Cork House

Located in Forest Gate, east London, Cork House was designed with architects Polysmiths, as a home for principal architect Charles Wu and his partner. The project was conceived before the outbreak of the pandemic in 2019, and originally planned to utilise conventional blockwork and timber-frame construction. Material shortages and logistical challenges led Charles to rethink his design. The scarcity and soaring costs of materials like concrete, plasterboard, and plywood necessitated a pivot towards alternative, sustainable materials. This led the design team to explore and ultimately embrace cork as the primary cladding material for both the interior and exterior walls of the three-bedroom house.

The small, confined site also posed significant logistical challenges. Access was heavily restricted via a small alley adjacent to a neighbour’s property, one that also served as a communal access to the terraces on either side. The site is hemmed in by neighbouring properties and landlocked between nine neighbourhood gardens. To get construction vehicles and services to the plot the design team had to carefully consider how the house could be constructed, which meant working closely with the tendering contractors. Use of a crane to move materials was prohibited. The design maximised the footprint by building right up to the neighbouring boundaries, and included a subterranean mini-basement to half of the site’s footprint. The team had to consider mature trees in adjoining yards and ensure no undue stress was caused to their roots.

Sustainability was very important to Charles, and Price & Myers worked closely with him to ensure that timber was a primary material in the build. Local suppliers were consulted, and the design amended to match the available timber grades they held in stock. This was also partly due to the pandemic and supply issues.

One of the key challenges that accompanied such extensive use of exposed timber was fire protection and making sure that the moisture content was kept low during construction to minimise any warping. Price & Myers worked hard on detailing connections so that the timber-to-timber connections didn’t require hangers. Regular site visits were scheduled to ensure high construction quality was maintained.

Allied to the use of timber was the inventive incorporation of cork as a cladding material. Sourced from Portugal, cork represented a sustainable and highly insulating material that the architect also appreciated for its pleasing colour, texture, and smell. A further practical benefit of cork is its compliance with fire-proofing regulations. This choice not only circumvented the prevailing supply chain issues but also significantly enhanced the building's sustainability credentials.

The layout of the house, with its open-plan living areas and private bedrooms, demonstrates a careful consideration of public and private spaces within a compact urban site. The use of skylights, high-level windows, and strategically placed voids ensures that every corner of the house benefits from natural light, reducing the need for artificial lighting and enhancing the home's energy efficiency.

The strategy of incorporating courtyards helped facilitate cross ventilation and introduce ample natural light into the home. Additionally, the excavation of the site to lower the floor level by half a storey allowed for a split-level interior, making the best use of space within the constraints of building regulations.

Cork House is a project that acts as a prototype for testing new materials and living methodologies, highlighting the importance of proactive, hands-on involvement in sustainable building practices. By embracing cork as a core material, the project not only navigated the challenges presented by the global pandemic but also set a new benchmark for environmental responsibility in architectural and structural design.

Project Information


Charles Wu






Lorenzo Zandri