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Murphy House, Edinburgh, United Kingdom

Wednesday 04 Jan 2017

One man’s vision

Murphy House by Richard Murphy Architects in Edinburgh, United Kingdom
Richard Murphy 
Murphy House by Richard Murphy Architects in Edinburgh, United Kingdom Murphy House by Richard Murphy Architects in Edinburgh, United Kingdom Murphy House by Richard Murphy Architects in Edinburgh, United Kingdom Murphy House by Richard Murphy Architects in Edinburgh, United Kingdom Murphy House by Richard Murphy Architects in Edinburgh, United Kingdom Murphy House by Richard Murphy Architects in Edinburgh, United Kingdom
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Most architects have an ambition to build a house for themselves; unfortunately, not many get the chance. Richard Murphy was lucky 

This is Richard Murphy’s account of how he came to design and build a unique home on Hart Street in Edinburgh in the UK…

“Alerted by a friend to an already subdivided garden in Hart Street in the eastern Edinburgh New Town, I wrote to the owner. That email initiated a ten year adventure with planning permission  achieved  in  2007  but  just  as  we  plunged  into  a  recession  so construction  was  delayed with the house eventually completed by Easter 2015. Before  discovering  the  site  I  had  progressed  quite  far  with  the  design  of a  new  house  for  myself in Bakehouse Close off the Canongate but the land sale fell through.  However, instead of that project, a  client  commissioned  during  the  1990’s  two  mews  houses  on  Calton  Hill  built  for  renting  out  and these became sequentially my home as my client’s tenant.” 

‘A Rubik’s Cube’

“Thus I had the highly unusual experience of test  driving  two  of  my  own  designs;  trying  out  ideas  as well  as  designing in  some detail.  Many themes in these previous three projects were developed into the Hart Street design.  All  four  projects  squeeze  significant  amounts  of  accommodation  onto  very  restricted  sites  and  all increase  the  feeling  of  space  through  the  use  of  complex  sections  and  occasionally  tricks  with mirrors.  The  mews  houses  were  restricted  by  a  5  x  8m  footprint  and  their  existing  sectional envelope. Hart Street is a little bigger with an 11 x 6 m footprint developed with four stories and nine  levels  and  containing  three  bedrooms,  three  shower  rooms,  a  living/dining/kitchen  area  at varying  levels,  study,  reception  hall,    basement  plant  and  storage,  garage,  utility  room  and  roof terrace. “A Rubik's cube" was how the Australian architect Glenn Murcutt who lodged in the house for the RSA 2015 Metzstein Discourse described it.  All four projects responded to their highly particular historic contexts, not least at Hart Street where the  site  straddles  the  unresolved  junction  of  two  contiguous  estates  which  each  developed  in  the 1820’s  simultaneously  but  seemingly  without  much  coordination.  The  unique  circumstances  of  this piece  of  New  Town  mis-planning  became  the  springboard  for  the  entire  design.  The  adjacent tenement gable end should never have been exposed nor should it have been extended upwards in the 1960’s and the new house deliberately responds  by building high to becoming a book-end to it; it both hides the gable and attempts to conclude the façade.” 

Contemporary materials

“The triangular form of the bookend encloses the maximum volume yet preserves light angles from the adjacent basement apartment on Forth Street. It also makes a south-facing roof. The  front  façade  continues  the  stonework  pattern  of  the  street  façade  concluding  with  the  idea  of "an  inhabited  ruin."  Even  when  a  building  is  completely  new  this is  a  theme  which  frequently reoccurs in our architecture when building in historic places. The "new" architecture is layered with contemporary  materials  of  glass  block,  steel,  burnt  timber  and  lead  used  in a  tectonic  way contrasting with the solidity of what might be a pre-existent  ashlar stonework "ruin" to either side. Within  the  ashlar  is  a  pattern  of  tiny  windows  (which  sit  amongst  the  shelves of  a  giant  staircase-bookcase  inside)  and  these  play  on  the  ashlar  stone  construction  with  corner  windows  reminiscent of coin-stones, but in the negative.  As with the adjacent tenements, the ashlar turns to rubble at the rear where the whole elevation becomes a much freer composition.  The Dutch architect, Aldo Van Eyck once said that a house should be both a bird’s nest and a cave; an  extrovert  place  in  summer and  a  retreat  in  winter,  or,  if  you  like,  day-time  activities  contrasting with night time. With the hugely varying hours of daylight at Edinburgh's latitude this is particularly relevant  and  that  essentially  psychological  idea  also  chimes  with  the  requirements  of  energy conservation. Closing shutters is a traditional New Town device developed at Hart St in unexpected ways.”  

“The  south  facing  monopitch  roof  consists  of  photovoltaic  cells  and  substantial  glazing.  Underneath this are two giant mechanised hinged insulated shutters, one in the living space and one in the master bedroom. These allow the glass to generate heat for the house when open but prevent it radiating heat when closed. They also change the section quite radically moving from the vertical  to  the  horizontal  and  creating  spatial  variations  which  illustrate  Van  Eyck’s  dictum. All the  major windows to the house have insulated shutters which slide or pivot.  Other  energy  innovations  are  a  computerised  internal  air  circulation  system  which  takes  warm  air from the top  of the house to  the basement to counteract the stack effect and expels it via a gravel rock store to produce a delayed heat source for evening use.  The main heating source for the house is a 150 m deep  ground  source  borehole  connecting  to  a  heat  exchanger  which  feeds  under-floor  heating.  Rainwater  which  follows  a  course  of  pools  and  waterfalls  on  the  roof  terrace  finds it way  to  grey-water  storage  tanks  in  the  basement  and  is  then  used  to  flush  toilets  and  supply  a sprinkler  system. In  winter,  heat  is  extracted  from  the  flue  of  a  log  burning  stove  to  pre-heat  hot water. Peter Smithson once said to his students you will be very lucky if you have a single original idea in your life!” 


“No architect is immune from the work of those who have gone before and at Hart Street I freely confess to a number of architectural influences at work.  Not least of course is the work of the Venetian Carlo Scarpa, an architect I have studied intensely, and the roof terrace is a homage to the garden of the Querini Stampalia in Venice using the same exposed aggregate walls and sourcing tiles from  Scarpa’s  original  manufacturer  in  Venice.    Internally, the  Venetian stucco  lucido  coloured plasterwork  is  used  extensively.  The  Sir  John  Soane  Museum  is  a    great  influence    with  mirrors creating  a  number  of  spatial  illusions.  Equally  present  is  a  fascination  with  Chareau’s    Maison  de Verre  in  Paris  with  the  crafting  of  many  of  the  steel elements,    the  exposure  of  the  steel  structure and  a  love  of  moving  parts.  Frank  Lloyd  Wright's    many  contemporary  fireplace  inglenooks, particularly in his Usonian Houses is the inspiration behind the fireplace composition and Reitveld’s Schroder house makes an appearance in a disappearing corner stone panel opening in the master bedroom, designed to be the same proportions as his famous corner window. Even though there is limited  site  area  the  house  chooses  to  adopt  a  "thick-walled"  aesthetic,  perimeter  walls  containing narrow staircases and cupboards in the spirit of mediaeval Scots architecture. An unpredictable and non-repetitive vertical circulation route also might have come from the same source although, while designing  the  house,  a  chance  visit  to  the  Muller  House  in  Prague  by  Adolf  Loos  confirmed  the strategy  in  my  mind.  There,    a  vertical  route  through  the  main  spaces  develops  upwards  in  a completely unexpected way. The   design   was   recommended   refusal   by   Edinburgh   City   Council   Planning   Department   but Councillors  voted  to  reject  this  advice  and  allowed  construction  to  go  ahead.”  

“Since its completion an architecture web site have named it their House of the Year 2015, it has won a Saltire Award for the best new house in Scotland and has won a Civic Trust National Award. It is currently shortlisted for an RIBA National Award and Edinburgh Architectural Association's "Building of the Year" Award. By  contrast,  the  RIAS  decided  that  it  was  "not  worth  visiting"  when  shortlisting  for  their  annual awards in 2015. Designing for yourself is not easy.  My  friend  Murray  Grigor  remarked  that  "my  indecision  is  final!" Now aged 60, I won't be designing another so the danger is that one tries to get every idea one has seen or had into one small project.  I  freely  admit  that  the  house  is  perhaps  "over-designed;"  it certainly is not intended to be an exemplar and definitely not a prototype. It has been an enjoyable vehicle to develop a lifetime's themes and now it gives me great pleasure to both live there and to hear the remarks of the many visitors it has hosted over the last year or so. Much of  the  credit for the  project's  realisation  must  go  to  Gareth  Jones  in  my  office  who  took  all  my  sketches  and  drew every  one  of  the  hundreds  of  construction  drawings. My thanks must also go to Inscape Joinery  the contractor; the quality of their workmanship is much admired by everyone who visits.”

Richard Murphy OBE, RSA

Key Facts

Status Complete
Value (m€)
Richard Murphy Architects

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