bungalow blitz of the 70’s, towards the brashness of the houses constructed in the Celtic Tiger years and we’re now seeing a more calm approach that feels the only way forward is in familar forms; with the end result being an identical problem (admitedly a more sensitive proposal) but results in ranks of the same bland house types that check all the boxes in terms of narrow depth and traditional proportions, which keeps the planners happy but with an unfortunate homogeneity in concept and design.

I guess the problem can be summarised in ‘playing it safe’; the suggested forms and proportions and are ideal as a starting point; it should be remembered that up until very recently, it was very rare for an architect to become involved in domestic house projects; Even now, most planning applications would be dealt with by an engineer of some type. Compound this with the fact that very few planners are architecturally trained; the common ground appears to be a safeness in design that will offend no one. But as we can see above, houses can be designed that don’t offend but ARE completely appropriate.

As mentioned earlier, houses of this type (even our own house) may not be everybodys ‘cup of tea’ and maybe an important consideration is (to some people) a house should look like a house. What I’m talking about here is legibility; a legibility of form that defines a house as a house and visual appropriateness that makes such a house visually appropriate to it environment – which will be the next topic I’ll be discussing…

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