Designed for Living

When I first visited Richard and Sophie Hawkes' house last July, it primarily existed inside Richard's head. The foundations were in and the ground floor concrete had been poured, but otherwise, the house was yet to be built. At that time, Richard, an innovative young architect was almost fizzing with energy and excitement. He could hardly finish talking about one aspect of the design, before he was racing off to find another sample of revolutionary new material. Then, the project very much seemed to be his. Just five days before our visit, his wife Sophie had given birth to their son Oscar, so it was quite understandable that she should be slightly less engaged in the interview, but this time, although it is Richard and Oscar (now wriggling and smiling) who meet me at the door, it is Sophie who takes me around the house and it is clear that she has put her own creative stamp on it too.

The house is visible from some distance at the moment. Richard has planted trees to soften its impact, but they have not yet come into leaf, so the shape of this remarkable building can be clearly read. The most striking and talked-about feature is the vast clay arch that spans the width of the building and will shortly be planted up with native wild flowers and grasses to form a "green" roof. One of Richard's central ideas was that the house should be like a "hide" or an old-fashioned camera, with the glass-walled master bedroom emerging from its "hood" like a giant lens.

Our first visit last year also came just a few days after Kevin McCloud and the Grand Designs team had been filming, so it was interesting to see, when the programme was broadcast in March, that the famously honest presenter had obviously caught some of Richard's enthusiasm and was greatly impressed.

The couple, too, are very happy with the finished house, though it may still change; flexibility was always part of the design, the idea being that the house could be adapted to the family's changing needs. The ground-floor wetroom was designed with wheelchair access for when the couple's parents got older and less active, or indeed for Richard and Sophie, in time, too.

Many of Sophie's ideas were already incorporated in the design of the building, but it is in the interiors that she has really been able to exercise her creative skills. Almost all the furniture has been newly purchased because when the couple moved from their 16th century timbered house, they sold most of its contents too. "Because Channel 4 were coming to film the moment the building was finished, we had to order pieces before we could actually move in," says Sophie.

Several things have changed for the couple since we last met. Last September Richard left his job at a prestigious London firm of architects and launched his own practice. He has been busy ever since and the telephone constantly seems to ring for him during our visit. Sophie, too, has changed direction, leaving her job in the City to consider new projects, one of which is to turn her interest and obvious talent for interior design into a business.

We begin our tour in the kitchen. A quietly modest space, it is refreshingly free of flashy gadgets and simply designed for its purpose. There's a door to the garden and Sophie tells me that they plan to create a herb garden in a kind of circle of raised beds around the house. So not only will it supply the kitchen, but also mark the edge of the living space and the beginning of the more meadow-like, wilder garden and orchard beyond. There is a delightful group of gnarled old apple trees to one side, that the couple took pains to preserve. Sophie says she hopes to have a clay oven there and a table beneath the trees for informal meals.

I notice that almost every room has a door to the garden and yet, one of the main features of this house is the idea that it should be a kind of "air-tight" structure, leaking little or no heat into the atmosphere. How does that work if the doors are left open? "Oh, people think that we can never open a window or door," laughs Sophie. "The insulation is superb, so in the colder months there's very little heat loss, but in the summer, there's no reason why we can't have doors and windows open. When the doors are shut, the air within the house is being mechanically changed all the time, so it's much fresher than conventional homes. Really, the only reason we need to keep the kitchen door shut is to prevent our naughty French hens from coming in!"

We enter the living room from the garden. Almost three sides of this room are constructed of glass. A classic 1928 Le Corbusier leather chaise-longue makes the most of the view. There is a huge, modular sofa covered in dark brown hessian and on the wall above it, a photograph of autumnal maple trees adds fiery reds and oranges. A low, long sideboard conforms to the cool, contemporary style, but the splashes of hot colour in the collection of 1960s orange Penguin paperbacks and ornamental red glassware adds a surprising note of cosiness.

Back in the hallway, the height of the clay arch is impressive, but again, because of its colour, it feels warm and benevolent. At one end of the bow is Richard's study, where files, axonometric drawings and paper models testify to a busy working life. This room could in future be opened up to the kitchen, to make one big family room. At the other end of the arch is the dining room. The fact that this is a separate space is something of a surprise in such a modern house, but Sophie feels that they have the best of both worlds. "I like the fact that we have a dramatic, dedicated dining space, but there are no doors to cut it off." The flooring on the ground level is the same throughout. It's a special product that Richard sourced from South East Coatings in Faversham and is made up of tiny pieces of recycled glass suspended in resin. It is highly reflective, but unlike stone, is warm to the touch.

The curve of the stairs echoes the main arch and the wooden handrails and recycled scaffolding tubes are linked to the steps by tensioned ropes from Chatham dockyard. Upstairs light floods in through the only north-facing window. Either side of it, smaller interior windows "borrow" light to illuminate the guest and family bathrooms. Richard was adamant that he wanted really luxurious bathrooms and he hasn't compromised. The family bathroom, in particular, has the feel of a five-star hotel. The bath water cascades in a faultless sheet from a wide chrome tap and in one corner of the room an ivory leather chair adds to the feeling of a relaxing spa. "This chair is amazing," says Sophie, as she transforms it into a full-length daybed. With the muted lighting and sheepskin rug on the floor, the invitation to relax is almost irresistible.

There is a guest bedroom at either end of the roof arch, and one has its own shower room. At first glance, the bedroom seems completely open to the landing, but then Sophie demonstrates one of the clever tricks of this house. The guest bathroom has an unusually wide door that swings across the landing to seal off the space, thus creating a private suite.

So fond of their ablutions are this couple that the master bedroom actually has a bathroom in it. "I like to talk to Richard when I'm in the bath," laughs Sophie. The couple once stayed in a South African lodge with a freestanding bath in the room and fabulous views of the wilderness beyond. The experience was clearly a formative one, as here, too, they have vast floor-to-ceiling windows. "There's so little light pollution that we can take advantage of the night skies," explains Sophie. "We love to wake with the daylight and go to sleep looking at the stars."

When I wrote about this house last year, we called the article Building the Dream. It's a bit corny, but it seems fair to say that we should now revise that to Living the Dream.

Richard's project has been shortlisted for the Grand Designs Awards 09. Grand Designs Live is taking place until 4 May at ExCel London. To contact Richard call 01580 895106 or visit

  • words Claire Tennant-Scull
  • pictures David Merewether
  • styling Lucy Fleming