From concrete water tower to modern home
Bruno and Denise Del Tufo transformed a Kent water tower by architect Edwin Lutyens
The idea for the Grand Designs water tower in Kent came to be when Bruno and Denise Del Tufo bought a pretty gamekeeper’s lodge in rural Rolvenden. On the grounds was a hulking concrete water tower which, after a bit of research, turned out to be a design by prolific architect Sir Edwin Lutyens.
The couple saw this as the chance to preserve a unique historical building, and so the idea for the Grand Designs water tower in Kent was born. Initially, Kevin McCloud was sceptical – calling it an ‘ugly brute’ – but in the end, it became one of his favourite TV houses.
Bruno and Denise sold the lodge and, with architect Derek Briscoe, drew up a radical plan to reinstate Lutyens’ original roof and cut windows into the concrete walls. They then added a steel box on stilts to one side of the tower and a two-storey, glass, concrete and zinc structure underneath.
However, it didn’t all go smoothly; the price of steel rocketed and the concrete tower proved so dense that it took a whole week for diamond cutting tools to drill holes for the windows. The couple had no option but to take out a mortgage as the costs rose from £250,000 to £300,000.
‘We really didn’t realise the enormity of the task,’ says Bruno. ‘But it’s got that magical feel, it nurtures us.’
Here, Grand Designs quizzes Denise and Bruno almost a decade after the original Grand Designs Kent water tower episode aired in 2006…
Why did you decide to live in a water tower?
It stood at the bottom of our garden for several years while Denise and I wondered what we could do with it. We’re surrounded by beautiful scenery, so our first idea was that we could use it as a viewpoint – it has the feel of a bird hide. After much deliberation we decided to turn it into a home with plenty of windows, and we can now look out and watch the seasons changing – it’s a great way to enjoy the environment.
Have you made any changes since filming?
We haven’t altered the main house at all, but we’ve added a decked area and concentrated on improving the exterior. Making the most of the landscape was a key motivation for this project and it has been lovely seeing the plot develop, from a building site back into a garden. We’ve established a planted section and an orchard, where we exercise our dogs.
How have the interiors evolved?
Denise has a passion for finding and restoring furniture, so we have a steady cycle of antique pieces. Because the house has such a modern exterior, I wasn’t sure old furniture would suit its style, but it has all blended well. The most recent addition has been four Edwardian oak dining chairs. Denise reupholstered them in a wool herringbone fabric, each with a different colour to reflect the seasons. They’re a good representation of the project: the way that we took something old and abandoned, and made it new.
What’s your favourite thing about the house?
When we’re driving home, the tip of the tower sticks up from about two miles away, and it’s lovely to see that point and know how much work went into it. I also like the way that each window looks out on a different aspect of the garden and the fields beyond. There’s so much glazing that when the sun shines, the shadows of the trees come through onto the walls. It feels very connected with the outside world.
Did you learn anything during the build?
Absolutely! We were quite naïve going into the project – it started as an adventure and it was only later that we realised how hard it was going to be. It’s easy to get swept up in the excitement, but you have to remember that everyone still needs a payday at the end of the week. The biggest thing we learned is that it’s important to find a balance between being enthusiastic and being practical, especially when there are hard decisions to make.
How did you cope with the stress?
‘It was difficult – there were times when Denise became the leader and really carried the build forwards. I took a lot of strength from her. We’ve been married for decades, but it really brought us together. We were only meant to be living in the caravan for six months and it ended up being two years, which is a real test of a relationship. We couldn’t walk away from the build, though; neither of us is the type to give up.
Would you change anything now?
In an ideal world, I’d put a glass lift on the outside, as the building is three storeys high and it would be nice to future-proof it for when we’re older. I’d also like to add an alternative power supply, such as solar panels. But I think that might be someone else’s challenge. At the moment we’re very content – it’s a wonderful place to live.
Kevin McCloud’s verdict: ‘The transformation of this top-heavy brute has been extraordinary.’
What happened to Denise and Bruno Del Tufo?
In 2017, Denise and Bruno Del Tufo put the property up for sale for £895,000 as they contemplated retirement.
‘The house is a delight to live in,’ said Bruno, in an interview with Kent Online in April 2017, ‘but it’s better to move while we can and before we have to.
‘We’ve had an immense amount of pleasure from the house but we can either carry on in our dotage and be carried out of it, or let someone else write the next chapter. It’s like handing over a baton.’