UNDERHILL / AUTUMN/WINTER 2016 / ISSUE FIVE / NOTES MAGAZINE
In a hole in the ground there lived an Architect. (with apologies to JRR Tolkien)
Photos courtesy ©Wm Sykes/Propertyphotographs.co.uk
Earlier this year one of the most remarkable homes ever built in this country was sold for the first time since it was completed. The impact and influence this revolutionary building had at the time it was constructed – and continued to have for decades after – was extraordinary.
The brainchild of a Yorkshire architect, inventor and author, it was the first contemporary example in Britain of an earth-sheltered house. The architect was Arthur Quarmby and the house was called Underhill. Arthur Quarmby’s practice was based in Huddersfield and Underhill is situated at the head of the Holme Valley to the south west of the town. Today the initials of the great man are represented alphanumerically in the title of the practice that subsequently evolved.
Architecture is not a topic of general conversation amongst the British public. The subject is little understood and the complexities and constraints involved in designing and detailing buildings only loosely grasped. Talking about buildings is difficult; experiencing buildings is a far easier way to understand them. What Arthur Quarmby did with Underhill was to open up a dialogue about building design rarely seen in this country outside the profession itself and provide an opportunity to debunk a lot of misconceptions.
An architect immensely sympathetic to setting and landscape, Arthur Quarmby saw such inherent sensitivity as a major benefit of the construction technique.
Arthur used the term earth-sheltered to describe the technique he employed in the design of Underhill but inevitably the popular term used for such a building was underground. Although this was not strictly correct it did enable Arthur to extend the conversation into an explanation of the differences between the two terms and how those differences affected the experience enjoyed by those using such buildings.
Arthur Quarmby once explained the technique of earth-sheltering as cutting a flap of landscape on a hillside, lifting it up and inserting a building into the incision, then drawing the landscape back over the building. Malcolm Wells, an American pioneer of earth-sheltering describes the technique as “drawing a blanket of earth over your shoulder”. Such definitions quickly explain a number of key elements of Underhill’s design: because the building is cut into a slope, one face at least has horizontal views out; secondly the relatively thin blanket of landscape over the building allows for rooflights to be inserted and thirdly the building is inevitably blended into the landscape involving far less impact than conventional construction in sensitive environments.
...this is a home designed by a man with poetry in his soul.
Indeed one of the most remarkable and often overlooked triumphs of Arthur Quarmby is that he persuaded the Peak Park Planning Authority – one of the most notoriously protective in the country – to allow him to build Underhill within its boundary. An architect immensely sympathetic to setting and landscape, Arthur saw such inherent sensitivity as a major benefit of the construction technique.
There is a danger that much of this sounds clinically logical and the cerebral deductions of a technological mind. Whilst it is true that Arthur Quarmby was responsible for numerous technical innovations during his career (check out the number of patents that were registered during his time working for British Rail) and that his interests encompassed, amongst other things, wide-span structures, the potential of plastics in building, domes, boats, flight and just about everything in between, the man has always been a romantic of the first order. If ever an architect exemplified the interaction of art and science in his profession, Arthur Quarmby is that man.
So for Arthur one of the great joys and benefits of earth-sheltered construction is the way in which it allows sunlight to be drawn into an interior through rooflights. As the man himself explained, “If you put the equivalent of a window in the roof, you get sunlight all the way around the space all day long; with a conventional window, the sunlight only strikes for a short while.”
Who but a romantic would fill the central space of his home with a swimming pool topped by a crystalline rooflight that bounced Hockneyesque reflections of sunlight off the water to light up the interior? Who but a romantic would carve a secret cave complete with peat fire into the side of the main living space to be reached by curving stone steps? Anyone approaching Underhill’s great circular front door along the tunnel flanked by heather covered banks is immediately reminded of Mole’s first visit to Badger’s house in Wind in the Willows and understands at once that this is a home designed by a man with poetry in his soul.
So at last, after forty one years blazing a trail for alternative living, Arthur and his wife Jean decided to move on. They explained that it was really just too big for them now and that the swimming pool – part of everyday life for many years – was no longer used very often. Estate agents talk blithely about unique opportunities when referring to the most mundane of homes; despite there now being a number of examples of earth-sheltered houses in this country – several of the best of which Arthur Quarmby was responsible for – Underhill is where it all started and is arguably still the most complete expression of earth-sheltered domestic design in Britain. Whoever becomes its second custodian has a big role to fill but will have the satisfaction of owning a genuine piece of architectural history as well as one of the most exhilarating homes imaginable.
Underhill is where it all started and is arguably still the most complete expression of earth-sheltered domestic design in Britain.