THE PERSONAL CONNECTION
For many including me, Sri Lanka is a land rich in history both indigenous and colonial. Falling in love with a beautiful yet neglected old house was the first step in re-connecting with a past from a very young age living in Colombo and being joined at the hip to my still working Civil Engineer grand father. I remember the lush green of the countryside, eating Sri Lankan ice cream along the seafront and running around with bells on my ankles (although I suspect this was so my family could find me when I frequently went awol).
Maybe that is why I feel so at home – those deep rooted memories from my childhood are of a bygone era, and yet even in modern Sri Lanka traditional ways of life abound…
Fishermen’s boats are everywhere, they go out fishing twice a day and through the night. Southern Sri Lanka has coastline teaming with brightly coloured boats.
Out of the towns and cities, houses are nestled in amongst paddy fields and cinnamon plantations, and sunsets produce literally golden beaches.
The railways were a huge employer in Sri Lanka and the network is extensive with some beautiful coastal journeys to be explored. Train rides – 2nd and 3rd class only on this particular line below – can be cheap, it cost 30p to travel for half an hour on the slow train between Galle Fort and Weligama. You may not want this as your daily commute, but it’s a captivating way to travel and look at the scenery at your leisure.
As much as I go in for all this historic charm Sri Lanka is very much in the 21st Century. Funky beach bars and restaurants line the sands – the southern coastline is apparently one of the best in the world to learn to surf. The sand is so soft underfoot, waters are shallow, seas warm and waves manageable. Note that at certain times of the year the currents are strong and learners should keep out of the water.
It’s as easy as 1-2-3?
Reconnecting with the motherland was a decision made easy. We were shown this lovely but derelict building on it’s own land just 5 minutes walk from the beach, and fell in love with it.
Of course it’s not that easy to snap your fingers and buy a property abroad but I will skip through the bureaucracy and money part.
Since taking it on, like many projects of this nature even in London, there is a fine line between keeping your big girl’s pants on to complete the dream and panicking as costs accumulate which can affect decision making. When pockets are only so deep, compromises have to be made.
Having bought a building because of it’s history and period architecture, we were disappointed to hear that the house would not stand up to the planned extension work with it’s existing walls which were ridden with rising damp and decay (more than initially thought). Agreeing to demolish the building you fell in love with is pretty painful. However, every original roof tile, every window and shutter and every door were carefully kept aside and stored for re-use, and only the walls were destroyed.
My first site visit post demolition was in February. I was sent images of the site and it was a real shock to see the empty plot. Luckily our builders had the foresight to chalk out the original footprint so I could get a sense of proportion. There had been no initial intention to pull down the house and there was never any question of changing the designs after doing so, therefore the builders had managed to chalk out the interior layout too ahead of our discussions.
I was asked to be available on a specific date with two very specific times in mind for key ceremonies to take place. These ‘auspicious’ times were chosen by others outside of the build team as the times when symbolic ceremonies could take place.
I arrived on site at 7:30am on the appointed day to find the entire build team waiting for me – a table had been laid with various flowers and fruit and two monks were there, ready to pray for and bless the site. (I was surprised)
At a very specific time just before 8am I was asked to ‘break ground’ with an axe at the point where the foundation stone would be laid. The hole was then prepared and two hours later, again at a specified time (not a minute before or after), I laid the foundation stone. My participation was symbolic – the stone had been blessed by the monks and was laid at a deep point on the site believed to carry the most weight in the structure – the blessings were for a successful, and happy project. The ceremony marked the beginning of the build proper, and it is not something that every builder in Sri Lanka goes for. Our team had taken it upon themselves to organise this and I was truly touched that they cared enough to do so.
Whilst the diggers rolled in (immediately after the ceremony), we spent two long days discussing everything from drainage to cope with monsoon rains, roof heights, room layouts, etc . It was an incredible opportunity to stand on the plot and watch how the sun rises and sets – allowing me to make adjustments here and there in order to maximise the benefits of the plot and landscape.
Inch by inch we crawled forward on every detail of the super structure. For example, we have planned for a beautiful open veranda to surround the house. Whilst discussing drainage I asked how the water would make it from the gutters to the drains because I did not want visible downpipes crowding my lovely columns. We decided to use chains that hang from the gutters at various points along the veranda leading directly into large clay pots on the ground ingeniously placed over drain access areas.
We also have a working well on site which is a huge asset and will be utilised for running water, but additional tanks are required should there be a drought. Similarly, solar panels will provide us with electricity but power cuts can occur in Sri Lanka so additional generators are being installed to cover us.
All these contingency requirements are not necessary for many, but they are for us and precious budget starts to get eaten up by infrastructure. Un-foreseen costs arise in London too (always) but I can generally plan for these as usually I am working with an existing structure and power and water are already well catered for. Just as in London, if a design is not well laid out before builders get cracking, delays and spiralling costs are un-avoidable, not to mention questionable aesthetics if last minute work-arounds are needed.
There are always design tweaks to every single job because sometimes new opportunities develop to maximise space and light or other new factors arise requiring a design edit. Being pre-emptive, asking questions,finding solutions and sometimes circling a detail endlessly until it is right are a part of my day job. Managing all this within a given budget and time frame is always challenging and it is important to (try and) know which areas you will and will not compromise on along with their resulting impact on the project. It is certainly challenging organising this in another country from the ground up, and we have an amazing build team who are supportive and resourceful and cheerfully put up with my endless questions!
Heading back in April so much work had been done, the builders had got up past the first floor slab in just 12 weeks. Walking through the new bones of the spaces and into all the rooms as per my designs was really special and exciting. Main discussions fell to pool and landscaping.
You would be surprised how long it takes to discuss the detailing around a pool along with materials choices and of course cost implications.
After a few days, we left the builders behind to look for a few choice antiques and local pieces to install in the house. The house will retain it’s original colonial look and feel and the interior will be fitted out to complement this. Two roofs using the original tiles are a strong feature of the exterior and the lower roof spanning the veranda will be propped up by 11 large columns. Choosing furniture and lighting to work with is the fun part of the project but also comes with it’s pitfalls.
We really want to use local suppliers and craftsman as much as possible, blending antiquities with sleek modern furniture. However, sourcing antiques and classic fittings can be really expensive. Planters chairs, wood carvings and the like are available but need to be hunted down otherwise you will be paying hundreds of dollars per piece and feeling a bit sorry for your wallet.
Every so often an individual artisan can be found. This wonderful man is astonishingly talented and can create beautiful carvings using chisels, sandpaper and his bear hands.
This single block of ebony will be carved into a piece that will have similar graining to the statues below, final waxing will leave a beautiful sheen.
We found an antique planters sofa collecting dust in an old shop. For some strange reason it had been painted a horrible brown colour – which I will fully blame on the 70’s. The man who owns the antiques shop was affected by the Tsunami in 2004 – on the day of that awful tragedy he heard that it was coming and grabbed his new born son and sprinted into the interior as high up as he could get. He calls his son “Lucky” – a charming host he served us tea and snacks whilst discussing what he could do for us. The planters sofa will be rubbed down back to it’s natural colour and simply waxed to show off it’s beautiful natural graining. Re-stringing with new cane by specialists will bring it back to life and this can all be done for a third of the price.
I love the stories behind these men and their businesses – as we select pieces for the house, there is something so special to think that wherever possible there is a personal connection with every part of it – from the foundation stone that lies beneath the core of the structure to some of the antiques we will be using. The design details and provenance of the fixtures for the whole project are really important aspects for us and hopefully brick by brick I can rebuild a connection to the past.
Next time, the roof should be on and various other aspects of the site prepared for construction – I will also be revealing the NAME of the villa . Feel free to write to me if you have any questions at all on the project, I would love to hear from you.