Andy & Nicki dreamed of living by the river. They already had a house in Henley-on-Thames, so were on the spot when a ‘unique’ opportunity came along to buy a plot on the select ‘Lock Island’ in Marlow. It was unique in that, while no vacant ‘plots’ were available, an old fashioned 1920’s bungalow was. “Ideal”, they thought, for their Self-Build home.

Sandwiched between similar bungalows close to the boundaries on either side, it was also squeezed into a small area of the Island itself. This small spot of land was reached only on foot over the loch gate bridges and a narrow one metre pedestrian access that wound its way between other neighbours.

UK's First Amphibious House

It was tight, and it was cramped, but it did have direct frontage to the River Thames on the opposite side to the Lochs. At last Andy and Nicki had found their dreams, so they bought it. It only remained to get planning permission to demolish and rebuild the bungalow, although this proved far from easy, in more ways than one.

With the local planners indicating that permission would only be given for something ‘special’, BACCA Architects were retained to work their magic. This consisted of a large hole just inside the plot, but covering most of it, into which was poured a waterproof concrete tank. Inside this a further waterproof ‘hull’ was formed. Set only 150mm inside the tank walls, this was connected to sliding ‘dolphins’, allowing it to rise up and sink down as water from the river flooded into or out of the tank. Mounted on this was a lightweight timber frame house, to be provided and erected by us, specialists in working with such sites and unusual buildings.

‘Flooded’ was indeed the operative word, when, in the downpours of early 2014, the Thames burst its banks engulfing both the excavations and the digger that had made them. This had been floated across the river on custom adapted pontoons from a compound in a field on the opposite bank. Intended as the route for delivery of all materials, this was held on short term licence from the farmer, who was disinclined to extend the licence period, regardless of delays caused by the floods.

With the distinct possibility that material would have to be moved over the lock gates and down the narrow and tortuous alleyways on purpose designed bogies, Benfield ATT’s technical department returned to the drawing board to turn architectural concepts into practical, deliverable, buildable components. Needless to say, they was very much an iterative process, with adjustments and adaptations being made by them to facilitate safe fabrication, delivery and erection, while at the same time respecting and honouring as closely as possible the architectural design ethos and features.

In the event, NRJ Project management, on behalf of Andy & Nicki, were able to secure a costly extension form the farmer which allowed the river crossing to be used. Never-the-less, the technical provisions and small component elements, whilst requiring considerable know how and expertise for and in fabrication, greatly facilitated delivery and subsequent erection within the time scales originally envisaged.

With BACCA charming the planners, this single storey environment was enabled to take a three storey house. Moreover, it does what it was intended to do. It floats up and down as the river dictates. It truly is unique design, for an exceptional site. And while its realisation demanded exceptional collaboration and ingenuity, it has become something of an icon for what Self Builders can do.

The project has won ongoing plaudits from the architectural profession and was featured on TV’s ‘Grand Designs’ programme.

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