11 Nov 2022

Meet the Moving, Kinetic Self-build

At first glance, Sliding House is a conventional building form, in harmony with the neighbouring agricultural vernacular. However, on closer inspection, it reveals unconventional detailing, radical environmental performance and a big surprise.

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Designed by dRMM, the brief was for a self-build house where the owner could retire, grow food, entertain and enjoy the picturesque Suffolk landscape.

The site was constrained by stringent local planning parameters, which exist to curtail rural development. However, a genuine appreciation of vernacular farm buildings shared by dRMM and the client, who played an active role in the self-build project, led to a unique take on the local timber-framed and -clad ‘barn’ typology.

A linear building of apparent simplicity is sliced into three barn-like forms, each housing separate programmes; a house, garage and annexe. The garage is pulled off axis to create a courtyard between the three. The composition is further defined by material and colour; red rubber membrane and glass with dRMM’s trademark timber – in this case, larch, which has been stained red and black.

The surprise is found in the way the separated forms are transformed by a 20-ton mobile roof and wall structure, which traverses the site, creating combinations of enclosure and open-air living in the house below. The autonomous roof structure is constructed from steel, timber, insulation and unstained larch. It moves independently from the house on recessed railway tracks. The movement is powered by hidden electric motors on wheels integrated into the wall thickness.

The kinetic capacity of Sliding House is playful. This, combined with the use of colour and form, is a perfect example of dRMM’s flair for creating buildings that burst with optimism and identity.

The location

Situated in East Anglia, in Huntingfield, Suffolk, Sliding House sits on a 3.5-acre site, which originally came complete with a run-down bungalow and planning permission for a conventional house and granny annexe. The local planners were traditionally minded and insisted that the house should look like one of the county’s long, narrow, timber-clad barns.

The architect and client responded with a conventional barn shape ensuring the building was successful in achieving planning permission and meeting the strict conditions under which new dwellings can be erected within the countryside. Within these constraints, original designs were anything but conventional and included an ambitious plan to have the shell move across the grass to form a shelter for an outdoor swimming pool if needed.

The simple built form is divided to include a kitchen/dining area in the conservatory part at the front, with a utility room, bedroom, shower room and ‘snug’ for watching television. On the mezzanine, upper level is a sitting gallery, behind which is a bathroom with a roof that can open to the elements. The varied configurations provide occupants with the ability to define their relationship with the surrounding landscape as well as the changing seasons.

Sliding House is a part timber-framed structure that is clad in larch rainscreen and part fully-glazed aluminium, borrowing a construction methodology from office curtain wall systems. These two materials provide definition between different living spaces.

Moving parts

The sliding roof structure is a steel frame with timber infill, again clad in larch on the exterior with a red TPO waterproof membrane underneath. This modular approach to construction meant all elements could be prefabricated and put together on site. Each element of the composition is carefully proportioned in relation to frame, window and wall sizes. The house sits on a concrete raft foundation, which provides the long, flat surface necessary for embedding the concealed rails on which the house slides.

The 20-ton roof and wall structure move at 0.2mph taking six minutes to move from one end of the track to the other. Movement is powered by hidden electric motors on rail ‘bogeys’ integrated into the 30cm wall thickness. Each of the four 24-volt electric motors has its own pair of DC lorry batteries, which are charged by photovoltaic solar panels on the roof. The railway tracks are recessed into the internal terrace, and the 6m gauge ‘railway’ is further disguised by stone paving joints and a linear drainage gully. This aligns the whole composition and alleviates the need for roof gutters.

There are three options. The shell can slide forward as a shady canopy, retract back, covering the annexe and yard, leaving the bathroom open to the sky or stop halfway, covering the bathroom but revealing the conservatory. Many people aspire to live in a glass house for the sensation of being in a sheltered outdoors, but this is generally not practical. As a passive model, a glass house is never comfortable, being either too hot or cold with ineffective user control, unless you resort to air conditioning, with the consequential implications for further energy use and the impact that has on the climate emergency.

The glass living area of Sliding House provides thermal comfort naturally at almost no cost. Controlled solar gain occurs in the selection of the roof/wall position. This captures the required heat according to season and is backed up with a ground-source heat pump during colder months. This principle can be run in reverse to achieve shade and cooling, respectively. To supplement the energy savings created by employing passive principles for Sliding House, the clients retrospectively installed a wind turbine on the site.

Overcoming complications

Designing a moving house is not without challenges. Nothing can stick up through the roof of the inner house as this would inhibit movement. No chimneys, television aerials or even gutters. Clever design was used to detail a system by which rain could run down the timber slats to soakaways. To keep the wind out, the moving roof and wall component hovers close to the fixed portion of the house and is sealed with nylon brushes.

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