The Perfect House: 4 Award-winning Houses in Denmark, Austria, the U.K. and Spain

Clever use of light in Sigurd Larsen's Roof House in Copenhagen, Denmark

Even without peeking through the window, a home can reveal a lot—not just about its inhabitants but their national culture. Across Europe, changing ideas on how to design the perfect home tell us local stories about evolving lifestyles, values and outlooks.

Denmark: shining a light

In Denmark, where the longest day of the year is around 10 hours longer than its shortest, it’s all about light—and the lack of it. “There is a cultural acceptance that it gets dark,” says Danish architect Sigurd Larsen, designer of the Roof House in Copenhagen, a finalist in the 2017 World Architecture Festival Awards distinguished by its dramatic roofscape of intersecting slopes. The love of light was at the heart of its design.

“The Roof House is designed to catch both direct and indirect sunlight at the same time and turn it into an ever-changing experience when walking through the sequence of rooms,” says Larsen. But instead of fighting off the night with a flood of artificial light, Larsen deploys small islands of illumination—low hanging pendants and small table lamps to light specific areas, creating that cozy, intimate feel that Danes call Hygge.

Larsen’s hanging pendants and small table lamps in his Roof House

“This idea that natural and artificial light should have different characters rather than imitating each other is an integral part of Scandinavian interiors.”

Concern for the interior environment is a hallmark of Scandinavian culture in general, says Larsen: “Since a big part of life in Scandinavia is spent indoors, furniture and interior design plays a big role in society.” Over the last 50 years, with changing lifestyles and growing budgets, the focus of design attention has expanded from the living room to across the house.

“The kitchen is probably the room that has evolved the most,” says Larsen. “From being a service room designed for one person to occupy, [it] moved to a central island in the middle of the living area. This is, in a way, a return to the ancient bonfire that kept our forefathers warm.”

Austria: low energy, high design

In Austria, bathrooms and kitchens have also moved beyond utility to living spaces.

With the kitchen now the social centre of the house, ideas about the living room have changed. “Our clients started to have the discussion, “What is the living area used for?” says Vienna-based architect Juri Troy, whose firm is behind a number of award-winning homes including House Under The Oaks, a ultra-low energy passive home concept in Hutten, Austria.

The cantilevered wooden frame of Troy’s House under the oaks

“In the 70s and 80s we had these living landscapes, these sofa landscapes where people laid around on several couches,” says Troy, “But people don’t like that anymore.”

Today in Austrian households, the living area is mostly a cozy private space just for the family, while the kitchen table, once reserved for private dinners is where everyone gathers, including guests. “Perhaps people are more selective about who they are inviting, separating those they want to interact with only on social media from those they want to meet physically,” says Troy.

The simplicity of the interior design goes hand-in-hand with the stripped-down wooden frame

Rising costs have been a major force for change in how homes in Austria are designed today. Working with smaller budgets, Austrians are forced to scale down and think differently.

In House Under The Oaks and other projects, solutions include finding double roles for rooms, flexible open spaces that can be changed simply by sliding doors, and integrated storage.

Together, these create cleaner living spaces that are easier on the eyes. Troy calls this a response to the “overflow of optical influences today” like tablets and phones, “so people want simple spaces with… a view to the outdoors.”

United Kingdom: bringing the English garden in

In London, the idea of the perfect home is often about trying to escape the city while embracing the outdoors. “Culturally, we have always been seen as a nation of gardeners obsessively mowing lawns and pruning roses,” says Will Burges, a director of the London-based 31/44 architects.

“The English garden is a different animal now,” he says, favouring a stronger connection to interior spaces, water features that mask urban noise, ‘outdoor rooms’ with lounge furniture, built-in barbecues and even external kitchens.

The omnipresence of the courtyards at 31/44 Architects’ No 49 house in London

In the No. 49 house, designed by 31/44 architects and longlisted for the 2017 Royal Institute of British Architects House of the Year Award, three garden courtyards bring the outside closer to home. “No. 49 embraces the outdoor life,” says Burges. Hidden behind a wall to the street, the front courtyard provides a space for plants and western light for the main living space, which is also connected to a larger courtyard behind. “In this courtyard you escape the city,” says Burges, “Reclining on a low Danish chair relaxing to the sound of the water feature.”

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U.K. residents are after increasingly bold designs

Over the years, Burges has witnessed a shift in British design values when it comes to the perfect home. Working with “generic housing stock with little variety”, just subtle variations seemed to satisfy. “There even seemed to be a reluctance to stand out from the crowd,” says Burges.

Then, in the 1990s, the era of Britpop and Cool Britannia, the culture shifted: a new drive for urban modernisation and the influence of IKEA and Kevin McCloud’s Grand Designs Channel 4 series on contemporary design prompted a desire for lighter, open-plan loft living with timbers floors, blinds and light wood furniture. This was “a refreshing alternative to the traditional cellular dark spaces of a Victorian house which were carpeted and textile heavy, “ says Burges.

The overtly modern house and interior is more accepted now in the U.K.

“We found we had a growing number of clients that wanted to live in an overtly modern house and interior—rather than just disappear into an anonymous and safe streetscape. As the country and its cities grew in confidence so did its people.”

Recent years have seen a return to a desire for greater privacy, this time through simple, more flexible design elements. In the No. 49 house, joinery pieces designed for storage and display divide areas of the house while still allowing long, open views. Including refurbished classic British pieces, Scandinavian items and flea market finds from Paris, the home’s interior design reflects the current trend.

“Much like the broad culture of London itself, the interior trend is for an eclectic global mix of furniture and accessories,” says Burges.

Spain

In Spain, the desire for privacy is a key home design value. “There is the social aspect of Mediterranean urban planning and lifestyle,” says Jaime Oliver, a director of OHLAB, the firm behind the multi-award winning MM House in Palma de Mallorca. “Maybe because of the weather, public areas in cities have more importance than those in Northern European cities. Perhaps because of this intense urban social activity, people have a greater need for more privacy in their homes.”

Besides that, Oliver notes “the influence of previous cultures, specifically Islamic culture, where privacy is very important to the home.”

OHLAB Architects’ MM House comes from the Spanish need for privacy

This leads to a contrast between outside and inside, as reflected in the striking white boxes of the MM house. “The exterior façade, the one you see from the street, it is basically a wall of different heights with smaller windows that keep the privacy and don’t reveal the openness you will find behind that entry wall,” says OHLAB director Paloma Hernaiz.

“From the inside, all the openings to the garden and the southeast are large, framed in a way that allows for the best views… but block the numerous neighbours residing in the dense neighbourhood.”

The generous views from the inside avoid direct lines of sights with the neighbours

Another key Spanish home design value—compartmentalisation—has its origins in what Oliver calls the old “hierarchal and sexist” Spanish family structure, dating back to a time when family members were in effect assigned certain areas of the house. “Obviously, this structure has been evolving with social and lifestyle changes,” says Oliver.

The transition to the age of a more egalitarian family, smaller homes and the need for a better use of space are all reflected in the MM House, which embraces both openness and privacy, and includes the “unexpected and in-between spaces” favoured by Jose Antonio Coderch, one of Spain’s most influential post-war architects. “The MM House is a game between very compartmentalised rooms that can be easily connected or separated, linked through different hallways and double height connections,” says Oliver.

The desk area opens up on the outside terrace

Along with its four distinctive volumes, whitewashed walls and tiled floors that reflect the trees outside, the MM House has won admiration for its low energy and water needs. Residents have no need for heating and rain supplies all their water.

“The biggest part of the home’s success… comes from traditional knowledge: orientation, cross-ventilation, rainwater collection and so on,” says Hernaiz. “This is knowledge that has been neglected throughout the last century due to globalisation and decontextualising.”

The pursuit of resource efficiency is a design value now shared across most European ideals of the perfect home. Like the shared love of flexible spaces, clean interiors and connections with the outdoors, how it will be realised is also likely to vary from country to country, believes Hernaiz. “The biggest part of energy-efficient architecture is to be found in traditional local knowledge specific to each climate.”

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Images courtesy of Sigurd Larsen ArchitectsJuri Troy Architects31/44 Architects and OHLAB Architects

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