Buy Of The Week: Oxfordshire

Houses don't need to be 'rustic' to work with nature. Jonathan Christie finds a modern alternative
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The Independent Online

When Kevin McCloud says, "There is only one house I can think of in the whole country that takes my breath away," then it's time to put down your copy of Self-build Weekly and concentrate. The presenter of Channel 4's Grand Designs - and guru to the nation's amateur developers - adores this building in the Chiltern Hills which, despite its seclusion, has been no stranger to the spotlight.

The Jacob's Ladder house is the grand design of David and Shelley Grey, who finally entrusted their dream - and cash - to the 13th architect they approached, Niall McLaughlin. He responded to his clients, the site and its environment in a way that puts most new houses in the shade.

"He was the only architect who seemed excited about the build," remembers David Grey. "We'd lived in a perfectly proportioned Georgian rectory, so we were looking for something different. Niall came to the site and we talked about what we wanted and what we liked, citing the Eameses' Californian Case Study houses of the 1950s as particular favourites."

McLaughlin's brief was to "make a house to look out of, that would act as a frame for the woodland". The original 1920s house (built for the Dean of Windsor, hence the biblical name) was demolished in 2000 and the final piece of glass was polished into position the following year. It has since achieved architectural "superstar" status through a string of book and magazine articles as well as a Royal Institute of British Architects award.

Set on a slope, Jacob's Ladder is entered via a raised walkway to the first floor where the harmony of materials is striking. The warm, ship-lapped Douglas fir has the hue of autumn leaves and reflects back into the woods off the polished steel fittings and galvanised frame. The glass - which appears to be everywhere - literally mirrors the surroundings, softening the structure's impact and creating a way through to the trees and valley beyond.

The sensory experience continues with circles and squares that puncture the entrance space. Initially, your eye is drawn in every direction, but the focal point becomes obvious when the view across a reflecting pool to the valley beyond reveals itself. Every angle becomes a borrowed view. The sky is drawn down through a porthole and doubled in size by the glass-smooth pool, while the soft fringing of the woodland frames the distant fields and horizon. Pastoral and abstract, this is one big view as if painted by Gainsborough and Ben Nicholson.

A double bedroom, set apart from the other accommodation, is accessed from this entrance terrace, as is the front door. A Mies van der Rohe-influenced stairwell, encased in sandblasted glass, curves away as you walk in. Further along this top-lit hallway is the main bedroom with en suite bathroom and private terrace. This 24-foot long room is a private eyrie from which to view everything - only the thinnest of glazing bars remind you of the barrier between inside and out. "Because we are completely screened, there are no curtains anywhere," laughs Grey, "not even in the bathrooms."

Descending the stairs brings you to the drawing room, which extends up into a void that offers the biggest view yet of the outdoors as well as slices of rooms yet to come. The walls act as dividers, not full stops, on this level, pulling up short of actually joining together and creating a myriad of routes between the kitchen, dining and drawing rooms and on to the wraparound terrace.

McLaughlin retains one more surprise. Next to two more bedrooms, a pair of doors unfold to reveal an infinity pool. Sitting below the external reflecting pool, this inside space bounces light, sky and trees around its shimmering surfaces. Swimming in this pool must feel like a voyage through the trees.

Apart from some formal areas immediately next to the house, most of the grounds are woodland.

"It is exactly the kind of domestic architecture we should be producing, " says Grey. "We've thinned the trees slightly now to open up the view, but we wouldn't have built this house if the site had been more exposed. We're on a bit of a crusade about contemporary houses now and are moving to the Antipodes to build something similar. We get asked what we'd change, but we wouldn't change anything - we both love this house." McLaughlin's architectural language draws from a long line of reinvented influences, but what sets this building apart is its modesty, soul and beauty. It's not just forward-thinking houses that need to be sensitive to the landscape they inhabit and borrow from, but they have to work twice as hard to gain widespread acceptance. Jacob's Ladder points to the future in its intentions to inspire and integrate people with their surroundings.

"This is how 21st- century rural houses should be designed," continued Kevin McCloud. Let's hope some of our planners can see the wood for the trees.

Get the spec

What is it? An award-winning contemporary house designed by Niall McLaughlin.

Where? Near the village of Chinnor in Oxfordshire, 22 miles from Oxford and 43 from central London.

What do you get? Four bedrooms, two reception rooms, two bathrooms, swimming pool, terrace, garage and 9.5 acres of woodland.

Size: 2570 sq ft (239 sq m)

Any tricks? Underfloor heating, 'low e' glass and Philippe Starck bathroom fittings.

How much? £1.75m through Savills on 01491 843 000 or at www.savills.co.uk.

Fancy something similar? Contact the architect, Niall McLaughlin on 020-7485 9170 or visit

www.niallmclaughlin.com.

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