Sculptor and artist Mark Merer led the design concept for Cubis Bruton, a new residential development at Cuckoo Hill in Bruton, Somerset. The landmark contemporary scheme provides a striking contrast to the Bruton architectural vernacular, presenting homes that are at once bold, inspiring and practical, in addition to being ‘in-tune’ with their environment and environmental thinking.

Here he explains what inspired him.

Mark, how did you come to be involved with this project?

My wife, the artist Lucy Glendinning and I lived in Bruton in 1999 where we developed The Provender Mill together, converting an old grain mill into a modernist living space. (http://www.markmerer.co.uk/work/architecture/provender_mill.html).  So when The Bruton Trust, (a group whose core aims are to encourage high standards in public planning and architecture in Bruton and its surroundings, as well as to maintain or improve local features of historic interest) decided they wanted to take control of housing development in the town, they approached me because of the work I had done at The Mill and work I was doing outside of Seattle.

Was that progressive of the town, to take control of how a new housing development was going to look?

Yes at that time, it is pretty unusual and really progressive. The Bruton Trust knew that the town would have to expand and they also knew that I had an obsession with development. I think the idea that a town really doesn’t have control all of its growth seems odd because the residents know what is needed.

Why did you choose the site (Cuckoo Hill?)

When I started looking into it, there weren’t many suitable areas:  you have to find somewhere where the community, landowner and the Council are happy with the proposal. This was an obvious site. Bellway had just built a new development close by and the cemetery had relocated to Cuckoo Hill.  Bruton didn’t really have an entrance at that end of town, so it seemed like the right time to create one.

What attracted you to the project?

As a sculptor working with the landscape, I’m interested in the  

the form buildings take. I am not an architect, although I have spent my life in buildings. I used to work for my father, Stanley Merer, who was an architect and developer, my brother-in-law and two nephews are also architects – my family is full of them!

My interest is to try and take the housing debate forward in terms of design. In the ‘70s, about 30% of new commercial housing developments had architects involved, now it has gone down to about 3%.  And that’s been my beef with new developments around towns – very little thought is given to the general aesthetics of the buildings and how they sit within the landscape.  It usually looks as if it has been pulled out of a drawer.

How did you research the project?

We looked round Europe to see how building was done particularly in Germany where they are producing much more highly efficient houses.

We treated the design like we do any arts project, which was to collect masses of information and then to try and draw out something that is very specific to that site.

We wanted a fresh look.  We had artists like Louis Porter, the photographer,  take recordings of the site and Town, to produce a book as a design source.

We did a lot of experiments in terms of looking at washes and how one object can inform another. You can see it very simply in the beach; when the tide comes and goes, the sand around a rock creates a shape around it which is informed by the elements. It’s looking at nature and how things interact with each other, not just in the physical, but also in the social context and tying that into the psychology of the space. I try to get buildings to sit within their landscape. I am interested in how the landscape is built up generally so we wanted to try and get the development to look like a sort of sedimentary layer, like a strata. That’s one of the reasons the houses are flat, and that’s why we’re going to have green roofs on some of them; we’re trying to tie this into the landscape.

Can you explain how you have used the psychology of design in this project?

Proportion, light and material all affect the psychology of space, this has been at the forefront of the design process, with this in mind  The Bruton Trust sent out questionnaires asking what the community wanted and although not everyone feels the same, most people seemed to want larger rooms, lots of light, the indoor/outdoor feel, so that’s what we’ve done. We are also working on low-luxe street lighting as the town didn’t want any more light pollution. The materials used are more sustainable than usual builds; there’s a lot of timber and a lot of time has been invested in sourcing it and getting the right effect. 

The externals are a mix of timber, stone and render and each house has an overhang at the front with car parking underneath so people keep their cars within their homes rather than on the street, although there will be visitor parking too.

Why did you approach Acorn Property Group to take on this build?

Acorn were the only developers we found who were really interested in design. They have employed on their other projects two Stirling prize winners, so design is important to them. They have identified a gap in the market for well-built, design-led residential schemes/properties.

Will buyers be able to customise their homes?

Yes, to a certain extent they will be able to choose certain finishes and materials. Should they reserve their house early in the build process there is also scope to influence some of flexible living options: there are ground floor rooms which can be either a snug or guest suite, or if required offer decent ground floor bedroom accommodation.

You live near Somerton now but are you still involved in Bruton, and why would you recommend anyone lives there?

Bruton is a proactive and embracing community, with lots of things going on, so it’s alive and in that sense you get a lot of interesting people.

We are returning to Bruton and have reserved a plot at Cubis Bruton, so will be residents in due course.

Can you explain your thinking about the landscaping and how it relates to the houses?

Well, it’s all about trying to get the space to come alive and designing the landscape so that it helps houses sit in it. It might not be that obvious when you are in the development unless one talks about it, but if you think of a block in the ground and how things weather and move around, it’s trying to latch onto a language that everyone will understand. It’s far more interesting than having a big flat area!  We’ve got detailed planting schemes on a small scale from landscape gardeners The Richards Partnership.  They are very excited because they see the landscape as another layer of design, which of course it is. We want it to feel a bit wild.

Hopefully Cubis Bruton brings the environment alive – it’s something we should do everywhere in my mind because it can be so uplifting.

When will it be ready?

The show home opened at the end of last year and the very first homes are now ready for people to move into. The show home is very exciting: it’s a tilted building, so people see it rising up out of the ground. Finished in Corten steel and timber it sits at the entrance to the development: with its green roof it feels like the earth has been lifted up and the building is just beneath it.

And finally, what are you most looking forward to next at Cubis Bruton?

Completion as well as living in a house that’s a finished home! A big thank you to Robin Squire, Regional Managing Director for the Bristol Office and John Skok, Founder and Group Operations Director and the Acorn design team for making the project happen.

By Catherine Rapley

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