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

The Daily Telegraph - Property - - Front Page -

‘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

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