Steve Clarke and Amanda Boot's ingenious home by the Thames in Surrey rests on a concrete box, giving it much-needed protection from the risk of flooding.
Amanda Boot and Steve Clarke left their separate London homes to build this one together after Amanda, a property manager, took a wrong turn one day and found herself in Sunbury, right on the Thames. 'I was looking for a waterskiing club, and ended up here,' she explains. 'I remember saying to Steve: "You wouldn't believe it. There's this village, which feels really backwater, and yet it's so close to London".'
Six months later, they'd bought a two-bedroom bungalow by the weir, with plans to replace it with a new-build. 'It wasn't well-constructed,' says Steve, a builder with an engineering background. 'All the weight was on about 15 brick piers, which were just sitting on a paving slab. If we wanted to increase the size, the footing wasn't sufficient.'
They lived there for two years, then approached Mark Dyson from Enclosure Architects, who Steve has worked with on numerous projects. They wanted to see what they could build on the small plot, with a wish list of a couple of bedrooms and bathrooms, an office, and as much living space as possible facing the water, while making the structure flood-proof. The result: a timber bungalow on top of a waterproof concrete box. The whole of the river-facing side on the first floor is devoted to the living-dining area and kitchen – eight metres wide and five-and-a-half metres tall. Behind it, two en-suite bedrooms face the street at the front. Non-essential spaces (storage, utility room, spare bathroom) are on the ground floor, while the office is up on a mezzanine level between the eaves.
Getting adequate height for each level – especially the mezzanine at the top – was one of the trickiest design challenges. The Environment Agency required living areas to be 2.3 metres above water level, while local planners demanded the house be no more than a foot taller than the adjacent building, creating what Dyson calls 'an increasingly squeezed sandwich of space'. The solution was to make the floor between each level thinner than normal, which took some clever engineering; he worked with engineers to reduce the thickness to 10cm – about half that of a normal floor. 'That gave us an extra 16cm width between the roof slopes at the top, which makes a big difference in that room,' Dyson explains.
Favouring ingenuity over expensive fixes, the staircase is made with the simplest construction, using standard materials – oak treads resting on nibs that come out from the wall and the central steel spine. The huge roof light in the study, which opens with a pulley system, was designed and built – after numerous sketches – by Dyson and Steve for about £6,000, rather than the £22,000 a specialist company would have charged.
Petit Bayle is not yet complete; one day, Vicky will install a ground source heat pump. There's already a place for it, just as there's a site for a natural swimming pool and an orchard. And she also plans to put a kiln in the house – as well as being an architect, Vicky is also a potter – some of her work can be seen on the shelves. Meanwhile, she's content just to sit in her living room and enjoy her tremendous gallery of views.
However, there were some costly details that the house couldn't do without. With water not far beneath the ground surface, the building needed to be anchored with 27 concrete piles, some as deep as 11 metres, which were nearly £1,000 each. They also needed to use waterproof concrete for the ground floor, with a fine finish; the plan was to imprint the concrete with wood, so that the final surface would look similar to the timber flooring on the first floor. 'We wanted to create a homogenous building surface,' says Dyson. 'And now the timber is weathering to a silver colour, the two materials look the same.'
It's certainly different from the cottages nearby, whose owners have greeted it with open arms, and the odd raised eyebrow. But such interest in this new kid on the block is to be expected here more than elsewhere. There's a camaraderie, and a protectiveness, that comes from living in a place that can be idyllic and threatening in equal measure. 'The river is a real draw,' says Amanda. 'It's great being out there on the deck, with the weir in front, then looking back and thinking: "Ooh, did I build that?"'