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Exterior of timber house on stilits grand designs house

Way above average

Built from timber and raised on concrete stilts, this house helped its owner put down roots

By Paul Oneal | 9 December 2016

Described by Kevin McCloud as ‘one of Britain’s last great eccentrics’, self-confessed boat obsessive James Strangeways is the first to admit that he’s not a fan of houses. Having spent much of his life on the water, hopping from vessel to vessel, he was going to require something pretty extraordinary – and unconventional – to anchor him on dry land. He was determined that if he did have to live in a building, it wouldn’t look like your average home at all. Instead, James commissioned his nephew, the architect Ben Hebblethwaite, to build a timber structure halfway between a dwelling and a boat. This Grand Designs house on stilts has deck-like terraces and open doors either side to provide views over the nearby River Rother and the surrounding East Sussex countryside.

Owner James on the deck outside his Grand Designs house on stilts

James surveys his home from the raised deck. Photo: Chris Tubbs

Replacement build

The motivation to build a home from scratch stemmed from the dilapidated bungalow that James was able to stay in when he wasn’t out on the river. It was on the farm that his great-aunt used to own. A crumbling wreck, it took just half an hour to knock the entire thing down, the 85-year-old bungalow was no longer habitable. So, it gave James the chance to create something that would suit his unique lifestyle.

An open-plan living space in the Grand Designs house on stilts with a small kitchen area

Open shelves and simple units form James’ ideal kitchen Photo: Chris Tubbs

Described by Kevin McCloud as ‘one of Britain’s last great eccentrics’, self-confessed boat obsessive James Strangeways is the first to admit that he’s not a fan of houses. Having spent much of his life on the water, hopping from vessel to vessel, he was going to require something pretty extraordinary – and unconventional – to anchor him on dry land. He was determined that if he did have to live in a building, it wouldn’t look like your average home at all. Instead, James commissioned his nephew, the architect Ben Hebblethwaite, to build a timber structure halfway between a dwelling and a boat. This Grand Designs house on stilts has deck-like terraces and open doors either side to provide views over the nearby River Rother and the surrounding East Sussex countryside.

Owner James on the deck outside his Grand Designs house on stilts

James surveys his home from the raised deck. Photo: Chris Tubbs

Replacement build

The motivation to build a home from scratch stemmed from the dilapidated bungalow that James was able to stay in when he wasn’t out on the river. It was on the farm that his great-aunt used to own. A crumbling wreck, it took just half an hour to knock the entire thing down, the 85-year-old bungalow was no longer habitable. So, it gave James the chance to create something that would suit his unique lifestyle.

An open-plan living space in the Grand Designs house on stilts with a small kitchen area

Open shelves and simple units form James’ ideal kitchen Photo: Chris Tubbs

Incurring a big loss

With planning permission easily obtained, work started on the three-bedroom house in October 2013. ‘The first year of the build was a nightmare, as I wasn’t really involved in the early stages. But the more I did, the better it was,’ says James. His initial lack of contribution was not the real issue. The original contractor went bust, taking £87,000 with it, and work ground to a halt in April 2014. ‘We were on a tight budget from the start,’ explains James. ‘The pressure was on money-wise, so we went with the cheapest option, which was a huge mistake. It was a learning curve.’ Luckily, though, he saw a silver lining in the situation. ‘To save on costs, we made the building simpler, which made it better – it works and functions extremely well.’

The living area of the Grand Designs house on stilts with a view of the wood burning stove in the centre of the space

A local ceramicist made the tiles behind the wood burner Photo: Chris Tubbs

Pulling together

With this setback, James felt he didn’t have any option but to become more involved: the six-month delay meant that he and Ben had to supervise the builders until they hired a new contractor. This did lead to a little friction between the two. One of James’ more outlandish ideas for his Grand Designs house on stilts was to add a crow’s nest-style lookout to the top of the house’s gull-wing roof. This suggestion was eventually quashed by Ben. This was never going to be a conventional build, and even now, James admits that his favourite spaces aren’t indoors. ‘I love the way you can walk from one side of the house to the other, sitting out on the deck while the sun rises on one side, then watching it set on the other,’ he says. 

Timber-clad bedroom with sliding glazed doors leading to a small terrace

Walls in sweet chestnut link bedrooms to the outside space. Photo: Chris Tubbs

Living the simple life

With solar panels, underfloor heating and wood-fibre insulation, the house is energy efficient and practically maintenance free. James has kept the main living spaces relatively unfurnished. During the programme he baulked at the idea of storage, asserting that the original kitchen design, with its many cupboards, was ‘awful’, and scoffing at the idea of having a wardrobe. But it’s this total simplicity that appeals to James. ‘I like the place because there’s not much to it – less is more in my opinion,’ he says. ‘I find the typical house too cluttered.’

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