Dominic Bradbury, Journalist & Writer


There is a golden allure to architecture that sings rather than shouts. For new build houses, in particular, there is an increasing interest in buildings that have a modesty of scale and a true sensitivity to their surroundings. Cabins, pavilions and crafted studios are very much in vogue and for those who want more living space the notion of a compound house, which combines a number of these smaller structures on one site, has been gaining ground over recent years.

Creating a curated collection of smaller buildings, rather than one super sized dwelling, offers many advantages. A mini campus of lodges allows for greater flexibility in placing the pavilions according to the tucks and folds of the landscape, positioning each one according to framed views and sight lines. Breaking up the mass and scale of the house into a series of individual modules allows them to disappear into the landscape, rather than seeking to dominate it, and leads to a far more intimate sense of connection with nature itself, with courtyards, decks and outdoor rooms sitting within the spaces between them.

At the same time, these modern homesteads offer a special way of living. Just as designer resort hotels are increasingly turning towards a compound model, offering a series of individual villas or lodges that provide privacy and individual living space, the same is true of contemporary modular homes. Guests or older children can be provided with their own home in miniature, while their hosts retreat to a separate haven of their own. One pavilion might hold a communal lounge, while another might hold a gym, home office or studio. The flexible living patterns offered by the compound house offer a far greater sense of freedom than one static building, with its clear and familiar hierarchy of rooms. At the same time, compound homes echo the romance of farmsteads, rural hamlets and traditional assemblies of modestly scaled buildings, which helps root them in history and memory.

This is certainly true of Dominic Houlder’s home on the Isle of Skye off the western coast of Scotland. Designed by architect Mary Arnold-Forster of Dualchas, the house is divided up into three distinct parts, with each single storey element clad in larch wood. One pavilion holds the main living area, including the kitchen and a home office for Houlder, who is a business consultant and a professor at the London Business School. A second pavilion sits alongside, lightly connected to the first by a shared hallway, and holds two bedrooms, while a third pavilion nearby is currently used a gym.

‘If you look at some of the old ruins of the croft settlements on Skye and elsewhere in the Hebrides then you will see a very similar pattern of small buildings gathered together,’ says Houlder, who has known the island for decades and now uses the house as his primary residence. ‘You might have a byre and two or three cottages on the same site, so in a sense it’s harking back to a building pattern from 150 years ago and before.

‘From the standpoint of daily living, it’s also very handy to be able to move from one space to another, especially if you are combining work, socializing and relaxing at home. Making a switch from one distinct space to another is a great pleasure. One of the things that really appealed to me about the design was the idea of the highland croft revisited and you wouldn’t get that if it was all one house, which would look quite ungainly.’

With the various parts of the house carefully oriented to make the most of the stunning views, the low slung buildings and the use of traditional materials helps tie Houlder’s home to the landscape. A dry stone wall around the compound lessens the impact of the new buildings even further.

‘We use this kind of compound “device” to break up a big brief so we can minimise the impact of a building on the landscape,’ says architect Mary Arnold-Foster. ‘Quite often I get the sense that clients really want a small house but then describe a brief for a large one. Breaking the house up into smaller units really helps; I would also be uncomfortable about being the person who builds a big house in this kind of landscape.’

Similar impulses drove the design of Nick and Nadja van Praag’s home on the island of Vinalhaven in Maine, which sits within another area of great natural beauty. The Van Praag’s base themselves in Austria but lived in America for many years, with Nadja working as a designer and Nick working with the World Bank in Washington before joining an NGO. They bought a 1960s ‘modernist jewel’ on VInalhaven some years back and later they also managed to buy some adjoining land that had once housed a mobile home.

The family commissioned architects Go Logic to design a guest house on the site, composed of a series of three timber cabins partly inspired by Alvar Aalto’s design for his own summer house in Muuratsalo, Finland, dating from the 1950s, which featured a master building complemented by a number of smaller structures. Project architect Riley Pratt designed two bedroom pavilions, plus a lodge with a communal living area and kitchen, all connected by timber decks looking out across the landscape.

‘We built the house so that our grown children and friends can join us in the summer, when we try and spend two to three months in Maine,’ says Nick van Praag. ‘The new house is an “extension” of our main house, which is 150 yards away, and when Riley started talking about Aalto’s summer house and the idea of a settlement or hamlet we loved it.

‘The design provides both proximity and privacy, as well as the feeling of completeness and self-sufficiency. It sits lightly on the land and works well with the local vernacular of pitch roofed fishermen’s boat houses and bait stores. Each of the structures fits nimbly into the landscape and having your own bedroom and bathroom while sharing the living quarters is the perfect combination for people who want to be together, but not every minute of the day.’

American architect Peter Rose designed a house of many parts for his client – an American living in London – on another sensitive site in Martha’s Vineyard. The house is composed of six concrete boxes, lightly connected by a glass topped hallway, with separate single storey modules holding the bedrooms, the living room, a kitchen, study and dining room. Commissioned to replace an ageing house on the site that had been owned by the family for many years, the new home was designed to be sensitive to the landscape on the one hand but also so that it could, potentially, be moved piece by piece if the coastal bluff on which it sits were to erode away over the coming years.

‘We wanted to step the house down and follow the slope of the landscape,’ says Rose, ‘as well as reducing the scale of our intervention on what we felt was a delicate, even fragile, but extraordinarily beautiful site so that it could be unobtrusive on the edge of the ocean.

‘I had always thought that concrete would be a good material here, but it wasn’t until we decided that the house might need to be moved one day that the concrete became a necessary and driving part of the scheme. The strategy we devised was to design the house as a series of discreet parts, seamlessly assembled so as to make a coherent whole, but structured so as to allow the parts to be lifted off the foundations by crane, and placed part by part on a new foundation. Concrete, a material we felt would work visually in the rugged landscape, became the means of making the parts strong enough to make this strategy possible.’

Compound homes offer a very welcome degree of choice about how each constituent part of the whole is used. For larger families, children and teenagers can be provided with their own individual havens and the same might be true for visitors and guests. But individual lodges and studios can also be put to other uses, particularly for those who choose to work from home, with pavilions providing stand alone home offices, libraries or art studios.

Photographer and artist José Manuel Ferrater created a house of three distinct parts by the sea at Alcanar, on the Costa del Azahar, designed by his brother: the renowned Spanish architect Carlos Ferrater. The house offers a weekend and summer retreat for José Manuel Ferrater, who is based in Barcelona, with the view to the ocean filtered by a grove of 52 mature palm trees. The house itself consists of a combined living room and kitchen in one pavilion, a master suite in another and a third holding a private painting studio, with a small guest bedroom beyond. Together, the three single storey structures form an elegant triptych floating upon an elevated timber deck, while the house and studio offer a perfect and peaceful creative environment.

‘At any time of day, evening or night and during any season of the year you feel a sense of excitement with the experience of being here,’ says Ferrater. ‘I spend my spring and summer weekends at the house and my summer holidays and I always paint when I am there. I have three favourite spaces: inside the painting studio, dinner under the mulberry and lemon trees and then sitting in the living room facing the window with a view of the garden and the sea.’

The impetus to create a secluded and inviting creative space also lay behind the design of two new and complementary studios in Suffolk, England, designed by Soup architects. The new timber and steel painting studios for two artists, both of whom needed quiet working environments, sit within the gardens of the family’s original 1960s home, while the rural homestead also includes a summer house/guest house and a garage that doubles as a workshop and wood store.

‘It’s a very tranquil and peaceful setting,’ says architect Jamie le Gallez. ‘Rather than positioning the two new studios in the most picturesque section of the site they look onto it. The overall concept was that the main house, summer house and studios create this visual link through the landscape, with subtle changes in materials from the red cedar shingles on the main house, to the vertical cedar on the summer house and black timber on the artists’ studios.’

Such compound formations tend to work best in rural settings, where there is plenty of space for the pavilions to breathe, offering a pleasing composition in the landscape. Yet compound houses are also making an occasional appearance in more urban or suburban settings as well. Architects Paulo Lago de Carvalho and Susana Correia of PROD Arquitectura in Portugal designed a new house on the edge of the city of Porto for a family of three generations who wanted a house where they could share time together, while still enjoying their own privacy. The family owned some land that once been part of a farm, although the pace of development in the region means that the area is no longer as rural as it once was. With mature trees and views over the valley of the River Sousa, the site remains enticing and full of memories.

Working around the trees and an existing farmhouse, owned by the client’s brother, de Carvalho and Susana Correia designed a house composed of four distinct pavilions bound together by a glass link and bordered by an open terrace and a more sheltered deck. ‘The House of Four Houses’ features a living room house, a dining-kitchen pavilion and two further buildings, holding bedrooms for different members of the extended family. The pair of daytime pavilions are more open in character, providing spaces where the family as a whole can come together, while the bedroom units are more private and insular in nature.

‘We have space enough in the lounge, kitchen and outside to be together as a family,’ says de Carvalho’s client. ‘There are compulsive reader in the family, music lovers and the younger generation with their games and Xbox, you name it, so having these distinct pavilions rather than one traditional house is a key advantage for us. And we really enjoy the fact that the house is never the same but changes with the light and the seasons.’

Passing from one pavilion to another via the central glazed link adds to the rich experiential quality of the house. ‘The link is also a very important space in the house,’ says de Carvalho. ‘The different volumes of the house are separated at a critical distance and the glass link is a special space with a hybrid character that feels both internal and external, where you experience very different feelings walking from one “house” to another with this close relationship with the landscape making it an ever changing space during the day and the night.’

Like any compound home, the composition of pavilions and their corresponding outdoor rooms creates not only many choices over how they should be enjoyed but a feeling of adventure and discovery as you move between the different structures. The feeling of freedom generated by such multi-facetted houses, which are much more than a sum of their parts, becomes one of their greatest attractions.


Dualchas Architects –
Gologic –
Peter Rose & Partners –
OAB Ferrater & Partners –
Soup Architects –
PROD Arquitectura –

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