Owning a deckhouse by the sea had always been one of our lifelong ambitions. The Summer of 2020 triggered a chain of events that led to our dream becoming a reality.
We were walking along Emsworth Harbour when we spotted a row of strange looking white cubes in the distance. They almost looked like they were levitating above the harbour, little snow coloured boxes floating above blue waters on the scraggy coastal edge. We knew we had to investigate further and what we found was a community of monochrome deckhouses on stilts. Nestled on the harbour, these icons of the 60s have marina and harbour views, or are surrounded by gardens, reclaimed and tamed by man.
My hubby, Mr C and I fell in love with them at first sight and we knew in that moment that we had found our idyllic coastal retreat. The trouble was we had to get our hands on one! That afternoon we had lunch at The Deck restaurant close by the deckhouses. We asked the friendly waitress about them and she told us we should speak to a guy that owned one of them.
It just so happened that the gentleman she was talking about was coming out of his deckhouse as we walked back to our car. We plucked up the courage to say hello. Just by chance the deckhouse next door had been advertised for sale privately on the deckhouse community website. We inquired and within a month we had our own little black and white box on the harbour.
Emsworth Yacht Harbour was originally a tidal mill pool. Water used to enter through gates where the eastern entrance to the harbour now is. A mill used the water at low tide. Later, the pool was used as a log pond by a sawmill and timber yard nearby, which eventually became disused.
The retired Rear Admiral Philip ‘Percy’ Gick bought the old logging ponds in 1964. He had a dream of transforming them into a beautiful yacht harbour and marina.
To attract new customers he commissioned the architectural firm Gore, Gibberd and Saunders to design and construct a series of fifty deckhouses on stilts. Each house would have space underneath for a boat and a car and would also enjoy mooring rights and a boat slip. They would be set in communal gardens and many would face the sea, the marina, or both, like our deckhouse.
The deckhouses were originally designed as sailors’ weekend and holiday homes. They were not allowed to be continuously occupied throughout the Winter. Now, of course, owners are allowed to live there full time and many do. Others use them as weekend retreats or holiday lets. As far as I know, these deckhouses are the sole example of homes originally built specifically for the sailing community. Architect Vernon Gibberd was the main influence on the design, after having worked on something similar in California. I’ve searched high and low to find the American inspiration, but to no avail.
The cost of constructing the fifty homes came to £210,000 and started in 1965. The first seven were constructed close to the marina itself. Our deckhouse is one of those. Each house has four RSJs, cased in concrete, which form the black pillars you can see in the photographs and raise the houses above flood level. In some parts of the site, supports had to be driven fifteen feet into the ground to create adequate footings.
These pillars support a steel ring beam, which is also encased in concrete. The rendering under the deckhouses was originally lime mortar on a metal mesh, designed to be a fire barrier from vehicle combustion. The floor, wall and roof structure is made of wood and were originally insulated with polystyrene in the walls and wood wool within the roof.
We will be stripping our deckhouse back to the wooden structure to insulate the walls with a modern equivalent. The floor and roof of our house has already been re-insulated. The exterior cladding on the first seven homes used either fibre cement board and some included asbestos. We are waiting to hear the results of a test to see what our cladding is made of. The later 43 deckhouses used enamelled aluminium boarding or plastic with a permanent white finish. We will be replacing our cladding with powder-coated white aluminium.
The windows were originally black in colour on the outside. Unfortunately, many of the owners replaced these in the 80s and 90s with white uPVC. We will be replacing our white plastic windows with black powder coated aluminium frames to be as close to the original as possible.
Entry to the deckhouses is via a ground-level curvaceous rectangular vestibule, which in my mind, gives these homes their distinct 60s character. It was the thing that attracted me to them the most. I particularly love how the exterior black wooden curves are in stark contrast to the crisp, white, angular boxes above them. Inside this lozenge-shaped entrance is a utility area and a staircase leading up to the main living quarters.
Each deckhouse has one large bedroom and a smaller bunk bedroom. We are in the process of moving a couple of the internal walls, robbing Peter to pay Paul, to create two good double rooms and a good-sized bathroom. This is achieved by taking space from the cupboards in the kitchen area that house a water immersion tank. We will be replacing the tank with an instant hot water system.
The living room and kitchen/diner area measures 19ft x 14ft 3in. This leads onto either a balcony at the front of the house or a side deck. Ours has a large side deck with views over the marina and harbour.
I started researching these homes, partly to equip myself with as much knowledge as possible to start the renovation, but also to write this article. I knew you guys would want to know as much information as possible!
In doing so, I came across a few articles about the deckhouses, which proved invaluable. The first was a piece by Stefi Orazi on the website: Modernist Estates. This article provided incredibly useful information and old photos of the development. Stefi was also kind enough to send me electronic copies of a mention of the deckhouses in June Park’s ‘Houses For Today’ book of 1971. The book shows a photograph of our row of deckhouses being built.
Another article was published in Coast Magazine in 2010 – I have a printed copy of the article, but I can’t find it online. Another was in Dwell Magazine in 2009 with photography by Timothy Soar. You can still read the Dwell piece, but I believe it requires a subscription. Both magazines featured the late architect Paul Hinkin of firm Black Architecture and his partner Chrissie Pearce, who purchased a deckhouse back in 2007.
Inspired By A Previous Renovation
They set about transforming their holiday home adhering strictly to the guidelines set out in the DeckHouse Owners Handbook. All the deckhouses are leasehold with leases that can be extended. The free-hold of most of them is owned by Philbourne Ltd, ours is owned by Emsworth Marina. The handbook is extremely useful and provides, in detail, exactly what can and can’t be done to the exterior of the 43 homes within Philbourne’s ownership. We are not strictly governed by these guidelines, however, we do plan to stick to them as it matters a great deal to us that the integrity of these iconic buildings is preserved. Of course, any major external change would require planning permission anyway.
Inside the deckhouse the leaseholder has much more free reign. Paul and Chrissie used lots of tricks used in yacht design, clever cubby holes and stainless steel to reflect the light. I particularly love the mirroring of the entrance vestibule’s curved black wooden cladding inside the house. They used it to great effect above the staircase.
I would dearly love to replicate this, but I believe they would have had to remove the cupboards that sit above the staircase in between the living room and master bedroom. There is so little storage, I’m afraid we wont be doing that. However, there is an option to create a black wooden-clad curve further up the stairwell.
The photographs of Paul and Chrissie’s harbour home inspired me a great deal. Their use of monochromatic tones was second to none. They made their home feel larger by keeping to a simple colour palette of black and white, mirroring the exterior.
We very much plan to follow suit, although we won’t be following the 60s vibe with the furnishings. Instead we will be bringing in some rustic Scandinavian/Nordic vibes. We will use rattan pendant shades, soft, natural materials and vintage wooden pieces. The floors will be painted white and will contrast with black painted wooden furniture. Some of the natural coastal elements from my master bedroom makeover in 2020 will be incorporated – see this article for more details: Master Bedroom Makeover – Part One.
Paul’s life was tragically cut short in August 2014. Timothy Soar, his friend and photographer of Paul and Chrissie’s deckhouse, said of him: “He was a unique and singular man. Passionate about sustainable design and passionate about people. He was a thought leader, an innovator. His understanding of the complexity and subtlety of environmental architectural design together with his tenacity, generosity and charm, made him a formidable champion of this tough and demanding technical speciality.”
“In the Deckhouse he combined the latest ideas with sensitive and thoughtful design, ensuring a response that still retained it’s original character with a new and improved purpose. Architects of Paul’s talent and strength are few and far between. Emsworth was fortunate to be blessed with two great architects – Vernon Gibberd and Paul Hinkin.”
As I’m typing this paragraph, we are just about to make a final decision on the main contractor for our deckhouse’s external renovations. Almost everything internally will be done by yours truly and my ever-capable hubby. I’ve also just instructed a carpenter that just happens to live in one of the deckhouses. I’m a true believer in serendipity! Lockdown has made it difficult to get started, but hopefully by Spring we will be well on our way.
Thank you to everyone who contributed towards this article.