13 Feb 2018

Husband and wife team create home of their dreams

Little did Nic Downs and Carolyn Merrifield realise that when they saw a garden plot for sale down a cul-de-sac in leafy Cyncoed, Cardiff, that it would change the direction of their lives.


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Husband and wife, Nic and Carolyn, were both Directors of a large established firm of architects at the time, based in Cardiff, working throughout the UK and abroad. The plot was being sold as a garden site with planning permission alongside a house. Although Nic was in France at the time, Carolyn approached and confirmed the sale with the couple buying the main house. All that needed to be done when Nic returned home was to meet the couple and shake on the deal.

“I was out jogging with a girlfriend when I first saw the house and plot for sale,” explains Carolyn. “My eyes immediately picked up at the thought of the plot. We had to move quite quickly and my husband was away for four days in France. But in the time that it took him to get back, I’d met, discussed with the couple buying the house and agreed, in principle, that we would buy the plot whilst the house was being purchased simultaneously. It was a fantastic site, and as all architects have, we had a desire to build our own home. It was always a dream that I never thought would come true.”

The pair put their house on the market but initially struggled to sell it over the next two years. During this time, they worked on the design, gained planning permission and refined the details, thoroughly researching the sustainability aspects as they were keen for the house to be as green as possible.

“We had quite a bit of time to work on our design. My husband and I were quite clear of what we wanted, but we had trouble selling our own house, so we had about a year or so just to tweak and work on the design to make sure it was just what we wanted. It was just a process between the two of us, going backwards and forwards until we got it right.

“I wanted to make sure the property was going to be okay for the future so we made sure we created some spaces that were disabled-friendly, not so much for us, as we’re still a little bit off from that; but for elderly parents and I felt it was important just having the awareness to need to do that; to future-proof.

“The plot already had planning permission to build a very ordinary house in the garden. It was a very large garden and it was off a cul-de-sac; it wasn’t on a busy road or anything so that meant we had a very easy route with planning – plus, planning officers are generally very positive if your project is nicely designed and fits in with the environment and the materials of the area. So, we didn’t have a problem at all with planning, it was very straightforward.”

Eventually, Nic and Carolyn sold their home and rented a flat during the build. To save money and because they had the experience, they decided to project manage the different parts of the build themselves rather than employing a single contractor.

The resulting house,Ty Oriel, is a contemporary house which fits in with the surrounding traditional white- rendered properties.

“I think the property fits in really well with its surrounding landscape,” says Carolyn. “We’re in an area of white, detached, mainly Georgian villas – although there are a few modern ones around as well. So we’ve got a white-rendered slate building with a pitched roof so it ties in really nicely with its surroundings. It sits quite well too as it’s got a bit of a split level so as the land falls away just slightly at the back of the site our house again, drops slightly too, which gives us a little bit more headroom. We tried quite hard to make it fit in.”

The property is flexible, locally sourced and low energy, and can be adapted to their current family and future needs. It incorporates open-plan living, an art studio, somewhere to store and maintain Nic’s extensive bicycle collection as well as a family kitchen-dining area which seamlessly links into the garden. In addition, the site, although wide, was narrow so some privacy was needed within the bedrooms, achieved by splitting the windows into high and low level. All main living spaces face south with as much natural light as possible, maximising the heat of the sun in the winter and shaded by the trees in the summer.

There were few planning restrictions other than to keep as many of the surrounding trees as possible. A limited palette of materials was chosen to blend in with the surroundings – natural slate, lime render and timber.

The timber frame construction was designed by the architects together with a Welsh timber frame company and pushed the limits of what was possible, with large spans and cantilevered structures, achieved entirely using timber components (more sustainable than combining timber with a steel frame). The external fabric and windows are built to near Passivhaus standards, with airtight yet breathable walls, high levels of insulation, triple glazing to all but the south elevations, no cold bridges and a whole house ventilation system. This means the house maintains comfortable temperatures in all seasons with very little need for extra heating except in the coldest months. All elements are detailed to a high level with hidden gutters, a strong eaves line which runs around all faces of the building, a bespoke staircase and quality carpentry throughout. The south-facing roof conceals the extensive photovoltaic array and there is a large rainwater harvesting tank in the garden to provide water to all the toilets and the garden.

The house was meticulously programmed with overlapping elements and completed in less than 11 months, in spite of record rainfall during the first six months and freezing temperatures over the winter which delayed the lime render and the screed.

Carolyn explains: “One of the most challenging aspects of the build was the weather. It was both the wettest, followed by the coldest weather at that time.

“So the project took around 11 months from start to finish – literally from digging a hole in the ground to us moving in 11 months later. It was longer than we predicted because of the problems we had with the weather which caused water to get into the timber frame, however, that was something that the company who put the frame together realised they hadn’t taken enough care on, so that didn’t cost us anything other than a delay. The really, really cold weather also meant we couldn’t get the lime render onto the outside of the building for quite some time but my guess is we only lost about six weeks – which isn’t bad.”

The use of timber frame, mentioned above, was chosen to speed up construction. Locally sub-contracted labour and craftsmen from within a 20-mile radius were used and managed by the husband and wife team, whilst they continued to run their main architectural practice.

“The inside walls of the house are a product named Fermacell, which is very soundproof and fireproof. Timber frame houses are notorious for not being able to put a picture on the wall so this product – there is a gypsum equivalent now but there wasn’t at the time – is a very hard-wearing product which is easy to finish and you can literally screw shelves straight to the wall so we quite liked the idea of that.

“We wanted the house to be Welsh and we wanted it to be breathable so that pushed us down the route of, externally, lime render and slate. So, we looked at Welsh slates which are very expensive; we then found a product that had the same appearance and the same geological strata, so it is basically the same slate but it is from Spain. The strata runs right across Europe so there are places where you can get slate that will weather in the same way. For the lime, we went to the Green Building Store where we were given advice on people who could do lime render and then other products we found by going to trade expos like ecobuild. Sourcing materials and products for the project was a mixture of our previous knowledge and some local searches to try and find the right products.”

The resulting house is filled with natural light; comfortable, contemporary but not minimalist, a blend of both traditional craftsmanship and modern detailing.

“The property is everything we hoped it would be and more, I think. Every room has got interesting features, it’s airy, it’s so light and boy is it cosy and warm compared to what we were used to in our old home,” enthuses Carolyn.

“My favourite thing about our home is the space and the way the sun comes round – we catch the sun at all parts of the day. I love being able to sit and watch the sun set in one part of the house and see the sun rising in another.

“There are a couple of really minor things that we would have done differently – little tweaks where I think ‘oh I wish I’d done that’. One room has got just north-facing windows so perhaps I would have put a high-level one in facing west to catch the morning light, but overall we are delighted with it.”

The house was the first project the couple had worked on together and they enjoyed the process so much, they decided to leave their large practice and set up a small architectural firm on their own.

“The process literally changed our lives because we decided instead of doing big commercial architecture, which we were used to doing, we thought instead ‘no we like building one-off houses for people and that’s what we now do.’”

The pair enjoyed helping clients realise their own dreams, and working through all stages of a project, getting involved with the details and working with local craftsmen.

“My advice to anyone planning a self-build is to use an architect if you want something a little bit out of the ordinary or special – they’ll come up with ideas that you’ve never thought about. Also, have a big contingency and plan out each stage so you don’t get caught out, we didn’t but I’ve seen examples of people getting the house up and then thinking ‘oh I’ve got to wait three months until the windows come!’ Don’t stint on any of those items in the building that you’re going to touch, so have good quality ironmongery, good quality taps; things that you touch regularly, those are the bits that if you’ve tried to make it cheap, you’ll notice.”

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