Melting into the landscape

PUBLISHED: 11:16 10 January 2014 | UPDATED: 11:16 10 January 2014


CATHY SAYERS sees how a challenging site on the River Dart has become an award winning home

Logistical issues

Most materials had to arrive by boat. Either the Kingswear to Dartmouth ferry or a barge were hired. David was contacted when abroad on one memorable occasion to be told that the barge had gone aground. The positive side of living so close to the sea is the wonderful wildlife the couple witness. Dolphins and Kingfishers are a regular site. Also the ability to order your catch of the day at arms-length! The Southwicks buy their crab from a fisherman named Alan who has the boat Superbus no DH99. His vessel passes their house regularly.

As well as the house, the Southwicks also needed to construct sea defences in the shape of a big harbour wall. But the position of the site is such that it’s intrinsically warm. The building faces south west, the cliff face is on the north west and south east so misses all the cold north and easterly winds. Local councillors have praised the end result and it’s now been awarded a national Housebuilding trophy.

When David and Annette Southwick embarked on a house project on a landmark site at the mouth of the River Dart in Kingswear, they didn’t anticipate the project would take them 14 years.

But visiting their now completed home in Kingswear I began to understand why the build was so complicated.

The Southwicks’ new home stands on what was the site of a summerhouse. They had to build into a rock face and secure the foundations and formation of the new building. The façade of their home now looks seamless with walling covering the cliff around the building itself, something for which Chris Jackson, the stonemason, deserves a medal, says David.

David himself though has worked through every inch of the design and build. There was no architect involved, only a structural engineer, Dr John Grimes, who is based in Ivybridge. Everything is bespoke.

Structural challenges

One of the biggest challenges of this extraordinary building project was to make the structure stable on the cliff face. This was done by drilling in rock anchors and then inserting shuttering to keep the concrete in shape before pumping in liquid cement. This process to make the cliff face vertical and therefore workable had to be completed within a strict timeline. One of the worst situations the Southwicks had to cope with was around ten truckloads of cement arriving before the previous loads had set. Ideally there should be half an hour between pouring s which should be pumped uphill in normal circumstances. In this case they were pumped from the road downhill which again posed difficulties. No wonder the

“We wanted to match in the overall building with those around it in Kingswear and Dartmouth. The castles nearby are made of local stone, as is this building. We sourced the limestone quoins from a redundant MOD site in Plymouth. There is, in fact, a limestone quarry up the river and in days gone by this fed supplies to build bridges in London.”

Annette, meanwhile, is focussing on getting the coastal garden going. She is using Mediterranean plants which are free draining and suit the cliff by forming a good root system which holds the soil together. Inside she’s kept the colours muted and simple. This allows the views to speak for themselves. “I am just so happy the project is completed. This sure has been one grand design!”

The Southwicks have had to liaise with planners throughout the process as the site is so special and distinctive at the mouth of the river. This resulted in a public enquiry over the doors and windows. David says the whole process was deeply challenging as their aim was always to produce something special and a building which would melt into the landscape.

“Our original idea was to build a castle here, albeit a dilapidated one, but we were restricted because it’s a conservation area and near the entrance to the harbour. But gradually what you see now has evolved. We had a landslide for instance and that then provoked the building of the stone linking bridge you see.”

"‘It’s a bit like being on your own yacht, especially in a storm, but nothing moves’"

David is a Chinese Art dealer by trade and used many trips to source materials in France, Ireland and in the UK. Closer to home he used Marine Salvage in Exeter to buy doors from the Canberra, and artefacts like portholes from The Windsor Castle, a ship used by Winston Churchill to visit South Africa.

In fact the interior of the house resembles being in a ship. The joinery by local craftsman Pete Jackson is made in oak and every single space utilised. Even the floors lift up to reveal storage underneath.

One of the big features is an underground swimming pool. The sitting room above is supported by massive granite pillars built on Bodmin Moor in Cornwall especially for the purpose at De Lank Quarry. This same quarry also built the fourth Eddystone Lighthouse and the Princess Diana Memorial in London.

To appreciate the site David recommended either seeing it from a boat coming into harbour or from the other side of the river, so I hopped on the ferry to Dartmouth and there it was melting into the landscape. “I’d rather not go anywhere,” says David. “It’s a bit like being on your own yacht, especially in a storm, but nothing moves!”

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