A gravity defying eco-build in Kent

Richard and Sophie Hawkes painstakingly created a home under a clay tile arch

By Cathy Strongman | 12 August 2021

Sourcing 26,000 locally hand-made clay tiles and then sticking them together to form the eye-catching arch of this truly sustainable home was no mean feat. Grand Designers Richard and Sophie Hawkes had their work cut out, but would it be worth it? 

Heroic is a word seldom used in conjunction with British houses, but this is how Kevin McCloud described this. Architect Richard Hawkes and his wife, Sophie, built the Grand Designs eco arch in the depths of the Kent countryside. With its unique timbrel arch roof and multitude of cutting-edge eco technologies, it is a building that both challenges our preconceptions about how a home should look. The project demonstrates just how sustainable houses constructed in the UK can be. A crazily risky experiment, with astoundingly successful results, this building provides lessons for us all. 

Grand Designs Eco Arch in Weald of Kent outside view

The eye-catching arch seems to float out of the surrounding countryside. Photo: Jefferson Smith

A colossal arch

Approaching the house along a quiet country road leading out of a Kent village you are immediately struck by its unique form. Thrusting from the earth is a colossal arch. Slipped underneath this are boxy, angular structures part clad in cedar but also boasting vast swathes of glass. No wonder cars are continuously parking up outside Richard and Sophie’s home.  

The building is miles away from the decrepit thirties bungalow that originally inhabited the acre of land that Sophie and Richard bought in October 2006. ‘Every architect dreams of building his own home, but I never thought I’d get the chance,’ says Richard. ‘But with this plot it just felt so right.’ Richard, who now runs his own practice, has always been passionate about sustainability, and this was the chance he’d been waiting for. ‘We wanted to build a low-energy building, partly for the practical reason of reducing our bills,’ says Richard. ‘We also wanted to use local skills and materials as much as possible to reduce transport pollution and plug money back into the local economy. And we also wanted to give the house a connection with its locality.’

Wooden cabinets in kitchen with built in oven and window overlooking grounds

The streamlined, handmade kitchen looks out into the garden. Photo: Jefferson Smith

Eco ideas

The form of the building was carefully contrived to maximise solar gain from the south and prevent being overlooked by the neighbours. Originally Richard had planned a timber gridshell roof, which would have resulted in a more semi-circular arch. Project manager Andrew Bassant mentioned timbrel vaulted roofs, which create a much wider curvature and allow the materials to be thinner and lighter. This then made Richard’s building took another experimental turn. He decided to encase his home in a ceramic timbrel arch. This is a common technique in fourteenth-century Spain, but one that is virtually unknown in Britain.

Planning permission for the Grand Designs eco arch was granted in July 2007 and building commenced a month later, with the couple staying in a caravan on site. The foundations were poured from concrete with 50 per cent recycled content, and within a further four weeks the timber frame of the box-like structures was also complete. Next came the arch, which Richard admits is the most challenging thing he has ever built. It was a precarious process as 26,000 clay tiles, each locally made by hand, were glued together using plaster of Paris. Miraculously, despite there being no physical means of support and this being one of the first times this technique has been used in Britain, the arch was successfully completed. The only glitch was a partial collapse when somebody accidentally leant on the unfinished structure. 

Sloping wall with brickwork in dining room of Grand Designs eco arch

The staircase was built using the same principles as the arch that encloses the house. Photo: Jefferson Smith