It was Easter Sunday morning in 2003 when our lives (mine and my wife’s, who is also my business partner) underwent a radical change of circumstance. We’d not long been home from a six-month documentary shoot in Los Angeles and were enjoying our island-based home on the Thames near Hampton Court. We’d built the timber house on an empty site to complement the existing older buildings on the “Eyot” some ten years previously, and had just finished completely re-fitting it and redecorating inside and out.
A chalet on a river island – be careful what you wish for!
Our close neighbour had a timber house too, filled with junk he’d accumulated over many years – think a river-bound “Steptoe & Son” environment, without the old cart horse Hercules but with many swans and Canada geese, which he used to feed daily. So, a tinderbox waiting to go up, with extension cables and adapters running all around outside his house. That weekend it was unusually hot, dry and windy, and something, probably a blown fuse or circuit, sparked a fire, which spread with terrifying speed through his property and on to ours.
We were just waking up, heard some crackling but thought nothing much of it, as there were many birds in the gardens near to us noisily trampling down dry vegetation to make their nests for the Spring. But as I was getting up to make coffee, there was already a strong smell of smoke, so I opened the back door onto a path that ran between us and our neighbour, only to be confronted by a wall of flame. Suddenly, there was the sound of sirens, and already, boats of other islanders were shooting across to the park opposite us. Bear in mind this was an island with no bridge, boat access only.
Escape from the flames
The next thing we knew was that an entire corner of our house was already burning fiercely, the side facing the Westerly wind, which fanned the flames. Within about ten minutes, several firemen came bursting through our French doors facing the river and told us in no uncertain terms that we had to “get out NOW.” Grabbing a couple of heirloom objects that we knew might be lost, and my wife having the presence of mind to sweep up our passports and wallets, we left the house to be ferried across to the safety of the park. There we stood, watching our home and our neighbour’s home being destroyed within an hour despite the best efforts of crews from eight fire tenders showering the site with jets of water from hoses slung across the river.
We (and our neighbour) lost pretty much everything. We knew we had insurance; he did not. To their great credit, our insurers sent a loss adjuster down to us on Easter Monday to give us emergency advice and funds to rent suitable accommodation and buy clothes (bear in mind we left in the clothes we’d hastily put on) and very little else. It was not only very traumatic but dramatic and bizarre, not least going to our local shopping centre to buy basic clothing and other essentials. We felt a little like the Terminator in the opening of those movies where he arrives on Earth unclothed and has to “obtain” clothes immediately.
Where to start again?
Where to start re-building some sort of life again? It was a very odd experience but strangely liberating, despite having lost many valuable items and very personal possessions, many of which told the stories of the lives we’d experienced over many years.
Ho-hum. So, apart from the practicalities, we had to decide what to do about the house. The site was cleared by bulldozer down to the foundations, so we were faced with starting over by building another new house (for the second time) while still paying the mortgage on an empty site. But what an opportunity to create an exciting new home, once we’d got over our anger at the insult of having to apply for planning permission to rebuild our home. We’d always been interested in house refurbishment and extension and had fixed up a few homes in previous years but never a sophisticated new build from the ground up, apart from the timber home we’d just lost.
Safer insulation for a timber house?
But how? Another wooden building? Recreate what could have literally been the death of us, or build something new, with greater security from natural hazards and better insulation, but still with the beauty and character of the old? The last timber house had intrinsically been a fire hazard. The fibreglass insulation had contributed to the intensity of the inferno, and we had been deluded into thinking it was energy efficient, overlooking the fact that our monthly heating bill was £60, a lot for barely 70 square metres (about 690 square feet) considering that this was in 2003, long before the energy crisis. We didn’t think so, but nonetheless, what a wonderful challenge for new ideas, both aesthetic and practical. Many people dream of owning timber “chalets” or timber framed houses, but I have to say, based on terrible experience, be careful what you wish for …
This is the first of a series of articles from Philippe Bassett about designing houses with better insulation.