Directing a Cornish fairy tale


Anglophile and ex-Disney executive Kathleen Gearhart-Filmer moved to Cornwall to turn a concrete house into a magical coastal retreat

TEXT Alexandra Pratt IMAGES Leighton James

Several years ago, while on holiday with her baby daughter in Carbis Bay, west Cornwall, Kathleen Gearhart-Filmer fell head over heels in love with the county. Fast-forward to 2020, and she was looking for somewhere to buy. However, “The north coast is quite commercialised, and you don’t go to Cornwall to be surrounded by people,” says Kathleen, who was formerly an executive at the Walt Disney Company in the US. Running her own events management company now allows Kathleen to split her time between London and the west country, living the Cornish dream with her two children.

She summarises the appeal: “My kids are different people around the water; Cornwall is a brilliant place to gather, and one of the most peaceful.”

Widening her house search to the south coast led Kathleen to a mid-century property in a tiny village with views across Mount’s Bay and its famous island castle. Located just three minutes from a beach, the home was well-located on a large plot, but didn’t make the most of the setting, with windows facing away from the sea. Yet Kathleen was charmed, and could see the potential. “On one side is the sea, on the other open fields. It’s a beautiful oasis.”

The home was a probate sale and went to closed bids, but although Kathleen was delighted to win, there was no question of a simple renovation, as the house had been constructed using ‘mundic’ concrete. Used in housebuilding until the 1950s, it contains waste aggregates from tin mines, and contaminants in the aggregate cause the concrete to deteriorate over time, making the property unstable. While any building containing mundic is classed as substandard and unmortgageable, for those in the know, the term ‘mundic’ signals an opportunity to self-build.

“I 100% expected to demolish it,” says Kathleen. “But I assured the vendors we would respect the land. It had been a family home for generations.”

Kathleen initially sketched out her own designs for the home, which she then took to local expert Simon Boulton at the architecture practice Lilly Lewarne. Prioritising connectedness to the surrounding environment, Kathleen’s home has five bedrooms and five bathrooms in a 580 sqm property, spread across two levels. There’s a garage and an outdoor shower too,
all set in enchanting ‘wrap-around’ gardens, which were created by local landscaper Glenn Humphries.

“They really brought the garden to life,” says Kathleen. “There are lots of wildflowers and in spring and summer they are stunning.”

Another priority for Kathleen was building with local, natural materials, including reclaimed Delabole slate and hardwoods. Yet despite both this approach and her willingness to communicate fully with the local community, including using leaflets explaining her plans, Kathleen experienced some push-back against her plans. After working further with Simon to tweak her application to remove some windows and keep the roofline low, the plans were granted permission. “Now, the village is very happy with what has been built,” says Kathleen.

Within the permission, however, the planning department placed several conditions on the project, some of them fairly onerous. The most expensive of these was the requirement that Kathleen remove the top 600 mm of soil across the entire plot and replace it with soil from outside the area. This is a precaution against contamination from old tin and copper mines and is not an uncommon planning condition in Cornwall.

“The impact of removing all that soil, well it was a massive undertaking,” recalls Kathleen, confession  struggles to understand the reasoning behind this requirement, given the agricultural nature of the surrounding landscape. “It’s one of the most unbelievable things I’ve ever seen.”

Rather than put the building contract out to tender, Kathleen turned to a firm she had worked with before, Ridgwells Construction, which is based in Truro, Cornwall.

“They’re an extraordinary team,” says Kathleen. “They’re detail-orientated, reliable and responsible.” She was as involved as possible, and says she thoroughly enjoyed it.

“Designing the interiors and being part of that build process was a real high point of the build for me,” says Kathleen. “I couldn’t be there as much as I wanted to be, but I trusted Ben Ridgwell and his team.”

The house is constructed from masonry to assure structural integrity, given the exposed location and the sloping plot. This required a substantial retaining wall; “a massive piece of construction,” says Kathleen. This is now accessible via steps “planted with mint, which releases scent as you walk.” The Delabole slate isn’t just on the roof, but also side-hung on part of the building, in the traditional Cornish manner. Another section has hardwood rain screening. There’s also a significant amount of stone, which was hand-cut on site by “two of
the most remarkable men,” says Kathleen. “The artistry of it! They used amazing techniques we take for granted; it was a marvellous thing to behold.”

If the build was a high point for Kathleen, the low point was organising the utilities. Tackling drainage was a key obstacle, there being “a maze of pipes and access” for sewage and drains. Kathleen also had to get three-phase electricity to her new home, and this took almost a year to achieve.

“I tried to future-proof by putting it underground to protect it from gales,” says Kathleen, who found dealing with the regional supplier easy. The problem lay in the negotiations with a local landowner, across whose land Kathleen laid her power supply in trenching. While these discussions continued, she had temporary power, “but it delayed us getting into the house for a long time.” Kathleen adds: “It was more costly than I could have imagined.”

Despite having little power and no heating for a year, the house, and its contents – including furniture – did not suffer. Kathleen puts this down to the very high levels of insulation specified by Lilly Lewarne. The home is now heated by two air-source heat pumps (and this was the reason the three-phase supply was required).

Despite having the space for a ground source heat pump, Kathleen rejected this option, seeing it as a “massive intrusion” in the project. She adds further: “On a previous project we went through five drills and I didn’t want to put my neighbours through it.”

The air source heat pumps warm the domestic water for the property,  and heat it via the underfloor heating system. This, combined with superb insulation and air tightness, led Kathleen to install a mechanical ventilation and heat recovery system (MVHR). An ideal way to ventilate energy-efficient, air-tight buildings, the MVHR expels stale air while retaining the energy used to heat the building. This is transferred to the fresh, filtered air which the system circulates continuously.

The glazing throughout is aluminium-framed and provides excellent weather-tightness. This is vital in such an exposed location and aluminium is a popular choice. The inevitable Covid-related supply issues meant the frames were somewhat delayed (although Kathleen describes the supplier, Green Circle, as “fantastic.”) Another hiccup was a mysterious concrete trough found by Kathleen’s builders during excavations in what had been the rear patio of the building.

“It was 4 m x 6 m and no one had any idea what this thing was,” says Kathleen. “It was so huge we had to re-use it on site and integrate it.”

In a build this size, the electrics inevitably become complex, and the variety of lighting fixtures was a major focus of the interior design, managed and installed by the “superb” NSN Electrical. Kathleen specified low-energy LED lights throughout, including a unique lighting system up in the roofline of the vaulted spaces upstairs, which is used to illuminate the walls finished in clay plaster. Kathleen decided against painting or otherwise finishing these walls, preferring the natural colour and texture of the plaster.

“It’s not a flat colour,” says Kathleen. “Light at different times of the day or night looks very different on the walls, it creates a very natural feeling, making it an extension of the outside landscape and that was important to me. This is a modern build, but I insisted we build with traditional materials.”

Like the building design, when it came to the interiors, Kathleen had her own ideas and planned out every aspect of the interior design on a spreadsheet. The kitchen on the upper floor in this ‘upside-down’ home is a stand-out feature. With the vaulted ceilings creating a sense of airiness, the kitchen fittings are all about convenience, ease of use, and beauty. Working with a company recommended by her builders, Kathleen chose cabinetry that looks like sawn wood, contrasted with a countertop made from Dekton composite stone which is attractive and highly functional. The high performance is matched by its carbon-neutral credentials, all of which appealed to Kathleen. The lust-worthy American-style fridge opens with a touch, and the Miele hob on the island has its own ventilation, doing away with the need for an extractor, which can block sightlines.

When planning the interiors, Kathleen turned to artwork for inspiration. With most windows giving outstanding coastal and rural views, Kathleen kept much of the decor simple and natural. Downstairs, the bedrooms and ensuites are cosy with different colours and personalities. All of this makes the perfect backdrop for Kathleen’s art collection. A painting by one of Kathleen’s friends, (which is large at 5 ft by 5ft), takes pride of place.

“Until now, I’ve not had walls strong enough to hold it,” says Kathleen. Even in the garden, a sculptural elephant roams, freed from his original territory in Hyde Park, central London.

“I’ve loved searching out talent and showcasing it,” says Kathleen. “When I travel, I buy artwork, and this house has become a depository.”

The garden landscaping also makes the most of the sea views, with terracing, patios and lawns offering a variety of places to relax and take in the sound and sight of the sea. Kathleen is justifiably proud of what she has achieved with this project.

“This home is beautiful and sympathetic. I used local materials and suppliers, as I believe you must ensure you are giving local people work. That is how economies thrive.”

Kathleen now spends as much time in the property as she can. “This is a really special place,” she says, “I come here with extended family and the beach is safe for kids and dogs. We’re also close to St Michael’s Mount and there are so many gardens nearby, too.”

Kathleen plans to retire here, as she loves it so much. “I can sit anywhere, whether it is sunny or raining, and feel like I am part of the coast, part of nature.” And last but certainly not least, she adds: “There’s so little light pollution, I can see the stars!”