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Shingle House

Location
Kent
Size
Sleeps 8

Shingle House is designed by Scottish practice, NORD (Northern Office for Research and Design) and situated on the shingle beach of Dungeness, near Romney Marsh, one of the most unusual and poetic landscapes in England. 

About The Architecture

Architect – NORD

NORD (Northern Office for Research and Design) was founded by Robin Lee and Alan Pert in July 2002. In 2005 the co-directors were included in the Architects Journal exhibition ‘40 Under 40’ at the Victoria and Albert Museum. The exhibition showcased the best young practices in the UK.

As a Glasgow-based practice they created an outstanding set of buildings and were interested in the tactile qualities of architecture and finding simple and elegant solutions to complex problems. NORD is no longer operating.

The site in Dungeness is challenging; it is Britain's only desert, a shingle wasteland punctuated by hardy, brightly coloured plants and exposed to extremes of sun and wind. The beach is home to a peculiar assortment of buildings and activities: fishermen's houses and huts, lighthouses, a miniature steam railway and a nuclear power station.

NORD has embraced the extremes of the location. Their 'Shingle House' is a dramatic sleek black building made from stained black timber shingles and boards. Inside a polished white concrete fireplace is surrounded by comfortable seating, with views out onto the shingle beach beyond.

Shingle House responds perfectly to the geography of Dungeness, and the changing environmental conditions of the site throughout the seasons. It is a building, which can open up to expose the views but it can also close itself off from its surroundings on cold winter nights. NORD's careful selection of furniture and materials and the application of detail make for a perfectly-designed and carefully crafted object of practical beauty.

Interiors

The interior of the house mirrors the apparent simplicity of the all black exterior – timber boards are bleached white, and set against a white concrete central core. This neutrality is offset against an unusual, naturally coloured purple timber floor (Purpleheart). The white timber boards are in two widths, 100mm wide on all walls and ceilings following a north to south direction, whilst the opposite direction have a board width of 75mm. The setting out of these boards has been meticulously detailed to ensure continuity throughout all the spaces.

NORD has not overlooked any detail of the house, from the Shaker inspired pegs inset around the walls of each room, to the door and tap handles fashioned from either Purpleheart or ebonised black hardwood, to the brass sinks and the careful selection of switch plates and accessories. The shower house basin has been cast as black concrete, with white cast concrete being formed to create the kitchen work surfaces and floor. The furniture, lighting and fabrics have been selected to give the interior a contemporary eclectic feel whilst keeping in mind the scale of the house. NORD has consciously varied the scale of rooms in the house, keeping the intimacy of the original cottage for the bedrooms, along with the more open spaces for communal eating, drinking and socialising.

Taking advantage of the roof space within the main house, NORD created a small bedroom and bathroom ‘in the eaves’ and a small mezzanine seating area; a restful space overlooking the main sitting room below, and giving elevated views across Dungeness through a large ‘picture’ window.

Facts

  • Completed 2010
  • Footprint 177 sqm
  • Plot – approximately ½ acre
  • Structural timber frame around a central concrete core
  • Cedar shingles and sawn larch exterior cladding
  • White oiled tongue and groove panelling internally
  • Solid purpleheart timber floors
  • Pre cast and in-situ white concrete

Contents of the house

Much of the furniture and lighting comes from European manufacturers. If you’re taken by any of the designs and would like to have one in your own home, please don’t hesitate to contact us at info@living-architecture.co.uk and we can let you know more.

Kitchen and dining room

Keramik dining table – designed by Bruno Fattorini, produced by MDF Itallia www.mdfitalia.it

 Basel Chair – designed by Jasper Morrison, produced by Vitra www.vitra.com

Pendant Lamp A110 – designed by Alvar Aalto, produced by Artek www.artek.fi

Cushions and pouffes – designed and fabricated by Aellson www.aellsonproducts.wixsite.com

Kitchen equipment – by David Mellor Design www.davidmellordesign.com

Sitting room

Boyd sofa – designed and produced by Russell Pinch www.pinchdesign.com

CH25 lounge chair – designed by Hans Wegner, produced by Carl Hansen www.carlhansen.dk

Slab coffee table – designed and produced by Tom Dixon www.tomdixon.net/

Side Cabinet – designed and produced by Schubladen www.schubladen.de

Mabel sofa – designed by Donna Wilson, produced by SCP www.scp.co.uk

Lean standing light – designed by Orsjo

Potence wall light – designed by Jean Prouvé, produced by Vitra www.vitra.com

Rugs – designed by Hay, from SCP www.scp.co.uk

Mezzanine

Mabel sofa – designed by Donna Wilson, produced by SCP www.scp.co.uk

Riley armchair – designed by Russell Pinch, produced by SCP www.scp.co.uk

Nest of tables – designed by Ercol, produced by Ercol www.ercol.com

Cushions and pouffes – designed and fabricated by Aellson www.aellsonproducts.wixsite.com

Rugs – designed by Hay, from SCP www.scp.co.uk

Bedrooms

Bed frames – designed by Nord for Shingle House www.nordarchitecture.com

Bedside cabinets – designed and produced by Schubladen www.schubladen.de

Bedside lights – Lean wall light designed by Örsjö www.orsjo.se

Bed linen – in Egyptian cotton by Peter Reed www.peterreed.com

The making of Shingle House - a short essay by Steve Rose (2010)

"Dungeness is at its best in the golden light of summer. The black house turns gold and casts a shadow that nearly touches the sea. The pale shingle reflects the light long after the sun has set behind the power station, turning the pink to bone. Twilight here is like no other. It lingers in a perfect calm. You feel as you stand here that tired time is having a snooze."

Derek Jarman

Dungeness takes hold of people. Visitors often say it feels like another country — a discovery, a lost world, a place that Britain forgot to draw within its borders. It also feels like another time. Even a place outside of time, as Derek Jarman observed, where the stream of history no longer flows, leaving nature and entropy to slowly take their course.

 The mysteries of Dungeness invite decoding. How did it get like this? What, even, is it? It doesn't fit into any of our standard categories. It is not urban or suburban or rural. 'Village' sounds too grand a term for its dispersed sprawl of settlements. Nor does it resemble the rest of the British coastline. Technically it is a desert, and one of the world's largest expanses of shingle. To the unprepared eye, though, it presents itself as a landscape of incongruity and contradiction. Is it a nature reserve or an industrial wasteland? Why is there a miniature railway running next a nuclear power station? Why are there no fences or hedges? It could be a post-apocalyptic ruin, or perhaps a movie set of one.

 We know this an illusion; that Dungeness is not outside of "civilisation", or at least only a short drive from it. But most of us prefer the illusion. Derek Jarman certainly did. The artist film-maker first chanced by the place when making his 1986 film The Last Of England. In its most memorable scene, Tilda Swinton cuts up the wedding dress she's wearing and throws the snippets into a bonfire on Dungeness beach. Jarman bought Prospect Cottage soon after, and was diagnosed HIV positive later that year. The proximity of the nuclear power station and the poetic bleakness of the landscape doubtless chimed with his own feelings of vulnerability and decay -- both personal and national. The chances of surviving AIDS in the mid-1980s were very low and the end of the epidemic was nowhere in sight. Furthermore, this was the year of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, and the UK was nervously reassessing its exposure to nuclear risk. Dungeness was the last place tourists wanted to visit.

But Jarman also found that sense of "perfect calm" in Dungeness. It was a place for reflection and solitude, an escape from his hectic London life, and a final resting place: he is buried in St Clements Church in nearby Old Romney. If tired time was having a snooze in Dungeness, though, Jarman inadvertently stirred it from its slumber. He had no intention of constructing his famous garden when he arrived but his magpie mind never let up. Almost instinctively he began combing the beach and arranging his findings into sculptural arrangements. He experimented to see which plants took hold in the shingle and the climate. Jarman's material transformation of the Dungeness landscape was mirrored by a cultural reconfiguration of it. Particularly via his 1990 film The Garden, a kaleidoscopic collage of queer and Biblical imagery. Dungeness’s coastal plain becomes an abstract dream-space, with Prospect Cottage serving as both an Eden and a Gethsemane. Inevitably, after his death in 1994, Dungeness became Jarman’s pilgrimage site. Even in 2014, there were coach trips to Prospect Cottage to mark the 20th anniversary of his passing.

 With its new-found popularity and cultural cachet, Dungeness was presented with a familiar paradox: The more popular the place became, the less "special" it was in danger of becoming. Eventually it could end up being neither. The response to such concerns is often to identify and protect those special qualities and Dungeness has been no exception. As home to migratory birds, rare insects and more than 600 plant species, Dungeness falls under an array of regulatory protections. It is a National Nature Reserve, a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest, a Nature Conservation Area, a Special Protection Area and a Special Area of Conservation. In addition, it is an architectural and historical Conservation Area. As such, it is practically impossible to move a pebble, let alone build a house, in Dungeness without navigating a dense web of restrictions and permissions.

 These mechanisms serve to fix the Dungeness landscape, to dam it off from the stream of history. But this in turn presents another paradox: the romantic, semi-ruined Dungeness we see now evolved with no such controls. It evolved accidentally, organically, chaotically, almost lawlessly at times. That is its character. To stop the clock and prevent anything else from happening is to deny that character. Yet any new intervention threatens to radically alter that character. There is a fine line between enlightened conservation and stifling paralysis.

 On the geographical scale, time is not standing still at all in Dungeness. This 'cuspate gravel foreland' -- to use the technical term -- did not even exist as recently as 2,000 years ago. It was formed by changing sea levels, coastal erosion and deposition and storms, and those processes continue to shape the coastline. The number of lighthouses attests to this fundamental instability. In addition to the two existing lighthouses, there have been five previous ones since 1615. As the shingle built up and the sea retreated, so each became too far inland, and another had to built nearer to the shore. According to some estimates, the land could be returned to the sea in as little as 200 years.

 Apart from the lighthouses and a handful of other buildings, little of what stands at Dungeness today predates the first world war. In the 17th Century, the only recorded structures on the peninsula were fishermen's cabins. By the 19th century the land belonged to local aristocrats the Tufton Family. It was then acquired by British Rail, who built a branch line to Dungeness. When that closed to the public in 1937, Dungeness was sold to the Paine family. Up until 1985, residents were only permitted three-month leases, prohibiting the erection of permanent structures, including fences. Railway workers took to using old train carriages and makeshift huts as "temporary" beach houses, but gradually, these evolved into semi-permanent homes. The settlement steadily expanded by an accumulation of add-ons and lean-tos, of scavenged or second-hand materials and amateur builders, all under the radar of planning or building regulators. It attracted those seeking a similarly under-the-radar existence. In addition to the fishing families that had lived there for generations, Dungeness became home to a community of artists, recluses and semi-criminals.

 The law changed in 1999, and 99-year leases were finally made available to residents. Anticipating a wave of construction, extension and enclosures, Shepway District Council took steps to designate Dungeness a Conservation Area. Its appraisal of the neighbourhood states: "Superficially, few of these buildings - nearly all of them houses - have intrinsic architectural interest in a conventional sense. Instead they endow this natural canvas with the physical manifestations of ‘individualists’ escaping the torments of the outside 'civilised' world,’ a quirky, sometimes charming evocation of eccentric, independent ideas, and healthy disrespect for authority."

One such "individualist" residing in Dungeness at the time was Mark Robinson, Living Architecture's director. Robinson is one of what you might call the Jarman generation. Drawn to the area over the years, he has had a home there since 2005.

Robinson's Dungeness connection was immediately seized upon by Alain de Botton, Living Architecture's creative director. "From the start I said to Mark, if ever any house comes up in Dungeness, it would be the best place," de Botton says. "One of the missions of Living Architecture was to get people to holiday in unconventional places and to see beauty in unconventional ways, not just in the standard lyrical, pastoral England but in something that might be considered ugly. The thing about Dungeness is, a lot of people love the place, but there's actually nowhere to stay. People might go on a day trip there from London, but there are no hotels, no shops, nothing around."

So Robinson kept his ear to the ground. In addition to the regulatory forces preserving the Dungeness landscape, there is the added factor of its long-term inhabitants, who tend to be resistant to outside influence. It is not a large place; some 80 dwellings and population of a few hundred, many of whom are descendants of three or four fishing families. Very little happens here without everybody knowing about it, and few properties come up for sale. Living Architecture's intention was to acquire a run-down property that could be replaced -- building an entirely new structure was out of the question. But for several years, those properties that did come up for sale were not suited to Living Architecture's purposes.

Pearl Cottage, also known as 'The Smokery' to locals, was one of the oldest houses in Dungeness, dating back to the 19th Century. Its very position, set further back from the road than its neighbours, attests to its age; at the time it was built, the shoreline was far higher up. Everybody knew who lived at Pearl Cottage: Jim Moate, a retired fisherman who still smoked fish on the premises and sold it from a small shop -- The Smokery -- at the weekends. "I used to buy fish from him every Saturday," says Robinson. "That's how I got to know him over the years. He had been there for about 50 years but didn't have many friends left in Dungeness itself. He wanted to pass the house on to his children but they weren't interested. He was thinking of moving to Portugal, so was looking around as to what to do with it."

Age aside, Pearl Cottage was a fairly typical Dungeness construction. The original structure was a wooden one-and-a-half story timber fisherman's cottage -- a single room, with net loft above, accessible by an external ladder up to a door at first-floor level in the gable end (Jarman's Prospect Cottage has a similar feature). The only solid element to the house was the brick fireplace, hung with myriad brass ornaments. A lean-to kitchen had been added at the back, facing onto a small garden. Close by were three small timber outbuildings: a garage for Moate's two vintage cars; the smoke house, and the shop itself -- barely wider than the sliding aluminium patio doors that fronted it. The entire property was in a state of disrepair. Robinson made Moate a generous offer for the property, and after a few months’ deliberation, he sold in late 2007.

Next came the task of finding an architect. Living Architecture had not yet launched publicly at this stage, but the initiative had projects under construction: Norwegian firm JVA was designing the Dune House, up the coast in Thorpeness; Dutch architects MVRDV were working on their Balancing Barn, further up the coast in Southwold; and British architects Michael and Patty Hopkins were starting on the Long House in north Norfolk. For the sake of contrast, Living Architecture sought a relatively young British firm for Dungeness. One of a handful of such practices they had their eyes on was the Northern Office of Research and Design, or NORD.

The Glasgow-based firm had arrived on the scene in 2002 with the wind already in their sails. With his previous practice, Zoo Architects, NORD's founder and director Alan Pert had converted a 19th century Glasgow tram depot into the Tramway, a popular contemporary arts venue. The project won the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland's Grand Prix and Best Public Building awards in 2001, and Pert won the Scottish Design Awards Young Architect of the Year the same year. NORD went on to build more striking, inventive, award-winning structures, including an all-timber extension to a Glasgow sawmill built entirely from the facility's own stock, and a church annex refurbishment that virtually transformed it into a new building with a new exterior of smooth, black concrete panels.

NORD did some outstanding housing, too. Their Bell-Simpson House extension in Strathblane, for example, is a simple pitched-roof block wrapped in a homogenous skin of brick, but with expanses of glass in unexpected places across its walls and roof — almost a foretaste of the Shingle House. The practice's work is characterised by elements of deep enquiry into not just craftsmanship and materials but also context and history -- the "research" element of their name is more than an affectation. They're both hands-on and highly academic. "One thing about our work: we enjoy going backwards," says Alan Pert, who divides his time between practice and teaching architecture at the University of Melbourne in Australia. "We enjoy uncovering places and telling the story of a place through the building. Someone summed up our work recently as 'strangely familiar but curiously new'. There's something comfortable about it but you don't quite know where it's going."

Given that sense of curiosity, it was inevitable that Dungeness would cast its spell on Pert. He had actually visited Dungeness before, partly drawn there by Jarman's Prospect Cottage (back when Jarman was still alive), but also to see the "Black Rubber Beach House", designed by Simon Conder. Completed in 2003, Conder's house was an imaginative, low-budget refurbishment of a typically run-down Dungeness shack. Its striking black rubber cladding and appealing timber interiors attracted attention from the architectural press at the time.

Pert remembers very well the first time he revisited Dungeness with Mark Robinson: "I was wearing a pair of brand new leather shoes and the weather was terrible so they got ruined. Mark took me to the house he was renting at the foot of lighthouse, and he apologised for not having a porch, saying 'you kind of need them here'." Looking down at his ruined shoes, Pert made the first of many mental notes.

Over the coming months, Pert and project architect Mark Bell found themselves "metaphorically dismantling the place”, seeking answers to Dungeness’s mysteries. They treated their preparatory investigations like an archaeological survey. They excavated the local history as far back as they could. They noted the visitors who came there: birdwatchers, scientists, artists, photographers, film-makers, London day-trippers. They mapped out and analysed every structure, every dilapidated shed and industrial relic. They documented the architectural vernacular: windows, roofs, shingles, timber frames, lofts, ladders, chimneys, porches. They recorded textures, materials, patterns, forms of corrosion. They recorded the seasonal flora and fauna and, of course, the weather patterns. They soaked in the atmosphere and regularly got soaked by the atmosphere, too.

Like Jarman, NORD were also struck by the way time has its own rhythms in this parallel reality: the tides, the elements, the lighthouses, bird migrations, even the schedule of the miniature railway. "It became a bit of a strange obsession, Dungeness," Pert admits. "We were so caught up on this fascinating place, it was getting to the point where we didn't think we could design anything there.'"

The outcome of NORD's initial survey was not a design, in fact. Instead, they produced a giant collage-like booklet, tracking a year in the life of Dungeness through photographs, quotations, maps and observations, taking in everything from fish-smoking to the constellations. At this stage, NORD were still one of a number of architects in the running for the project, and Living Architecture had not disclosed its identity to them. All Pert knew was that it was a private client seeking to build a holiday home. When NORD then received the commission, Pert was slightly mortified to discover one of his clients was de Botton, whose work he knew well, particularly de Botton's 2006 book The Architecture Of Happiness. "I'd sent our booklet to a printer and got a few copies printed," Pert recalls, "but we hadn't proof-read it all that thoroughly and there were quite a few typos in it. So it was pretty embarrassing giving it to a writer!"

"They do like making booklets," Mark Robinson confirms, recalling Living Architecture’s response to their NORD's initial proposal — or lack thereof. “They presented to us and we said, 'Great but it doesn't really tell us anything. You've done a nice analysis of what Dungeness is, but we already know that. Develop it a bit more'."

NORD came to a solution soon after: to replicate the forms of the existing structures as faithfully as possible, and somehow fit a four-bedroom holiday home within them. Dungeness's stringent planning guidelines left little leeway, anyway: a larger property, or one radically out of context, would never obtain planning permission. As well as the appropriate scale and context, there was something innately aesthetically appealing to NORD about building a cluster of structures, rather than one big four-bedroom house.

This line of thinking is almost antithetical to "modern" architectural conceptions of space as free-flowing, open-plan, neutral to the point of clinical. But a clustered arrangement was far more in tune with Dungeness's own haphazard vernacular: the notion of things being added to over time, just as those early settlers might have slept, cooked and lived in a single shack, then later added on a kitchen, and later still a bathroom. The arrangement suggested a separation of discrete domestic rituals: sleeping, socialising, cooking, eating, bathing. Pert cites French novelist Georges Perec, who entertained a similar notion of atomised domesticity for his home in Paris, imagining having his living room in the Latin Quarter, his study close to the Champs-Elysées, his bedroom in Montmartre and his bathroom in Ile de la Cité. Could each of the Shingle House’s activities happen in its own space? NORD even proposed retaining the function of Jim Moate's smoke house, envisaging that occupants could smoke their own fish during their stay. There could even be recipes to follow.

Another key reference for the Shingle House was Scottish artist Nathan Coley, Pert explains, particularly his 2002 piece I Don't Have Another Land. It is an architectural model of the Marks and Spencer department store in Manchester -- a tall 1960s commercial block which was destroyed as a result of damage from an IRA bombing in 1996. Coley's model is entirely painted black. It becomes a paradox: a memorial that takes the same form as that which it commemorates. A presence that marks an absence, even as it negates that absence.

Inspired by Coley, NORD took a model of the existing Pearl Cottage buildings -- which were primarily brick and faded timber -- and spray-painted it black. As with Coley's piece, the ramshackle group of buildings took on a different aspect: "The blackness suddenly reinforced the significance of the four adjacent structures, and instead of representing decay they were reinvented as bold, abstracted geometries acknowledging the past life of the site."

Pert admits to having developed a slight obsession with black: "It might be something do with, when I was eight or nine years old, I visited a Singer sewing machine factory in Clydebank, just outside Glasgow where I grew up. One of the most amazing memories was watching the japanning room, where they take all these components and blacken them [by applying a thick lacquer varnish and baking in ovens]. There were so many different blacks!"

Many of NORD's buildings have a black, Coley-esque quality to them. At the time, the firm was also working on an electricity substation for the 2012 Olympics site in east London. From a utilitarian brief, NORD produced a sculptural, modestly monumental composition in black brickwork, referencing the area's gritty, industrial past. It became one of the most acclaimed buildings on the site (Pert notes with some satisfaction that some of the power lines from Dungeness nuclear power station pass through this substation). Black was also very Dungeness, though. It chimed with the tarred boats and fishing huts, the lighthouse, Jarman's Prospect Cottage, Conder's Black Rubber Beach House.

So having "dismantled" Dungeness, NORD began to reassemble their findings into a piece of architecture -- one that would encapsulate the architects' experience of the landscape, and honour what existed there before. Their design also had to fulfil the demands of modern visitors and meet modern environmental standards. With careful planning, a building on the footprint of the original cottage accommodated a living area facing the sea and three double bedrooms to the rear, with a fourth bedroom and supplementary living space on the mezzanine level. Moate’s little shop became the bath room, and his garage a kitchen and dining room.

NORD also took a cue from Derek Jarman's writings on his garden, particularly a passage about his fig tree, which could only grow in a small, sheltered corner of Prospect Cottage -- the one place out of the wind. Mark Robinson echoed the sentiment: "Having lived there, I knew what the seasons were like. You want shelter all the time because it's always windy. So you want to create as many nooks as you can. Most people in Dungeness tend to use their house as a shelter, and move around it according to the sun and the wind. So we wanted something in the round. A lot of the brief came from me saying, 'Think about these things.'"

Hailing from Glasgow, NORD were no strangers to extremes of the British climate. They knew everything needed to be robust and weatherproof. An outside patio area was desirable, so NORD proposed strong, pivoting shutters that could bolted into varying positions, or closed up entirely according to the wind patterns. They adapted window fixtures from high-rise buildings; strong enough not to be blown shut. And, as Mark Robinson had advised, the house needed a porch. In fact, it became an inverted porch: a slightly elevated entrance area between the buildings, sheltered from the wind -- much like the nook where Jarman's fig tree grew.

Given the weather, guests could not be expected to go outside to move between each structure. A discreet glass corridor would link the three buildings into a continuous space while preserving their visual independence. This corridor evolved into an organising principle for the design. One of the features that had struck the architects about the original Pearl Cottage was the solid brick hearth: the primitive focal point of a dwelling. "If a strong wind took Jim Moate's cottage away, you'd imagine the hearth would still be left," Pert says. It was logical to anchor the new building with a similarly solid hearth. That became a structural core of white concrete, incorporating the stairs to the mezzanine level. This concrete element then runs across the shingle to form the floor of the glass corridor and the entrance ramp, then rises up to form the kitchen surfaces, and sinks in the main bathroom.

There was another local condition the Shingle House would need to contend with, almost as problematic as the elements: planning permission. Knowing the area, Mark Robinson knew it was going to be a tough call. Dungeness's infamous wariness of change augured a battle to persuade residents and the local planning committee. Jim Moate's house was one of the oldest in Dungeness, after all. But like the Ship Of Theseus, it had been repaired and modified and added to over its 150-year existence to the extent that very little of the original structure remained. When they later dismantled Moate's shop, it turned out to be the back end of a refrigeration lorry, simply set on the ground and clad in timber. What original structure did remain was riddled with damp and all but beyond repair.

None of which deterred some locals from campaigning against its demolition. More than 30 letters of objection to the proposed Shingle House were sent by the local residents' association -- from a place with 80 houses. "They wrote some harsh letters complaining that this scheme would ‘ruin Dungeness’,” says Robinson. “They even had people write in who lived abroad, or who'd once visited Dungeness. This was before Twitter or anything. It was a well-orchestrated campaign.” Seeing the type of complaints being submitted was instructive, both in gauging the true level of antipathy (most of the letters came from just 10 households) and in firming up Living Architecture's counter-arguments ahead of the critical planning vote.

In the meantime, there was also Natural England to satisfy, this being a Site of Special Scientific Interest. There were hoops to jump through concerning environmental impacts and protection of wildlife, right down to the safe relocation of lizards during the clearing of the garden. Both Natural England and the local planning officer handling the case were helpful and cooperative on the whole, says Robinson, but their stipulations occasionally bordered on the absurd. They objected to NORD's concrete spine connecting the three main structures, for example, on the grounds that it would be covering over small patches of precious shingle. This despite the fact that Moate’s garden featured a lawn, a poly-tunnelled plant nursery and a small pond and crazy paving. The area that would be concreted over amounted to 11 square metres, Robinson pointed out, whereas the area of new, natural shingle Living Architecture would be creating amounted to over 300 sq m. It was a process of give and take.

Another concession Living Architecture was happy to make was Moate's smokehouses -- the small building, detached from the Shingle House proper, which now contains the mechanical and electrical plant. The planning officers acknowledged that there was no value in preserving Pearl Cottage as whole, but they insisted the smokehouses be retained, despite their negligible architectural worth (Moate had built them himself). They were oriented at a slight angle to the other buildings, and NORD wanted to bring them in line with the rest of the plan, but the planning officers insisted, somewhat perversely, that the angle had to stay. In return for winning the fight to take down the rest of the house, Living Architecture conceded that battle.

The real test, however, was the public meeting in Folkestone where local councillors would vote on the proposal. It was sure to be well-attended by the community's naysayers, and therefore heated. "I decided not to speak because I didn't want to draw any more attention to us," says Robinson, now something of a planning-meeting veteran thanks to his time with Living Architecture. "I was sat by the back so I could make a quick escape." Sure enough, the first speakers, several of whom were from Dungeness's fishing families, denounced the scheme, making now-familiar 'ruination of Dungeness' arguments. Robinson quietly tallied the likely 'for's and 'against's. It was looking like seven to six against. "But with all planning committees I've learned: the shouters always do their shouting, and the others sit and wait for them to finish. And then it started to turn and people said, 'Well, actually I'm not sure what's wrong with this.’” The Shingle House’s defenders, the local planning officer and Natural England’s conservation officer among them, argued that NORD's scheme was designed to the highest standards, and scrupulously sensitive to the context. It became clear that many of the objectors had not really studied the proposal in detail.

The conservation officer might have tipped the balanced when he asked the objecting councillors whether any of them had been inside Jim Moate's house in the past 20 years. They hadn't. He testified that it was run-down and riddled with damp, and that there was nothing there to save. The final vote was seven to six in favour. Robinson had done a year's worth of preparation, in close cooperation with the planning and conservation officers, and it had paid off. "If they understand where you're coming from, what you're trying to achieve, and think it's a sensible approach, they are willing to support you,” he says.

Work began on the Shingle House in late 2009, and although there were challenges to building in Dungeness's particular conditions, they were at least of a practical, surmountable nature. Simply digging a hole in shingle is an arduous operation, owing to its inherent instability. The hole needs to be three times larger than required since the shingle caves back into it. Such a hole was required at the front of the house, when the building regulators sprang a surprise demand late in the day for a larger septic tank -- approximately the same size as the house itself. There is no surface water or foul drainage system in Dungeness, so all houses must have septic tanks, (the surface water simply drains away into the shingle), but the Shingle House warranted an extra large sealed tank, it was deemed -- so large that the house itself was in danger of tipping into the resultant hole.

On a design level, at least, the Shingle House integrates itself so well into the fabric of Dungeness, prospective visitors have been known to drive straight past it. Between its homogenous skin of black cedar shingles (vertical boards on the east and west facades), its unobtrusive scale, and its distance from the road, the house does not shout above its neighbours. And yet, on closer inspection, its large openings announce it as a design apart. Particularly the square picture window on the upper storey of the east facade -- where the door to the net loft would have been in the original cottage.

The difference becomes more apparent as you enter the house. Merely ascending the concrete entrance ramp and being raised 30 centimetres above the shingle alters your perspective of the landscape. The dark exterior gives little hint of the bright, white interior. It is not a particularly large house, but the spaciousness is subtly accentuated though the paleness of the colour palette, the abundance of natural light, and the openness of the spaces. All the available height beneath the pitched roofs has been used. Even the widths of the vertical wall planks contribute to the effect -- they are 25mm narrower on the walls running north-south, thus 'stretching' the house visually.

Despite the large openings, the Shingle House is not over-transparent. The courtyard area, with its pivoting screens, closes off entirely. And while there are French doors and full-height windows in virtually every room, there are also smaller windows punched into the facades, framing aspects of the surroundings and preserving privacy within. The letterbox slot in the dining room, for example, which affords a widescreen panorama of the horizon when seated. Other openings frame details of the surroundings: the lighthouse, Jarman's cottage, the miniature railway. The vertical slats across the bathroom 'hut' also enable views from inside while acting as a screen from the outside. Poetic as it was, the black-concrete sunken bathtub proved unfortunately impractical: it allowed for a novel eye-level view across the shingle outside, but the bathwater never stayed hot for long enough. It has since been replaced with a shower.

Living Architecture gave NORD some latitude with the interiors. They designed many fixtures themselves, such as the door handles. The furniture choices are mix and match: some salvaged, reupholstered pieces, others by early modernists such as Jean Prouvé and Alvar Aalto. There's a simplicity to the house: uncluttered, functional, light, tactile. The aesthetic is somewhere between nautical, railway carriage and Shaker, without verging on pastiche. Some precision joinery was required in order to align every vertical wall plank with every floor plank, door panel, and even bathroom tile.

Again, NORD picked up on cues from the surroundings for the interiors. The brass fittings, for example, are an homage to the brass ornaments around Jim Moate's fireplace. The floorboards are purpleheart -- a durable wood with a distinctly purplish hue -- in honour of the local viper's bugloss, a plant that flowers a bright purple in August, turning Dungeness into a purple haze for a brief spell. NORD's use of purpleheart also inspired a range of Purpleheart furniture, in collaboration with Scottish furniture maker John Galvin and Wallpaper magazine. Pieces included a bed, a sideboard, the Shaker-style pegs and a free-standing bird box. It exhibited at the Milan Furniture Fair in 2011.

The Shingle House has been one of Living Architecture's most popular destinations, enabling more visitors to experience this isolated corner of Britain. And as intended, it is more than just a nice place to stay: it also questions what's become the accepted logic of domestic design. "I think there's always something pleasurable about finding the ordinary layout is a bit disturbed," says Alain de Botton. "And people live in it slightly differently as a result. You might want to hang out more in the kitchen. You might bathe together as a family. That's part of what we're always trying to do with Living Architecture: to slightly stir people out of their habits."

Has the Shingle House changed the nature of Dungeness? Almost certainly. The influx of visitors is unlikely to have made an impact, but the introduction of a contemporary piece of architecture into such a place has inevitably had repercussions.

NORD produced a unique design that took inspiration from its unique context, but ironically, the Shingle House is in danger of becoming a template, perhaps even a Trojan horse for subsequent new houses in Dungeness. There have been a few, and none of them experienced the level of planning resistance the Shingle House did, Robinson notes, partly because they can point to the Shingle House as a precedent.

More worrying is the way some of the new houses seem to take their design cues from the Shingle House. The most conspicuous example is North Vat, which consists of two Monopoly-house-shaped forms, clad in a seamless skin of black timber, with a haphazard arrangement of windows, and accessed by a concrete ramp between them. From a distance it could almost be mistaken for the Shingle House.

There's also the Pobble House, designed by Guy Holloway. It does not mimic the Shingle House directly -- it is clad in larch, cement fibreboard and rusted Corten steel mesh, but it does comprise of three, interlinked units, again, each of a stylised Monopoly-house form, with square windows punched haphazardly through them. Simon Conder has also built a second house nearby, whose design is very different to his Black Rubber House, and less successful, it must be said. It is ostensibly built around one of Dungeness's original railway carriages, but the carriage has been reduced to an internal feature, entirely enveloped by a curving, flat-roofed form that looks somewhat out of place. It seems to get wrong everything the Black Rubber Beach House got right. Could it be that an unintended consequence of Living Architecture's project has been to pave the way for inferior architecture? Have NORD's efforts to distil the essence of Dungeness merely created aesthetic that's easy to mimic.

"Dungeness has never been a static place," says Robinson. "It's always been evolving. There's been an influx of people over the past 200 years, and each generation has changed it, fixing things up, rebuilding. We're just the next generation.” Despite having fought to bring something new to the landscape, Robinson still feels protective of it. “That's the question for Dungeness: how should it evolve? And I find myself quite emotive about it. Dungeness is about individuality. If we're just going to start putting up homes which follow the same aesthetic as the Shingle House, then it somehow diminishes it."

Alan Pert is a little more sanguine about the Shingle House's impact: "I like the fact that it's a building in time as well as in a place. It's a building that sits at that point where it represents the past and the future in Dungeness. Somebody can come in and reinterpret that in totally different way, or just borrow it, and I think that's quite interesting."

In its own way, Dungeness is a testing ground for a national debate. Many other areas of Britain are facing similar, difficult choices about how to intervene progressively in landscapes defined by heritage and history. These qualities should not be taken as absolutes, argues Alan Pert. "It gets back to that notion of 'neighbourhood character'," he says. "It's defined by someone. Someone goes out and does a study and says, 'I think the neighbourhood character is this.' They see it as something from the past rather than something that's evolving." Both defining the past and envisaging the future are, ultimately, acts of imagination, in which architecture has a crucial role to play. "The notion of evolving heritage is really key, for anywhere. That acceptance the character of somewhere changes over time. You've got to allow for evolution and change."

Press cuttings

NORD found inspiration in the context of Dungeness – in its history, fishing industry and role as a nature reserve. But architecturally, the Shingle House is much more ordered and significantly larger than any other house in Dungeness. Such a highly controlled response is typical of the practice’s continued exploration of the poetry and rhetoric of Functionalism, and the climatic extremes at Dungeness have helped NORD to take this further.

Felix Mara, Architects' Journal, March 2011

These details evidence a clearly legible architectural narrative at work, in keeping with de Bottons didactic programme. One gets a feeling that such things have been designed for residents to dwell on, to provoke musing on a door handle, or spark reverie on one of the individually sourced vintage bedside drawers… But, despite the overarching nautical and railway themes at work, such games never descend to pastiche.

Building Design, February 2011

Whatever the weather - and the weather is considerable here - a perception-changing sleep or two in Dungeness is highly recommended.

Henrietta Thompson, Wallpaper, March 2011

The shed shapes allow the architects to carefully articulate the changes in the plan and to meticulously mould the space inside with a series of double pitches, giving each room a carefully tailored volume… Living Architecture aims to promote modernism just as the Landmark Trust promotes heritage, but there still remains, apparently, a deep need to make things look housey. Good thing too – this one looks the best so far.

Edwin Heathcote, Icon, August 2011

Forget any preconceptions about coastal architecture, Shingle House at Dungeness is dark, dramatic and soulful. Designed by young Scottish firm NORD, the exterior is finished in tarred black shingle and inside it’s all concrete and timber. Dungeness has a mysterious beauty and this house is the perfect way to enjoy it.

The Independent, May 2013

The Shingle House is a smaller thing. It won’t change the world. But then again it’s not trying to. It’s merely saying: this is what is possible. That beauty is possible. A self-contained, quiet, not-very-shouty beauty. Sometimes there’s nothing wrong when architecture shouts. Now and again, it can whisper too.

Teddy Jamieson, The Herald Scotland, April 2011

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