Building a New Life in Rural Sri Lanka

The Planter’s Bungalow, the first of three homes that are planned for Wild Buffalo Hill, a working tea and cinnamon estate in Sri Lanka. – Credit: Shehan Obeysekara

The Planter’s Bungalow, the first of three homes that are planned for Wild Buffalo Hill, a working tea and cinnamon estate in Sri Lanka. – Credit: Shehan Obeysekara

WELIGAMA, Sri Lanka (The New York Times) — It was a vacation for his 40th birthday that sold Paddy Dalton and his partner, Rob Ioannou, on Sri Lanka. Their stay at the Aman resort in the southern town of Galle was intoxicating enough that the couple returned three weeks later in search of a permanent home.

They found it on the first day, acquiring a working tea and cinnamon estate a half-hour drive into the hills behind the surf town of Weligama on the island nation’s south coast. Five years later, they have completed their first home on the estate, which comes in at 50 acres and employs about 30 people.

On a recent visit, peacocks flew low under the canopy of the rubber tree forest, the din of their piercing calls drifting down over a misty valley that leads to an artificial lake, one of three on the property that help irrigate the plantation. Besides building the home, which they call the Planter’s Bungalow, Mr. Dalton and Mr. Ioannou have embarked on an overhaul of the estate, which has fallen on hard times.

That has involved clearing acres of overgrown land and planting tens of thousands of new tea trees and cinnamon bushes, as well as constructing stone retaining walls on the steeply sloped foothills of Sri Lanka’s “hill country.” As part of the agreement to buy the estate for about $740,000 from the Gamage family, the new owners kept on Thilakasiri Gamage as the estate manager. His son, Hasitha, oversees the new house.

Thanks to a miscommunication, the estate is now dubbed Wild Buffalo Hill. In fact, its Sinhalese name, Kalugenadeniya Beddedeniyewatta, is more correctly translated as “elk orchard.” That is probably a reference to the large but elusive sambar deer that wander Sri Lanka’s mountain forests, in particular the nearby Horton Plains National Park.

The Planter’s Bungalow is the first of at least three homes the couple plan to build. With two bedrooms and a footprint of 2,700 square feet, it is on a relatively modest scale, compared with the oversize holiday villas that many expatriates build in Sri Lanka.

It also forsakes the colonial whitewashed influences and closed-in courtyards of the Tropical Modernism movement made famous by Geoffrey Bawa, the best known of the country’s architects. Instead, it nods to that past with a traditional pitch to the roof and the column-lined terraces that surround the home but updates it with a silhouette of sleek straight lines.

“It’s impossible to go to Sri Lanka for any length of time and not be influenced by his style,” Mr. Dalton said, but it gets derivative. “He was working with what was on hand and the scales that he could work with in a developing world. Now we can use much more advanced materials. We wanted an urban finish in a rural setting — I like that juxtaposition.”

Most notably, the Planter’s Bungalow eschews concrete for insulated rammed earth, which is assembled on site using local soils and pigments. The wall’s pattern is complete once set, when the framework is removed, without the need for any further finishing or plasterwork.


 The use of rammed earth, with its ‘‘ant farm’’ colored layers, lends warm red, rust and brown hues to the kitchen interior. – Credit: Shehan Obeysekara

The use of rammed earth, with its ‘‘ant farm’’ colored layers, lends warm red, rust and brown hues to the kitchen interior. – Credit: Shehan Obeysekara

The rammed earth, with its “ant farm” colored layers of soil, lends warm red, rust and brown hues to the exterior walls and the kitchen interior. With its earthy grains, it has a pleasantly rough texture, even after being smoothed.

The architects, Raefer Wallis and Sacha Silva from A00, suggested the tactic, which uses 50 percent less cement than typical concrete walls. The Canadian architects started their firm in Shanghai but have opened a Sri Lankan design studio.

The bungalow uses white granite from Dambulla, in central Sri Lanka, for the terraces surrounding the home. The vanilla-toned stone is flecked with cranberry colored “berries.” The owners chose to turn the tiles, similar to those in Colombo’s international airport, rough side up for a more rustic touch and to make them easier to walk on when wet.

In another green tweak of tropical colonial architecture, the eaves that protect the home’s terraces from the heat and rain are supported by 26 columns made from coconut palm trunks, plentiful on the island. The home is surrounded by sculptures from local artists, most notably a scrap-metal buffalo, a pig, a peahen and a squirrel by Prageeth Manohansa.

The home definitely “brings the outside in,” as Mr. Bawa urged. In fact, some guests feel uncomfortable with the way that the walls of the bedrooms, as well as the kitchen, have mahogany slatted doors that slide open to the elements. In times of extreme weather, the owners can lower retractable, clear monsoon blinds.

Mr. Dalton, originally from Tasmania, quit his job as an information and technology expense-management consultant at Deutsche Bank to oversee the transformation of the estate and the construction of the home, which has cost about $500,000 to plan and build. Mr. Ioannou, who is British, continues to spend most of his time in Singapore, where he is the co-head of HSBC’s private banking business in Southeast Asia.

They scoured derelict homes for the furrowed Dutch tiles that top the roof of the bungalow — a direct link to nearby Galle’s colonial past. In fact, tiles are something of an obsession among the walled town’s expatriate population, since authentic ones are hard to track down, and there are few craftsmen who make them anymore. Those who do charge high prices for them.

The tiles are reinforced with precast corrugated cement and then timber and rattan, obviating the need for two or three heavy layers of tiles to achieve a proper seal against the rain. The main threat to the tiles now are the macaques and langurs that patrol the trees.

The owners, who were married in Britain, are proud of what they have achieved in constructing such a contemporary home in rural Sri Lanka, complete with all the cost overruns and construction delays. But they see the estate as an important long-term legacy — their “pension plan.”

“You can just work all the time and buy a house and pay it off, but you don’t necessarily feel like you’re working toward something,” Mr. Dalton said. “This gives us five-year or 10-year plans. It’s something that we work on all the time, and we work on together all the time.”

What’s more, Mr. Dalton, 44, and Mr. Ioannou, 43, feel that by running an active plantation, they are truly tied to their new home, which creates something both tangible and territorial. Like most of Sri Lanka’s tea, theirs is sold to a co-op for export, appearing on grocery store shelves in mass-produced tea bags from multinationals. But they ultimately aim to create a boutique Wild Buffalo Hill brand.

“There’s something very rewarding about being involved in agriculture,” Mr. Dalton said. “You’re making decisions against the climate and the soil, you have crops and seasons that do or don’t do well.

“It’s a gamble. It’s nerve-racking. But it’s fun.”


A version of this article appears on November 27, 2015, in The International New York Times.

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