10th September 2018

Taking Shelter

Chalk’s very own co-founder and director, Damon Webb, opened the doors of a very personal project which was recently featured in the Telegraph Magazine.

Article by Hannah Newton and Photography by Claire Worthy

 

IN THE SECOND WORLD WAR, hundreds of bombed-out civilians were housed cheek by jowl, bunk to bunk, in Nissen huts across the country. Records of these camps from the 1940s are almost non-existent. Their only legacy, apart from memories, are the rusting corrugated steel shelters; structures designed to house large numbers, that were quick and easy to construct and repeat at scale.

 

Living in a Nissen hut was not on the bucket list for architect Damon Webb, co-founder of Chalk Architecture, when he began to tire of the fast pace of life in the south east. He was yearning for an escape into nature, to balance his busy career with a more self-sufficient home life; and his daughter Bella, her husband James and their daughter, Olive, felt the same. Their idea to live together on a smallholding was mutually beneficial: Bella and James couldn’t afford anything with land and Webb did not have the time to run a property by himself. Together they began to look at smallholdings in the south west. When the intergenerational team came upon their future home, land and outbuildings in the hamlet of Waen – Welsh for moorland field – in Powys, the Nissen hut in the yard was incidental; they barely noticed it, and gave scant thought to its future use. But, after clearing it before their first Christmas there, Webb decided to escape to the hut to give the rest of the family more space during the festivities. And he found he liked it.
‘I really appreciated the shape, two-thirds of a cylinder, strangely like a vaulted church,’ he says. ‘It was such a calm space, with a simple geometric form; it was the complete antithesis of the family home and my working life – a relief from all that.’ He gradually started to move his things in.

 

Webb studied history of design at Brighton Polytechnic in the late 1980s but decided on architecture after listening to an inspiring lecture by the
architect Michael Blee. He has built a career creating contemporary, sustainable urban architecture and interiors for upscale brands including The Ivy and Oliver Bonas, yet the aesthetic in his current home is one of total simplicity, stripped of the clutter and detritus of midlife.
Webb has grown to love the paredback nature of the hut, the form of its vault and the fact that everything he owns is visible and close to hand. It is entirely open plan, with nothing built-in. He has used his furniture to define the space, which is centred around the wood-burner: essential for the long, wet Welsh winters, when he has to get up during the night to keep it fed. ‘The hut is elemental: it creaks in the wind and you can hear every raindrop,’ he says. ‘As it is in the yard, I can hear the ducks clucking in the coop and the cockerel at 5am. It is surprisingly cool in the heat and reasonably warm in the winter.’

 

The lack of wall space for hanging clothing, pictures or hooks is, for Webb, an advantage, allowing him to declutter almost entirely. And in the last 12
months he and James have built a small shower room and kitchenette from marine plywood, despite the constrictions of the curved roof.
Meanwhile, family life has shifted from their original vision, as Bella and James have had another child. Otto was born in the Nissen hut last year and is quite possibly the first and only baby this century born in a military hut designed to accommodate people displaced by a war fought last century –
but, it proved to be the perfect open space to house a birthing pool. The living arrangement is a harmonious one: the three generations share meals and cook together in the main house, with Webb able to retreat to the sanctuary of his hut whenever he pleases. Olive and Otto let themselves in
in the morning to draw and paint at the table, and he sends them home when he needs to work.

 

Their joint vision of creating a sustainable home life is maturing as their animal numbers swell and the produce they grow expands. The shared living
allows Webb to return to Brighton for work, while Bella and James look after the animals and the land, exchanging the workload when Webb returns.
Feeding the animals and baling the hay afford him the contrast and freedom he sought to unwind from his hectic working life.
‘It’s good to be around the grandchildren, to give them space as they grow,’ he says. ‘We all wanted a different experience, and we have that.’