How This London Family Refreshed A Community Home
The Walter Segal project has been renovated for modern living.
The Walter Segal project has been renovated for modern living.
The unusual family home of Céline Dalcher Wilkhu and her husband, Taran Wilkhu, clings close to the summit of a steep hill in southeast London, offering panoramic views across the city from their open-plan living room.
The timber-framed, cabin-style property, influenced by traditional Japanese architecture and recently upgraded to meet the needs of a 21st-century family, is a curiosity among the Honor Oak neighbourhood’s mostly Victorian and Edwardian homes. It is also part of the legacy of an idealistic, postwar experiment in empowerment through house building.
It was built in the early 1970s by an intrepid group of amateur self-builders guided by the German-born modernist architect Walter Segal, who moved to London in 1936. His idea was that people in need of homes could be encouraged to build their own small developments on spare public land, according to the Walter Segal Self Build Trust, which was set up to chronicle his work.
In the late 1970s, the London borough of Lewisham decided to put Mr. Segal’s ideas into practice. It placed an advertisement in a local magazine for people in “housing need” who would be interested in building their own homes on public land. Work began on the first of four sites in 1979.
Mr. Wilkhu and Mrs. Dalcher Wilkhu, both 43, had become fans of Mr. Segal’s work after visiting one of his Lewisham projects during London Open House Weekend, an annual event during which architecturally interesting buildings are opened to the public. “We walked in and just said ‘wow,’ ” recalled Mr. Wilkhu, a photographer. “We loved the architecture, we loved the light, and we loved the sense of community. We immediately said we would love to live in one of these houses.” (Mr. Wilkhu later collaborated as photographer on a book about Mr. Segal’s self-build homes, “Walters Way & Segal Close,” in 2017.)
In 2011, a house designed by Mr. Segal in Honor Oak came up for sale. The couple, who have two sons, Sohan, now 10, and Nayan, now 7, paid about $538,000 for the 1,076-square-foot house with four bedrooms and two bathrooms. They bought the house with knowledge of its shortcomings. One of its bedrooms was tiny while the second bathroom was “literally just a cupboard with a shower in it,” said Mrs. Dalcher Wilkhu. “It always felt a bit cramped. We always knew we would want more space—but not necessarily more rooms.”
In 2018, they enlisted the help of architect Elizabeth Fraher, director of Fraher & Findlay. She designed a two-story, 431-square-foot addition. This gave them a large open-plan kitchen, living and dining room on the first floor.
The boys, who had small separate bedrooms at the front of the house, asked that the wall between them be removed so they could share a single larger room. The tiny shower room was enlarged. The new basement level, accessed by a flight of pine-plywood-clad stairs, contains an office that leads out to the backyard, and a room used for yoga and music.
Work began in February 2019 and was done just before Britain entered its first national lockdown in March 2020. Mrs. Dalcher Wilkhu acted as project manager. The project cost around $170,000. “Luckily for us nothing really went horribly wrong,” she said. Like Mr. Segal before them, they stuck to simple, inexpensive materials to keep costs in line.
The exterior of the addition is clad in corrugated iron, while its interior has been lined with pine plywood that has been lightly whitewashed. The original dark timber parquet flooring in the living room was replaced with more contemporary pine floorboards. The kitchen cupboards are also made from pine plywood, although they did add a dash of luxury with a terrazzo marble work top.
Mr. Segal died in 1985 and he did not witness the gentrification of Honor Oak, where prices have risen from an average of around $539,000 in 2011, when the couple moved in, to $1,281,000 at the start of this year, according to property portal Rightmove. The most expensive sale on their street was in 2019, said Mr. Wilkhu, and the house fetched around $1.1 million.
Mr. Wilkhu estimates their home is probably now worth about $1.87 million, although they have no plans to sell. “As well as the house itself, what we have here is a real sense of community,” he said. “We know all the neighbours, we have a WhatsApp group, and it just feels like a very friendly, safe way to live in a city.”
Reprinted by permission of The Wall Street Journal, Copyright 2021 Dow Jones & Company. Inc. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. Original date of publication: September 8, 2021.
*All imagery by Taran Wilkhu.
Chris Dixon, a partner who led the charge, says he has a ‘very long-term horizon’
Gail and Ron Fink’s property in Jupiter Inlet Colony sustained major damage during an unusually windy day. ‘The whole backyard is shot. All the landscaping is gone.’
Gail and Ron Fink weren’t home the day the ocean swallowed their backyard.
The Florida couple, who are in their 70s, were a few miles away on Feb. 6—an unusually blustery day in the Sunshine State—as waves pounded their beachfront property in Jupiter Inlet Colony, sweeping sand, dirt and trees out to sea. When it was all over, the Finks’ newly-built, roughly 10,000-square-foot home was intact; so too was their free-form swimming pool, improbably balanced on exposed concrete-and-steel pilings.
“That’s what saved the whole thing,” said Ron, founder of an air- and-water purification company. “The pilings are holding up the house and pool.”
Drone footage and pictures from local photographers and the Finks’ builder show the severity of the destruction, which left their pool suspended in the air, with pipes protruding from the earth. Town officials said erosion claimed 7 to 10 feet of sand and created steep drop-offs in front of about half-dozen homes, including one belonging to Kid Rock , the rapper-turned-country rocker, who paid $3.2 million for the property in 2012. Conair heiress Babe Rizzuto also sustained damage to her property down the street, which she bought for $6.3 million in 2015 and currently has listed for $22.5 million, according to Zillow. Neither responded to requests for comment.
But the Finks house, located just past the end of a granite revetment wall—a kind of sea wall—bore the brunt of the heavy wind and waves.
“The whole backyard is shot. All the landscaping is gone,” said Ron. Also gone are fully matured Palm trees and an ipe-wood deck. “It’s out floating in the ocean someplace.” Ron is self-insured and the repair work will be quite expensive. undefined
A New Jersey native, Ron is an engineer by training who worked at nuclear-testing sites in California and Nevada before moving to Florida in the 1980s. He is the founder of RGF Environmental Group, which makes air- water-and food-purification systems.
For almost 40 years, the Finks—who have three adult children and eight grandchildren—have lived in Admirals Cove, a gated community in Jupiter about 5 miles from their new house. They paid $180,000 for the Admirals Cove lot in 1987 and built a roughly 6,000-square-foot house, Ron said. The Finks also own homes in the Cayman Islands and Bahamas.
Ron said they began looking for property in Jupiter Inlet Cove years ago. “It’s a neat place, just a closed little colony right on the ocean, low key and quiet,” he said.
About 20 miles north of Palm Beach, Jupiter Inlet Colony is at the southern tip of Jupiter Island. The town, founded around 1959, has approximately 240 homes and is surrounded on three sides by water—the Atlantic Ocean, Jupiter Inlet and the Intracoastal Waterway. Long a destination for wealthy homeowners, homes in Jupiter Inlet Colony tend to trade for between $2 million and $5 million, although one sold for $18.6 million in January, according to real-estate brokerage Redfin. Last year, a home on the Intracoastal sold for $21.4 million, a record for the town.
In 2020, the Finks paid $4.9 million for a vacant beachfront lot and subsequently built a coastal-style house with a copper-and shake-style roof, covered loggia, pool and outdoor fire pit. “You know, it’s kind of a dream home,” Ron said. “We have built quite a few homes, but this is the end of the line for us, hopefully the last one.”
He said the property originally belonged to the singer Perry Como, one of the town’s first residents. A prior owner demolished Como’s house, and when the Finks bought it, there were concrete-and-steel pilings sticking out of the ground.
Ron Fink said he never removed about 60 pilings, he simply added roughly 30 more. “Now I’m glad I did,” he said. (Pilings are based on the design of a house, so Ron retained some pilings that he didn’t necessarily need.)
John Melhorn of design-build firm Thomas Melhorn, which built the house, said the Finks were a final review away from obtaining a certificate of occupancy when the backyard was destroyed. “They were right there at the goal line,” he said.
Melhorn said the erosion began in late October amid unusually high winds and ocean swell. During the first week of February, sand beneath a row of sea grapes that stabilized the dunes between the house and ocean began to wash away. By the evening of Feb. 6, the plantings disappeared. The yard was gone by the next morning.
Melhorn said a pre-existing, low wall between the ocean and house—described as a cinder-block retaining wall on land surveys—also washed away, as did a walkway and steps to the beach. But he said the 2-foot-high wall was less of a retaining wall and more like a curb between the street and sidewalk. In this case, a prior owner used it to hold sea grapes back from encroaching on the property. The Finks replaced the wall with decorative stone, now lost to the ocean. An outdoor fire pit is still there, cantilevered over the ocean. “We tried to pull as many things out as we saw the erosion coming, but we lost a lot,” Melhorn said.
In Florida, erosion is increasing because of more frequent, more severe storms and sea-level rise, said Cheryl Hapke, a research professor at the University of South Florida and the chair of the Florida Coastal Mapping Program. But she said it isn’t just hurricane-level storms that cause major damage. “One thing I have found about barrier islands [like Jupiter Inlet Colony] is that sometimes a series of smaller events can have as big an impact as a major hurricane,” she said. “But people get caught off guard. It’s something they don’t think of.”
In Jupiter Inlet Colony, longtime residents said this month’s erosion is the worst the area has seen in years, possibly ever.
Mayor Ed Hocevar, who has lived there for 17 years, said it has been a particularly cool and challenging winter with an abnormal number of Nor’easters. On Feb. 6, local news channels warned of high winds, with gusts between 40 and 50 miles an hour. (There were also reports of an earthquake off the coast that week, causing high waves.)
Since the 1980s, Jupiter Inlet Colony has had a granite rock revetment wall that extends from the northern end of the community past 11 oceanfront homes. “But we’ve got 28 homes along the beachfront, so it isn’t complete,” Hocevar said. “Where the wall ended is where the significant damage occurred.” Hocevar said he doesn’t know why the wall wasn’t completed, although local lore is that homeowners building the wall ran out of money.
Last week, the town hired a local mining company to bring in 7,000 tons of sand to replace what washed away. Hocevar said it would cost about $500,000, which will come out of the town’s reserve fund. Long term, he said, extending the revetment wall isn’t a strong possibility.
Hapke, the coastal geology expert, said that in recent decades, sea walls and hardened structures have fallen out of favor as scientists discovered they are detrimental to the environment around them. “Storm water wants to flow, so it will redirect water to the area without a sea wall,” she said, adding that the most ideal long-term solution is to move homes away from the coastline.
Hocevar, 67, who has been mayor of Jupiter Inlet Colony for about a month, said the town is working closely with the Department of Environmental Protection on its response. He said the DEP’s recommendation, should erosion like this occur again, is to bring in more sand. Hocevar emphasised that the community is rallying together. “Think about it as a fortress and your wall has been breached,” he said. “You want to protect your neighbourhood and that’s what we’re trying to do here.”
Holly Meyer Lucas of Compass, who represented the seller when the Finks purchased their property, said Jupiter Inlet Colony is a “special little enclave” where sales exploded during Covid. “Listings sell after a day or sell off-market,” she said.
Lucas said the consensus among local real-estate agents is that property values will hold, despite the erosion. “I think this is a really rare, weird, fluky event,” she said. “I’ve sold everywhere up and down the coast and I’ve never heard of anything like this.”
Babe Rizzuto, whose house is two doors down from the Finks, listed her house for $24.5 million in December 2023 and cut the price to $22.5 million on Feb. 6, according to Zillow.
“She’s going to continue to sell,” said Milla Russo of Illustrated Properties, who is marketing the property with her husband, Andrew Russo. “Even though the timing isn’t great, it is what it is.”
Russo said there has been erosion in the past, and during hurricanes residents of Jupiter Inlet Colony are the first in the area to evacuate. But in general, people are not preoccupied with the weather. “Maybe because we live here, when the hurricanes come, we all have hurricane parties. We go to people’s homes and we barbecue and grill. Of course we’re careful and we lock up and all that, but weather is weather,” she said. “We’ve never been terribly scared.”
(The Russos were also involved in selling the Fink property. However, in 2020 the closing agent on the deal, Florida-based Eavenson, Fraser & Lunsford, PLLC, sued Milla Russo and Illustrated Properties as part of a commission dispute. The seller, Michael Cantor’s Range Road Developers, was named as a defendant and cross-plaintiff in the suit, in which a judge ruled in favor of Eavenson, court records show. Milla Russo declined to comment on the suit. Eavenson declined to comment beyond the judge’s findings and Cantor did not respond to requests for comment.)
Ron was also matter-of-fact about the state of beachfront living. Bring a life jacket, he jokingly told a photographer who inquired last week about taking his picture.
However, the Finks are facing weeks of costly repairs. Although the town is bringing in sand to replace the decimated beachfront, the couple is self-insured and will be on the hook for the cost of rebuilding. Several major home insurers have pulled out of Florida, and Ron said insurance on the house would have cost $100,000 a year. Now, he estimated they could face about $1 million worth of repair work. “We gotta eat it,” he said.
The couple, who was supposed to move into the house this month, has put those plans on hold—for now. An engineer recently inspected the property and deemed the house safe, Ron said. “We’re doing wallpaper today,” he said. “We can put it back together again.” The patio and pool area, meanwhile, are roped off while the area underneath is backfilled with sand.
Ron said being near the ocean makes it worthwhile. “I just love the ocean, we both do. It’s important to us,” he said. “It isn’t easy to look at, but I’ve been through a lot worse.”
Chris Dixon, a partner who led the charge, says he has a ‘very long-term horizon’