When professional artists Pippa Young and David Mankin saw a sub-standard bungalow for sale on the Cornish coast, they decided to leave a lifetime of period properties behind and build a minimalist masterpiece
TEXT ALEXANDRA PRATT IMAGES ANTHONY GREENWOOD/DAVEY CONSTRUCTION
For most of their lives, artists Pippa Young and David Mankin enjoyed living in the type of period English properties which many would think of as the ‘perfect’ home. Yet, as the family nest emptied, the maintenance issues mounted.
“We’d had a life of restoring period homes, and we had ‘refurbishment fatigue’,” laughs Pippa. “Even minor jobs revealed all kinds of horrors.” The idea of changing how they live began to grow in the couple’s minds. “Years ago, we had seen a picture of a minimalist house and we said, ‘One day, we’d like to do that’.”
Their opportunity came when they discovered a 1930s bungalow for sale in their area. Thanks to being built using the sub-standard ‘mundic’ block common across Cornwall in homes built during the first half of the 20th century, the bungalow was not mortgageable. The problem lies in the aggregate used to make the blocks. Often, this included waste rock from mining, quarrying and even beach gravel combined with china clay waste, and the blocks deteriorated over time, leading to instability.
“The mundic meant only cash purchasers could buy it,” explains Pippa. “Although there were still a lot of people interested.” That high level of interest was down to the property’s west Cornwall setting, offering spectacular views across the sea.
Having secured the bungalow, Pippa and David sold their home, moved into a rented cottage and began planning their new home.
“We had lots of ridiculously expensive ideas,” laughs Pippa, recalling their initial thought to clad the house in bronze. Other extravagant suggestions fell at their first brush with reality. Yet, as professional artists, Pippa and David did have a clear vision of how they wanted their new home to look; clean lines, minimal detailing, natural materials and of course, putting those sweeping coastal views at the heart of the design.
Unfortunately, they struggled to find common ground with the first architect they approached and put things on hold until a friend suggested London-based architect Suzanne Brewer.
“We visited her home, and it was exactly the aesthetic we wanted. We had a shared vision,” says Pippa.
Pippa and David took a belt-and-braces approach to the planning application, submitting pre-application plans for advice, and hiring a planning consultant. They wanted to demolish the old bungalow and replace it with a contemporary, four-bedroom, reverse-level home with plenty of glazing facing the sea.
“We were worried about building above the ridge line on neighbouring properties, so we dug down and designed a flat roof, but it wasn’t an issue,” says Pippa. “We could have saved money by not digging down.”
Pippa and David were keen not to be forced into compromises on their design, so they had an open day to show the plans to local residents. As all the nearby properties are traditional bungalows, Pippa and David were afraid their contemporary home would ruffle feathers.
“As it turned out, we didn’t have any objections and our home is now cited as precedent for new planning applications,” says Pippa.
“Their first hiccup came when certain elements of the design didn’t pass the weatherproofing standards for the area set out by Building Control. This focused on construction details relating to thermal bridging around the windows and the pocket doors.
“West Cornwall is in zone four, which has far more extreme weather than say, London.” The issue was solved by Pippa and David commissioning local architecture firm Lilly Lewarne to finalise the necessary details, which were then passed.”
Before demolishing the existing bungalow and starting their build, the couple were required to take deep core samples of the ground on the plot. This was due to the area’s mining history. There is even a historic mine shaft in the next field. After extensive investigation, however, nothing was found except a large hole, probably once a cesspit and a concrete tank that was almost certainly used for water.
“There was no mains supply here until the 1950s,” exclaims Pippa. “Imagine that!”
Their structural engineer recommended local building firm Davey Construction, who constructed the house using masonry and steel. The idea of a ‘green’ roof appealed to Pippa and David, but it became one of the early thoughts that didn’t survive an encounter with the budget. Instead, the couple opted for a standard membrane; a common solution for modern flat roofs.
While the couple left construction details to the experts, “It was the aesthetic that we were quite prescriptive about,” recalls Pippa. These included the materials used to finish the house’s exterior, which is predominantly stone clad, with sections of render and Kebony. Kebony is a softwood chemically treated to extend its lifespan to around thirty years. It is delivered as a rich brown, although it fades to a silver grey over time.
Kebony is also available in different profiles, so the couple chose to attach it vertically, with a routered line down the middle to further narrow the appearance of each strip.
Choosing the stone was critical to the correct finish, and Pippa and David’s attention to detail meant they specified not just the colour, but also the quarry it came from.
“If you walk along the coast here, the rocks are all bluey-grey, with bright orange and sage green lichen,” says Pippa. “We wanted to use local stone, as cheaper Welsh and Chinese stone is the wrong colour for this landscape. As artists, this matters to us!”
The couple’s choice was Trebarwith Road Quarry, where two seams produce a grey/blue stone that yellows in time, and a rusty-coloured one. Combined, this stone cladding does
a remarkable job of settling the house into the landscape.
As you would expect in this setting, there is a lot of glazing in the home. The couple had to opt for double glazing, rather than the heavier triple-glazed windows, as the panes are so large. The frames are marine-coated aluminium, an essential factor when building within 500 metres of the sea. The stand-out feature is the open corner facing the sea, the blue vista of the bay unencumbered by a supporting post. When the sliding doors are pulled back into their pockets, the roof appears to hang in mid-air, framing the view.
The interiors are, of course, all Pippa and David’s work. They were inspired by the Tate Modern Gallery in terms of the space and the pared-back details. Internally, there are frameless doors, shadow gaps in place of skirting boards, no thresholds and an overall lack of detail to distract the eye from the ever-changing view. “It’s a living painting, and everything else is subservient to it,” says Pippa. “The colours inside are in dialogue with that view.”
While the paint choices are largely white, a significant part of the interior finish is, of course, the choice of flooring. Achieving their vision of a salt-and-pepper grey granite that wasn’t overly shiny became a real challenge.
“I did a massive amount of research,” recalls Pippa. Frustratingly however, the wrong colour concrete was poured without reference to her specification. Perhaps fortunately, it quickly became apparent a problem had occurred with the pour and the concrete floor had to be dug out. Pippa seized the moment and appointed an independent contractor to lay the floors to her specification. The wide stairs, which carry visitors upwards from the grand, double-height entrance (also inspired by the Tate), are concrete, but they are an awkward shape to polish, so the steps were micro-topped with careful colour-matching of pigments. (Micro-topping is a polymer-enhanced cement that can be laid in an ultra-thin layer on a variety of surfaces.)
Downstairs there are two bedrooms and a convertible middle room which functions as an open plan snug and reading room, but can be closed off to make a third bedroom. Pippa and David’s studios are at the rear, on the entrance level of the house. Throughout this level, the flooring is engineered timber, as this is better suited to underfloor heating than solid wood. The heating and hot water are provided by an air-source heat pump, as “We have no gas supply in the village and the plot wasn’t big enough for a ground source heat pump,” says Pippa.
Upstairs, the kitchen, dining area and living room are all one open-plan space. At one end of the room, the doors on the corner open out, converting that space into a terrace. At the opposite end of the upper floor, an elegant, galley-style kitchen with a 4 metre island. This sleek kitchen was designed by the local firm Treyone Kitchens, although Pippa couldn’t resist tweaking the plans to remove a walled-off scullery.
“I wanted a clean space, with hidden handles and space for everything,” says Pippa, who even has a drawer made especially for her spice collection; they are keen cooks. The countertop was a personal triumph for Pippa – she chose Corian, which being a man-made material made it possible to have a single 4 metre length with no joints. She managed to source it herself, bagging a £3,000 discount.
Reflecting on the project, Pippa thinks that they would have benefitted from her sourcing more things directly. This also tied into to the other thing she wishes she had done differently; “I should have project managed it myself,” she admits, ruefully. With her skills from her design career, she believes she would have been able to stay on top of even this huge job.
“If I did it again, I would be less starry-eyed about ‘experts’ and I would have rolled my sleeves up at the start. Experts don’t know what is perfect for you.”
In the end, Pippa still had to get stuck in when the expected completion date began to drift.
“We had been in the cottage for three years and I’d had enough,” Pippa recalls. “I scheduled deliveries of furniture etc. for the last week, but I ended up having to oil the downstairs floor myself. I skinned my ankles on it, but I had to do it. The builders were still sweeping out as we were moving in with the boxes.”
Once in, the couple found, like many self-builders, that the landscaping also needed to be done. And they found it wasn’t going to be quick or easy. “We asked our main contractors to do it, but due to Covid restrictions it took another 10 months,” says Pippa.
Yet now, the experience of living in their new home and enjoying those views has been almost overwhelming. “I love coming home after a trip,” says Pippa. “It feels like a zen space. It is exactly as we wanted it to be, and I have to pinch myself sometimes. In fact, it has turned us into hermits, as we don’t want to leave!”
That is perhaps the best testament to the impact designing and building your own home can have on your life and sense of well-being. And even the small details bring Pippa joy.
“I love the space and even the nerdy details, such as the concrete floor. I also love the sense of peace and the calm I feel here. This house has come out exactly as I saw it in my head, and it is wonderful!”