Nicki Hogg’s self-build saw her and her partner go from surprise auction to acquiring a desirable south Devon plot in Hope Cove for their forever home
Text & Images: Ewen Macdonald
It was a chance visit to a fishmongers in Kingsbridge, Devon that brought Hope Cove to the notice of literary agent Nicki Hogg. Her shopping trip ended in more than breakfast when she spotted an advert for a run down postwar bungalow in an estate agent’s window.
Soon she found herself and architect husband Ruairidh in the slightly shabby upstairs room of a nearby pub, bidding in an auction for the South Devon property.
Nicki and Ruairidh, originally from Long Ditton in Surrey, had spent many a happy holiday with their children in the South Hams area of Devon. But after many years staying in holiday homes, the couple were ready to create a forever home.
“I was a bit scared,” she admits of her first time buying a home under the hammer. “I have never been to an auction before. I have friends who went to auctions in London and they were so busy, but there were only two houses being sold. There were lots of people there and I thought we would never be able to buy the house. The auctioneer was delightful; he explained how it would work and it was much less stressful than I imagined. The other property sold first so I was able to observe what happens.”
In the end her only competition was a developer – who dropped out of the bidding quickly. “My husband was telling me to sit on my hands so that I didn’t bid too soon.”
And so, within minutes, they found themselves £160,000 poorer and owners of an uninspiring 1947 bungalow called Penlea which had a great potential, but no planning permission.
“It was an exhilarating experience,” says Nicki. “We knew we had to have it. As an architect, Ruairidh had the vision to design a house that would sit perfectly in the landscape and maximise views in all directions.”
The small village of Hope Cove sits in the South Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and boasts two beaches.
Many of the houses sit on the slope down towards the cove, and the unexceptionable post-war houses are slowly being renovated or replaced with architect-designed, bespoke homes.
Top of the stylish newcomers is Nicki and Ruairidh’s Runic House. Cleverly built into the natural steep slope of the land, the stunning uninterrupted views of the cove and the countryside behind it didn’t come without effort and some seriously clever design.
“There’s about seven storeys between the top of the plot and the bottom of the plot,” explains Nicki. Despite its size and being set across four levels, no part of the house sits above the height of the chimney stack of the previous building on the site.
This design ingenuity is one of the reasons the house passed through planning without a hitch – that and an incredibly helpful planning department, adds Nicki.
Because of Ruairidh’s experience and skills as an architect, he was able to wow the planners with his sophisticated presentation which visualised the whole building – even down to showing where shadows would fall.
“There was a pre-planning meeting with some of the local councillors and Ruairidh had to put together a presentation that shows where the shadows would be, to make it easier for them to see how it would look.”
The house was built using concrete panels which were precast and brought on to the site.
There are only two companies in the UK that do this, and the couple chose Cornish Concrete in Truro. The house itself is clad in copper and cedar wood, and the remaining exterior walls are painted a shade of peach which reflects the vibrant colours used inside the house.
Another element that visitors wouldn’t necessarily notice, but which the couple are proud of, is the frameless windows that were created using the same technique as car windows. “In Grand Designs it’s always the windows that cause a problem,” Nicki laughs.
“The windows are triple-glazed and we had to make sure the window could withstand the wind forces that hit it.”
It’s these kinds of details that have made building their own home such a pleasure. Nicki points to the ceramic tiles that cover the living room floor that continue uninterrupted on to the terrace, separated only by floor to ceiling windows which retract to expose the corner of the living space. The tiles are perfectly lined up to create a truly seamless floor. “It’s the kind of detail that is really important to architects,” says Nicki. “If it’s perfect you don’t notice it, but if it isn’t you keep noticing it.”
The large balcony outside is enclosed by a glass balustrade, and there’s an external spiral staircase here that leads down to the sloping lawns and swathes of wildflowers. A sedum roof visible from the master suite creates another haven for wildlife. “The sedum roof gets lots of wind and grows quite high in the summer,” says Nicki, who has taken some of it to grow in the garden’s rockery.
The four bedroom house is set more on ‘levels’ than actual floors. The floating stairs connecting the levels throughout were designed by Ruairidh. The bespoke metal structure that supports them is almost a piece of sculpture in its own right, and sits at eye level as you enter the house. The front door – which is actually at the rear of the house – opens to a hallway where the eye is drawn up to the mezzanine where a seating area and floor to ceiling disappearing windows enclose the terrace.
Two of the bedrooms have bathrooms ‘in-room’ that sit behind the bed head so you can gaze at the horizon while you brush your teeth. In the master bedroom, the bath sits on its own dais to make the most of the views while having a soak.
Eschewing the white box on the outside, the interior is similarly distinctive. Forget stark white walls or contemporary neutrals: instead these interiors have a vibrant coastal colour scheme that features sunset peach walls and sea blue units.
“It’s fun doing a house from scratch: you can do anything you want! Usually in a house you do one room at a time and have to make compromises,” Nicki explains. “I wanted subtle seaside colours.”
The end result has bespoke kitchen units sprayed turquoise, and several different shades of blue. “Because there’s a lot of kitchen it was always in my mind that I knew it was going to be turquoise: I wanted a warm colour,” she explains. The kitchen also features a built-in bar where the views can be enjoyed. They installed glass everywhere they could, to allow every opportunity for glimpses of the sea and to let that glorious coastal light flood in.
Her favourite element of the build? The master bedroom, she says without pausing. The large window here is framed by a curving wall that was created to reflect the curve of the waves below and the gentle swell of hills behind the house. “Waking up in this bedroom in the morning gives me immense joy; you can look out of the window everywhere you are: even in the bath you can lie and relax and watch the trees growing.”
There were plenty of ‘wow’ moments in the building project, but also a few groans along the way. Decisions sometimes had to be made quickly, 200 miles away from the build, which brought its own challenges. As an architect, Ruairidh is more used to working on commercial properties. For their house he travelled up and down the country many times to oversee the project alongside the builder and project manager. Between the house purchase in September 2013, it was three years later that demolition was completed with work starting on Runic House in January 2017.
“One of the challenges stemmed from Ruairidh being used to working with very high end property and high spec is the norm. We realised that some people don’t have the same vision and attention to detail. Outside was really straightforward, but the interiors required quite a different skill set.”
“We started renovating 12 years ago and it is so different now,” she says of the process.
“Even with the basics of what you put into the kitchen now is totally different.” Their top spec kitchen features a Quooker tap and two dishwashers.
Cutting edge technology controls the lighting, music and heating in each room. The subterranean level houses a plant room where all the technology hides that supports this modern home (there’s also space for a cinema room, adds Nicki).
The house has been created with solar panels and heat pumps to ensure maximum energy efficiency. The most surprising element is that the couple installed a dumbwaiter which allows the shopping to be brought in to the front door. The mini lift goes from the bottom level to the top and can be used for everything from shopping to laundry.
“Because the house was being built from scratch, the pleasure was in thinking about how we are going to do things and considering practical issues,” says Nicki.