If you take a walk along the East Sussex coast you may be surprised at the beauty of the local landscape. A sandy almost golden beach will be beneath your feet, a ruggedness is added by rare sand dunes, and looking out to sea, the ever-changing weather adds a mystical feeling to the light. In the distance you will see the cliffs of Fairlight Cove and the Rother estuary.
Turning your head however in the opposite direction and you will also be hit by a rather remarkable sight. A recent addition to the local landscape has added another twist. What used to be the site of a ramshackle bungalow has been transformed into a breathtaking modern interpretation of a luxurious beach house. Actually “beach house” seems to be an unfair description, Sea Gem, the name given to the house by its owners after asking for suggestions from all those that worked on the project seems far more apt. The owners having sought an ideal location for a holiday home were happy to make a few quick repairs to the existing building. They quickly realised this was not a good way forward and appointed Hazel McCormack Young to design a new house with ideas of a New England/Hamptons style building in mind. However, HMY pointed out that to maximise the views of the beach, the house would need lots of glass and a more traditional weatherboard house couldn‘t deliver. The new design initially took the owners by surprise by making too much of a statement but also realised that it could be something really special.
The building is based around a V-shape which makes the most of the panoramic view but also provides natural shelter from the wind. The bold use of floor-to-ceiling glazing floods the house with light and, when the tide is in, the view from the first floor living/dining area turns the ocean into a wonderful infinity pool. When the tide is out, there are panoramic views of miles of golden sandy beach. The horizon is always apparent, holding a movement of sky, sea and sand – a truly amazing experience. Building homes on a beach isn’t straightforward, with issues such as flood risk and the constant battering from salt-laden wind and sand to consider. All window handles have been removed, as they instantly corrode. Sea Gem’s upside-down design, with three bedrooms on the ground floor and the open-plan kitchen and living space upstairs, troubled the Environment Agency, “who seem to think that if you have the bedroom downstairs, you will drown in the night”, the owner says. “I pointed out that the previous building was a bungalow, so it was all downstairs. We eventually found a solution by raising the house a couple of feet off the ground on stilts, so we are sufficiently above the sea level, and we have some pretty serious foundations.” The design is intended to not only make the most of the unique beach front but also to link the house into landscape. A series of terraced areas seamlessly connects the central living space onto the beach front. At the same time this space is given privacy by the two wings of the building. A special request from the owners, a roof-top study, has resulted in a triple aspect, third storey lookout study which has been set back to the north of the building so that it has a minimal impact onto the neighbouring properties. The flat roof is to be used for installing solar panels and also provides a small roof terrace. The views this space provides are so stunning that it is probably highly unlikely that any work will ever be done.
A variety of materials have been used to construct the building. Concrete and masonry have been used for the lower part of the building and composite galvanized steel and masonry forms the balcony structure at first floor level. At third floor level the study is formed from a galvanized steel frame that is clad in full-height glass panels. A simple robust finish of off-white render is used for the external walls with panels of timber matching the timber used on the terraced areas. Due to the exposed location, no screw went unchecked. Every single fixture and fitting had to be correctly specified with combinations of marine grade stainless, galvanizing and powder coating and some aluminium. The focus for galvanizing and powder coating included; balconies and handrailing, fixings for the brise soleil, fixtures for the landscaped areas and the feature spiral staircase. Anecdotal evidence shows the galvanizing plus powder coating performing better than the stainless steel.
The project team created a real sense of ownership that was reflected in the quality of the finished building. Hazle McCormack Young have built the first truly contemporary home on Camber Sands. Maximising the relationship with the landscape was vital, the design has certainly exceeded expectations.
Architect: Hazle McCormack Young
Image: James Galpin