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Balancing Barn

Sleeps 8

Balancing Barn, designed by the Dutch practice MVRDV, stands on the edge of a tranquil nature reserve a few miles inland from the Suffolk coast, near the historic towns of Walberswick and Aldeburgh. Clad in elegant reflective steel tiles, the house dramatically cantilevers over the landscape, providing views from its huge panoramic windows over woods, ponds and meadows.

About The Architecture

Architecture – about the house

Architect – MVRDV

The architecture practice MVRDV was set up in Rotterdam, Netherlands, in 1993 by Winy Maas, Jacob van Rijs and Nathalie de Vries.
In close collaboration, the 3 principal architects produce designs for cities, individual buildings and landscapes. Early projects such as the headquarters for VPRO and the WoZoCo housing for the elderly in Amsterdam brought MVRDV to the attention of a wide field of clients and gave the firm international acclaim.

MVRDV has an interest in simple, down-to-earth solutions which nevertheless have a lot of humour and humanity about them. They have designed much social housing and worked to create an entirely new standard for this category.

This project was a first chance for the firm to spend an extended period of time in the UK. They particularly enjoyed touring the Suffolk countryside and reflecting on the tradition of barn architecture, which they have ended up both imitating and subverting. They noted the strong similarities between the cultures and landscapes of the Netherlands and of East Anglia and wished to create a house that would be a small ‘gift’ from one country to another. The chief architect, Winy Maas, reports that one of the pleasures of the job was his discovery of the charms of the fish pies on offer in the pubs of nearby Walberswick.

Interior design

The interiors have been designed by Jurgen Bey and Studio Makkink & Bey, in conjunction with MVRDV and Living Architecture. The majority of the furniture, wall hangings, rugs and lighting have been selected to give a strong Dutch theme, with the occasional pictorial reference to the English countryside. The wall hangings have taken references from works by John Constable and Thomas Gainsborough, who spent their lives painting in and around Suffolk. The original paintings can be viewed at the Ipswich and Colchester Museum

Their work has been fragmented in parts, with colours drawn out referencing the abstract works of artists such like Piet Mondrian and Gerhard Richter – making for a literal fusion of traditional English landscape painting and classical Dutch modernism.


  • Completed 2010
  • Footprint 224 sqm
  • Plot – approximately 4 acres
  • 30 metres long and 7.5 meters wide,
  • cantilever - 15 metres long (half the length of the house)
  • steel frame
  • concrete basement and foundations
  • structural timber shell with insulation
  • polished stainless steel tiles
  • ash veneered internal panelling
  • solid ash timber floors

Contents of the house

Much of the furniture and lighting comes from Dutch manufacturers, who are among the most dynamic and innovative in the world. 


  • The dining table, known as the Linchpin table, and accompanying chairs – designed
    and produced by the UK design company, Unto this Last
  • Two high-backed dining room chairs, The Chairmakers Chair, from the Windsor Chair range – by Ercol
  • Koi Suspension lamp hanging over the island counter unit – designed by Naoto Fukasawa
  • Blossom Light suspended over the dining table – designed by Hella Jongerius and produced by Vitra
  • Kitchen equipment – by David Mellor Design

Wall hangings:

  • Farm cart with horse in harness by John Constable – adapted for Balancing Barn by Studio Makkink & Bey
  • Avenue of Trees by John Constable – adapted for Balancing Barn by Studio Makkink & Bey


  • ‘Socket light’ lamp – designed by Dick van Hoff for the German porcelain company Rosenthal


  • Bed frames and side tables – designed and produced by Studio Makkink & Bey for
    Balancing Barn.
  • Linen – in Egyptian Cotton, by Peter Reed
  • Rocking chair – designed by Ray and Charles Eames, produced by Vitra
  • Kade Chair – designed by Jurgen Bey – produced by Studio Makkink & Bey
  • Suspended light – Pedrali L001 designed
    by Alberto Basaglia, Natalia Rota Nodari, produced by Pedrali
  • The wall hangings are as follows:
  • Bedroom 1 (counting from nearest the kitchen) – Golding Constable’s flower garden by John Constable – adapted for Balancing Barn by Studio Makkink & Bey
  • Bedroom 2 – The mill stream, Willy Lott’s house by John Constable – adapted for
    Balancing Barn by Studio Makkink & Bey
  • Bedroom 3 – Cottage door with girl and pigs
    by Thomas Gainsborough – adapted for
    Balancing Barn by Studio Makkink & Bey
  • Bedroom 4 – View near the coast by Thomas Gainsborough – adapted for Balancing Barn by Studio Makkink & Bey


  • Polder Sofa – designed by Hella Jongerius
    and produced by Vitra
  • Utrecht 637 armchair – designed by Gerrit Rietveld, produced by Cassina
  • Classic Elephant chair – designed
    and produced by Ineke Hans
  • Amersfoort Chair – designed by Jurgen Bey and produced by Studio Makkink & Bey
  • Kade Chair – designed by Jurgen Bey and produced by Studio Makkink & Bey
  • Gueridon Bas side table – designed
    by Jean Prouve and produced by Vitra
  • Urchin Pouf – designed and produced
    by Christian Meindertsma
  • Felt standing lamp – designed
    and produced by Tom Dixon
  • Blossom Floor lamps – designed by Hella Jongerius and produced by Vitra
  • Two seater sofa – designed and produced by James UK
  • Wall hangings:
  • The Blue Boy by Thomas Gainsborough – adapted for Balancing Barn by Studio Makkink & Bey
  • The ladies of the family William Mason
    of Colchester
    by Thomas Gainsborough – adapted for Balancing Barn by Studio Makkink & Bey

The making of Living Architecture’s first project - Balancing Barn - a short essay by Steve Rose  (2011)

All architecture is experimental. Every building is its own prototype – a unique design in a unique place that must function as anticipated, at the first attempt, straight away. If you're designing a car or an aeroplane or a new smartphone, you can spend years researching, testing and refining, but with architecture, there's no sure way of knowing that will happen until it's built. And if it doesn't work, the consequences can be catastrophic.

So, ironically, architecture's experimental nature leads to its conservatism. Architecture builds on what it already knows. Construction methods become standardised, models and typologies are emulated, design techniques solidify into rules, and nobody gets hurt. But the drawback can be that nobody gets excited either. Architecture can, and should, do more than satisfy basic physical needs, but in over-compensating for architecture's innate riskiness, much of the built environment becomes boring, homogeneous, safe.

Nowhere in the developed world is this truer than in Britain. As a nation, we cherish our heritage and conserve our historic structures, but we've also been stubbornly resistant to change. Modern architecture itself was a great experiment, of course, borne out of a new industrial paradigm and its resultant technologies, such as concrete, the elevator, or structural steel. Modernist architecture has been around for over a century now, during which time it has been embraced by much of the planet, but in Britain, and particularly rural Britain, it often comes into collision with a more timeless notion of “the countryside”: a pre-industrial realm of picturesque landscapes, stately homes, fields, forests, and footpaths. We all know the Great British Countryside is a cosmetic social construct, but it is one that is buttressed by centuries' worth of tradition and legislation.

Living Architecture set out to confront exactly those conceptions. Who says modern architecture does not belong in rural Britain? Why do we build new country houses to look like historic ones? Why is it so difficult to do anything different? “I was born in Switzerland, a country with a really advanced modern tradition,” says Alain de Botton, Living Architecture's founder and creative director. “You can speak to a farmer in the remote Alpine hills and ask if they like that building across the valley, and they wouldn't think in terms of 'modern' versus 'old'. That question, which is quintessential to the British way of looking at architecture, doesn't exist at all. It's just a nice building or a bad building. We live in the modern world; of course we have modern buildings. It's like saying, 'do you like modern cars?'”

De Botton had first questioned the fundamentals and contradictions of architecture in his 2006 book The Architecture Of Happiness. “At the back of my mind, I really wanted to change the way we make architecture,” he says. “But that was a hopelessly grand, almost pretentious ambition to have of a book. At a certain point, I felt depressed at the idea that all this thought was leading to no action. The gulf between writing and doing is perhaps greater in architecture than in other areas because architecture is so practical. But I wanted to take that step and go beyond really arguing for something in words.”

Ideas began to coalesce: stays in holiday homes owned by the Landmark Trust (which restores and rents out historic and curious buildings across Britain); also the experience of the Serpentine Gallery's annual pavilion, in London's Kensington Gardens, a temporary structure designed by a leading architect who has never built anything before in the UK. The germ of Living Architecture was to effectively combine the two: to create outstanding pieces of contemporary architecture that were accessible to the general public. After two years of conversations, a small team of recruits was assembled, including Dickon Robinson, former director of development of the Peabody Trust and an experienced independent advisor on architecture and housing, and Mark Robinson, former project manager of those Serpentine Gallery pavilions.

As the first manifestation of the Living Architecture experiment, The Balancing Barn signifies that bold leap from theory to practice rather neatly. It literally goes out on a limb. Half of the building is on terra firma the other half, apparently supported by nothing. That's not the only metaphorical association you could glean from the building. It could represent the experience of city-break visitors, thrust from the stability of their urban existence into the unfamiliar wilderness. More benignly, it could reflect the transition from earthbound, domestic concerns – at the kitchen end – to more intellectual realms of conversation and reflection – at the living room end. To many visitors it has brought to mind the narrative trope of the “cliffhanger”, the ending of the movie The Italian Job, for instance – the precise moment of uncertainty, where things could go either way.

To The Balancing Barn's principal designer, Winy Maas, the “balance” is also an apposite reflection of the relationship between architect and client: “We were asking them, how far will you actually go with this project? We were testing each other's limits.” he says. “I think you can see that in the building. It reflects the 'nervosity' of the client.” A persuasive talker with a mischievous glint in his eye, Maas has something of a history of “testing” his clients. In fact, he regards it as a responsibility. He is one of the three founders of MVRDV, one of the Netherlands' leading architectural firms (the “VR” and the “DV” are Jacob van Rijs and Natalie de Vries).

MVRDV are at the forefront of what critic Bart Loosma labelled the “SuperDutch” movement: a generation of influential Dutch architects loosely characterised by inventive, often humorous designs, a global, ultra-modern outlook and extensive use of data, research and analysis to generate architectural solutions -- a combination of “extreme pragmatism and aesthetic novelty”, as Rem Koolhaas put it. Koolhaas, was the movement's de facto leader. His Rotterdam practice, Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), first employed many of the eventual SuperDutch architects, including Maas and van Rijs. Founded in 1993, MVRDV is probably the most radical and internationally renowned of the bunch, with a portfolio of startling, often ingenious work to its name. Part of the reason for that, says Maas, is their propensity to take a brief as far as they can, rather than play it safe and work within assumed boundaries. “We are kind of known to explore the limitations,” he says, with that glint in his eye. “Most commissions are concentrated on themselves, and they don't talk too much about what they should represent. But every building has the possibility to discuss its own existence. I hate architecture that's only about 'beauty', only about describing itself in terms of space, transparency, and so on, because it's so selfish. There is not a responsibility on a larger scale.”

This was the case with The Balancing Barn. The completed building is a picture of simplicity in many respects, but the route MVRDV and Living Architecture took to achieve that simplicity was far from direct. In fact, it was arrived at after an exploration of limitations that almost collapsed the project entirely. The design went through over a dozen different iterations before arriving at this one, many of them radically different to the finished result. There were heated arguments between architect and client, often down a phone line, between continents and time zones. There were impasses and dead ends, and the whole project teetered on the verge of failure on several occasions. The balance was eventually struck, but it was harder won by than first impressions suggest.

When Living Architecture was drawing up its “wish list” of architects to design their homes, MVRDV was one of the first names on it. Mark Robinson had previously invited them to design the 2004 Serpentine Pavilion, so he knew them and their work. With hindsight, the Serpentine project was a prophetic illustration of MVRDV's envelope-pushing tendencies. Instead of designing a simple temporary structure to sit on the lawn in front of the Serpentine Gallery, as previous architects had done, Maas proposed constructing a giant artificial mountain over the building itself. It was an outrageous idea, which the Serpentine initially embraced and developed to an advanced stage before realising it was riddled with impracticalities (such the fact that it would condemn the gallery's staff to effectively working underground for several months) and would be far too expensive to build.

Still, Robinson had spent enough time with Maas personally to be impressed by his creative dynamism. De Botton, too, had admired MVRDV's work, particularly their innovative social housing designs, and quirky projects like Didden Village, in Rotterdam – a family home consisting of two bright blue archetypal “house” shaped blocks, deposited like giant Monopoly pieces on the rooftop of an existing brick building. “They were practical Dutch people but with a playful air,” says de Botton. “I thought this was exactly what we needed to get us going.”

Maas was very much in sympathy with Living Architecture's cause. To his outsider's eye, the British architectural landscape is a curious place, subject to unique force that we often fail to notice. Chief among these, he says, is the power and prominence of the heritage industry, spearheaded by Prince Charles. The heir to the throne's outspoken views on the shortcomings of modern architecture, and the superiority of traditional, neo-classical styles, have visibly shaped British architecture. The most notorious example was the proposed extension to London's National Gallery, which, in 1984 Charles famously described as “a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend”. The scheme was subsequently replaced with a more sympathetic design.

Maas first became aware of the Prince's pervasive influence during the competition for a new visitors' centre for Stonehenge, in 2000. Having made it onto the shortlist of five, MVRDV's design was subsequently dismissed as “too contemporary” by a selection committee that was clearly afraid to court royal disapproval. Beyond Prince Charles, the traditionalist arm of British architecture is hugely powerful. At the centre are those directly involved in conservation and restoration, like English Heritage and the National Trust, says Maas. But around them are rings of associated architects: not just the traditionalists, who cater in brand new buildings in neo-classical styles, but also more contemporary architects who work closely with the heritage industry, adding extensions to historic structures and the like. Between them, they account for some 40 percent of British architecture, in Maas's estimation.

A counter-force to the traditionalists, Maas suggests, is the British high-tech movement, as exemplified by the country's two foremost architects, Norman Foster and Richard Rogers. “I think of them as sort of humanist technocrats,” he says. “But they are also obsessively global, almost imperialistic in their methodology, which is to tame everything down to a steel and glass architecture, which can be impressive, or perhaps intimidating. That's not our style.”

Maas's third, more benign influence on British architecture is the Architectural Association, a private architecture school in central London which has produced some of the most influential architects in Britain and the rest of the world, including Zaha Hadid, David Chipperfield, Will Alsop and Maas's former boss, Rem Koolhaas. In the 1960s, the AA was the epicentre of the influential Archigram movement, which brought sci-fi modernity and pop humour to the stuffy establishment – a key moment in the profession, even if their ideas took decades to percolate into mainstream practice. “Somehow, our work is connected to that,” Maas says. “We were also seen as the Monty Python of the Netherlands!”

The place of humour in British culture, and architectural production, is a source of fascination to Maas. He sees British comedy as almost “scientific” in its finely tuned investigation of national values. Just as architecture is an experiment, so comedy, and irony, are ways of testing and establishing boundaries. “Your culture knows that irony can defeat the enemy,” he says. “There is a whole range of stand-up comedians in your country who playfully explore that thin line between humour and stupidity. When you make a joke out of something, it can be bad; it can be good. So The Balancing Barn is also balancing on that issue.”

As a practice, MVRDV's focus is predominantly urban, but Maas is a landscape architect by training. His father was a landscape architect and his mother and brother are florists. As a student, he had explored and admired great English gardens like Sissinghurst, so he is familiar with the English countryside tradition, which he describes as “super-cute”. But revisiting this landscape 30 years later, on his way to visit the Suffolk site, he was surprised by how much had changed: “You have transformed this cuteness into a nightmare of roundabouts and industrial zones! You did a good job with your national parks, but then you surround them with ring roads and roundabouts. And you also hate it! I never understood that. Why did you do that when you hate it?”

The Living Architecture team had come up against this issue, among others, when searching for sites. Some were too urban – too close to those ring roads and industrial parks. Some were too rural – miles from the nearest shop. Some were simply too near a neighbouring house. And then there were less tangible reasons for rejection: too many large, looming trees; an uninspiring view; it just didn't “feel right”. Living Architecture's houses would have to be in areas where visitors might plausibly want to go on holiday in the first place, but land in such areas is often scarce and prohibitively expensive. This first step of the initiative was one of the most difficult, taking several years.

A further complication, given the nature of the enterprise, was planning permission. Rightly or wrongly, the notoriously tortuous British planning system is often held to be a barrier against modern architecture flourishing in the countryside. Living Architecture reasoned they would have more chance of securing planning approval if they acquired sites with houses already on them, preferably postwar and in bad shape. It is far easier to obtain permission for a house that replaces another one than for a new build. This condition narrowed the search criteria even further, however.

So there was a sigh of relief when Church Farm, in Suffolk, was found. The Suffolk Coast was one of Living Architecture's first targets. It has been a well-established destination for city weekend-breakers and holidaymakers since the end of the 18th century, with its archetypal seaside resort towns such as Aldeburgh and Southwold, its distinct regional identity and its relatively unspoilt natural landscape inland. Easily accessible from London, it is already a popular area for holiday and second home.

Church Farm ticked all the boxes. The site was once part of a farmstead, extending to the north, along the floodplain of a tributary of the River Blyth. The previous owner had passed on the land to the Suffolk Wildlife Trust (SWT), which maintains most of it as a 31-hectare nature reserve. The future site of The Balancing Barn was a small corner of the plot which the SWT had decided to sell off.

“When we all walked onto the site, it immediately felt right,” Alain de Botton remembers. “It was a beautiful sunny day. It was autumn. The leaves were still on the trees and starting to turn. There was something about being slightly elevated, looking on the trees and marshes below. The site is very modest and yet had a huge feel, because your eye is enjoying something you don't own.”

As an added advantage, the site already came with planning permission to build something new. At that time it was occupied by a nondescript 1960s bungalow, roughly where the parking area for Balancing Barn is now. At the lower end of the site, close to the pond, stood two timber barns in an advanced state of disrepair, and a third brick, timber-framed building that turned out to be a 15th century bakery. Without the original manor house it once served, the bakery's value as a historic structure was debatable, but it was theoretically restorable, albeit at some cost. Local historical groups also lobbied for its preservation. There was a “should we, or shouldn't we?” moment, Mark Robinson recalls. “But what we didn't set out to do as Living Architecture was barn conversions. Our absolute raison d'être was to start afresh.” The building was recorded by the local archaeological team then its parts were carefully dismantled for reclamation.

Church Farm was just what Winy Maas dreamt of, too: the most “super-cute” British landscape imaginable, right down to frogs croaking in the pond. Within a month of visiting the site, he had a selection of proposals to present to Living Architecture. There was a circular house entirely made of glass, whose transparency would render it practically invisible. A variation on the same theme sank the bedrooms into the ground and raised the roof of the living area above on a forest of tree trunk-like columns, creating an elevated rooftop viewing deck. Another option was for a house sitting on the edge of the upper level, like The Balancing Barn, but wrapped around existing trees.

Maas's favourite scheme, which became known as The Observers, combined all of these options. Instead of a single dwelling, it proposed an assortment of cabins spread around the site, each providing its own unique landscape experience. One bedroom would be underground, for example, another up in the trees. A third bedroom would be a glass box entirely surrounded by hedges. The kitchen/dining room would be built in the shell of the ruined brick bakery, and the sitting room would be a bowl-like hollow, scooped out of the earth, with a glass roof, so that only the sky was visible. “Instead of one villa, the first villa of the Living Architecture operation would immediately be the whole repertoire,” says Maas. “It was beautiful.”

Living Architecture had asked MVRDV to really push the boat out and they had done just that – by effectively breaking the boat into little pieces. The team were very taken with The Observers, despite some practical shortcomings that should have been glaringly obvious: Would parents feel comfortable if their children were sleeping in another building while they ate dinner? Would visitors really want to step outside every time they move between rooms? Even when it's raining or cold or dark? What about accessibility for, say, wheelchair users?

“The impracticalities were also what made it attractive,” says Maas. “It was the moment Alain asked me the question, what do we want to have in a second home holiday home? What should it be? Do we want comfort, or something almost ascetic, in a Japanese tradition? Initially what was also attractive about having a whole scope of homes was that they exploited different types of “un-comfort”. How far can you go with that?”

Quite a way further, as it turned out. The architects continued to develop the Observers scheme, tackling problems as they arose. The sunken sitting room became a giant, sculptural dish set at an angle into the earth, then evolved into a free-standing bowl structure with a glass roof. The glass “hedge room” became an elongated hedge apartment, with bedrooms and bathrooms in niches off a snaking corridor. As with MVRDV's artificial mountain of a Serpentine Pavilion, Robinson recalls, they were swept away by Maas's enthusiasm and the bravado of the idea.

As the scheme progressed and grew in scale and complexity, however, so did the impracticalities. A glass box inside a hedge sounds enchanting but a mature hedge would take about three years to grow, Robinson discovered after some research. And then how to stop the glass box from overheating? How to make it dark on a summer evening? Building five or six separate structures would also necessitate separate heating units, electrical and plumbing systems, and so forth. The team ploughed on, attempting to troubleshoot a way through, but eventually the cost implications became too great: each component of The Observers was going cost the entire budget of the project! It was time to pull the boat back in again.

A confrontation was brewing, de Botton recalls: “Winy 's tone was very much, 'Don't worry. Just commit to the idea and we'll sort out these problems.' But we didn't want to start drawing up the scheme when there were these fundamental hurdles. His response was, 'You have no courage. You have no balls! You're starting this organisation but you don't know how to think ambitiously.' The insinuation was, 'You don't get architecture'. I was in the boring role of saying that I loved architecture, but we needed a house that could work on budget, and we needed it to be practical.”

Relations became strained over the next few months. The initial timeframe for the project had long been discarded. As the first Living Architecture house, this project had to be a success, to convince the world the initiative was to be taken seriously and to bring other architects on board. But Maas now became difficult to get hold of. He was often away on business on the other side of the world. There were long arguments over the phone between distant time zones, heated email exchanges. “These were anguished times,” de Botton admits. “There were moments when I thought, 'We've got to pull the plug on these guys because Winy is not understanding.'”

Maas concurs: “There were long emails from him [de Botton] during the process where he insulted me. Of course, in a very clever way. They're almost like poems!”

Robinson was something of a mediator in the impasse. “Alain had originally seen his role in Living Architecture as being a bit further back, and I would deal with the architects,” he says. “I was the client. But Winy would come back to me and say, 'What do you mean Alain doesn't like that?' And vice versa. So I was sort of between them and having to support them both. Also I had an opinion too.” But Robinson knew that, at heart, most architects are quite pragmatic about such issues. He also knew that Maas, as an “experimental” architect, was accustomed creating designs that never made it off the drawing board.

Despite the time and effort that had gone into it, Maas reluctantly accepted that The Observers was not a workable scheme for Living Architecture. It was time to return to first principles. “At a certain point,” says de Botton, “I remember saying to Winy, 'These are the houses I like of yours. When you take an archetype and twist it slightly.' Very forcefully, which I hadn't done before, I said, 'That's what we want. Can you go away and think about that?' It was kind of the last chance saloon for all of us. We were all exhausted.”

One quality many people have observed in Maas as a designer is that he is never short of ideas for long. If anything, he suffers from an excess of inspiration. So it proved. The architects returned to their earlier concept of a “tree walk”: an elevated observation deck looking out over the trees, and explored its possibilities. At one stage, the deck was held aloft by artificial tree trunks at different angles, creating a tower-like structure, much like MVRDV's Dutch Pavilion for Expo 2000, in Hannover. At another, the tree walk took the form of a long walkway projecting out from the upper part of the site to a deck supported from beneath. But then Maas thought it would be more exciting to have a structure with nothing [ITALS] supporting it, as if it had been pushed out beyond the edge of the upper portion of the site – the germ of The Balancing Barn.

Living Architecture initially raised concerns about the cost of such a giant cantilever, which would take up a quarter of the budget. Frustrated by this stage, Maas responded by “pushing” the barn over the hill – coming up with a design for a house built on the diagonal, one end resting on the lower ground, the other sticking up in the air as if it had toppled over. “I said I haven't come from the Netherlands just to make a barn for you. You can get anyone to do that!” Maas says. Mark Robinson describes this gesture as “typical MVRDV”, but it also reflects the game of brinkmanship the architect-client relationship had become – the pushing and pushing back, trying to find a compromise. Living Architecture accepted Maas's cantilevered proposal. The barn was pulled back up the slope and the balance was restored.

“It's fun, but it's not just a gimmick,” says de Botton. “It's adventurous, but also quite practical. It deals with the fact that you're on two levels. And it deals with the fact that the nice bit is the pond and the trees, and you want to be in there. One of the briefs was that this is a house for nature… in nature. We want that experience to be part of it. It seemed to tick all those boxes.”

In a more practical way, The Balancing Barn concept retained within it those ideas of “un-comfort” Maas had wanted to explore with the dispersed, Observers scheme. It had areas of relative stability and instability, comfort and discomfort. The design still had several permutations to go through. At one stage, the pitched roof morphed into a flat terrace at the elevated end. At another, the cantilever was expressed visually, in the form of a giant, cuboid counterweight, set into the roof at the ground end of the building. The eventual, utterly simple solution seems self-evident, but it was only arrived at after all other options had been considered.

MVRDV had dealt with large cantilevers before. One of their first projects was a social housing scheme for the elderly in Amsterdam, known as WoZoCo. In that scheme, the architects were required to provide 100 apartment homes on a small site, but the optimal eight-storey block only fitted 87. So they simply tacked the remaining 13 units onto the outside. The result was a long, rectilinear building with a series of giant cubes projecting haphazardly out of its north facade. This audacious, eye-catching structure has become known as “the hanging gardens of Amsterdam”. It is now something of a tourist attraction. What is revealing about WoZoCo is how relaxed its elderly residents have become about living effectively suspended in mid-air. The apartments “bounce” a little when you walk around, says Maas, to the extent you can hear residents' porcelain collections rattling on the shelves.

How far should The Balancing Barn bounce? And how best to achieve that balance? On hand was Jane Wernick, an experienced structural engineer whose previous credits include the London Eye and buildings by Zaha Hadid and David Chipperfield. Wernick quickly ascertained that the most efficient way to achieve the Barn's 15-metre cantilever was a tube truss: a steel frame with five rectangular sides (floor, two walls, two sides of the pitched roof), each stiffened with diagonal members. The other alternative was what is known as a Vierendeel truss, which would have no diagonal members (giving the architects nice, square openings to work with) but would require much more steel, and therefore be heavier and more expensive.

“The main things to worry about with a cantilever that's got people on it are deflections and vibrations,” Wernick explains. A deflection is how much the building moves up and down or side to side under wind loads and its own weight. If there is too much movement, that could distress the external cladding, or the eventual weight of the building and its contents could cause the cantilevered end to droop. A droop could be mitigated by pre-cambering – that is, designing the steel frame so it bends upwards slightly, so that it becomes horizontal when fully loaded, but the architects decided a slight droop would be unnoticeable.

“More important, in a way, is the vibration,” Wernick continues. “Every structure has a natural frequency, and if it's close to the natural frequencies of people walking or jumping, then the structure will resonate.” In other words, each footstep could cause the building to “bounce” a little bit more, like a diver on a springboard, until the vibration becomes uncomfortable. This famously happened with London's Millennium Bridge, whose unanticipated wobbliness made headlines and required costly rectification. It was not desirable for someone in the end bedroom of The Balancing Barn, for example, to feel it every time someone walked down the corridor. “It's a comfort thing, and comfort is quite difficult to quantify,” says Wernick, “especially for a building like this where you've got a wide range of possible users.”

These frequencies could be determined fairly accurately for the structure itself, but it was almost impossible to gauge how the whole building would respond once other materials were added: the cladding, the flooring, the lining and insulation within the walls. Wernick suggested the architects provide space in the underside of the building where dampers could be installed if required, once it was almost completed. As it happens, they were not needed. If you stand at the far end of the building and jump, you can feel a slight bounce – almost enough to rattle a porcelain collection – but even with a roomful of people jumping up and down, it would be difficult to create a larger vibration.

More problematic than the engineering was the question of what the Barn should look like on the outside. The range of cladding materials that can be hung onto a steel frame is virtually limitless. Stone was too heavy and would look out of place – historically, Suffolk had few quarries, so stone buildings are rare in the region. An-all timber structure was an option, but a rather tame one. Brightly coloured rubber cladding was investigated. Test panels of the material were even brought to the site, in colours including Suffolk pink and “Dutch” orange, but Maas took one look at them and decided it wasn't the right material at all. There was talk of printing the exterior with images of grass or sky.

Maas's favoured option was to clad the barn in mirrors, which would reflect the landscape and effectively camouflage it. But mirrored glass comes with its own difficulties in terms of durability, and the Living Architecture team took a great deal of convincing. This became another sticking point. More heated long-distance phone conversations ensued before the solution of mirrored stainless steel shingle was agreed upon, though that still necessitated extensive research to come up with a technique that was practicable, and still gave a decent, undistorted reflection.

As the Balancing Barn project moved towards the detailed design and construction stages, a new member of the team came to the fore: Mole Architects. A young, Cambridge-based practice, Mole were the project's executive architects, which is to say, the ones who would see the design through to completion. This is common practice, especially for architects working in foreign countries. MVRDV had done the concept design, but would not be a weekly presence on the construction site. Cambridge-based Mole would engage with the contractors and other specialists and take care of the details. As the Barn approached completion, Mole's share of the workload would grow as MVRDV's decreased.

The role of executive architect (also known as delivery architect) can be a thankless one. Mole is well-respected in its own right, and had already built a solid reputation for sustainable, finely crafted design. The practice had won several awards, including the 2004 Manser Medal – the Royal Institute of British Architects' annual prize for the best one-off house – for its Black House in Ely, which is actually the home of its founder, Meredith Bowles. (The Balancing Barn would, itself, receive a nomination for the Manser Medal). As such they had reservations about taking on someone else's design, says Bowles. “The test I gave was, if I'd heard that one of my friends was working with an interesting foreign architect on an interesting project, would I be envious? And the answer was yes! So on that basis I decided to take it on.”

One of the first challenges facing Mole was obtaining planning permission for the Barn. Uncomplicated as it appears to the eye, the British countryside is a patchwork of designated zones, each with their own planning controls. The Suffolk coast, for example, from Kessingland in the north to the Stour estuary in the south, is one of England's 33 Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, whose western border is just 750 metres from The Balancing Barn. There are other zones: Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), such as habitats for rare wildlife; Local Nature Reserves; Special Protection Areas; Special Areas of Conservation; National Parks and so forth. Then there are architectural Conservation Areas, such as historic towns and villages, protected by English Heritage. Each of these protected landscapes comes with its own stringent planning guidelines, designed to minimise harmful or insensitive architectural interventions. Even in non-designated rural areas, new designs are at the mercy of the local planning committee – usually a group of well-meaning volunteers. Grounds for rejection can vary a great deal from area to area and can often be frustratingly tenuous or subjective. It helped that The Balancing Barn site already came with planning permission for a previous proposal to replace the existing bungalow and outbuildings. That design had been for an entirely conventional two-storey mock Victorian villa, though. It was with some trepidation, therefore, that Ian Bramwell, Mole's project architect, stood before a roomful of local councillors, with an average age of about 70, presenting a scheme for a radical, cantilevered, Dutch-designed structure, projecting boldly over the landscape, possibly clad in bright orange rubber.

“I went in there and thought, 'This is going to be quite a tough one,'” recalls Bramwell of the crucial planning meeting. “But in fact, they were really supportive. They immediately saw the fun and the humour in it.” It helped that the architects had put in a strong design statement. In it, they referenced other local structures of a similar shape and style, and detailed how the Barn's impact would be minimal since it did not disturb the lower portion of the site, and presented a very small facade towards the approach track. “They were also keen on promoting modern design, rather than pastiche architecture like the Victorian design, and bringing the standard of local design up,” says Bramwell. “In fact they were really excited about it. The only condition they put on the approval was that they could come and see the building when it was finished!”

At last, work was ready to commence on site, which, predictably, brought fresh complications. Being close to the Church Farm Wildlife Trust and nearby SSSIs, The Balancing Barn site was home to rare and protected fauna, including newts, bats, slow worms and even adders, all of which had to be caught and relocated before construction could begin. This involved, among other things, the erection of a metre-high plastic “newt fence” with sunken buckets along it, to catch newts already on the site and prevent others entering. Bats roosting in the derelict outbuildings had to be allowed to fledge before the structures were dismantled. And relocating animals was not just a matter of slinging them over the fence into the Wildlife Trust: the slow worms had to be transported to another suitable site, some distance away, to avoid over-populating the area.

In comparison to what had gone before, construction itself was relatively simple. Scaffolding was erected at the lower end of the barn to support the Barn's steel frame during assembly. The stainless steel cladding system was resolved, as were small details such as how to reinforce the impression that the barn was sitting lightly on the edge of the hill, as if it had just been placed there, rather than being held down at one end by deep piles and substantial concrete foundations.

Subtle touches in the final design reinforce the suggestion that the Barn has been simply deposited onto the site, almost by accident, and could tip over at any moment. In addition to its reflective qualities, the homogenous mirrored cladding reinforces the status of the structure as a single discrete object, and conceals the reality that different parts of the building are doing different things. The way the house meets the ground, meanwhile, with a line of shadow at its base, suggests it is resting lightly on the hillside, when in reality it is firmly anchored to it, with deep piles set into a concrete bed beneath, to take the weight of the cantilever. The notion is reinforced at the threshold, with steel entry ramps, like those on a ship. There were practical reasons for this, but it also reinforces the idea that the entire Barn could move. You don't walk into it; you step onto it. The illusion of precariousness is achieved.

The final issues were to do with the inside the barn: how it should be organised and how it should look. There were more fractious discussions over the internal layout, the route of the corridor (Maas had originally favoured a zig-zag rather than a straight corridor), and even the location of the hob in the kitchen. Then, how should the external unconventionality of The Balancing Barn be carried through to the inside? Should the steel structure, with its powerful diagonals, be concealed or exposed? What materials should cover the walls? What furniture should go into it? Despite its impact from the outside, visitors would spend most of their time engaging with the interior of the building. And for all those conversations about degrees of “un-comfort”, oppressive or uncomfortable interiors tend not to be the hallmark of a successful holiday home venture.

MVRDV and Mole grappled with concepts for the interiors. As with the exterior, there were numerous proposals for covering every surface with a continuous, printed pattern. Polka dots of different sizes, leaves, grass, flowers, maps, birds, butterflies – all were mooted, though the effect tended to be rather overwhelming. In the end, MVRDV and Living Architecture agreed on ash plywood, similar to what the architects had successfully used in the interior of their Didden Village “Blue House”. At the Balancing Barn it was applied like wallpaper, closely fitted around every element of the structure. Winy Maas had always been mindful of the similarity between the barn's structural members and traditional half-timbering as found across East Anglia and much of Europe – in Dutch it is known as fachwerk. Maas appreciated the irony of putting the fachwerk on the inside, effectively presenting a steel structure as a “fake” wooden barn. This covered-but-exposed structure animates every room, even the bathrooms, reminding visitors how the whole building is working against the forces of gravity.

To complete the interior, it was agreed that a specialist designer should be brought in – preferably a Dutch one. Jurgen Bey fitted the bill perfectly. One of the best known designers in the Netherlands, Bey has a reputation, like Maas, for questioning the boundaries of his discipline. His work is as much at home in art galleries as retail showrooms, and often interrogates relationships such as traditional and modern, public and private, natural and artificial. His famous Tree Trunk Bench, for example, is a section of natural tree trunk, still covered in its bark, but with a variety of classical chair backs set along its length. Living and working in Rotterdam, Maas and Bey knew each other well. Some seven years earlier, MVRDV had collaborated with Bey on a project for a villa in Eindhoven, which was never built. “Everyone was happy with the choice of Jurgen,” says Maas. “He has a very good sense for domesticity. Having a barn that mirrors nature, and then an interior with this fachwerk clad completely in wood as a soft, domestic element. The only one that could continue with that for me was Jurgen, who uses a mixture of old and new, and makes a twist to the domestic.”

Since 2002, Bey has worked in partnership with his architect wife Rianne Makkink on projects ranging from small products to furniture to interiors and architecture. His studio is a former industrial building on the outskirts of Rotterdam, with a workshop below and spacious, spartan offices above, strewn with his own designs and prototypes. “I would rather do less for more than more for less,” says Bey. “That was a pragmatic decision with the Barn – we didn't have much time or money – but it was also a design decision. Either you do everything at certain level, or you do less, but on a higher level, which is what we chose. If you do it cleverly, it's like an optical illusion. Nobody sees the two-thirds of the space that's unfurnished, they see the one third that is furnished.”

Bey had three guiding strategies, he explains. First, he believed that whatever he put into the house should be distinct from the work of the architects – so that it could be completely removed, if required, at a later date, leaving the house just as he found it. He was also intrigued by the way the barn's elongated form “stretched” ordinary domestic scale, and how that might affect different-sized groups of users. Psychologically, it needed to feel just as comfortable if two people were staying there, as if there were eight. And finally, Bey felt the house's contents should evolve over time, rather than exist as a definitive inventory of objects.

In the kitchen, for example, Bey assembled a set of “special” individual pieces – chairs, plates, glasses and cutlery, all acquired from local flea markets. If there are just two people, they can use all the special pieces and sit at the two-person dining table. If there are more, those special items can be “stretched” between guests, augmented by the plain crockery and cutlery. So one person might have the special plate, another the special glass, and so on. When breakages inevitably occur, rather than calling up the designer for a replacement, pieces should be bought from local antique shops. “People just stay in the house temporarily; they don't own it,” Bey explains, “but I didn't want it to be like a hotel, always fixed. It has to grow slowly, from the owners and inhabitants, into a house that's alive, where you feel you're allowed to choose, and to add bits.”

In addition, that dialogue between Dutch modernism and English tradition initiated by MVRDV has been noticeably carried inside. One thing visitor are immediately struck by is the artworks, which overlay the familiar landscape paintings of local heroes John Constable and Thomas Gainsborough with abstract, almost Mondrian-esque bars of solid colour “sampled” from the original artworks. “We were coming fROm Holland and bringing our culture, and I felt that the area should bring its own culture,” says Bey. “The two can meet here.”

The same could be said of the furniture: Bey handpicked a contemporary selection, but he'd be happiest if subsequent pieces were acquired at local flea markets and auction houses. His choices are a colourful assortment of primarily Dutch and British contemporary design. There are chairs by Bey's compatriots Gerrit Rietveld (the blue Utrecht 637 armchairs), Ineke Hans (the Elephant chaise longue) and Hella Jongerius (the Polder sofa). Bey's studio designed the simple, bespoke beds and side tables, referencing the barn's diagonal struts. The main dining chairs and table were supplied by east London company Unto This Last, whom Bey admires for the fact that they manufacture everything on their own premises. Bey's own designs are manufactured in a similar, small-scale fashion. There's a philosophical principle here, he says. “If you make products on a small scale, it means industry will go back to they city, which means working and living can happen at the same place. It means less transportation. It means more directness with the people who make things, and no help desk in between. So you really develop different way of dealing with the city and the area. We're dealing with small-scale products but we're always thinking on a bigger scale, how you can change society.”


The Balancing Barn was the “first-born child” of Living Architecture, as Winy Maas puts it. It had the most care and time lavished over it and caused its fair share of anguish. Understandably, nobody wanted to mess up Living Architecture's debut project. At that stage, the future of the entire operation hinged on its success. But the difficulty was also compounded by Living Architecture's relative inexperience, says Alain de Botton. “Looking back, I can see why it was the way it was,” he says. “We weren't a big organisation. We didn't have a big team of experts telling us what to do. It was a start-up business really. We had to go very slowly.”

The experience taught Living Architecture a great deal, de Botton continues: “We've come to have a slight love-hate relationship with architects and their curious ways through this project. We'd said to Winy, 'We want you to dream, and dream big and push the boundaries,' and we then had to rein that in. I don't think we could go through that with another house! Nowadays, when we talk to architects we say, 'We're a horrible client. We are manically into control'. We deliberately strike a cautious note. We try and depress the architect!”

The Balancing Barn was an experiment for both sides. From Living Architecture's point of view, despite the difficulties, this particular experiment proved the theory that it is possible to produce aesthetically innovative, publicly accessible, commercially viable, modern architecture in the British countryside. The reaction to The Balancing Barn from the press and public was overwhelmingly favourable when it was opened in late 2010. The eccentricity of the project has made it world famous, reported in too many magazines to keep track of. Ian Bramwell was given a double-page feature on the building somebody had spotted on an in-train magazine in China.

“Ultimately what were trying to do is change tastes,” says de Botton. “We're trying to get people to say, 'Oh, that's a normal thing to do: to commission an architect and build a house of a certain kind of style.' We're trying to take the foreignness out of it. It should be part of the fabric of modern life in Britain. On a bad day, I think, all were doing is building a few houses, but you've got to start somewhere.”

The experiment is ongoing. The Balancing Barn was a valuable learning experience, but that in no way guaranteed the success of Living Architecture projects. The next homes have also been bespoke, one-off prototypical pieces of architecture. And they have not adhered to any particular “school”. Joining MVRDV so far have been Jarmund Vigsnaes Architects of Norway, Peter Zumthor from Switzerland, and British architects Michael and Patty Hopkins, David Kohn, and FAT in association with artist Grayson Perry, with more to come. No two architects or situations or outcomes are alike. The questions are asked afresh each time: What do the public want? Who do they want to design it? Where do they want it? How much of it do they want? What is too much, and what is not enough?

The struggle to build The Balancing Barn project also shed light on de Botton's initial complaint about the mediocrity of British architecture, he says. “I do understand better why if you're a Bellway Homes or a Barratt Homes and you've got a multimillion pound scheme and lots of pressure from your banks and this and that, do you go to MVRDV or do you go to Joe Bloggs who's going to be in your office will draw anything on demand and do you a nice fake column? Those are dangerous, difficult thoughts, but they have to be acknowledged. I do think that some of the problem lies with the architects. They are not used to costing things. They don't work to budgets, which is crazy. If you go back in history, architects were builders as well. London was built by people like John Nash, who were architects and contractors. They didn't see the division between money and art. We've got a very strong, romantic 'architecture with a capital A' landscape, with this idea that architects are creative people who are so pure they can't think about money. That's naïve. It's led architects to miss opportunities.”

From MVRDV's point of view, Living Architecture's relative inexperience as an asset – not in terms of a naïve client to be exploited, rather as people with the courage to take a risk, even when they weren't entirely certain what they wanted. “I wish we would have them more!” says Winy Maas. “That zone of not completely knowing is fantastic. It's a beauty in itself. Then you become vulnerable. And without vulnerability, I would say there is no progress, no new truths, no discoveries.”

As a practice that is often described as “experimental”, MVRDV thrives on such opportunities. It regularly deals with the largest of architectural scales (the firm is currently planning a 45-hectare peninsula of reclaimed land in the Dutch city of Almere, for example, with 60,000 homes). But projects like The Balancing Barn allow it to test ideas on the fundamental human scale from which all those larger projects are derived. What architecture does en gros it must justify en petit [ITALS], says Maas. “And testing is a good word. It means you are allowing experimentation on a reasonable level. It sees architecture almost like science – like a way to take things one step further.”

Maas was also testing Living Architecture, of course. Perhaps he pushed them too far at one stage, and forced them to push back more than they would have liked, but without doing so, he says, they would never have arrived where they did. “That 'pushing' is what led to, in this case, issues bigger than the project itself,” he says. “For me, architecture is not just artistic in itself; it also wants to say something about society. It touches emotionally on societal issues in our world. If there's one thing on the edge that can be discussed, it should be discussed. I think that's what The Balancing Barn does. That's why, for me, it's an important project, even though it's just 160 square metres. It wants to say something more.”

Press coverage at the time of launch

Creating buildings that can evoke such powerful feelings of obscure but pleasurable unease is very rare and the Balancing Barn hits the mark in a very unusual way.

RIBA Manser Medal citation, 2011

An instant classic of Looney Tunes modernism in which much effort, determination and structural steel is expended in pursuit of a single memorable gag… Like a cartoon character, it starts running in midair, with no apparent means of support. A glass floor in the living room, looking down into the unexpected void, is the punchline

Rowan Moore, Observer, 26 Sep 2010

Conversations about design are as rare as hen's teeth on our family breaks, but here we talked of little else at times. We didn't thumb through Proust or Tolstoy but we did lie on the diagonal beams, sprint down the corridor, marvel at the bathroom skylights and reach for the skies on the swing. We engaged with it,

Joanna Tweedy, Daily Mail, 26 April 2011

On a small hill in Suffolk sits, or rather balances, an intriguing barn, borne from a concept where ordinary people can sleep, eat and live architecture on holiday… clad in reflective metal shingles, the curious barn is a stunning addition to the landscape.

Hazel Lubbock, Condé Nast Traveller, 27 Oct 2010

With its cantilevered whimsy, its swing and Bey’s colourful furnishings, the Balancing Barn is certainly a joyful place. Like the glass floor in the living room, it might be enough to tempt people out of their aesthetic comfort zone, challenging without outraging. This zaniness is a risk – while it exemplifies the possibilities and adventure of modernism, it could also serve to associate modern architecture with stunts and expensive playfulness. But risks are hugely welcome in British housebuilding.

William Wiles, Icon Magazine, November 2010

How does it feel to be dangling in space? Pretty cool, actually, though perhaps the most surprising thing is how swiftly you get used to it and how within hours of your arrival the notion of being suspended in mid-air as you sip tea in the living room seems, well, perfectly normal.

Fiona Sturges, Independent, 9 Jan 2011

It is, in its architecture, in its absurdist conception, utterly un-English, yet, in its attempt to create a moment of oddness in the landscape, it does reflect a kind of romantic tradition of the folly, both at one with – and surprising in – its sylvan setting.

Edwin Heathcote, Financial Times, 15 Oct 2010

The Balancing Barn is bold, brash and successful, transforming a humble hillock into exciting topography… Any client with the vision (and the cash) to address the public’s appreciation of architecture should be made welcome. As for meeting the brief, MVRDV has done it in style.

James Pallister, The Architects' Journal, 21 October, 2010

Light and airy with enormous windows, cutting-edge Dutch furniture and a glass floor above a plunging 45-degree grass slope, it defies the stereotype chintzy cottage in the country and replaces it with this dramatic design built by Living Architecture… The Balancing Barn is meant to shock, in the nicest possible way.

Corinne Julius, Evening Standard, 3 Nov 2010

Some guest comments

I had very high hopes and the house more than met them. It's truly iconic and I look forward to coming back with my grandchildren (my kids are 13 and 9 now!) and telling them I stayed there when it was first built. Most of all - we loved the cows next door, the fire was easy to use and smelled great, the wet room shower,  the books provided to browse through, the food that was provided on arrival - it was everything we needed to get started, the four restaurant recommendations - we ate at 3 and they were all great, the surrounding area - Southwold, Alderburgh etc. Just sitting in the lounge together and imagining what it would be like to own a house like that - we got lots and lots of ideas for decorating our home and I think we will be much braver as a result,  I liked the way things didn't match but still 'went together'. The way the barn photographs - you can't take a bad picture of it. In the end we decided it reminded us of the end the Italian Job with the coach hanging precariously over the edge of the cliff. We also enjoyed visiting Thorpeness and having a look at your other property from the outside. 

quality just superb - loved everything about the house and its contents - wowed 6 over 20's and me as main organiser

 We have thoroughly enjoyed our weekend stay at the Balancing Barn. It is a great piece of Architecture (and that's a compliment from 5 fellow professionals), a very high spec fit out, which makes the stay even more pleasant and finally it really is affordable! We are definitely planning to come back, possibly inviting friends over from the continent to share the experience and enjoy socialising and talking architecture. Great concept, can't wait to see some of the others!

 We had high expectations, raised by the press coverage of the Barn, post booking. Nothing prepared us for the sheer beauty of the building and its surroundings. Each day was an opportunity to spot new things. The changeable weather gave us the opportunity to see the Barn in all its glory. Sitting around the fire pit looking up at barn and stars in the sky was surely man and nature brought together at its very best. A memory to cherish.

 Just amazing - the Balancing Barn totally surpassed my expectations. I thought I knew what I was going to walk into having seen the photography but the space was so much more than I was expecting. What I really appreciated was the generosity of space, the fact that the barn sleeps 8 but there is space at the kitchen table for 10 which meant friends in the area could visit and enjoy the space too. And having a background in design and being able to enjoy design classics during my stay was a treat too.

 Overall had a great time in the house. I now want to live in a modern house. Enjoyed the wonderful setting & surrounding countryside.

 We were very enthusiastic about the Hanging Barn, the quality of the spaces, the attention to detail, and the sense that no expense had been spared.

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