What makes a home – The Piers Taylor interview

The BBC / Netflix Series ‘World’s Most Extraordinary Homes’ made for the perfect lockdown viewing. Hunkered down in our homes, evaluating our surroundings and unable to travel much further than the end of the road, architect Piers Taylor and actor Caroline Quentin served up the ultimate escapism. Escapism that could also inspire.

Definitions of home vary from the logical; “a place in which ones’ domestic activities are centred” to the emotive; “a place where you feel in control and properly orientated in space and time”. Do you look at your home differently, having spent so much time in it of late? Has your perception of home changed? Award winning chartered architect and TV presenter Dr Piers Taylor knows a thing or two about the concept of home. His simple, cost-effective and sustainable approach to designing and building the spaces we inhabit pushes boundaries and ecological sensitivity is at the core of Invisible Studio, Piers’ architectural practise, which is based in the UK.

What’s your definition of home?

That’s a really interesting question. I think that ‘place’ is really important. You could have the perfect interior environment, but its meaningless without context. I couldn’t have a home that’s divorced from its place; I need to live somewhere that’s as closely connected to its natural environment as it can possibly be. This’s my ideal and my definition of home.

Has our concept of ‘home’ changed over the last 18 months?

I’ve lived in the same house for more than 20 years, although I’m spending an increasing amount of time in Greece these days, where I’m building a home that can open up and close down as the weather permits, making the most of every season. We had just one child when we built our home 20 years ago, now we have four, varying in age from 30 to 10, so certainly how we use our home space has changed.

Most prominently from an environmental perspective however, a lot has changed in 20 years, so we’ve recently rebuilt our home, retro-fitting it with more passivity. I originally designed it having studied in Australia with the famous architect Glenn Murcutt; he’s the master of building spaces in a wild context with minimal resources to make the most of its place. Ventilation and sunlight were his principles and I carried them into the architecture of our old home when we built it. Yet over the years, designing homes for others, I became aware that my own home was deficient in its passive environmental performance. As I get older, the practical elements of making a building perform become incredibly important – I want to be thermally comfortable at home and to control the temperature of my environment as each season changes, while still being connected to the natural environment outside.

“very few people are going back to their offices – we’re no longer beholden to them and life in the wilderness is calling ”

Of course for others, COVID-19 changed the concept of ‘home’ too. 12 years ago I left my architectural practise in London for a more flexible way of working, be that at home, or away, but never in an office. Post-COVID, many people have realised that they want to be at home more, they can work from anywhere and very few people are going back to their offices – we’re no longer beholden to them and life in the wilderness is calling. Additionally, not commuting is one of the very best things we can do for the planet.

How does a good home benefit individuals, families and society more generally?

We’re deeply affected by the spaces that we occupy in many ways and we’re conditioned by the buildings that we grow up in. Your home is a way of reflecting your identity back at yourself and allowing you to cast your personality in a true and obvious way. Our homes connect us to our community, to the seasons and we carry our sense of home with us as we go – it’s grounding and it’s primeval. There’s no escaping the places that we dwell and none of us live isolated existences in hermetically sealed pods. We live in places that subtly connect us to other people – to the community and wider society – the shared endeavour of dwelling in a particular place is deeply important. Sharing rhythms and space with each other is too. I’m not a huge fan of the house that has massive barriers around it – fences or gates, for example – that stop you connecting with the people that live there. It’s not healthy, we should be sharing the natural environment around our homes instead of trapping each other in. Buildings also have an obligation to be part of a place and their design is key to this, whether you’re on a new build estate in the UK or in a small rural village in the French Alps.

Do you believe that a good home is achievable for all, regardless of budget?

I absolutely do. Look at the council houses of the ‘50s and 60’s – they had the best spaces and daylight standards we’ve ever known. A modest cottage can be the most fantastic place to live, but I’d argue that you need big windows, access to nature and not much more. We built a house for my daughter for just £45,000. OK, it’s quite small but it has an amazing sense of space and she loves living there.

In terms of sustainability, should we renovate and retro-fit an old home, or build a new one?

Generally, I think it’s better to renovate and retro-fit – this is the most sustainable way to make a home. Our old buildings have already paid their carbon debt, reusing the materials embodied within them, where possible, is an excellent idea. It’s incredibly diffi cult these days to find carbon-neutral building materials and when we look at living sustainably, this is an important consideration. The other thing that’s changed a lot is how we heat our houses. 20 years ago, 80% of the carbon emissions of a house came from our heating. These days, and because of vastly improved insulation, 80% of the carbon emissions come from the embodied energy of the construction materials. Choosing to invest in the reutilisation of a building’s fabric is the most sustainable thing to do. Insulation is everything; making a house so effi cient that you don’t really need to heat it, that’s key.

Which was your favourite extraordinary home in the series? And were any a little bit ’too much’?

I loved the fi nal home in the fi nal episode of series two in Mumbai, India. Four generations of the same family live inside Collage House, it’s a beautiful space, truly extraordinary in every sense of the word and featuring recycled materials throughout, from windows to doors. Actually, I also loved The House with No Corridors, the very first home we went to in the Arizona desert too. It’s made from rammed earth to create a beautiful building that’s really part of the landscape.

What I try to do, is always talk about what’s in front of me as we’re presenting an extraordinary home, rather than be impressed by the grandeur. It’s my job to describe what the building is and why its been designed in a particular way – I’m not there to judge the opulence. Of course, architecturally, there were buildings that I liked less than others, but what we tried to do was present a diverse range of buildings that had interesting stories to tell. I often think it’s interesting to learn what you don’t like as well as what you do. Plus visiting all these places across the globe was amazing to!

Did your own definition of an ‘extraordinary home’ change as you filmed the series?

I get asked this a lot, but in some ways, no. The greatest luxury is a building which allows you to be connected to the natural world. The House with No Corridors in Arizona is a great example of this, it does that in spades. It’s made from the earth, Caroline (Quentin, Piers’ co-presenter) and I have always responded to these characteristics of a home. We’re both building houses now, half a mile from each other in Greece and they’re very similar. They’re low tech, very simple and raw but provide an amazing quality of space, shade and view. There’s a modesty to them but a grandeur in the connection to the natural environment. That’s the greatest luxury we have now.

Where would your ideal home be, and what would it look like?

It will be in Greece and it will look very modest – almost like a piece of agricultural infrastructure. It’ll be in an olive grove with no fences around it and made very simply from materials that were found locally – crushed limestone with very thick walls and lots of shade. I want lots of outdoor space that’s shaded and an internal open plan arrangement that allows us to make pretty much everything out of one material. It’ll feel like part of the landscape – simple, durable and modest, but expansive spatially.

“I also love buildings which are perched in the wilderness, almost without touching their surroundings. Almost as if they’ve been parked there”

I also love buildings which are perched in the wilderness, almost without touching their surroundings. Almost as if they’ve been parked there. It’s the domesticity of buildings which spoils them. Driveways, curbs, garages, lawns, they kill places. Can we get beyond these functional aspects?

What do the homes of the future look like?

The housing stock that the UK needs for the next 40 years has already been designed; I don’t see our houses changing so much in the near future. We want to live in a combination of dense settlements, such as villages and towns, where the buildings are part of the fabric of the place. I think we also want to carry on living with more space and nature. The pattern that we have now for two, three, four, five and six story buildings is a pattern that will be continued I think. It’s efficient thermally and spatially.

“Our homes connect us to our community, to the seasons and we carry our sense of home with us as we go – it’s grounding and it’s primeval.”

I hope we’ll begin to rely on lower carbon building materials sourced locally, such as timber for example. I think we’ll become more precious over our natural landscapes too. They’re the lungs of the planet, we’ll appreciate them more. We also need to make sure we continue to build in a style that speaks of its location. We’re social beings and we like villages and towns were we can share things with people, walk places and so on. That’s my instinct. What we won’t be doing is living as they do in the suburbs of the US, where people live on a half acre of land and have to drive everywhere for everything.

Is Caroline Quentin as amazing and fun as we imagine?

Yes! She’s a friend for live and I really love her! She’s one of the most irreverent and funny people I know. Together we’re working on another show that will be bigger and better than Extraordinary Homes – it talks about how we’ve lived and how we need to live and how buildings and places are inextricably linked. For example, Italy. We’re travelling through a large palazzo and considering how they might have lived 200 years ago, then on to Milan to visit at a slick, innercity apartment. During the series we travel through a country from top to bottom, getting under the skin of the architecture and culture. COVID put a spanner in the works, but it will air at the end of 2022 hopefully.

What makes a home – The Piers Taylor interview
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