Shopping for an architect? An initiative that will demistify their work is set to have the public poring over high-tech homes. Lesley Gillilan reports
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The Independent Online
In one afternoon last September, architect Richard Nightingale received more than 300 visitors. Fortunately, they didn't arrive en masse, but the waves of people who washed in and out of his spatially challenged north London home occasionally formed a sizable crowd. "It was a bit like a party at times," he says. His guests were welcome but Richard had never met any of them before. They simply wandered in off the street, poked around, oohed and aahed, asked probing questions, and left. Sounds like a nightmare, but next Saturday Nightingale is holding yet another indiscriminate house party for a large group of strangers. Why?

"There's a common presumption that all architects live in lovely Georgian houses while designing hideous modern ones for everyone else," he says. "I want to counter that perception and demonstrate that contemporary buildings can be user-friendly, comfortable and homely.

"People also tend to think that bespoke architecture is expensive. In fact, the cost of building a new house can be much cheaper than buying and doing up an old one."

Nightingale House, designed by Richard and business partner Hugh Cullum, cost less than pounds 80,000 to build in 1988. To see how the money was spent all you have to do is walk through the door. For contrast, you can wander over to Glebe Place in Chelsea and see work in progress on a contemporary Arts & Crafts-style house, being built by architects James Gorst on a budget of close to pounds 800,000. Alternatively, Jon Broome's turf-roofed, semi-transparent Eco house in SE23 - inspired by the work of the late self-build guru Walter Segal - shows what you can do with tree trunks for pounds 110,000.

These open invitations to the common herd are part of Britain's third annual "Heritage Open Days" event, organised by the Civic Trust, which starts next Saturday. The scheme offers free passage into hundreds of buildings - over 400 in London, 1,700 in other parts of England, 500 in Scotland - which are usually closed to the public or open for a fee. The majority are industrial, religious, municipal or museum buildings: factories, fire stations, windmills, waste-water treatment plants, church towers, caverns, colleges, theatres, traffic-control centres and the like. But dozens of hospitable homeowners, scattered all around the country, have elected to open up their personal spaces as public curiosities.

They are a minority element, but the complete list of private houses embraces historic properties, restorations, imaginative extensions, conversions, modern interiors behind staid period facades, and architects' techno dream homes. In the case of the the latter, the two-day event offers a rare opportunity to peel away the packaging, check out the contents and get a feel for how they perform internally as functional, everyday living spaces.

"Not everyone will like what they see," says Nightingale, "but that in itself raises issues. The public are often alarmed by the notion of modern architecture, but by giving them an inside perspective they will be in a better position to make an informed opinion." Arty, highly styled pictures in glossy magazines cannot, after all, convey the essential human ingredients - kids, pets, fresh air, garden views - that make a house a home. Even allowing for a bit of pre-opening primping and tidying, it's hoped that walking into some of these houses will be as reassuring as seeing a supermodel in the flesh and finding that she is neither as cool nor as pristinely plastic as she looks in print.

According to the Civic Trust, "Open Doors" sets out to "raise awareness of the need for both conservation and imaginative development... and includes the contemporary architecture that will form the heritage of tomorrow". Inevitably, as Nightingale admits, a fair percentage of visitors are going to be "house tourists", seizing the opportunity to a have a nose at someone else's duvet covers or twiddle with the buttons on their electronic gizmos.

In the case of John Young's cathedral of high-tech - his industrial-look "ocean of space" - "Open House" provides an opportunity to gawp at radical new architecture in the role of art. "The apartment celebrates process and materials, collisions, connections, the way things work, the skill of the craftsman and the intricacy of construction," says Young, a partner of Richard Rogers. The Deckhouse, at Thames Reach in London, certainly majors on the wow! factor but it remains a showpiece, inaccessible to most people's pockets or, indeed, their aspirations.

"A lot of people don't understand what architects do," says Mark Lee who is opening his converted 90,000-gallon Victorian water tank, The Roundhouse, near Huddersfield. "Opening the doors to our house is a way of showing them not only what I'm capable of, but what you get for your money when you employ an architect." Described in the "Open Days" catalogue as "an inspiring conversion of a redundant industrial building and a brilliant example of how to make the most of an awkward shape", the four-bedroom Roundhouse demonstrates practical open-plan living without compromise to the original circular structure.

His associate, Kevin Drayton, is opening Best Revenge ("Living well is the best revenge," said 17th-century clergyman-poet George Herbert), a one-year-old house in rural West Yorkshire built for about pounds 150,000. "I set out to create a minimalist Nineties space within a building that relates reasonably well to local vernacular traditions," says Drayton. The barn- like form, built of natural stone and roofed with slate, encapsulates a loft-like interior, replete with exposed construction materials and galvanised steel. He refers to his house as an example of a "long-life, loose-fit, low-energy" building. "The design is deliberately flexible so that it could easily be converted into something else in the future."

Mary Thun's basement office in central London is designed so that it can be instantly converted into a domestic living space "in the wave of a wand". The secret, she says, is in the use of cunningly adaptable fitted furniture. The project also shows that basements need not be dark and uninviting.

The same could be said of Building Design editor Lee Mallett's converted shop in Cannonbury, London, in which his dark, rotting cellar was merged with the ground floor to create a light, airy double-height living space. With an expanse of shop-window glazing facing the street, Mallett and his family are used to being exposed, but he is inviting people inside to promote alternative ways of living. "I'm fed up with the tedious, neo- Tudorbethan cubes put up by house builders and I believe that buyers accept them only because there is little else on offer," he says. Not all the "Open Day" houses are contempory. Tony and Julia Miller's Alder house in Atherton, Manchester, is a 300-year-old, Grade II listed property, bought as a ruin from the local authority for just pounds 1 and restored, under the guidance of English Heritage, for roughly pounds 200,000.

They are not grinding an axe for architects or the built environment, so why are they opening their living-rooms to all and sundry? "Simple," says Julia. "We just want to show off."

! The Heritage Open Days scheme(14-15 Sept) is co-ordinated by the Civic Trust and funded by the Department of National Heritage. Some of the private houses included in the event are open for one day only, during limited hours or by appointment. Before setting out, check details in official catalogues, available from Tourist Information Centres. For full details on the nationwide event contact: Heritage Open Days (England) on 0891 800603; Open House (London) on 0891 600061; Doors Open Days (Scotland) on 0141 221 1466; European Heritage Open Days (Wales) on 01222 484606; Heritage Open Days (Northern Ireland) on 01232 235254.


All contours and curves - no angles, this contemporary family home is created inside the shell of a restored 90,000-gallon Victorian water tank near Huddersfield. The bedrooms form segments which radiate from a central core and a curved maple staircase winds up to a living area lit by a conical skylight. Architect Mark Lee paid pounds 30,000 for it, and spent four years and pounds 130,000 on restoration


Designed by architects Cullen and Nightingale, this compact, suburban north London villa was built in 1988 for about pounds 75,000. The challenge was to make effective use of an awkward site, 4.5 metres wide. The result is a long, thin split-level, two-bedroom house arranged around a double- height living space. Bay windows, curved walls and light colours help create an impression of volume


This apartment in London's Barbican Centre (a residential and arts complex) was originally designed by architects Chamberlin Powell & Bon. It was converted into a contemporary family house by Brendan Woods last year at a cost of about pounds 35,000. The stunning, colourful design utilises German organic paints applied to MDF and also features a number of mosaics incorporated into the flooring


Ian Ritchie designed this high-tech fantasy house in 1981, for the late botanist Ursula Colahan. She wanted a nest that integrated living space with landscape - so he built this bizarre glass and steel structure in Sussex. The beak is the entrance, the tail is a south-facing conservatory and the wings fly over the bedrooms. Owners Andy and Sophie Earl bought the house in 1990 for pounds 230,000


John Young's dramatic Thames Reach apartment sits at the top of the Richard Rogers Partnership housing scheme. Completed in 1989, the 300 square metre temple to high-tech features suspended sleeping platforms. A steel bridge leads to a glass-brick bathroom tower, with a sunken hot-tub of Japanese cypress protruding from the flat roof. The budget? Zero compromise; figure undisclosed.