Cork House is unique; it is the built form of a radical new approach to construction and sustainable design. The architects, Matthew Barnett Howland, Dido Milne and Oliver Wilton, set out to re-think a building from first principles, considering each stage of its life, including whole-life carbon, material life-cycle and design for disassembly. They examined alternatives to the complex assemblies of composite materials which make up modern wall systems. Could a single solid material be used as an alternative? Their research led them to expanded cork, a bio-renewable material with a remarkably sustainable life cycle. In its solid form, it integrates structure, insulation, external and internal finish. The walls and the five corbelled roof pyramids of Cork House are made of monolithic cork blocks, solid from inside to outside, which interlock so they can be built without mortar, glue, insulation, plaster or render.
The system is carbon negative, designed for self-build assembly, and at the end of the building’s life the cork can be re-used. It is an innovative building, but one which also had to respect the idyllic and historic context of its site. Its home is the riverside garden of a Grade II listed 19th century mill house, purchased a decade ago by Howland and Milne, who became not only architects but also clients and builders. The house nestles amid mature trees and acts as a gateway into a walled garden. It is linear in plan, 18 metres long, and consists of five bays, each topped with a pyramidal roof. The cork blocks which form the pyramidal roofs are clad with cedar weatherboards and rainwater is discharged via copper-lined valleys and copper rainwater goods.
The first bay, the threshold between the two gardens, creates a space for sheltered outside living; the next bay is an entrance foyer and a generous bathroom with a sleeping loft above it. Two further pyramidal roofs enclose a kitchen/living room, with a bedroom in the final module beyond. Inside the house, the exposed cork walls are warm to the touch and create a rich sensory environment involving touch, sound and even smell. As the architect explains: ‘The resultant architectural form is new and yet familiar, a progressive reimagining of ancient structures and simple construction principles that considerably exceeds contemporary building performance requirements. With a focus on what is solid, simple and sustainable, the project is also an innovative response to some of the complexities and conventions of modern building practices’.