How do you keep an iconic home fresh whilst retaining the essence of the design?

We talked to the architect and owner, Mark Lee


Consider: you are an architect who has designed and lives in one of the best-known private houses in Yorkshire. At the time you designed it you had two young children and were struggling to establish your own business. Nearly twenty years later things, inevitably, have changed. How do you adapt an iconic building that has featured in magazines and on television programmes over those years to retain the essence of the design and yet keep it fresh and alive? Oh yes, and the house also happens to be round…

Mark Lee, partner at ONE17 lives in The Roundhouse, a converted water tank at Hall Bower near Huddersfield, under the gaze of Castle Hill, another local landmark. He is surprised that anyone might think it difficult to adapt such a building to changing needs:

“At the time we first moved in, the building probably looked finished to most people, but there were still masses of things I wanted to do,” explained Mark. “Alterations that were necessary because of our changing circumstances then brought on a whole new set of opportunities.”

People have often commented how difficult it must be adapting to a circular home, but he has never seen this as an issue:  “The business of the building being round is no big deal really. It’s just a different geometry to squares and rectangles but it demands its own logic. Inevitably I’ve ended up designing quite a lot of bespoke furniture over the years but that’s what I’m trained to do!”

Many spaces have undergone radical changes since the house was first occupied. Mark’s wife Caroline, who is Educational Coordinator for ONE17 ED, the educational publishing arm of the group, remembers the day that the bespoke bed and built-in curved wardrobes in the master bedroom were installed. “It completely changed the nature of the space and took a while to get used to” she recalls “I felt strange lying in bed facing ‘the wrong way’ but at the end of the day the space worked so much better than before it wasn’t a problem for long.”

As something of a workaholic, Mark later found space to create a study area on the upper floor where he could develop ideas that struck whilst out of the office. The circular form enabled him to create an internal window giving a visual link between the study and the main living areas, whilst keeping distance and the necessary privacy.

Twelve years after moving in, he was ready to add a garage to the house. Rather than being a simple utility building, the finished product is a tour de force of architectural design. “Whilst the garage has a rectangular plan, the curved roof relates it to the curves of the main house. The detailing of the stone and leadwork has been treated just as carefully as if it were a much bigger building.”

The quality of this little gem was recognised in an award from the Royal Institute of British Architects in 2008 – just as the Roundhouse itself had been some years earlier. “ We think it’s the smallest building ever to win such an award,” said Mark with obvious pleasure.

Another change was wrought on the lower floor, where the children’s bedrooms had first been planned. As Mark explained, “At first Matthew and Katie needed playroom type bedrooms with fairly basic ensuites. As they grew older, we made changes to their rooms to reflect this. Eventually, when university loomed for them, I had the chance to remodel the area and build a new family/guest bathroom.”  Inserting a bathroom can be difficult enough in an ordinary house, what with water and drainage pipes to accommodate. Surely it was even more difficult in a round house?

“I’m a great believer in planning for the unknown,” said Mark “so I had designed the house with possible change in mind. Incorporating proper service routes rather than just running pipes under floorboards and down walls makes adding in a bathroom far easier than it might otherwise be. As far as dealing with the circular geometry, it gives you a discipline but also results in spaces with a character all their own.”

So has the Roundhouse gone as far as it can now?  “Caroline and I have often talked about moving, or more accurately about finding somewhere to build afresh, but so far we’ve managed to adapt the building to meet our needs without the upheaval of a moving. My next project will probably be replanning and refitting the kitchen soon.”

Every few years a new audience seems to discover the house. Caroline is well used to parties of strangers wandering around and has welcomed visitors from various parts of the globe.

“When you have a home as interesting as this one, people are inevitably curious. Welcoming people who’ve come to see the building rather than you goes with the territory.”

Although still instantly recognisable today as the building that first appeared in the architectural press two decades ago, the Roundhouse has changed over the years and will probably continue to do so.

“There’s no need yet, but I’ve done loads of sketches exploring how we might extend the house” admits Mark. “The challenge of extending a circle really appeals to me.”

Caroline says that it is often technology that drives change: “When we first moved in I thought we had the last word in lighting for example. But developments in led lights, wireless controls and smart technology made it look outdated surprisingly quickly. There’s always something new. We get some of our best ideas travelling abroad and bring them back to use at home.”

The best architecture has the ability to appear both completely resolved yet at the same time capable of change. The Roundhouse is one small but perfectly formed example.

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