Soul mates Dan and Nina move to Chichester and take the plunge, with an ambitious plan to build a three-storey, warehouse-style house suspended over a natural swimming pool.
The Grand Designs episode on Channel 4 features a couple who swap their house in London for a tired 1930s house in West Sussex – on a vast plot which is also home to the community drainage pond.
An architect and an interior designer, the pair are determined to separate the pond into a hidden overflow basin for the neighbourhood and a natural swimming pool for their two little girls, Isla and Lexie.
But it is highly complex and fraught with technical architectural pitfalls. Presenter Kevin McCloud sums it up: “For centuries architects have known how to exploit the rather wonderful relationship between buildings on the one hand and water on the other…and when introduced they dance,” he says.
“But the relationship can also be toxic and corrosive, as water can be the worst enemy of an architect. It can be like a narcissistic lover that could destroy a building,” he warns.
The danger lies in the separation of the ponds, by a concrete bunker. What was swamp-like, in Dan’s finished vision, will be a natural but landscaped swimming pond with crystal clear water. This will be achieved, hopefully, through a complex filtration system and thousands of aquatic plants to make it clean enough to open the kitchen window and dive straight in.
“The worst case scenario is that we have blue algae, which is toxic,” Dan reveals to Nina early in the show.
Money is tight too. From savings, a house sale and the potential remortgage of a rental property, they have budgeted £650,000 to build the three-storey warehouse-like structure. This will be connected by a glass link, over the pond, into a lighter structure to house the kitchen. That part of the home has been designed to give the illusion of a floating island.
Plans reveal that the building itself will be clad in Siberian larch running horizontally and vertically to add texture. The entrance will open into a triple-height hallway with a glazed, leaded wall directly ahead looking onto the water beyond. Above will be two hanging balcony walkways linking the bedrooms and studies for the couple, who both run their own business.
Dan and Nina are under the cosh to move the girls out of the damp and crumbling main house, which they plan to knock down. The impending deadline throughout the show is the race to build the house and make it watertight before the rising water table of the new pond gets there first.
But they have another time pressure too. Dan’s father is dying of leukaemia and they want him to share the project before he passes away. A multi-skilled farmer who taught Dan to build a wall and drive digger, his dad advises down the end of the phone.
The family want to “swim with the frogs and snorkel with the newts” in their new biodiverse, floating home. But with little experience creating ponds or even building brand new homes, are the couple out of their depth?
Just a few months into the project and Dan loses his dad and building ceases for four weeks.
Further down the line, just as he gets his focus back, the remortgage loan falls through as their rental property is down-valued – which the couple put down to Brexit. They now have £100,000 to spend on a £650,000 build and have to put their flat-to-let on the market for sale.
It’s their last piece of security and eventually it sells to just about cover the cost of the scheme. They have to think creatively with light shades made out of rolled sushi mats and there’s a scene where Dan is trying to build a plinthe by torch-light in the middle of the night.
At one point, three years into the work, McCloud inspects the site. Although the house is built and showing great promise, the pond is murky. “This all rests on the pond now,” McCloud says to Dan who is busy bedding the perfect ecological mixture of aquatic plants to balance the nutrients in the water to make it clean and clear. Each individual piece of watery foliage is so important that the pair spend £10,000 more than the budget allows on pond plants.
When finally the floating house and natural swimming pool are finished, it seems to be a fusion of natural pond and Ibizan infinity pool with steps leading down into the sparkling and translucent waters.
McCloud praises the spiral staircase in the house which is wrapped in light wood and weaves up to the blue sky overhead like a beautiful beanstalk. “It looks like a sculpture,” he says.
But does this life-changing, environmentally-enhancing building come with a hefty price tag? The couple went £8,000 over in the end.
“We had to make our money work really hard,” says Dan. “It’s taken its toll but it’s here now and will give us so much more back.”
Of course McCloud asks him, “and what would your father say?” “It’s funny you should say that. I’ve seen so much more of my father in me in this process than ever before,” he replies.