The Hen House shows how to downsize your space and your energy bill

view from kitchen in hen house
© Dug Wilders Photography

Critic Hugh Pearman says, "This is a house that sits lightly in its landscape, with minimal running costs and maximum delight." I can't write anything better.

Downsizing is on a lot of people's minds these days, but it is rarely done as elegantly as Paul Testa Architecture's clients Jo and Gail have done. They owned a house on a hill overlooking the city, and managed to get approval to build a new 1,506 square foot house in the lower part of the lot, where the Hen House used to be, and paid for it by selling off the original house.

hen house entry© Dug Wilders Photography
Paul Testa has noted that "the site is a tough one. It's a steep wooded plot; a large proportion of the site area is covered by a tree protection order for the woodland's landscape value and there are significant overlooking issues into or from the existing dwelling dependent on where a new building is sited."

Hen house exterior© Dug Wilders Photography

RIBA Journal architecture critic Hugh Pearman visited and notes that "the house itself is a vessel of calm, docked in the side of its valley. It is very unlike the glass-and-steel boxes that sometimes seem to be the default architectural response to such sites."

Hen House living© Dug Wilders Photography

It is tough to do a really energy efficient house in glass and steel, and this house has a lot more glass than I would have expected. The upper, living level is gloriously bright with one whole end being glazed, and a long strip window in the kitchen. (In fact, I thought it was a full Passivhaus but Paul Testa advises that it is not quite, because of the form factor. This post has been revised accordingly.)

Hen House Island © Dug Wilders Photography

It's also what I have called an upside-down house, or French Farmhouse plan, which I have always thought makes so much sense. You get the big spans, great views and dramatic roofs possible on the top floor, and the bedrooms below, where they "feel snug and softly lit which contrasts well with the bright, spacious upper floor." The first I saw like this when I was in architecture school was Ted Cullinan's house in London, and have always wondered why more people didn't do it. On a hilly site, it makes even more sense.

Hen House Materials© Dug Wilders Photography

As Pearman notes:

So this is an exercise in light versus dark. The bedrooms are downstairs where the earth and masonry-sheltered construction, along with the shading slope above, help to keep a temperature equilibrium – noticeable in this year’s heatwave when the upper floor with its extensive west-facing end glazing got very warm. In fact, the lower level is essentially a different microclimate anyway, opening out onto a lower terrace excavated from the valley side, with outdoor steps leading down to it. A higher terrace at top floor level occupies the top of the plinth.

Hen house bedroom© Dug Wilders Photography

The client likes it too, saying, "It’s just over 8 weeks since we moved into our new home, and we still can’t believe that we get to live here. It feels like we’ve moved to a new country rather than to the bottom of the garden!"

Hugh Pearman concludes, "This is a house that sits lightly in its landscape, with minimal running costs and maximum delight." That might be the best description yet of what a good energy-efficient design can be.

The Hen House shows how to downsize your space and your energy bill
"This is a house that sits lightly in its landscape, with minimal running costs and maximum delight."

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