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Survival of the Fitties

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How we used mirror, timber and marble to create a modern chalet home still a part of its historic Humber setting, writes Jonathan Hendry. Photography by David Grandorge

In 2009, we were asked to consider the viability of altering and extending an existing chalet. It was located within the Humberston Fitties conservation area (Fitties meaning ‘salt marsh’) on the southern side of the Humber mouth. Looking across this beautiful estuary your eyes are drawn towards two First World War forts, which would once have had a net strung between them to defend against enemy submarines.

Development of the Humberston Fitties began when it was divided into ‘plot lands’ during the 1920’s. During the First World War, the coastal area was used for billeting soldiers who were stationed in the nearby Haile Sands Fort. After the war, a local family set up a tent on the site so they could have access to fresh air to combat ill health. The following year they erected a chalet and, after the soldiers were demobbed, other people moved in with tents, or into the original camp huts used by the soldiers.

In 1938, the land ownership was passed to the local authority. This has allowed the unique area to be preserved while other, similar private plot lands have been sold off for development over the years. During the Second World War the chalets were again returned to military duty.

In 1953, many of the chalets were destroyed by the devastating floods that breached the Lincolnshire Coastline. Others had to be recovered from neighbouring plots.The sea defences were then improved, which meant many chalets lost their sea views.

The issue of flooding is an ongoing struggle between conservation and planning. As a result, on this site planning permission was granted to alter and extend the existing chalet, with a condition requesting that the structural timber frame to the front and side facades and the floor was retained. Work commenced on site in July 2010.

As the existing timber floor and frame was carefully exposed, it became evident that the floor joists were in poor condition. Building Control requested that the pad foundations and timber frame were replaced and, within a week, planning asked for work on site to cease. After a year-long battle with the planning department the conservation officer and the Environment Agency, planning permission for a new chalet was granted.

The client had a desire to create a dwelling that resisted the restraints associated with a conventional home, where the plan is organised as a series of rooms. In response to this, we created a single, loft-like space; tall and vaulted at the front, lower and flat towards the rear. The floor and exterior walls up to a height of 2.4m are lined in timber, holding the space together like the hull of a boat resists the ingress of floodwater. In places, the wall lining is adjusted in depth or height to provide a place to hang clothes, watch TV or sit at a computer.

Within this lining we carefully positioned four pieces of furniture: a sleeping box, a bathing box with sleeping platform, a kitchen and a stove. The material choices of mirror, timber, marble and linen applied to the different pieces of furniture were chosen to give different spatial and atmospheric qualities responding to the domestic rituals of sleeping, bathing, eating and resting.

Externally, the form of the chalet has been dictated by its predecessor. The colonnade-like space at the front of the building creates a threshold between the intimate domestic interior andthe world outside, providing a place to sit and shelter from the weather. The walls and columns of this space are painted in bitumen paint.

In the summer months the bitumen softens releasing the smell of its oils, catching the sand blown from the beach, building up and changing over time, becoming reminiscent of the bitumen paper used to roof many of the existing chalets. The rear south facing facade also has an overhanging roof cantilevering as opposed to supported on columns, relaxing the transition between house and garden. The roof and gable walls are made from stainless steel sheets making an analogy to the steel clad forts in the Humber, each resisting the forces of nature and gracefully aging over time, as well as blending with the vast sky over the estuary.

Jonathan Henry is director of Jonathan Hendry Architects

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