Turning a flood into a fortune
A natural crisis ruining your home can pave the way for a sturdier and more architecturally impressive rebuild, says Emily Brooks
‘100-year-old houses weren’t built to resist Mother Nature’
‘Every crisis is an opportunity” is a hackneyed phrase from the vocabulary of business self-help, but there’s some truth to it in this story. Homeowners, faced with the damage that flooding and subsidence can wreak on their properties, are calling in design experts to rebuild and remodel in ways that lessen the devastation should the worst happen again. Not only that, they’re emerging from the crisis with homes that are more architecturally exciting as a result.
“It was a write-off,” says Andy Vaughan of the Dorset holiday home he owned with his wife Katherine, which was a casualty of the torrential storms of early 2014. The house sits on the coast path near Lyme Regis, and as the land swelled with water, cracks appeared in the ground and subsidence caused the building to shift. “There were quite dramatic crack lines across the front, and the two parts of the house – one built in the Sixties, the other about 10 years ago – had effectively broken apart,” says Vaughan.
The property that now sits in its place is a different proposition. The Crow’s Nest, the work of architecture firm AR Design Studio, looks like many an interesting contemporary self-build, with timber cladding and a dynamic form split into three distinct areas (the owners’ bedroom in one wing, guest bedrooms in the other, and a big open-plan living-kitchen space in the middle). What you don’t see is the really interesting bit. A steel frame has been laid on top of dwarf walls, which in turn sit on top of a concrete slab; if the earth should move, it can be mechanically jacked up to a level position.
Specialist engineers Eckersley O’Callaghan devised this solution, calling on much larger projects as inspiration. One such structure is Kansai Airport, in Osaka, Japan, which sits on mechanical jacks; this was scaled down for a domestic budget.
“The easiest way to explain it is that it’s like one of those mobile caravans with the legs that wind. You’ve got a base of concrete that can move with the ground, but the actual house can be jacked and levelled independent of that,” says architect Andy Ramus. “It’s quite simple technology, really, applied in a clever way.”
Ramus’s design concept takes inspiration from the old dwelling’s demise, starting with a simple barn shape and breaking it into three, twisting the sections away from one another and introducing different heights, as if in some places it had sunk.
Vaughan loves it. “The area is unique: we’ve got National Trust land on one side and a nature reserve on the other, and the whole reason why the land is not more built up is because of its history of instability. So, we’re sort of celebrating that, which is fantastic,” he says. A further advantage of the new design is the improved sea views afforded by the house being raised up.
It was never an option not to rebuild, despite the cost, he says (the main house was paid for by the insurance but the special foundations and engineering were extra). “It’s too special a location. Not to do it would have been giving in too easily.”
He is one of many determined homeowners who don’t want to “give in”, but who are looking for a different way to build – one that accepts that environmental catastrophe will happen, and that can deal with the consequences. “We are getting shorter on land, so people are having to turn to less suitable sites,” says Ramus. “Houses constructed a hundred years ago weren’t built to resist Mother Nature, but now the technology is there and it’s much more doable.”
Architecture firm Baca has become synonymous with building homes on or near water. Its best-known project is an amphibious house on the Thames in Marlow, featured on Grand Designs, that effectively sits in its own dock,
‘About a decade ago, there was a significant shift in thinking’
and can rise and fall with the water level should a flood occur.
“About a decade ago there was a significant shift in thinking,” says Baca’s director Richard Coutts. “The Environment Agency realised that traditional forms of flood defence weren’t going to work. We now need to be more intelligent with our environment.”
His work explores a host of alternatives, including amphibious ones like the one in Marlow, but also houses are simply better designed to cope with flooding. Baca has just received planning permission for a property on the Blackwater Estuary in Essex, granted under the special Paragraph 55 clause for building “exceptional quality or innovative” homes on otherwise no-go sites. It features an automatic flood gate and a bund that encircles the garden, safeguarding the ground floor.
Construction is about to begin on a house that Baca has designed for a riverside site in Henley, for a family whose home there has flooded twice in 14 years. Instead of letting the place dry out and accepting the insurance hike, the owners asked Baca to come up with a new house. Baca’s design is a wonderful example of form following function, its elegant curves serving a critical purpose. “Previously, the building had a square footprint; now it’s a lozenge shape, so it’s become more streamlined to work with the river flow,” says Coutts. “The living spaces and bedrooms are on the first and second floors, which means they have the most wonderful, picturesque vista, and the ground floor is effectively a secondary living space that is a water-tight enclosure.
“The water can rise by up to two metres and still not enter, but after that a series of vents allows the water in. As the river recedes, we can pump it out via a series of snorkels, and it’s all designed with floodresilient materials, so, for example, all the heating and electrics come from above.”
Flood resilience can also be retrofitted. Architect Carl Turner bought and renovated a farm worker’s cottage overlooking north Norfolk’s Salthouse Marshes, which is currently for sale through The Modern House for £799,950 (themodernhouse.com). He uses some of the design measures that Baca has employed in Henley. The layout is flipped to put the bedrooms downstairs and the living space upstairs, with blockwork partition walls and concrete floors that will recover from getting wet much quicker than carpets, plasterboard and timber skirting.
“You can hose it down and get back to life fairly quickly, as opposed to your house being ruined for months on end while it dries out,” says Turner. He has also removed some of the smaller ground-floor windows and installed sophisticated floodgates. Downstairs, the electrical conduits are exposed, descending from the ceiling: it gives the house a modern, industrial look that contrasts with its traditional brick and flint exterior.
Does he think he’s made something more interesting as a result of the flood risk? “Once you’ve got a very particular, strange design brief, then it does create something very unusual. The house is certainly different for the area and people are surprised to see how contemporary it looks inside. But it works really well, and I like that idea of having a refuge on the upper levels.”
So, choose the right architect, and they will thrive when faced with designing a house fit for a crisis. As AR Design Studio’s Andy Ramus says: “As architects, we’re always looking to solve a problem, and the bigger the problem, the more exciting the project.”
At the top: Inside the Crow’s Nest, cover, and outside, below; the plan for Baca’s riverside home in Henley, above; Baca’s amphibious house in Marlow, main
Minimal: Carl Turner’s cottage, above right, is on the market for £799,950 with The Modern House; Andy Vaughan’s daughter next to the crack that appeared in his house, left