This iconic Grand Designs TV home - a crumbling, Grade II-listed lifeboat station building on Tenby beach - provided a unique set of challenges for its new owners. 

TV House Lifeboat Station in Tenby South Wales4

Image: As the lifeboat station has a Grade II listed status, the exterior cladding had to be replaced like for like. Photo: Chris Tubbs  

When Kevin McCloud met Tim and Philomena O'Donovan, he had one question about their plan to convert a disused lifeboat station into their new home. Why?

Under constant attack from the elements and with limited access to the site, the building presented a challenging project for these grand designers. But, with unimpeded view across Tenby harbour all to themselves. Plots don’t get much more spectacular than this

It took Tim and Philomena seven years just to start building, which involved negotiations with the Crown Estate to buy the freehold for their strip of the beach (a first for the UK, to Tim’s knowledge), and then a competitive bid against others (including a café and a lobster hatchery) to prove they had the wherewithal to convert – and more importantly, maintain – the Grade II-listed building.

Watch the episode: Tenby, 2011

 tenby lifeboat station grand designs TV house

Image: Local residents have a strong attachment to the building which has received plenty of visitors since its restoration. Photo: Chris Tubbs  

Then came the hard part: getting steel, glass and other heavy materials on site, with no road access – just a coastal path and the beach. Most had to be transported across the sand and craned up the 40ft-high pier, which meant regular dashes between the tides. Not a bad thing necessarily – after all, there’s nothing like the immovable deadline of high tide to encourage speedy work – but once all the materials were delivered, things became very slow. Trying to fit straight steel and skirting boards into a warped Edwardian building was a challenge and a half, and the initial nine-month build time doubled to 18 months. 

tenby lifeboat station grand designs tv house interior

Image: Removing some of the original roof trusses made room for a second storey, which houses the library – a perfect quiet, private space. Photo: Chris Tubbs  

Local architects Michael Argent and Adam Chandler designed the two-storey house, which Tim originally planned as single storey. The trick for getting more space upstairs was to remove some of the original roof trusses, freeing up headroom for Tim and Philomena’s en-suite bedroom at one end, and a library overlooking the sea at the other, with a bridge between them that floats over the kitchen below. 

Read more: 9 of the best home conversions featured on Grand Designs

Downstairs, a cluster of bedrooms and bathrooms is arranged around the entrance, which opens on to the open-plan kitchen-diner and living space, offering a clean sweep down to the water. It feels like the architectural equivalent of a waterbed, only without the movement. You can see and hear and smell the sea all around, and Philomena’s expert eye for interiors enhances the nautical feel – all blues and sandy browns inspired by the views, and lamps that look like they’re made of driftwood. As Kevin McCloud said on TV, it feels like the luxury interior of an exquisitely crafted schooner. What better place for a private holiday retreat?

tenby lifeboat station grand designs tv house interior

Image: A viewing porthole is included in the design, straight through the floor to the crashing sea. Photo: Chris Tubbs  

‘This property, I would say, would come up once in a lifetime,’ says Tim. ‘I cannot imagine anything else that would hold a candle to it. It’s the bee’s knees and the cat’s pyjamas.’

And for Philomena it’s especially significant, since she grew up in a small coastal town like Tenby, with the RNLI at its heart. Friends, family and neighbours volunteered, or were rescued, and her earliest memories are of running to watch the rescue boats being launched. 

‘They would set off three flares, and we would run as fast as we could to the lifeboat station. There was always a feeling of reassuring calmness in these buildings. It’s a very deep feeling,’ she says. ‘Getting that feeling back was incredibly important.’


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