About Chy Davas
"No one can be close to others without having frequent opportunities to be alone"
From 'A Pattern Language' by Christopher Alexander et al.
the existing house
Experimental design and traditional methods come together without getting the builders in.
Joshua’s parents retired to Cornwall, (where his father’s family came from) after a teaching career where the houses came with the job and most alterations weren’t possible. It soon became clear their new house, a pig sty/barn converted in the 1990s, needed some changes. After various architects hadn’t quite fired their enthusiasm, we had graduated and they asked us to have a go...
We have settled on a new wing and an alteration of most of the plan of the existing barn, using innovative, sustainable materials and experimental construction methods. We also decided we should build it with our own hands!
Our design depends on contrast between intimate and cosy rooms for silence or writing poetry and bigger, dramatic places for conviviality, shared meals and parties. Textures and colours will play a big part too: golden linseed paint, polished Moroccan tadelakt lime plaster and warm, russet rusting steel.
The design had to be striking without being out of place; be constructed by two pensioneers, their sons and nearby family; and weather gracefully in the damp climate. The design is "low-tech" - it requires no plastic membranes and has a breathable structure to let water vapour escape. This consists of a frame of untreated local timber insulated with wood-fibre, and Corten (weathering steel) cladding - an infinitely recyclable material. Local stone expresses the waller's art and, along with the extension's shape, links the new with the old.
Half of the existing house is taken up by bedrooms; the other half is effectively one room as the kitchen and lounge are joined by an open staircase. It’s impossible to exist without being on top of each other, simply because there aren’t enough doors. In Christopher Alexander’s ‘A Pattern Language’, he writes “To give a group a chance to be together, as a group, a room must also give them the chance to be alone...” We find this expresses what's wrong with the house quite powerfully. It does not afford this possibility except in bed!
Combining an extension with more differentiated rooms inside means the house has an ‘intimacy gradient’ that allows the family and visitors to give each encounter shades of meaning: we can have control over how private or sociable we wish to be, and how guests process to the more private parts of the house.
Through our discussions, we discovered elements of importance such as the connection to the garden. We have ensured access straight from the front door to the back, and a dramatic, processional path up to the new dining room. Inside this room there is a generous window seat overlooking the garden, while piercings in the old barn wall create a connection to the kitchen, relocated upstairs, and mean it’s possible to look right across the house.
Using the darkest and least pleasant part of the site to improve the existing house means no sunny places are lost on limited land.
Real self-building, without contractors and as much of the work as possible done personally gives a sense of pride and achievement no volume house-builder's product can hope to match. While a hefty responsibility, having the time and support to explore materials and techniques without a traditional client relationship is a wonderful opportunity!
Historically, buildings were limited in their palette of materials because of the exigencies of transport, creating the identifiable locales we are at risk of losing today. We aim to continue this tradition with a self-built, low-tech extension that gives us a chance to test some of our approaches in a very direct way.
With an eye on the embodied energy of materials and processes, we have designed our own repairable double-glazing without noble gases, based on our experiences in Sweden with warm 19th century windows in -30°C winters.
The limited access and our own desire to test traditional methods of handwork means no cranes or diggers. Pickaxes for the stone and a knowledge of seafaring knots help with hoisting the steel! It’s easy to assume every problem has a ‘plant-hire’ solution, but we are discovering that a bit of ingenuity saves time, money and fossil fuels.
Bricks from the old path were salvaged, some dating back to the Grampound brickworks which closed in 1902, and reused in concert with a garden design that allows for vegetables and fruit as well as wild flowers.
Bedding on lime mortar and sand, with welded edging means the path materials can be easily repurposed if required in the future.