The bleak Kent headland of Dungeness has become the site for a number of architect-designed homes. Jay Merrick visits the latest addition
Photography by Helene Binet
The landscape and atmosphere of Dungeness on the south-eastern tip of Kent are marked by the weatherbeaten remains of 19th and 20th century fishing activity and activated by 21st-century lives lived in ad hoc, literally marginal conditions. In the late 1980s, the filmmaker and Aids-stricken gay activist Derek Jarman’s retreat to his weatherboarded Prospect Cottage gave Dungeness the reputation of being a uniquely strange bolthole for uniquely strange, often creative loners.
The strangeness had already been identified in the 1840s by Kent-born writer Richard Harris Barham, who declared: ‘The world, according to the best geographers, is divided into Europe, Asia, Africa, America, and Romney Marsh.’ Denge Marsh in Dungeness is part of this peculiar fifth continent of shingle and random punctuations of sea kale, viper’s bugloss and medicinal leeches.
The architects of wealthier incomers have planted ‘casual aliens’ in the shingle
Dungeness seems brusque and unremarkable in the same way as Jaywick in Essex. Though not obviously physically interesting, Dungeness is a National Nature Reserve harbouring 600 plant species and also a Site of Special Scientific Interest. It is also faintly surreal: police patrol cars pass along Dungeness Road every half hour or so as part of the 24/7 protection of the Dungeness B nuclear power station; the miniature passenger-bearing steam engine and coaches of the Romney Hythe & Dymchurch railway rattle along a 15-inch-wide track past the hut-like houses on the shingle; a purple Ukip flag lolls above the porch of one of the small houses; and beyond the Tiger Inn, a row of bungalows eddies northwards along the strand towards Lydd-on-Sea. A bit further north are the remains of the concrete ‘sound mirrors’ built between the wars to detect incoming aircraft.
Among the plant species enduring at Dungeness are a few that are classified botanically as ‘casual aliens’. The architects of wealthier incomers have also planted casual aliens in the shingle - fisherman’s structures and ex-railway carriages reborn as mod-vernacular homes, mostly as black as the bitumen that has been the coating of choice here for two centuries.
Shepway District Council will allow architects to reinvent what exists here if they follow the pitches, ridgelines, and footprints of what they are replacing. The finest early example is the cleverly two-faced Gelon Hanna House by Simon Conder. Less clever (or perhaps too clever by half) is the recent fin de la terre luxe Pobble House by Guy Hollaway, whose slick multi-materiality seems bumptious by comparison.
The recently completed North Vat, designed by Rodić Davidson, is the best example of new architecture here since Conder’s rubber-coated wunderobjekt and Nord’s tarred Shingle House. Even in this admirable company, the detailing and highly crafted build quality of North Vat is exceptional.
The main ground-floor volume can be pretty thoroughly revealed to the outside world
The design re-expresses the fragmentary nature of the small black wooden house and huts that previously stood on a large hardstand set on the shingle. The new architecture is a tidily compacted arrangement of black domestic fragments: a main house linked to a pair of small pitch-roofed bedroom pavilions by a glazed L-shaped entrance volume. Butted up against one end of the sea-facing east elevation is a rescued former lifeboat service lookout hut, coated with ravaged bitumen.
North Vat was designed for a psychiatrist-artist and his wife; the latter was closely involved in the design development process which was, in essence, about the arrangement of outlooks. The form of the main house is necessarily simple - an enlargement of the plan, volume, and roof pitches of the house it replaced. The design delivers open-plan ground and upper floors, and careful positioning of glazing in the east, south, and west ground-floor elevations, with flush-fitted rooflights on both sides of the roof. The sea-facing rooflights are positioned at different heights to give views from the bed, and from a small settee.
From the living/dining room there are also views north through the glazed end elevation of the link-lobby. A small bronze sculpture stands on a pedestal here and, beyond it, through the glass end wall, is a vista of shingle, abandoned gubbins, and the Pilot Inn. Thus, the main ground-floor volume can, if desired, be pretty thoroughly revealed to the outside world. There is an interesting modulation of what would otherwise be a purely orthogonal main living space: the ceiling stops just short of the west wall, and the space along this edge picks up the pitch-angle at the eaves, creating a sculpted decompression.
The floor above this space is effectively a bedroom-cum-viewing platform as wide as the ground floor room, but stopping about 3m short of the east-facing wall. This open void, in combination with the rooflights, creates a relaxed clerestory effect. The wooden staircase to the bedroom, which winds around the chimney segment, divides the living space from the glazed entrance lobby.
The two bedroom pavilions are simple structures and the walls and ceiling of the east pavilion are satisfyingly faced with raw, rough-sawn larch boards. The interior of the west pavilion is, for some reason, painted grey - and this rankles. So, too, does the polished concrete step at the bottom of the stairs in the house - it’s twice as wide as the staircase, and very slightly separated from it. Co-principal Siniša Rodić conceived it as a kind of found object. It seems more like a lost object.
But these minor caveats evaporate in the face of the practice’s confident finesse with detailing. Apart from the windows, the external surfaces of the house and pavilions are almost entirely covered with a continuous and precisely gapped rainscreen of larch boards, stained brown-black. The birdsmouth joints where the edge-sections turn from the walls to the roof are superbly executed; so, too, are the chamfered joins between the vertical boards and the slim window casings. The multi-angled planes of the overhead glass pieces in the link volume were designed and joined with finicky precision; and the completely concealed guttering and downpipe system ensures an absolute clarity of building outline.
Barham’s fifth continent may have gained yet another architectural arriviste but Rodić Davidson’s not so casual alien is an admirably well-mannered presence on the shingle.
Jay Merrick is architecture critic of the Independent
Ben Davidson, Rodić Davidson Architects
We had previously worked with our clients on the refurbishment of their London home. David is an artist and Pauline was looking for another challenge. They both love Dungeness – David was brought up nearby – and it was here that they bought a small, detached cottage, unremarkable in itself but situated beach-side, surrounded by shingle with a diverse outlook unique to Dungeness. Our brief was to create a single living environment, allowing for entertainment, enjoyment and art. This was to be a calm and simple space where everyday activities could co-exist and all aspects of the surrounding landscape could be observed.
Siniša Rodić, Rodić Davidson Architects
North Vat replaces an existing fisherman’s cottage in Dungeness’s unique shingle landscape. The house was conceived as a cluster of small shed-like structures, referential to the local vernacular of pitched roof huts scattered along the beach front. At the heart of the scheme were enthusiastic clients seeking to break away from conventional layout and form.
The plan form of the proposed cluster was derived from the locations of the existing cottage and sheds, minimally adjusted to provide a simple living layout while maintaining a low impact on the ground ecology, and sustaining the sense of randomness that we found in the original buildings.
Each of the three rooms stands as a separate physical structure linked to the others by frameless glazing. This allows an uninterrupted flow of internal spaces without diminishing the character of the original cluster. Walking in and out of the rooms feels like walking in and out of the landscape.
Windows and rooflights are arranged around moments of pause within the plan, bringing in elements of the landscape and tracking the movement of the sun, which radically transforms internal spaces throughout the day. At night, the black-clad building disappears and its presence is revealed by these frames of interior life.
The replacement cottage and sheds are clad in timber, thus continuing to form part of a larger-scale assembly of black timber structures found in Dungeness. Our piece celebrates the inherent beauty of simple, ‘elemental’ forms, and explores how these can create complex spaces and experiences within a cluster. All architectural clutter is removed in favour of creating this almost abstract composition.
Steve Downey, CEFIL
All roof areas were waterproofed by Cefil RVF 2.1mm fleece-backed single-ply membrane, hot air-welded at the joints. Bespoke details for the low-profile rooflights were created using Cefil laminated metal to produce robust weathering details without compromising the design.
The simple, timber-clad appearance was achieved by using the integrated fixing point (IFP). This is a low-profile (45mm) fixing point, which can be used to attach a variety of items to the roof structure without impairing the waterproofing.
The IFP uses the simple principle of a washer to mechanically seal the flange. The membrane flange becomes the washer, meaning there is no need for any gasket, glue, sealant or other perishable part, and the seal will last as long as the membrane. This principle has been tested to air pressures of 2 bar with zero drop. Rather than uncontrolled compression of the flange, this has been developed under constant pressure technology. This mechanism ensures that the membrane is sealed and subjected to a controlled compression that remains constant even when under loadings such as the wind uplift expected in Dungeness.
All forces applied to the fixing point are transferred directly to the fixing plate without affecting the roofing membrane flange. The timber cladding was fixed at predetermined centres, then attached to the IFPs, creating the visual effect conceived during the project’s design.
The cold roof construction meant ventilation was also paramount. Nicholson’s Airtrak system was used to provide passive roof void ventilation to the ridges, eaves, chimney and gutters.
Start on site September 2013
Completion October 2014
Gross internal floor area 114m²
Procurement route JCT building contract for a home owner/occupier who has not appointed a consultant to oversee the work (HO/B)
Architect Rodić Davidson Architects
Structural engineer Ten Design
M&E consultant Ecolibrium Solutions
Main contractor Ecolibrium Solutions
Approved building inspector HCD Building Control
CAD software used AutoCAD