Sunspan House, 1 Wentworth Close, Long Ditton, Surrey 1934 Wells Coates and David Pleydell-Bouverie
All the houses we have explored so far in our Anatomy of a House series have been dominated by the right angle. The next house we are going to investigate has much less of the straight and narrow about it. The Sunspan house was developed by architects Wells Coates and David Pleydell-Bouverie as a design that would help solve Britain’s housing crisis using prefabricated parts that could be assembled on a variety of sites. Its most prominent feature is the curved facade which allows maximum sunlight into the house throughout the day. This, and the flexible open plan interior, reflected the move away from house designs of earlier periods with their dark, narrow rooms and labyrinthine plans towards a brighter future…or so the plan went.
1 Wentworth Close, Long Ditton, Surrey
Wells Coates was born in Tokyo on 17th December 1895. His Canadian parents were Methodist missionaries, spending time in the country spreading the religion. His mother, Sarah, had trained under architect Louis Sullivan in Chicago, and was planning out missionary schools in Japan. The family subsequently moved around the Far East and back to Canada. Coates was only 19 when World War I broke out and he would serve in the Royal Air Force as a gunner and a pilot. After the war he moved to Britain, studying engineering before getting a job as a journalist with the Daily Express and later becoming an interior designer. After designing interiors for Cresta Silks, the BBC and actor Charles Laughton, Coates moved into architecture.
The Isokon Building, Belsize Park (1934) by Wells Coates
The building that brought him into the public eye were the Isokon apartments in Belsize Park. Designed for Jack & Molly Pritchard of the Isokon furniture company, the building provided inexpensive flats for young professionals, with 22 flats for single people, named “minimum” apartments, as well as a penthouse apartment occupied by the Pritchards. During the development of the Isokon, Coates formed a working partnership with David Pleydell-Bouverie. Pleydell-Bouverie was born in 1911 into a well to do family (he was the grandson of the 5th Earl of Radnor). Together they developed the Sunspan House idea for the 1934 Ideal Home Exhibition at Olympia in Kensington. Coates had previously developed his “Isotype” housing idea in 1927, which had some features that would show up on the Sunspan house, such as the curved glass section.
The two-storey Sunspan house at the Ideal Home Exhibition, 1934
The house on show at the 1934 exhibition was a two storey home with a curved facade on one side. This could be oriented to the best angle on the plot it was built on, preferably in a north-south axis, allowing maximum daylight. The house was constructed of steel sheeting, fixed to a steel frame. This frame would be built into a concrete foundation then finished with plastering. In theory this would allow homeowners flexible planning inside, whether they wanted an open plan or something more cozy. The Olympia house was fitted out with furniture and devices designed by Coates, like the circular bakelite Ecko radio.
Plan for a single-storey Sunspan house.
Blueprint for the Ecko Radio by Wells Coates. Image from RIBApix.
Coates had assumed that the Pritchards would wholeheartedly agree to his plan for them to finance the building of various estates of Sunspan houses around the suburbs and home counties, but when they made an offer that Coates thought was substandard, he took the idea to the building company E & L Berg Ltd of Esher. The company had been formed in the early 1920s by Ellis Berg and built a number of estates around London as well as buildings for the Ministry of Works. The deal with Berg would prove to be problematic. The building company evidently didn't think Coates and Pleydell-Bouverie’s design was the finished article, and they proceeded to build altered versions of it, with extra storeys and other changes.
This is what happened with the Sunspan house we have made the emblem of this article, one of three built at the beginning of Wentworth Close at Long Ditton in Surrey. It is one of the few well preserved examples of the Sunspan, having been expertly restored by architect John Winter in 2000. When Winter was examining the house he discovered that the steel frame had been replaced with brick during construction, a fundamental change to the idea of a prefabricated house.
The single-storey Sunspan at Welwyn
The Runnymede Sunspan house in East Preston, West Sussex. Image from Coulthard.
Most of the other built Sunspan’s have been further altered down the years, as seen at No.3 Wentworth Close, with its tile hanging and pantiled roofline (added to alleviate water leakage from poor construction). Others have been changed beyond all recognition, such as the prototype single-storey Sunspan built at Welwyn in Hertfordshire, now unrecognizable underneath an added pitched roof. However there are a few Sunspan houses that have been listed, all single houses rather than the groups that were built at Long Ditton, nearby Hinchley Wood and New Malden. A good example of the individually built Sunspan is “Runnymede” at East Preston, West Sussex, now Grade II listed.
Ramsgate Aerodrome, now demolished, by David Pleydell- Bouveire. Image from RIBApix.
Coates continued to explore different mediums in his work. As well as designing apartment blocks and houses, he also produced the Wingsail, a boat with a rigid sail on a catamaran hull. He returned to Canada in the mid-1950s and died of a heart attack in 1958. Pleydell- Bouveire also moved over the Atlantic, settling in California and continuing his career with a number of house designs. He passed away in 1994.
The Sunspan houses in Kingston on Thames and Surrey will feature in our new guidebook, Modernism Beyond Metro-Land. Support the project and get your copy HERE
References Sherban Cantacuzino- Wells Coates. A Monograph Gordon Fraser 1978 Alan Powers- Modern: The Modern Movement in Britain Merrell 2005 F.R.S. Yorke- The Modern House in England The Architectural Press 1945