Recently, I was invited to join a group of design academics and journalists on a tour of a “private home”. I had no more information, other than that it might be interesting.
Was it ever?!
On the appointed afternoon I headed out to Hammersmith – one of London’s busier outer centres, situated on a broad, gentle sweep of the Thames where Victorian engineers chose to build one of their more gloriously ornate, iron bridges; and what I ended up seeing was the home of architect Henning Stummel: a sustainable designer’s fantasy made real!
After a tour of his home and studio, Henning was kind enough to sit down with me and answer a few of my questions. What I initially thought was Henning’s home is in fact two separate projects: The Gateway House and The Tin House. Both are remarkable studies in practical design.
It’s The Gateway House that “greets” you from the street, though it’s as welcoming as a medieval monastery, and no less impressive for that. A full three storeys of solid masonry into which a central arch has been sunk. There are no other openings (save for some barely perceptible skylights above the ramparts). It’s a dramatic statement on an otherwise typical, suburban London street and as cross the threshold it’s impossible not to feel that you’re entering into Henning’s world; a private, cobbled street that leads down to a courtyard encircled by a series of six ochre-toned, tin shed-like buildings: The Tin House.
The whole construction has a wonderful effect. “We really enjoy the tranquility” Henning says proudly, and who wouldn’t?! In the midst of busy London this private courtyard feels somehow timeless: an enclosed community, gathered around a watering hole; a family of tents in the shadow of The Gateway House with its impressively muscled, masonry back turned to shield it from the outside world. Despite the glimpses of neighbouring buildings above the roofline, The Tin House is a sanctuary.
And The Gateway House? Well, it turns out that that’s Henning’s architectural studio, as well as offering a guest apartment – a whole other apartment, which Henning rents out on a short-term basis. (a hot tip if you’re looking for a unique place to stay in London!)
So what inspired this fantastically unusual pair of projects, and how did Henning come to build them?
Interestingly – though perhaps not entirely surprising for a German/English architect living in Hammersmith – Henning cites two major English architects as key influences on his aesthetic and process: Lord Norman Foster, on whose Reichstag team Henning worked when he was fresh out of university; and Sir David Chipperfield, with whom Henning worked for a further 7 years.
Both of these architects are known not only for their modernist sensibilities, but their determination not to be shackled by convention. This is something Henning comes back to after the tour:
The problem for us as a profession is to convince clients to enjoy being experimental and to question conventions…by building for ourselves we’ve created something that breaks the mould.Henning Stummel
And sustainability is at the core of Henning’s pared back aesthetic; not only does he ensure that all his projects use only energy from renewable sources upon completion, but by relying on materials that have low embodied energy, such as timber construction.
This is a point at which Henning differs from his earlier masters: the bombastic, impressive steal and glass museums and office towers of both Foster and Chipperfield are a long way from the unassuming peace of The Tin House. Nevertheless, Henning believes the construction industry has a way to go to minimise its environmental impact: “We need to look at making components biodegradable.”
But that isn’t to imply that Henning is down on the more traditional methods of construction, in fact, quite the opposite. When I asked him about the striking brick façade of The Gateway House his pride is endearing: “if planners want a brick façade I’ll give them a proper, load-bearing brick arch that has some depth and displays the bricklayer’s skill!” [Which does sound quite Foster-esque to me: to take a restriction and make it a feature.]
There are a number of secondary ways in which Henning’s designs here subliminally encourage sustainable living: the compartmentalised nature of The Tin House means electricity and heating can easily be contained only to the areas being used; the strategic use of windows and skylights captures a maximum amount of natural light without sacrificing privacy or heat-loss; and the dual-use spaces such as The Gateway House’s separate, additional living space, give the projects versatility and utility that allow for a better overall use of the available space.
And not to be overlooked in either space is the furniture and fittings, all of which were designed by Henning and his team.
Launched in 2018 under the banner of Nomad.London, Henning’s furniture designs are simultaneously modern and reassuringly simple, combining laser-cut frames with plush, hand-stitched cushions.
Using this modern technology we can keep manufacturing in Europe and fulfil this Bauhaus idea of good design being driven by the way in which something is made; using the modern processes to make good products available to a wider audience.Henning Stummel
Henning emphasises his “no glue – no screws – no tools” ethos with these designs. Not only are these products more sustainable as a result, it puts him ahead of IKEA in the assemble-yourself, flat-packed furniture stakes.
It’s a remarkable enclave; another world tucked away in a suburban street in West London. A haven for creativity and fresh solutions.
The well-earned recognition that The Tin House has received has enabled Henning to establish a development company with the aim of bringing his studio’s experience and skill to a wider audience, and I for one, cannot wait to see what he comes up with next!