An Elevated Deckhouse in England
For such modestly scaled homes, Deckhouses generate a huge amount of affection. A total of 50 were built in the late 1960s and early 1970s at Emsworth Yacht Harbour in Hampshire, England, and each of them is just 538 square feet. These black-and-white cabins on stilts sit in neatly arranged rows within communal parkland, forming a secret enclave by the sea. But despite their off-the-beaten-track location, Deckhouses are hard to obtain; architect Paul Hinkin and his partner, Chrissy Pearce, had to wait for years until they finally managed to buy one for themselves.
"People either love them or hate them," says Hinkin, who is the founder and managing director of Black Architecture, based in London. "They call them Portakabins on legs, or caravans on stilts. We have always loved their simplicity and the fact that they sit in this shared landscape with such a strong relationship to the water. They are cleverly designed and positioned so that they don’t overlook one another very much. It’s all so coherent and consistent."
The houses were originally designed by the British architecture firm Gore, Gibberd, and Saunders and were built in phases beginning in 1965. After spending time in the States working with architect Peter Blake, Vernon Gibberd felt the influence of the mid-century modernist beach houses of Long Island, New York. Rear Admiral Philip "Percy" Gick, a flamboyant character who’d hunted U-boats in a Swordfish biplane during World War II, commissioned the Deckhouses. After retiring from the British Royal Navy, he started transforming a series of old logging ponds into Emsworth Yacht Harbour, managing the work himself and helping out with construction. The Deckhouses alongside the harbor were designed as weekend and vacation homes targeted at sailors, who could store a boat and rigging underneath the elevated body of the buildings and make the most of the Chichester Harbour views. Hinkin and Pearce—who is Black Architecture’s practice manager—grew up in the area and first became aware of the Deckhouses as students. The pair waited and waited for one of them to come on the market but found that they never did; if a Deckhouse did change hands at all, it was sold privately between friends.
Hinkin and Pearce wrote letters asking owners to get in touch if they ever thought of selling. Even then, they had the disappointment of one sale falling through before they finally managed to buy one in 2007. Once the deal was done, the couple found that their work was only just beginning.
Though the outward appearance of the Deckhouses has been carefully preserved—residents must adhere to what Hinkin describes as "a kind of rule book for the estate"—a number of the houses have suffered the harsh effects of the coastal weather.
"Our house was totally unmodernized and in a pretty poor state when we finally got hold of it," says Hinkin. "The balcony frame had just about corroded away, the decking was failing, the cladding was shot, and there was no insulation."
Almost everything in the house was coming to the end of its life, so Hinkin and Pearce stripped it back to its bones and carefully restored the fabric of the steel-and-timber frame, which sits on concrete legs and a cylindrical stairwell that connects the home to ground level. They fitted the building with a new coat of aluminum cladding, rebuilt the balcony, installed solar thermal tubes on the roof for hot water, and added photovoltaic panels to the roof for electricity.
Inside the house, Hinkin and Pearce had to think imaginatively about how to maximize the sense of space and make the most of the limited footprint. The two bedrooms take inspiration from boat cabins, with plenty of custom built-in storage around the beds; the bathroom is also a custom design. The main living space was reconfigured, and the residents replaced the old galley kitchen to one side with a more compact yet open design. Folding back the glass doors to the balcony, with its sea view, increases the feeling of space. The furniture—a tidy catalog of the best of Eames, Saarinen, Panton, and Breuer—comes mostly from the era in which the Deckhouses were constructed.
"When you have small spaces, you need to design them efficiently and thoroughly," says Hinkin. "We were also influenced by some of the compact housing that you see in Japan. Nowhere feels that small here, even though we have only 538 square feet."
Hinkin and Pearce now use the house every weekend and over the summer holidays. Hinkin bought a boat and taught himself to sail, while Pearce has taken up kayaking in Chichester Harbour. They are devoted to the house and its setting.
"Elevated houses make such good sense," says Hinkin. "They give you space to tuck your boat or car underneath and help you really exploit the views over the landscape. The Deckhouses were well conceived, and it’s amazing that nobody has redone it in the UK. It really feels as though the idea should be reused."