General New: How I built my own sliding house

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How I built my own sliding house

Actuaries are meant to be even more boring than accountants. They calculate insurance risk. Yet such an image does not fit Ross Russell, who, in his mid-forties, decided he’d made enough money out of his City business, cashed in his beans and, with his wife, Sally, decided to build a home in deepest rural Suffolk. But not just any old home. This one moves.

When Ross, now 48, presses a button on a remote-control handset, four electric motors start to whirr, hidden wheels begin to turn and the whole 20-ton shell – 52ft long, 20ft wide and 23ft high – slides slowly back on rails to reveal a mostly glass house beneath – and a first-floor bathroom open to the sky. Ross even built a lot of it himself. How, exactly? “I’ve got an O-level in woodwork,” he says, deadpan.

I’d heard about this place, and it looked more than a little self-indulgent. Why, I wondered, go to all the trouble of making everything we normally associate with solidity – walls, roof – into something more like a giant railway carriage or mobile hangar? And, as the house lurking beneath this trundling shell also has to be weather-tight when it is exposed – bathroom excepted – doesn’t it all amount to a lot of needless expense?

Questions, questions. Only one thing for it: I hitch a ride with Alex de Rijke, of DRMM architects, the man who designed it, to meet the Russells in their extraordinary home. They turn out to be two level-headed, cheerful middle-aged people who decided to make a big life change. And they didn’t want just any old house. Obviously.

What happened was that they found a large plot of land with a run-down bungalow on it, and planning permission for it to be replaced by a conventional house and granny annexe. They liked the site – which covers 3½ acres and, being outside a village, is overlooked by nobody – but not the plans. So they bought it in 2005, for about £250,000, and set about designing something different. The cost of building the sliding house, including all professional fees, is getting on for £500,000.

Ross got on the phone to a school-friend, who happened to have become a successful, unconventional architect.

In fact, he and de Rijke had done woodwork together in their Devon school, and they shared a love of tinkering with motorbikes (which both men still ride today).

The local planners, they quickly found, were a traditionally minded lot who insisted that the house should look like one of the county’s typical long, narrow, timber-clad barns. So the two old mates put their heads together and came up with a cunning plan. The planners want it to look like a barn, they said. Fine, that’s how we will make it.

The pair of them noticed how the traditional farm buildings of the area turn their backs to the chill east winds of East Anglia. So they decided to do the same, which meant the other end of the house would face southwest. Perfect for sunny days, but too much glass could make it overheat. Wouldn’t it be great if the house could open itself up to the sun in the winter months, but shade itself during the summer? And so the sliding shell was devised.

De Rijke’s ambitious original plan was to have the shell trundle across the grass, forming a shelter for an outdoor swimming pool if needed. Then came a moment of budget reality, Ross says. So there’s no pool, and the shell of the house never detaches itself entirely from the mother ship. It can slide right back, though, as well as right forward to form a shading canopy to the fully glazed end wall. The full journey from one end of the track to the other takes six minutes.

It’s quite a thing to witness. The shell is made of a rigid steel frame, insulated and clad with timber, complete with skylights. It follows the shape of the house beneath, which is finished in a red waterproof membrane towards the rear, and turns into a glasshouse above the living/dining room and kitchen at the front.

Right at the back is a small annexe finished in black timber, across a yard (sometimes covered by the roof, sometimes open to the sky), like a slice of loaf pulled away from the main house. And to one side is a garage and workshop block, in windowless red-stained timber. If it reminds you of something, you’re right. “We wanted it to look like a hotel in Monopoly,” Ross says.

It was tricky to design. Obviously, nothing can stick up through the roof of the house below – so no chimneys, television aerials or even gutters. (The rain instead runs down behind the timber slats to soakaways at ground level.) To keep out the wind, the moving part hovers close to the fixed part and is sealed with red nylon brushes – rather like the draught-excluders on letter boxes.

For safety reasons, the door openings are designed so there’s always an exit, at any point along the travel path, in case the mechanism jams. As one door is closed off, another opens.

Moving buildings are nothing new, says de Rijke – think of Georgian or Victorian summerhouses, some of which rotated on tracks to face the sun. Or traditional Dutch haylofts, which have roofs you can raise or lower. And, indeed, it’s all fairly low-tech.

Ross darts around to make sure nothing is in the way – he confesses he once set the house moving without looking and knocked over a motorbike – then, when he presses the “go” button, the house starts to beep like a reversing truck as it moves along the 104ft track at a speed of exactly 0.2mph. To avoid any problems with trailing wires, it is self-powered by sets of car batteries concealed in the thickness of the shell. Ross keeps these charged up from the mains when he doesn’t need to move his carapace, but he is considering installing photovoltaic solar panels on the roof to do the job instead.

This is not an eco-house, as such – too much concrete and steel went into it for that, Russell says – but it is meant to use very little energy to run. The underfloor heating, for instance, comes from a ground-source heat pump. Now he wants to power the heat pump itself from a wind turbine, but that – along with the photovoltaics on the roof – is still awaiting planning approval.

Inside, it feels surprisingly normal: there is the kitchen/dining area in the conservatory part at the front, with a utility room, a bedroom, a shower room and a snug television room behind. On the mezzanine upper level is a sitting gallery, behind which is that bathroom with the opening roof, then a dressing room leading through to a second bedroom. Across the yard at the back, the annexe has a self-contained flat below and a studio/living space on a gallery above.

It’s all perfectly simple, unless you are in the upstairs bathroom (still unfinished when I saw it) when the roof slides open above you. Yet it’s only like those hot tubs people have out on their patios, the Russells point out. So what’s the problem?

“We were only ever going to build one house in our lives, so it had to be special and it had to be beautiful,” Ross says. “I always had this idea of retiring when I was 40 for about five years, then going back to work into my seventies. Now I’m working two or three days a week from here.”

Ross has managed the entire project himself and done a fair bit of the smaller building work personally, too. As a consequence, the house cost rather less than it would have had he handed the whole thing over to a contractor. But the added cost of making it slide like a trombone? The actuary speaks: “Maybe 30% more than for a conventional house.”

For Sally, 48, who used to work for the Financial Services Authority, the big surprise has been how often they find themselves moving the roof – if the sun comes out unexpectedly and temperatures soar in the conservatory, for instance. “And I’m getting used to the fact that you sometimes have to dash across the yard to the annexe in the rain, rather than in the dry,” she says.

So, do their friends from London think they’re mad? Sally laughs. “Some people do say, ‘Why Suffolk?’ ” And de Rijke, who clearly trusts his old mathematician chum totally, says: “I was always confident, because I knew Ross would make it work.” Even the planners are happy, and apparently have not tried to stipulate the amount of time the house spends in open (rather than closed) form.

It’s just too tempting to conclude that, for the actuarially minded Russells, this was a calculated risk that paid off. But I’ve said it now, and it happens to be true. Should everyone do this? No. This is a one-off. But I’m glad they have.

Slide away: how the design works

1 At the press of a button, four 24V electric motors powered by car batteries start up, and the 20-ton “shell” – 52ft long, 20ft wide and 23ft high – moves in either direction 104ft along a pair of concealed rails

2 There are three options (see pictures, top left). The shell can slide forward as a shady canopy; retract right back, covering the annexe and yard, leaving the bathroom open to the sky; or stop halfway, covering the bathroom but revealing the conservatory

3 For safety reasons, there’s always an exit in case the mechanism jams. As one door is closed off, another opens

ON THE RIGHT TRACK

To see a video of the Russells’ sliding house in action, go to timesonline.co.uk/property