To the light house – Trelas, St Ives, Cornwall

Located in St Ives, Trelas takes its name from the Cornish word for homestead – but this house is more than that. Built on a steep and skinny strip of land, it’s a light-filled feat of engineering and architecture overlooking one of the UK’s most sought after locations.

The stunning Cornish harbour of St Ives offers a lifestyle many of us dream of – endless light (thanks to its peninsula position), a picturesque harbour that has remained largely unchanged since the days of Poldark and golden, sandy beaches at every turn.

So it is perhaps unsurprising that every morsel of land here is snapped up for development – prompting the occasional outcry that these land grabs will ruin the very charm that buyers seek to enjoy. This concern reached fever pitch this year when residents voted overwhelmingly in favour of a ban on second homes.

But one of the newest – and possibly now last – second homes on the block is Trelas, a clever piece of subterranean architecture that clings to a tall, skinny, steep slice of south-facing land high above the picturesque harbour.

Completed in April 2016, Trelas is the future full-time home of the Green family. Currently calling Sheffield their home, Sara and Stuart and their children Alice, Tom, Joe, Sam and Jack began their journey to fulfil a life-long dream of creating a permanent abode in this idyllic slice of Cornwall back in 2012.

Sara had grown up on stories of St Ives’ charms as her uncle had been evacuated there during the war. Coupled with this was Stuart’s long-held dream of building his own house. But they got on with the business of family life and the dream may never have been realised if it hadn’t been for a disaster: in 2012, Sara was diagnosed with a life-threatening illness. The family consequently moved more than 350 miles south west and rented a house in St Ives while she underwent chemotherapy. It was here that their dream began to take shape. From the window of their rented accommodation, Stuart had spotted a plot of land for sale – which he later discovered already had planning permission.

“It seemed as though it was meant to be and the thought of spending time rehabilitating in the magical, spiritual place that is St. Ives was just exhilarating,” says Stuart.

The ups and downs, steep alleys and sharp turns of St Ives creates notoriously awkward spaces that means few houses sit on naturally level ground – and this piece of land was no different. “We knew from the outset that this would require an ingenious design,” explains Stuart. “Our vision was for a clean, modern, open-plan style. We realised that this wasn’t going to be a conventional design, and knew that much of the accommodation would have to be subterranean to fit everything that we needed into the space available while meeting the height restrictions.”

Local design knowledge
Recognising the need for an architect with local knowledge, the family turned to Chris Strike of St Ives-based RA Design.

“Long before we purchased the plot, we set out to find a professional who we were confident would share our vision for the development and guide us on the journey,” says Stuart. “Chris met all our requirements, and was able to accommodate four bedrooms, three bathrooms, lounge, kitchen/dining room and utility room over three stepped levels naturally following the contours of the hillside.”

He adds:

“We wanted to be sympathetic to the feel of the local area; Chris proposed a green roof section that would create a pleasing, nature-friendly softening of the building when viewed from the top of the site.”

Their first delay came in buying the property, which took almost a year.

“There was a section of wall at the top of the plot belonging to a house opposite that would have to be removed if we were to have vehicle access for construction and to subsequently allow on-site parking for two vehicles,” Stuart explains. “After multiple surveys, structural engineering calculations and many design iterations we were finally ready to go to tender by autumn 2014.”

Managed at a distance by Stuart to help keep the costs down and shelter a still recovering Sara from unnecessary stress, building work finally began in early 2015. The next issue encountered was access. Deciding against the option of a crane – which would cause massive disruption to the neighbouring homes – the builders came up with an ingenious solution.

“We approached the owners of the garden adjacent to the plot and came to an agreement with them to use their land for access during construction in return for landscaping it at the end of the project,” explains Stuart.

Further delays occurred during the build: construction work had to be halted after a badger sett was discovered close to the site to allow a survey to be carried out by environmental experts. Only when the sett turned out to be abandoned could work begin again, until the famously inclement winter weather of Cornwall contrived, with the steep gradient of the site, to cause a landslide. And despite the careful planning, they had to deal with other unforeseen construction issues that required structural redesigns along the way.

In the end Stuart worked closely with architect Chris Strike who acted on their behalf.

“We came to an arrangement with Chris that he would act as our eyes and ears for the project, visiting the site regularly to confirm that work was proceeding to plan and being done correctly.”

Clever design
The finished house is incredibly clever, set across three storeys of varying sizes to anchor it to the natural sloping landscape which boasts a gradient of around 25 per cent. Parking sits almost level with a sedum roof that tops the light-filled atrium on the small top floor where a door leads to the only room on this level – the first of two master bedrooms with an en suite.

The middle floor has the largest floor space and houses three bedrooms, a family bathroom and the living room. The bedrooms have double height ceilings to access light wells and internal windows from the light-filled top floor as well as Velux windows in the sloping roof operated by touchpad controls in each room.

The living room sits at the southern end of the house and features a sloping ceiling rising to double height with four Velux windows set into the beamed ceiling, which Stuart likens to an art gallery. But the main feature here is the picture window, the width of the room and  taking in a panoramic sweep of the town.

A simple colour scheme throughout the house ties the three floors together with white walls, engineered oak floors and varying tones of grey in the decor – from black chairs in the kitchen and a charcoal sofa and cushions in the living room to the grey feature walls and light grey sheepskin rugs in the bedrooms, wool throws on the bed and silver-grey tiling floors of the family  bathroom and around the kitchen units.

The bottom floor houses the kitchen/diner and a small utility room. Here the main attraction is once again the view: the dining area features full width bi-fold doors that can be opened out to encompass a glass encased sun deck and create one continuous space. Despite the extreme gradient of the ground, landscapers cleverly used wire cages filled with local granite to retain earth, while providing a natural look and feel. A gate leads down to the second storey garden where an outdoor shower and two built-in storage rooms offer space for water sports equipment and beach paraphernalia, as well as providing structural support for the extended sun deck above. At the bottom of this final level, there are stairs down to an alleyway that leads directly to St Ives harbour.

When the Green family are not there, Trelas is rented as a holiday let to help pay for the cost.

“We spend as much time there as our finances allow,” admits Stuart.

On the self-building experience, Stuart admits:

“It is not for the faint-hearted. Firstly, assume that the project will overrun in both time and cost. And for it to work well it really needs to operate like a partnership with the architect, builder and interior designers, so it’s essential to find people who you can trust.”