Some contemporary houses are architecturally stunning but feel cold and rather unwelcoming. Others are perfectly executed but may stand on a less-thanperfect plot, or somehow lack that wow factor which makes visitors gasp in astonishment. Kaywana Hall in Devon, however, is a sculptural yet comfortable home that most definitely has it all.
The house was constructed on the remnants of the structural frame of an existing 1960s design — one of four such properties designed in Devon by Mervyn Seal, a well-known and progressive local architect. These were dubbed ‘butterfly houses’ because of their distinctive (albeit asymmetrical) wing-shaped roofs.
Kaywana Hall was designed as Seal’s own residence and deliberately sited at right angles to the steep westfacing slope. Not only did this maximise the view but also ensured that one long side of the house benefitted from the southern sun. The lightweight timber frame building was supported on three concrete pillars, and the master bedroom cantilevered from the tall stone chimney stack to hang out high above the trees with no visible means of support. So unusual was the design that coaches would stop on the main road below to view the house, which appeared to be flying amid the trees. Even before stepping inside the neglected 1960s building, Tony Pithers and his partner, Gordon Craig, realised they had found something special.
Tucked away at the end of a steep private drive, the secluded house is set alone in eight acres of woodland and overlooks its own swimming pool to the rear. The couple were living in a Manhattan-style loft apartment in a converted factory in Clerkenwell, with a galleried bedroom and masses of glass. They loved this contemporary, open plan living space but had often talked about escaping the pressures of London to a more relaxed life in the country, where Gordon, a GP, could find work with a local practice and Tony – who has experience in hotels and catering – would be able to run an upmarket B&B.
“Driving up to the house on a wet February afternoon was the start of a long journey for us,” Tony recalls. “We thought we’d lost out to some other buyers, but 18 months later it was ours and for two years we lived in the original house. We’d moved from a lovely warm, modern flat to a 1960s building with no double glazing or heating and dodgy electrics. It was extremely cold and felt a bit like camping.”
During this time, Gordon and Tony began thinking about their options, discussing them with London architects. Their original plan was to spend around £200,000 renovating the existing building and swimming pool, but then a chance sighting of a newspaper article led the couple to Brixham architect Stan Bolt, who has been responsible for numerous contemporary houses in and around south Devon.
“We gave Stan a fairly free rein, and he proposed that we strip away some of the clumsy later additions and keep the main part of the house true to its original design,” says Gordon. The original façade would be replaced and upgraded using a simple combination of glass and solid panels with a pre-patinated zinc finish. These materials are also replicated in the new zinc-clad roof, with a continuous strip of glass beneath the structure creating the impression that the wing-like roof is floating in the air.
“Achieving planning permission was relatively straightforward, but unpicking the original 1960s building and determining how it all worked did rather tax the structural engineer,” recalls Stan Bolt. “I already knew of the house before Gordon and Tony contacted me, and was genuinely excited to be invited to work with such a high-quality design.” Virtually nothing was left standing apart from the chimney breast wall at one end, and it would have been impossible to carry on living in the house, so the couple moved into rented accommodation nearby for 18 months while the structure was rebuilt. Local building company Fraser Langdon was appointed to undertake work to the gravity-defying house.
Steel, timber, glass and concrete combine to create a highly insulated building which still retains the drama of the original butterfly house. “We didn’t get too involved in the nitty gritty of the build, and there was a period of time when Tony wouldn’t even visit the site because he felt as though nothing was happening,” says Gordon, who now works locally as a GP. “Some subcontractors were better than others, but the plumber was amazing. Our heating and hot water is fuelled by a biomass gassifying boiler from Austria, and apparently ours was only the third installation in this country. There are a number of fallen trees on the site to use as fuel. It means that our underfloor heating and hot water are virtually free to run, and there’s a back-up Calor gas boiler should we need it.”
Removing the various extensions and additions which had been tacked onto the original house has reduced the overall size of the main structure, which contains the gallery master bedroom, set above the sitting area. “Stan designed the house so that guest suite ‘pods’ are detached from the main building, allowing visitors to have their own space yet not feel far away,” says Tony.
Building such an unusual house did cost the couple more than they had originally budgeted. “The highest quote was double the lowest quote, and the lowest quote was double our budget,” laughs Tony. “But we took the decision to increase our mortgage and do it properly. Living here has exceeded even our expectations — it’s rather like a sophisticated glass tree house which gets the sun all day. Let’s just say that after all this work we definitely won’t be moving on.”