Architect Huw Thomas’ Winchester homes
PUBLISHED: 16:30 02 February 2016 | UPDATED: 16:30 02 February 2016
Who lives in a house like this? Possibly you do. Emma Caulton talks to architect Huw Thomas
Do you live in a Huw Thomas-designed home? If you live in Winchester, then it’s a possibility. Prior to our chat, Huw was totting up the number of houses he has designed in Winchester and the city’s surrounding parishes. The total is an impressive 627, including 29 commercial properties. By his own description he is prolific. “There can’t be a street I haven’t touched,” he remarks.
Huw is probably best known as the saviour of Peninsula Barracks. Back in the early 1990s the intention had been to demolish these historic barracks, replacing them with five-storey high buildings and a multi-storey car park.
“This was the ground where Henry V mustered his soldiers before victories at Crecy, Poitiers and Agincourt!” declares Huw indignantly, recalling his own battle with the Ministry of Defence and the local council to save the Barracks. He was assisted by what he describes as God-given good fortune: walking across the site one day, there in the skip were all the drawings of the Barracks’ buildings. He took them home and used them to design a scheme transforming the Barracks into apartments and houses, before approaching one of the estate agents in the city to find a developer interested in taking forward his ideas. The rest is now, thankfully, history. His design was kept intact. Even the landscaped formal gardens he described in watercolour to illustrate the scheme were recreated. “I don’t think one thing was changed.”
Today this corner of the city is a gem, known and appreciated, if not loved, by residents and visitors. Ironically, considering Huw’s initial battle, it is now commended by the council for its sense of place. Yet it seems lessons have not been learned. A similar planning battle is raging, this time to ensure that the development of Silver Hill, in the heart of Winchester, is undertaken with similar consideration for the city’s heritage. As Huw explains, the proposed development would have buildings as high as the parapet of the cathedral dominating the city and destroying its character. A view shared by most locals.
“I love history. I love this city...and I try so hard to stop it being messed about with.”
This appreciation of place is at the core of Huw’s work: “I suck up the place and regurgitate it into my work. I start from that. I borrow from the surroundings - I have to find a hook.”
Although well known for his more traditional designs, he does modern concepts, too. Even these complement the surroundings. Mozzetta is his – a rather audacious steel and glass structure on Little Minster Street. Huw says: “Where Mozzetta sits there was a timber-framed pub, but they knocked it down. So I thought I’d do a jettied upper storey like a medieval building.” His design uses exposed steel struts to emulate timber framework. He has also cleverly angled the building, giving the apartments views across to the cathedral and helping retain privacy. Mozzetta may be a modern design, but it is inspired by and respects its locality.
In his offices on Winchester’s Southgate Street, Huw is surrounded by his work. The front of his offices overlooks the Barracks. Down the street a carbuncle of a car showroom has been replaced by another of his schemes - an elegant row of townhouses featuring neoclassical symmetry, porticos and columns with a courtyard incorporating an old coach house and dovecote. Meanwhile from the back of Huw’s office are views across the city to a row of six townhouses on the hillside opposite, glowing in the afternoon sun and looking, with their seemingly haphazard roofline and charming mix of architectural features, as though they have always been there. This is Blue Ball Hill, a development in a conservation area, and the first houses Huw designed for Alfred Homes. It is probably this development that established Alfred Homes in Winchester and was the foundation for the ongoing relationship between Huw and the developer.
Huw describes Alfred Homes as the housing equivalent of buying a suit from Savile Row: individual, traditional homes using quality materials. Yet behind the elegant facades, these houses are tailored to create spaces suited to 21st century living.
The Oliver Mews development in St Cross, which I visited, comprising three townhouses and a ‘coachhouse’ apartment, sold in about three weeks. The showhouse was launched and sold within hours. Huw says: “You can’t beat that sort of house. Everyone likes it: simple elegant terrace houses – nothing too grand. Through all the architectural styles from Georgian, Art and Crafts to Art Deco, the most popular is the simple, traditional form.”
Alfred Homes’ small developments using Winchester’s architectural vernacular and, more often than not, Huw’s designs, are appearing throughout the city.
Connaught Square, on Chilbolton Avenue, has the appearance of traditional villas, but these are apartments with underground parking cleverly hidden under terraced gardens. Elizabeth Place, also on Chilbolton Avenue, again has traditional frontage facing the road. However, behind is a close of family homes. And while borrowing features from the past (such as stone dressings and bay windows), Huw has been creative in a modern way, using unexpected angles to make the best use of the site. “I happily mix contemporary and traditional – I think it makes design more exciting. I enjoy the tension between old and new.”
He decries the use of that “horrible” word pastiche to describe and deride what he is doing. His designs are much more than that: a fusion of ideas and influences from past and present.
Huw finds that working with Alfred Homes is like working with a private client. “Their briefs include big hallways, which I like. The whole house is set up by the hall - it makes a house. I say if you can’t put a Christmas tree in the hallway, it’s not a home.”
Others include high ceilings – “good ceiling height is very important, it gives you elegance.” Similarly the use of traditional window openings informs the design. He explains that the difference between contemporary and traditional buildings is the windows: traditional-style windows are vertical, modern houses’ windows are horizontal.
“When you use traditional, vertical window openings then everything else has to be proportionate throughout.”
The interiors may be proportionate, but they’re not totally traditional. Sash windows sit adjacent to bifold doors. Details include deep skirting boards and architraving along with underfloor heating and MVHR (mechanical ventilation with heat recovery) for greater energy efficiency than any Victorian property could ever achieve. Space is redefined to meet modern day expectations.
“You have to go with the times. What has grown is the kitchen-dining-parlour as a space.”
So, too, have utility rooms, often big enough for showers for dirty dogs. Home offices are positioned over garages for that important separation from home life. Showers are “so big you can get a rugby team in them”. And more homes have an ensuite with each bedroom. The master bedroom is increasingly important, too, and Huw is excited about the ones he is designing for a new Alfred Homes development on Park Road: “I’ve added exceptional roof volume...It is going to be amazing and totally different.”
He describes his designs for Alfred Homes as, “A bit like baking a cake with different ingredients. And they are selling like hot cakes!” Then smiles at his unintended joke.
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