Max and Diana Aiken, both architectural graduates, wanted a beautiful and practical home that could last them through their twilight years. Diana wanted to have a clear direct view from her desk on the ground floor to a fold in the landscape, so the whole building was pivoted around that. Max is a busy artist, so the brief also required a studio in which he could paint as well as a place for their own art collection.
Diana Aiken explains that the brief had to combine architecture, art and the environment: “We wanted our home to be a contemporary and individual piece of architecture, a home in which to display our art collection, and for the house to sit very comfortably within the rural environment. We asked for spaces, not rooms; divisions, not walls; and vertical and horizontal surfaces to display art, sculpture and ceramics.”
Embarking on a self-build was uncharted territory for the couple, but having previously been involved in home renovations and taking into account their professional background, they felt it was possible, as Max explains: “We had renovated houses before, but never undertaken a new build. We were retired and it was perhaps now or never. We both trained as architects and had farmed, so had a range of appropriate skills. We knew broadly what we wanted, and after looking for an existing house, felt that the only way to meet our wish list was to build it ourselves.”
Instead of searching for a home to remodel or extend, the couple were drawn to the idea of starting from scratch. “We identified a number of towns as possible nearby ‘centres’ within easy reach of London and a short list of must-haves for the site,” comments Diana. “Finding our plot consisted of daily searches online, with weekly trips to view villages, towns and houses – so it was a full time job.”
Diana continues: “This plot was the third one we were interested in, and it immediately ticked all the boxes. We were able to act quickly.”
Gaining planning permission was a relatively straightforward process thanks to the couple’s impeccable forward-planning. Max explains: “Because we already had our briefed architect on board, we were able to do a pre-planning application and get a reply that covered the main issues that were important to the planning department. This was achieved within the time between making an offer and exchange of contracts. So we knew the parameters within which we would be able to build what we wanted. We then took 8 months to finalise our designs with the architect. Our full planning application went through without a hitch.”
Andrew Wood of Andrew Wood Associates worked closely with Max and Diana to create the initial design and plans, and secured planning consent for the project. Designscape Architects then developed the design through the detailed design and construction phases, while Max and Diana undertook the project management and were the main contractors themselves. The couple bought a caravan and lived on site to better manage the project.
Careful thought was given to the specification of materials, as Diana explains: “For a year and half before we started on site, Max researched materials and local subcontractors, also visiting sites and factories to see materials etc. If you know what you want and have the time and inclination to do the research, then this pays off. The external Frake wood cladding met the planner’s requirements and was approved by them. I planned the arrangement and panel sizes of the Trespa, which provided a complementary solution to the cladding on the north elevation. The architects were very helpful for all the external work, whilst Max did much of the detailed drawings and specification work for the interior fit out, as he knew exactly what we wanted internally, and broadly how to make it.”
The couple’s vision for their new home was very clear from the outset. They wanted to produce a house that in essence was Modernist, while still being sympathetic to its rural surroundings. Max describes further: “The interior is a series of spaces rather than rooms. We wanted a place in which our collection of paintings, sculpture and ceramics were able to be displayed, so part of the brief was to provide vertical and horizontal areas for this purpose. Part of the attraction of the site was the view it afforded over a totally uninterrupted landscape. So it was important that the house flowed into this naturally, and that the 2 acres we are responsible for didn’t in any way conflict with the view it was part of.”
The timber frame walls support a Frake hardwood cladding, which has turned silver grey as it has aged and weathered, complementing the grey tones of local lias limestone. The aluminium window frames are a satin finish and coloured to blend with the cladding and grey render. The colour of the cladding between the studio and the house is a darker grey to articulate the recess between the two areas.
The house incorporates living accommodation on the ground floor with two en-suite bedrooms on the first floor. The open plan kitchen and dining area overlook the terrace to the field beyond, whilst split floor levels break up the living space and create a sense of different zones within the plan. Swathes of full height glazing on the south side of the house take full advantage of the view, as well as maximising solar gain to secure passive heating, whilst a book lined snug at the east creates a cosy retreat in contrast with the light filled “gallery” spaces. To the west lies a single-storey studio, filled with light from more full height glazing, plus a bathroom and utility room.
“Our favourite aspect of the home is the consistency throughout,” comments Max. “The external architecture and the architecturally created interior spaces, and the furnishings are all of a piece. Whilst being Modernist in style, it is comfortable and ‘homely’. We use every room everyday, except the dedicated Guest bedroom. The house has built-in flexibility, both for when family come to stay and the flexibility for our old age to have a bedroom with bathroom en-suite downstairs without the need to completely redesign the house.”
The landscaped areas surrounding the home have been given equal care and attention, and contribute significantly towards the overall aesthetics of the plot. Diana explains: “We wanted the house to appear to be growing out of the field, with the field actually continuing over the roof of the western end of the house, and we wanted the field to be a wild flower meadow. We have achieved this by removing the top soil of the 2 acre field, and with it have created a bank which extends to include the roof of the studio. The bank is terraced with flat areas of grass for walking on, and a series of four banks planted with ground cover. The field, which has now got a low grade surface suitable for wild flowers, was seeded three years ago and is gradually developing into a perennial display of wild flowers.
“The wild flower seeds were chosen to suit the underlying soil type, and also for the attraction to butterflies and wild life generally, and purchased from Emorsgate Seeds. The plants on the banks were chosen from the catalogue of a supplier of plug plants because we needed vast quantities of plants to cover the area. We then potted them on until they were ready to plant out. We were looking for a landscape that in time would give us the least amount of maintenance work.”
Ahead of the game
Despite the build of the home remaining within the budget, the external works took the couple over budget, simply because a budget had been set before the site was found and purchased. Yet, one might say it’s a price worth paying for such a beautiful, rural landscape.
Reflecting on their lessons learned, the couple offer these vitals pieces of advice for prospective self-builders: “Research materials, techniques, subcontractors and suppliers before you start, and choose your team well with the knowledge that this research gives you. Be ahead of the game in planning the work on site, so you can tell people what you want, rather than them telling you what they think is best to do - from our experience the two are rarely the same. It should be your full-time project from start to finish. It requires total commitment and concentration.
“For us, we’re absolutely delighted with our new home. It’s everything we’d hoped it would be and more. Neither of us would do it again but then, we don’t have to!”