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Long House

Sleeps 10

Long House, designed by Sir Michael and Lady Patty Hopkins, is situated in Cockthorpe, on the flat expanse of the Norfolk landscape, with views over the inlets, salt marshes and creeks of the North Sea coast. It is distinctive for its massive and traditionally crafted flint wall, referencing the ancient churches and barns of East Anglia.

About The Architecture

Architect – Hopkins Architects

Hopkins Architects have helped pioneer high-tech architecture since being founded by Sir Michael Hopkins in 1976. Together with a talented team led by six Senior Partners, they are based in London and have completed projects throughout the world.

Their deeply-rooted architectural, environmental and social convictions guide their designs. Their greatest works include the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University, the Henrietta Barnett School in North London, the Glyndeborne Opera House and the Norwich Cathedral Refectory

Long House stands in an archetypal piece of the North Norfolk landscape, with vast skies and extensive views over green fields.

Touring the site and the village of Cockthorpe, the Hopkins' at once became interested in the use of flint, which has for centuries been the predominant building material in this part of Norfolk - and arrived at the idea of encasing the house and its outbuildings behind massive flint walls, traditionally insulated with hemp inside. They deliberately restricted the number of window openings in these walls, partly for protection from the fierce winds of the area, and partly to frame the views intriguingly, drawing us away from the clichéd idea that more glass is always better.

The Hopkins’ were fascinated by the interior layout of old manor houses, where much of the living would go on in large galleried halls with fireplaces. Uncannily, when the foundations for Long House were dug, archaeologists discovered that just such a manor house once stood on this spot in the Jacobean period.

Long House is dominated by its large hall, which doubles as a reception area and living space. It invites us to look up and take in the complex geometrical roof, which marries the best of traditional timber craftsmanship with up-to-the-minute computer-designed steel trusses. One of the great pleasures of the house is its gallery, which allows one to take in views to the north (with the sea in the distance) and south, as well as to communicate with those in the hall below.

The site on which the house sits used to be enclosed by a very domestic garden framed by non-native conifer trees, so it was decided to return it to a more natural state, reintegrating it within the farmland that surrounds it. There is a constant dialogue with history in this building which makes it one of the most sensitive and contextual of the houses


Hopkins Architects were interested in a hardy, simple, optimistic interior that would include some classic masterpieces of contemporary design. There are sofas by Vitra, rugs by Allegra Hicks and industrially referenced floor and table lights. The kitchen is finished in neutral greys, with a large oval table by Fritz Hansen, surrounded by luminescent blue chairs by Eames. Whilst the bedrooms are practically identical, the furniture within has been boldly and variously coloured to contrast with the timber shell. The bathrooms are cleanly detailed with simple tiling and spacious showers and baths.


  • Completed 2011
  • Footprint 340 sqm
  • Plot – approximately 2 acres
  • 30 metres long and 7.5 meters wide,
  • Structural timber roof frame with steel connections
  • Flint, hempcrete and block work walls
  • Ash veneered internal panelling
  • First floor solid ash timber floors

Contents of the house

Exterior Courtyards

Tables, chairs and recliner – designed by Magnus Olesen, from the Xylofon range. Supplied by Coexistence

Entrance Hall

Sunita high back sofa – designed by Antonio Citterio for Vitra. Credo 02 Sand/stone fabric. Supplied by Coexistence

Rugs – designed by Allegra Hicks. ‘Sounds’ and ‘Lotus’. Supplied by Christopher Farr

Artek Aalto 60 stool – supplied by Coexistence

Balance bookshelf – oak. Designed and supplied by Conran

Thonet S33 side chair, with chocolate brown leather seat and back – supplied by Coexistence

Thonet S1071 oak table – supplied by Coexistence

Tolomeo Micro floor light – supplied by Coexistence

Sitting Room

Conseta sofa – by COR, Sitzmobel. Kvadrat, Tonus 240 fabric. Supplied by Coexistence

Artek Aalto 60 stool – supplied by Coexistence

Rug – designed by Allegra Hicks. ‘Sundanagar’. Supplied by Christopher Farr

Swan 3320 chair – designed by Arne Jacobson. Kvadrat Divina fabric. Supplied by Coexistence

Balance bookshelf – oak. Designed and supplied by Conran

Tolomeo Micro floor light – supplied by Coexistence

Tolomeo Micro table light – supplied by Coexistence

Marset Nolita Cotton P floor lamp – supplied by Coexistence

Thonet S411 armchair and footstool in brown hide – supplied by Coexistence

Photographs – by North Norfolk based artist Frances Kearney


Furniture – designed by Hopkins Architects

Fabricated and installed by Kestrel

Tolomeo Micro floor light – supplied by Coexistence

Tolomeo Micro table light – supplied by Coexistence

Rug – Flatweave classic. Fabricated and supplied by Robert Clements

Bed linen – in Egyptian cotton by Peter Reed

Kitchen / Dining

Kitchen – designed by Hopkins Architects

Fabricated and installed by Kestrel

Super Elliptical dining Table with span legs – designed by Fritz Hansen. Supplied by Coexistence

Modernica fibreglass Shell chair – Eiffel base. Designed by Ray and Charles Eames. Supplied by Century Design

Flos Splugen Brau pendant light – supplied by Coexistence

Tolomeo Micro floor light – supplied by Coexistence

Photographs – by North Norfolk based artist Frances Kearney

Kitchen equipment – by David Mellor Design

Studio Annexe

Furniture – designed by Hopkins Architects

Fabricated and installed by Kestrel

Tolomeo Micro floor light – supplied by Coexistence

Tolomeo Micro table light – supplied by Coexistence

Rug – designed by Allegra Hicks. ‘Waves’. Supplied by Christopher Farr

Balance bookshelf – oak. Designed and supplied by Conran

The making of Long House - a short essay by Steve Rose (2012)

To fully appreciate the story of the Long House, a good place to start would be its architects' own home: the Hopkins House, in north London, designed by Michael and Patty Hopkins in 1976. On the face of it, the two buildings could scarcely be more different. The Long House is strong and solid, built from stone and timber, clearly sensitive to context and tradition. The Hopkins House is the epitome of lightness and simplicity: a minimal, two-storey box at odds with the Regency villas around it. The Long House is unambiguously a permanent dwelling; the Hopkins House is closer to an industrial shed. Supported by a slender steel frame, the Hopkins House has plain, all-glass facades facing the street and garden, and corrugated metal sheet on its sides. It has no internal walls; only full-height venetian blinds to screen off impermanent “rooms”. Nor does the Hopkins House deal in standard domestic signifiers such as “porch” or “window” or “front door” (owing to the sunken site, it is accessed by a bridge from the street to first-floor level).

Few would guess that the Long House and the Hopkins House were the work of the same architects. Fewer still would guess that the Hopkins House was nearly four decades older. The distance between these two projects corresponds to one of the most remarkable journeys in British architecture. In the popular imagination, lightness, minimalism, steel and glass represent “modern”, even “futuristic” while materials such as flint and timber denote “historic” and “traditional”. But in a joint career spanning more than half a decade, the Hopkinses have done possibly more than any other architects to complicate those associations.

From the Hopkinses' point of view, there is no fundamental difference between the Long House and the Hopkins House, or anything else they've designed. “It's just structural logic and architecture going together, which to us is second nature,” says Michael Hopkins. “It used to be called “high tech” when it manifested itself in a modern building made of steel and glass, but what has interested me throughout my architectural career has been, how do you apply these principles to more traditional materials? When you can do the same thing with brick and stone and timber, and you make those materials work hard, then you get some architecture. Architecture is derived from structure.”

Growing from those simple principles, Hopkins Architects is today a renowned international practice, invariably engaged with high-level projects and high-level clients: academic facilities for the likes of Cambridge, Yale, Princeton and Nottingham universities, cultural buildings such as Glyndebourne Opera House; government buildings such as Westminster's Portcullis House; the Velodrome for the London 2012 Olympics. They operate on the largest, most complex scales. As such, they were not a predictable fit with Living Architecture.

For its first few houses, Living Architecture had enlisted young, relatively up-and-coming European architects, including Dutch practice MVRDV, Glasgow-based NORD and Norwegians Jarmund Vigsnaes Arkitekter. Inviting such elder statespeople as the Hopkinses to participate certainly raised a few eyebrows, not least those of the architects themselves. “My first reaction was, 'What on earth do you want to use us for?'” says Michael Hopkins. “It's a job for a firm of young architects starting off. Not really for us.”

“We were looking for the classic British modernist from that period,” explains Mark Robinson, director of Living Architecture. “There was also an element of interest in what might happen if we invite architects who now build large buildings most of their time and ask them to design a domestic building.” Richard Rogers or Norman Foster would have been the obvious choices – too obvious perhaps. The Hopkinses were a little more rarefied. They are not public or political figures like Rogers and Foster, and their architecture has evolved along quite a different path. Added to which, as a husband-and-wife team, they were entirely suited to the brief. Unfortunately, though, they turned Living Architecture down.

“We don't really want to do houses for people because it usually ends in tears,” says Michael. “They're all too personal. The only person we ever did a house for was my brother but we weren't charging him so he couldn't grumble.”

“We did actually do that house in Bury St Edmunds after ours,” his wife Patty reminds him. “A very nice house which never quite got finished off.”

“You see, we quarrelled over that one, didn't we?” Michael replies.

“No, no,” says Patty.

“We did! I sent him his fees back.”

Despite the awards, knighthoods, and general esteem, the Hopkinses interact like any other lifelong couple – in a relaxed tandem, teasingly interrupting and contradicting each other, finishing each other's sentences. Patty laughs a great deal; Michael is initially more reserved, but drops his guard easily, especially at Patty's cajoling.

Living Architecture did not give up. They invited Mark Robinson and Alain de Botton, Living Architecture's creative director, to lunch at the Hopkins House, as a way of introducing them to the philosophy behind their domestic architecture. The architects' curiosity was also piqued by photographs of the site in north Norfolk for which Living Architecture had them in mind. It was not far from Norwich, where Hopkins had recently completed new buildings for the city's cathedral campus. Wheels started turning in the architects' minds. “One would always do an [/] interesting [/] house,” says Michael. “This one fit that bill.”

Michael did have a small bone to pick with de Botton, however, over a passing reference he had made to Hopkins' work in his book The Architecture Of Happiness. De Botton had singled out the canopy of Hopkins' Bracken House, an office building in London, criticising “the fuss it makes, through multiple bulky struts, of the task of holding up few relatively light pieces of glass.” Michael explained at length how de Botton had “completely misread” his design. “We had a very direct chat and the steam was let out,” de Botton recalls. “He was gracious and likes to be teased a bit.”

The Hopkinses were broadly sympathetic to Living Architecture's purpose, though. “It's a good idea,” says Michael. “I remember what Alain said, that the only way people really experience modern architecture is at the airport, or the supermarket. To experience it domestically is not a chance that many people have, including most architects. But for us it's always been important to live and work in buildings we've designed ourselves. We've gone on doing that.” Michael gestures to Hopkins Architects' north London headquarters around him. Built in 1984, it is of a piece with the Hopkinses' own house, another airy, open space with a lightweight steel-and-glass structure.

“He seemed very beguiling when he talked about his project,” says Patty of de Botton. “He said, 'It's entirely up to you. Whatever you think is the right thing to do.'”

“He wanted us to do whatever we wanted…” says Michael.

“…'Carte blanche'. It didn't turn out like that!”

The Hopkinses' philosophy to domestic architecture did not begin with the Hopkins House but with their very first home. Two weeks before they married, in 1962, they bought a “romantic ruin” in Suffolk. Patty was 20 years old, Michael 27. It was a dilapidated 16th century poor house that had once been divided into old people's apartments but was now crumbling towards collapse. “It cost £400 but I only had £100,” remembers Michael. “There were partitions everywhere. There was this old chap who still lived in one of the rooms at the back, which he'd divided into three – a real countryman with string tying up his trousers.”

“He seemed very old to us, but he was probably younger than we are now,” laughs Patty.

“We spent a week there just after we married,” Michael continues. “There was a habitable room on the first floor above his. By chance it was April and we had most amazing sunny week, which I think probably saved our marriage!”

At this time, Patty was in her third year at the Architectural Association in London (Michael was a “cool mature student” there, in her words). One of the requirements of Patty's course was to do a measured drawing, which gave them the excuse to examine the timber structure of their new house in great detail. Michael already had an interest in historic architecture, which set him apart from his AA peers somewhat. He had found the house through his ties to the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. This was a time when many old country houses were being pulled down, so the Hopkinses felt a responsibility to try and save one.

“We measured and drew the interior of the house, putting back the members that were missing, and through that process, you worked out how the house had been built and why it looked like it did,” says Michael. The architects came to appreciate the highly deliberate organisation of the timber engineering. The underlying plan was remarkably similar to modernist organising principles: a central chimney stack to warm the main living areas of the house and brace the timber frame, unheated service rooms at the extremities – “served” and “servant” spaces. Responding to this proto-modernity, the Hopkinses made their 20th Century additions, such as the kitchen and bathroom, free-standing elements, clear of the timber frame of the external walls – just as Frank Lloyd Wright had done in the Farnsworth House. They spent the next 10 years gradually restoring the property, learning about the materiality of architecture first-hand in the process. “I loved it,” Patty recalls. “It was the first time I had done anything with my hands. I learnt a respect for building trades done properly, as our laboriously applied plaster crumbled away rather quickly.”

Such concerns were not particularly fashionable at the time. The Architectural Association in the 1960s was the incubator for what would come to be the prevailing progressive architecture of the next half-century, not least the movement towards engineering-influenced, lightweight steel structures that became known as “high tech” (the label annoys any architect associated with it, says Michael, but it is a useful shorthand all the same). The movement drew on a shared set of influences: the visionary feats of Victorian engineers like Joseph Paxton and Isambard Kingdom Brunel; modernist masters like Alvar Aalto, Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Khan, and Mies van der Rohe; the sci-fi futurism of Archigram and Buckminster Fuller; the functionalism of aeronautical and industrial design, as applied by the likes of Le Corbusier and Jean Prouvé. Alongside the Hopkinses at the AA were most of high tech's key players, including Richard Rogers and Nicholas Grimshaw. Archigram's Peter Cook was head of Patty's year group, Norman Foster was on the jury for her thesis.

Michael Hopkins became partners with Foster in the late 1960s. Hopkins was project architect on what became a high-tech landmark: the Willis Faber and Dumas building in Ipswich, completed in 1975. An atrium-centred, open-plan office building wrapped in a sleek skin of smoked glass. It was the youngest building ever to obtain a Grade I listing. Patty was practising from their London home by this time, and raising their three children. The Hopkinses' decision to join forces and become Hopkins Architects, post-Willis Faber, coincided with their acquisition of the Hampstead site. Thus, the Hopkins House became the couple's workplace (on the first floor), their home (downstairs), and an unofficial showroom for their new practice.

The Hopkinses inevitably invite comparisons with another progressive couple: Charles and Ray Eames, the husband-and-wife team who became a byword for mid-century American design. There's little similarity in terms of personalities, design interests, or celebrity status – the latter of which the Hopkinses appear to have successfully avoided. But like the Eameses, the Hopkinses personified that postwar spirit of modernist optimism. Both couples lived their principles rather than just preaching them. They are also the only two husband-and-wife teams to receive the RIBA Gold Medal.

The Hopkins House is, of course, indebted to the Eameses' celebrated Case Study House No. 8, in Los Angeles, completed in 1949. It was a similar experiment in building a light, open, modern home out of off-the-shelf components, and the Eameses lived and worked in it for the rest of their lives, just as the Hopkinses continue to live in their self-built home. Similar, but not quite the same, Michael points out: “Eames had been keen to demonstrate that you could make domestic architecture out of catalogue components, which suited their decorative approach, but our approach was to use as few components as we could. We'd spent all our money on buying the site, and needed to build something quickly and cheaply. But it's made out of catalogue materials, so a lot of it was homage to Eames.”

Hopkins Architects grew and steadily through the 1980s. The Mound Stand at Lord's Cricket Ground, completed in 1987 was a particularly significant project. Instead of demolishing and rebuilding the existing 19th century stand, the architects opted to retain its brick arcade and place a new lightweight seating structure on top of it, protected by a tensile-structure canopy, all supported by just six columns. This practice of adding contemporary architecture to existing structures seems commonplace in the 21st century, but at the time, Hopkins' Lord's stand was a novel innovation. This came at a time when British architecture was engaged in a heated debate between historic conservation and an “out with the old, in with the new” approach to urban planning. Paris had taken the latter route with Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano's Pompidou Centre a few years earlier; Britain was less bold, and efforts to do the same – at London's Covent Garden, for example – were often met with grassroots resistance. The Lord's Stand pointed to what could be called a “third way”, forging material and philosophical links between the old and new. Hopkins began to forge connections in the other direction, too, applying high tech's engineering principles to traditional building materials. The approach latter could be read as a repudiation of modernism's thrust towards a progressive future, unencumbered by “history”, but it proved to be a fruitful line of enquiry, especially in conservative, context-conscious Britain. As the RIBA put it in its Gold Medal citation, “For Hopkins, progress is no longer a break with the past but rather an act of continuity where he deftly and intelligently integrates traditional elements such as stone and wood, with advanced and environmentally responsible technology.”

It was this aspect, in particular, that made Hopkins so appealing to Living Architecture in relation to their Norfolk site. “We had to go for a team that could do 'context',” says Alain de Botton. “It was a sensitive site, very historic, near a medieval church. I had been impressed by their contextual buildings and thought they'd be able to pull off something at once historically aware and contemporary.”

The north Norfolk coast was one of the first areas on Living Architecture's wish-list, being a region of distinctive landscape and architecture, and a popular holiday destination within reach of London. As with its other projects, for ease of planning permission, Living Architecture targeted an existing house of negligible architectural value, with a view to demolishing it and building something new. In late 2007 they found a 1960s timber-framed house in the village of Cockthorpe, a mile or so inland from Holkham Beach. It was built as a retirement property by the owners of the adjacent Manor Farm, when they handed over the running of the farm to their children.

The Hopkinses' proposal for the site was simple and decisive: a long, barn-like building running approximately east-west across the width of the site, dividing it into front and back gardens. “Because it was out in the open countryside, and we know how cold East Anglia can be,” Michael Hopkins explains, “you could do this simple, relatively traditional shape and stick a courtyard on at each end, which became outside eating/sitting/recreation spaces and which give you some shelter.” The free ground-floor plan is reminiscent of the Hopkinses' first house in Suffolk: again, the functional elements are pulled into the centre of the plan, leaving circulation space around the perimeter walls. The upper level is also simplicity itself: four virtually identical bedrooms and bathrooms, one at each corner, connected by a first-floor gallery running around the central, double-height hall. The hall itself, the defining feature of the Long House, alludes to the surrounding vernacular – both barn structures and the Medieval hall house typology, but it is also another regular Hopkins feature, Michael explains. “Nearly all our buildings have a big volume somewhere in the middle of them, around which other spaces are distributed.”

“Also, in this case,” Patty adds, “people are coming here who don't know the house. They can identify the central space straight away, and you know the entire layout of the house from the front door.”

The Hopkinses had another connection to the region. In 2009 they completed work on two new buildings at Norwich Cathedral, some 30 miles to the south of the Long House. The project typifies the latter-day Hopkins approach. A new visitors' centre/rehearsal space and a public cafe were built on the ruins of two 12th to 14th century buildings that once formed part of the surrounding monastery. They incorporate the remnants of the medieval buildings, particularly their thick flint walls, which were built up again using a different, lighter coloured stone. The clear distinction between old and new continues throughout the Norwich buildings. The new structures barely touch the historic elements, but they work together functionally and aesthetically. The spaces are open, cleanly detailed and clearly articulated. The language is discreet and contemporary – slender oak columns and struts with steel connections, large expanses of glass, exposed steel walkways and stairs. As Michael Hopkins puts it, the sacred “aura” of the sensitive site is preserved.

In the Hopkinses' minds, the Long House is a cousin to the Norwich project. When it came to materials, flint was the obvious choice. It has been a popular local building material since Roman times. There are few quarries in this part of Britain, but flint cobbles are easy to come by, to the extent it is difficult to plough a field or dig up a site without coming across them. As a result, myriad permutations of flint are to be found in the local architecture – in terms of colour, size, pattern, and combination with other materials. Flints that have been “knapped” – that is, chipped open, so that the flat, inside surface of the stone is visible – are a common sight on prestigious Norfolk buildings such as churches, often painstakingly worked into regular panels in stone flushwork (the 14th century Ethelbert Gate at Norwich Cathedral is a spectacular example). Humbler homes often feature flint walls finished with stone or brick quoins and dressings around window and door openings. The Long House updates the tradition by trimming its flint walls with crisp, white, polished concrete.

The exterior of the Long House became an assembly of three principal layers: the two solid flint walls along the north and south facades with larch for the gable ends; a substantial pitched roof; and, between the two, a clerestory band of timber-framed windows, running along the top of the flint walls. There are echoes of other Hopkins projects here. A similar gallery level between the roof and walls is visible at Kroon Hall, a new school of environmental studies at Yale University, which Hopkins was just completing at the time. It also happens at Glyndebourne Opera House, Michael points out. “We stop the load-bearing brick structure, then the top floor has a slightly different character and function to the lower floors and sticks out a bit – so it somehow belongs to the roof. It's a better proportion, and it lightens the visual weight of the roof.”

The roof trusses, which were to become such a feature of the Long House, also have their heritage in Hopkins' work. Once could trace them back to the exposed beams of original medieval barns and long houses, of course, not to mention the Hopkins's 16th century Suffolk home. similar exposed systems of timber beams and steel ties are also to be found in numerous recent Hopkins projects: the Apex in Bury St Edmonds; the London Haberdashers' Hall; the Queen's Building at Emmanuel College, Cambridge; not to mention the Norwich Cathedral buildings. Clearly related, the Long House's X-shaped trusses fulfil their structural function with minimal means.

Like Kroon Hall, the Long House is also relatively open at its gable ends – the eastern and western facades. These elevations give some indication as to what's going on inside, Hopkins points out. Legibility and honesty are fundamental to the Hopkins ethos. Architecture is derived from structure, as Michael previously stated, and as far as possible, their buildings express their structure visually – which means, wherever possible, no cheating. The materials presented to the viewer must be the materials actually doing the work. Nothing is to be concealed. Joints and points of attachment between different materials are open and legible – no concealed reinforcing beams or decorative cladding, no extraneous ornament or arbitrary flourishes. Thus, in the case of the Long House, the flint walls carry the load to the ground and the timber windows running along the top of those walls support the weight of the roof, unaided. This integrity came at a price, as it happened.

As directors of a busy global practice, Michael and Patty Hopkins had limited time to devote the Long House personally. After planning permission was obtained, in early 2009, Steve Jones, an associate partner at Hopkins, took on the role of project architect. Jones was previously involved in the Olympic Velodrome and Nottingham University projects, and had also worked with Michael and Patty on another of their informal domestic projects: a stone-house conversion for Corin Mellor, son of cutlery maker David Mellor. The Hopkinses have designed a number of buildings for the Mellors, starting with their drum-shaped Cutlery Factory in 1989 have become friends of the family.

“We're very interested in materials and how they come together,” says Jones. “We spend an awful lot of time on projects on material research. So understanding how flint walls were built attracted us – we didn't get to build any of our own at Norwich, after all. We spent time looking at local buildings, teasing out what might be appropriate for the Long House, researching the availability of flint, which then became manifest in a whole series of sample trial panels on site.” In contrast to the orderly flintwork of relatively modern houses in the area, the team sought to emulate the more haphazard pattern found in older structures, most commonly the result of having been built cheaply, using whatever stones were found close to the site. The Long House's flint came from a quarry in Holt, just 15 minutes down the road.

The idea was to build up the outer walls blind, setting the flints into the lime mortar from the top down, a patch at a time, so that the overall pattern was only revealed once the vertical shutter boards holding the mortar in place were removed. “But to actually do 'random' is difficult,” says Mark Robinson. “You can't lay, one yellow, one blue, one white, one green. If you do, you end up with a pattern. You almost have to reach behind you and take a stone without looking, and see if it fits, and not consciously think you're trying to make a decorative wall.'” Eventually, with trial, error and some loosening of the definition of the word 'random', the satisfactory effect was achieved.

The remainder of the construction proved to be less straightforward. From the outset, the Long House team had problems finding the right people to build the project. Despite its concerted contextual integration, this was no ordinary house. The construction methods involved were far from standard, which in turn demanded specialist skills. But this is a remote, sparsely populated part of Britain where boundary-pushing projects are few and far between, and the Long House's complexity was beyond the expertise of most local contractors. It took some hunting to find one. And the one they did find, Haymills, based in East Anglia, unfortunately went into receivership at the end of 2009, when the Long House was at its foundations. The team struggled to a suitable and willing replacement. Eventually, they recruited Seamans Building, the firm that had built Living Architecture's Balancing Barn, near Southwold. Seamans took some persuading, as north Norfolk is some distance from their base in Bury St Edmunds. It was not a perfect solution.

After a hiatus of more than two months, work recommenced in early 2010 but there were more problems to come. The way the Long House's timber elements fit together takes some explaining. The window frames are connected to the top of the flint walls by vertical steel plates, or flitches, about 450mm high, between each frame unit. Similar steel flitches connect the tops of the window frames to steel plates set into the timber roof trusses, which are visible from inside the house. The timber of the window frames, therefore, carries the load of the roof onto the outer walls. In Hopkins' ethos, continuous steel plates running between the window frames would be considered 'cheating'.

The constellation of parties responsible for these aspects of construction was also complex. Hopkins had designed the timber and structural systems, up to a certain point. Working with them and Living Architecture was Jane Wernick Associates – experienced structural engineers who had worked on Living Architecture's previous projects. The timberwork was subcontracted to a Yorkshire company, Constructional Timber, with whom Hopkins had previously worked at Norwich Cathedral. Constructional Timber completed the detailed design, manufactured the timber and supplied expertise to install it on-site, working alongside Seamans, the contractor.

Mark Robinson noticed problems with the window frames on site, even before they were installed. Their relatively deep sills were starting to warp, and an improvised fix of metal plates on the underside was required to pull them into shape. That was just the start. “The weather was lousy,” Robinson recalls. “They didn't have right workforce on site. Seamans were struggling because of the distances from their head office. Their guy on site felt like he wasn't getting the back-up and the information he needed. We would go to the site and it was depressing. Nothing was happening except two guys struggling in atrocious conditions to put some window frames between these steel flitch plates.”

As the roof structure began to take shape, it became apparent to the naked eye that the mullions of the windows were not vertical. Something was pulling the window frames out of square, to the extent that the end ones were visibly parallelograms. It became clear that Seamans were not sufficiently familiar with construction of this complexity, and Constructional Timber did not appear to be providing adequate support. “It seemed to be a process of trial and error,” Steve Jones says. “They'd put a little bit up, then they'd tweak it back in place. Then we'd be there for monthly progress meeting and say, 'that doesn't look quite right,' so they'd pull it back in another direction a little.” Living Architecture, too, began to lose faith in their contractors. “They'd say, No it's fine! We'll put the roof on and tighten it and it'll all come true,” Mark Robinson remembers, “and… it didn't, basically.”

Work came to a standstill, and there followed several months of trying to establish what was going wrong, and who was to blame. Understandably, there was much finger-pointing. In an attempt to settle the matter, Living Architecture commissioned an independent report from Trada, the Timber Research and Development Agency – on the understanding that all parties would accept their findings. Trada identified the problem as the roof panels, known as SIPs (structural insulated panels) which, they deduced, had taken on moisture and expanded along the length of the flint walls, pulling the tops of the window frames with them. The contractors disagreed with Trada's verdict, however, and commissioned their own report. This report blamed other factors: the X-shaped roof trusses splaying laterally, expansion of the tops of the window frames due to water ingress, shrinkage of the concrete coping on top of the flint walls.

Ultimately, Jane Wernick's team were then called in to write a report, based on careful site measurements. “We could see straight away that the workmanship was terrible,” says Wernick. “That's what had made it so difficult to work out where the problem was.” Wernick agreed with none of the previous causes. Instead, they blamed the problem on “inaccurate manufacture and installation”. In trying to fit the windows into the steel flitches on top of the flint walls, the contractors had been shaving the sides of each frame at the bottom, just a little. So each window was slightly narrower at the bottom than at the top. Across the length of each wall, these small variations added up to a distortion of some 12mm – enough to make a visible difference.

“It was a really unpleasant experience,” Robinson recalls. “I remember one meeting with Kate Benton [Jane Wernick's engineer] trying to justify her calculations to a roomful of guys saying she was wrong. It was really intimidating, but she stood her ground, and Living Architecture accepted their findings. Stories like this are what put people off making buildings, the nightmare scenario that TV programmes like Grand Designs like to portray: Is it ever going to be built?

Once identified, the problem was painfully easy to remedy, Robinson explains: “The answer was to take two frames, one on either, side, shave them to the right width and pull the whole structure square. It took a couple of days. It sounds really logical now but it took three months to get to that point!”

Construction proceeded relatively smoothly from then on, although fresh tensions had now arisen between Living Architecture and Michael and Patty Hopkins. The “carte blanche” pledge was coming back to haunt them. From the outset, the Hopkinses resisted any efforts on the part of Living Architecture to influence their design. De Botton, for example, had suggested Herzog and de Meuron's Stone House, in Tavole, Italy, as a possible reference point. Its walls are formed of a grid of massive concrete beams with dry-stone infill. The Hopkinses ignored the suggestion, as they did every other suggestion Living Architecture made, it seems. “Our comments were one hundred per cent rejected,” says de Botton. “We were made to feel not only like we were wrong, but also that we were not nice people.”

At the design stage, De Botton and Robinson expressed a desire for more windows on the ground floor, for example. When that was rejected, it was suggested that artworks be commissioned for the plentiful wall space on the ground floor – a sort of “gallery house”. The Hopkinses suggested a local painter who they knew, but his prices were too high and his paintings not to Living Architecture's tastes, which became another bone of contention.

In addition, Living Architecture simply could not afford to do everything the architects wanted. The construction problems had only put more pressure on the budget. Compromises had to be made. The woodwork was all intended to be in oak, but that had to be substituted for larch for the trusses and window frames, and ash for the interior panelling. The Hopkinses had anticipated designing elements such as the furniture and cutlery, but that also proved too expensive. “Patty was more involved in the finishing’s of the house,” says Robinson. “There were times she'd say, 'I want this sofa' and we'd have to say, 'Well we don't want this sofa. They were very much, 'You asked us to make a house; this is the house we want to make. This came up again and again through the process. We never fell out - but they were definitely becoming irritated with us.”

“They came to see us as people who were constantly spoiling their creativity, and were going against their promise not to interfere at all,” de Botton adds. “It became very painful indeed.”

From the Hopkinses' point of view, Living Architecture was rolling back on their commitment to them. “All this 'free hand' stuff ground to a halt,” says Michael Hopkins.

“It was a ridiculous thing to say in the first place,” Patty adds.

“If you really want to employ somebody to do you a house,” Michael continues, “without putting too famous a name on it – you wouldn't ask Mies [van der Rohe] or Frank Lloyd Wright to do you a house then put somebody else's furniture in it. You would follow through.”

Hopkins' allusion to past architectural greats is perhaps justified considering his achievements. The Hopkinses' status put The Long House in a different category to Living Architecture's other projects up to that point, all of which were designed by architects at least a generation younger. MVRDV, Nord and JVA grasped the opportunity Living Architecture gave them to experiment, to innovate, to push boundaries (although the boundary-pushing created problems of its own in some cases). With a long, successful career already behind them, by contrast, the Hopkinses' design is more the assured distillation of their professional and personal wisdom. “The next building always feeds off the one before, and the one before that,” as Michael puts it. Not that Hopkins as a practice has ever ceased to innovate, but that accumulation of experience tends towards refinement.

If there was a key lesson for Living Architecture in The Long House, it was: never mention the words  'carte blanche'. “We gave them far too much freedom and after that, they wouldn't listen to anything we said again,” says de Botton. Now his strategy as a client is, “Always announce to an architect that one is going to be an enormous pain, constant trouble, and that they should only take the job if they are ready for this. And never let oneself be bullied by an architect, even if they are very established.”

There's perhaps another lesson to be learned, in the Long House's delays and construction headaches, about the difficulty of creating cutting-edge architecture in remote parts of Britain. A number of factors fed into the project's setbacks, not least the weather. If the timberwork stage of the Long House's construction had coincided with a dry summer, rather than a wet winter, those problems might never have arisen. But it is also a matter of geography. The Long House would probably have been easier to build had it been closer to a deeper pool of expertise -- London, for example, or perhaps Germany, or the Netherlands. Part of Living Architecture's mission is to bring contemporary design to parts of the country where it is not normally accessible, but those might also be parts of the country it where ambitious architecture is not easily buildable.

On the upside, Living Architecture's original motivation for approaching the Hopkinses – that they can “do context” – was vindicated. The painful birthing process is now history, and what remains is a model of what could be achieved elsewhere. Across the UK, not just in Norfolk, new rural homes are being continually constructed according to unquestioning but broadly accepted notions of what's appropriate in a rural context. Usually that means taking an orthodox contemporary house typology and dressing it in “traditional” or “historic” trappings, including flint walls with brick quoins and window trimmings (not to mention sash windows, mock-Georgian fanlights and stone-effect classical porticos). A pastiche, in other words, as if in denial that the 20th century ever happened. The Long House, by contrast, does not look backwards; instead it brings that architectural language forwards.

Even to the untrained eye, the Long House exhibits a strong sense of order and coherence. The surfaces and materials all fit precisely together, there's not a line or a point that feels clumsily resolved. There is an underlying order. As with every Hopkins design, the Long House is organised around a structural and organisational grid. It is not quite a regular grid; its dimensions change along the length of the house, though they are all multiples of a standard 600mm module. This underlying order is visible even from the outside. The timber mullions of the clerestory windows, for example, are spaced at intervals of 1.2m for the openable windows or 1.8m for the unopenable ones (subdivided into 600mm units by the secondary mullions). Follow the lines of the mullions upwards and you'll see the seams of the zinc roof cladding match up exactly. Follow them downwards and the ground-floor openings in the flint walls are also in perfect alignment. On the inside, too, the X-shaped roof trusses conform to the same dimensional module, so that their nodes meet the tops of the primary timber mullions. But even at the level of finishes and fixtures, the underlying grid creates a tangible consistency – there's not an ill-fitting kitchen unit or an odd-shaped floor tile to be found (the tiles, too are roughly 600mm square). The symmetry of the plan helps reinforce that sense of order, although it is broken just enough to avoid sterility. In the central hall, for example, the spiral staircase at one end and the fireplace at the other offset each other, while the roof trusses and their stainless-steel tie rods create dynamic angles.

The sense of order extends to the Long House's free-flowing interior spaces. It is easy to take for granted how few doors the house has. There are spaces for quiet, intimate forms of social engagement: the sitting room, the kitchen, the outdoor areas, and yet nowhere in the house feels truly isolated. The central space is a hall in both senses: the house's circulation hub and its central, communal focal point. It is a room without a predetermined function. It could be a banqueting room, a playroom, a meeting place, even a performance space. Michael Hopkins would like to see a ping-pong table in there.

More so than either the Hopkinses' or Living Architecture's other projects, the Long House is an autobiographical work. It has been shaped by its architects' professional experience but also their domestic lives, and the spaces they have created to live in themselves.

There's a touch of irony to the fact that, having crafted a model of contemporary domesticity for Living Architecture, the Hopkinses' latest home is a Georgian property. This is a new country residence, again in Suffolk (they still live in the Hopkins House when they're in London). Like their first Suffolk home, it a historic structure that the architects have modernised considerably. Predictably, one of the first things they did was create a large, multi-purpose central space – not unlike that of the Long House. It's somewhere the extended family can gather, explains Michael. “We have a lot of grandchildren now.” An uninformed observer could view this as a repudiation of the Hopkins House's high-tech statement of intent, but knowing the architects and their journey, it makes perfect sense. Historic, modern, high-tech, medieval – the differences don't seem so great.

Press clippings

There is a timeless sense to Hopkins buildings, each imbued with the essential qualities of their plan and constructional unit… It is this archetypal sensibility, of buildings steeped in the ancient architectural folklore of priories and barns, and infused with the heroic myths of modernism, that clearly appeals to de Botton in his quest for secular spaces with the power to stir the soul.

Building Design, March 2012 (Oliver Wainwright)

Looking across the first-floor gallery towards the rear as the sun sets, the house begins to feel barn-like. An atmospheric quality triggered by the honesty of the exposed timber roof, first-floor frame and lime render – used internally on the flint walls and illuminated by warm white lights – gives the building an intimate spatial quality.

Architecture Today, May 2012

[The Hopkinses] have brought ancient flint into the 21st century. In the sleepy farming hamlet of Cockthorpe, four miles from Wells-next-the-Sea, their recently completed Long House was built in that distinctive local stone, which lends it a feel of rural Norfolk authenticity. On closer inspection, however, the clean lines, industrial zinc roof and futuristic strip of windows give the game away: this is no peasant’s barn.

The Sunday Times, Aug 2013

This deceptively simple, barn-shaped building is a paean to the region’s flint structures and marshlands. Internally, its clean, open-plan layout and enclosed spiral staircase create a church-like calm, while views from a strip of first-floor windows are a reminder of the big-sky setting. Sophisticated lighting and two courtyard gardens add to the spectacle.

The Guardian, Aug 2014

A stunning, modern environment that, while being totally contemporary, is not only spatially sympathetic to lofty country barns or Norfolk’s many medieval churches, but which feels lovingly mapped out to absorb the beauty of the local countryside.

Harper's Bazaar, April 2013

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