All photographs courtesy of Tino Tedaldi
A Case Study House in Cambridgeshire? How does that work? Pretty well, if the Ellis Miller House in Prickwillow is anything to go by. Inspired by modernist houses like the Eames House and the work of other great Case Study House architects like Richard Neutra and Pierre Koenig, the Ellis Miller House was designed by the Ellis Miller architect practice in 1988 as a self-build kit for the architect himself. This fenland gem is now the holiday home of Architect Luke Tozer and his wife Charlotte. And when they’re not there, they rent it out so that others can experience Modernist living at first hand, which is exactly what we did over a long weekend.
Cambridgeshire Case Study house: Californian Modernism in the fens
Having created an award-winning building for himself, the Gap House by Pitman Tozer Architects in Notting Hill, Luke Tozer admired the apparent simplicity of the Ellis Miller bungalow. With its steel-framed modules and sliding glass ‘wall’ opening onto the fens, it’s easy to see the influence of the Case Study house.
Luke tells me that he first saw the Ellis Miller house advertised for sale online in 2010. “The house winked at me and once we’d visited the property, it was just a matter of justifying the purchase financially!” That’s how the letting concept came about. “We hoped to make this piece of Modern architecture a destination in itself, so that enthusiasts like us could sample a slice of Californian Modernism for a weekend, and in doing so discover the Cambridgeshire fens.”
Cambridgeshire Case Study house: a simple construction
Like the original Case Study Houses, the Ellis Miller House was built using low-cost simple construction methods and there’s very little to it in many ways. The prefabricated kit system comprises a steel frame, with plastic-coated aluminium walls and ceilings, built using non-residential trade materials in keeping with the Case Study philosophy. As the peat-rich land in the fens is relatively unstable, the lightweight steel frame allows the house to move with the ground. The modernist design is based on a series of three bays, two for the house and a third for a carport. Luke comments “It’s funny because typically in the UK the car port would be a garage, and the car wouldn’t be in it, but parked in front with the garage used for something else!”
Luke explains that the Ellis Miller house was in a poor state of repair when he bought it. “It had reached the time in its life when it needed some TLC. Having said that, the previous owners hadn’t made any changes, which was great because the spaces were true to the original design”. After locating the original architect’s plans in the RIBA drawing collection at the V&A, Luke and Charlotte set about pretty much taking the building apart and putting it back together again, but changing as little as possible.
Cambridgeshire Case Study house: Modern eco credentials
The house consists of simple spaces, containing some lovely pieces of modern design. There is no corridor or hallway, but rather the kitchen (with dining area), bedroom (with king-size bed and en-suite) and wet room are accessed off the living room, which runs the entire length of the building. This room was designed to be a divided space – the centrally placed fireplace originally served as a partition, creating a ‘snug’ at one end. Luke explains, “For our use, it made more sense to make one big living room, so we opened it up by reducing the size of the fireplace surround”. Now painted a vibrant red, it remains the focus of the room – and I found myself wishing the weather was cold enough to allow us to use it!
Unlike the case study houses, this house has electric under-floor heating in every room, giving out a comfortable, natural heat through the parquet flooring. This is the same system the original architect installed and Luke is proud of its eco credentials. “The system used a lot of electricity, so as part of the refurbishment we aimed to lower its carbon footprint by covering the roof with solar panels – these generate about 70% of the energy it uses.”
The interior is furnished minimally with a combination of contemporary and mid century furniture. There is a Robin Day sofa and chair and a rather nice Eero Saarinen dining set in the kitchen. But this place is all about the case study house style architecture, and its perfect marriage to its surroundings.
Cambridgeshire Case Study house: a Modernist holiday destination
The expanse of the flat East Anglian fens creates perhaps the nearest parallel to the Californian desert that we’re likely to find in the UK. The low-rise modernist architecture compliments the horizontal nature of the landscape and the long glass ‘wall’ in the living room allows full appreciation of the big skies. There is an easy relationship between the indoors and outdoors here.
In fact the design of the Ellis Miller house was so successful that it was re-produced on a wider scale – Luke’s neighbour liked it so much that she commissioned a similar house from Ellis Miller, and a third was built nearby shortly afterwards. OK, so that’s just three, but we think it’s pretty good going for a rural village! And to continue the theme, the award-winning Black House by Mole Architects is on the same road.
And what to do? Cycling is by far the best way to explore the fens (it’s so flat here, there really is no excuse) – Ely’s spectacular Norman cathedral, with its modernist sculpture by David Wynne, is a 20 minute pedal away and there are endless back-roads replete with rural gems. Should you need a more metropolitan fix, then Cambridge is 15 miles south of Prickwillow. But be sure to be back at the house in time to see the sun set over the fields, behind Ely Cathedral on the western skyline.
I ask Luke whether he minds sharing his ‘little slice of Californian modernism’. “It’s actually quite hard to find a modernist holiday home to stay in so it’s a pleasure to be able to share the place with people who appreciate it”. And a destination for lovers of case study houses and architectural aficionados it certainly is.
Find out more about the Ellis Miller architects practice
For more on Case Study Houses, see The Making of Icons: Architectural Photographer Julius Shulman and The Case Study House Program 1945-1966 and there’s a full article on Case Study architecture in MidCentury issue 04