24 Jun 2016

Self-builder uses local resources for organic country hideaway


When Landscape Gardener Peter Child bought a plot of land on the very edge of the ancient Ashdown Forest, his vision was to take inspiration from the land and work with local resources to create a genuine organic country hideaway.


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Aman of the earth, Peter had always dreamt of building his own home, so when he stumbled upon a large farm property on the edge of the Sussex national park, he knew this was the place for him and his family. “This is an ancient piece of land with greatly diverse flora and I dedicate a lot of my time to protecting this natural habitat.”

There was a handful of unsightly, derelict farm buildings on the land and Peter’s vision was to replace those with a home that would fit into its natural surroundings. “I wanted to create something that would fit into the environment. Something natural and timeless. I also wanted to work with local materials and people, because I really believe in keeping things close to home.”

Planning restrictions

He approached a local oak framing company Oakmasters and asked them to design his home and help him obtain planning permission. “Originally, I wanted a traditional looking oak framed home with Tudor style cladding, but then we decided that a barn would be more appropriate for the setting. We are on the very edge of a national park here, so planning was always going to be challenging. We were restricted by the size of the footprint of the new build as well as its height and positioning, which were dictated by the existing farm buildings.

“The design process was exciting, because it was really hands on. I loved the fact the designer had a great vision, genuinely listened to what was important to us as a family and translated it onto little details throughout the house.”

Due to his love of the outdoors, one of Peter’s priorities was to have an open-plan kitchen and hall, which could get a little dirty. He then wanted a separate ’cleaner’ living area. He had an eye for quirky details, such as a ‘hidden’ staircase or a ‘rest area’ on the landing. Finally, in February 2013, after a year of going through the planning process and a number of design iterations, planning was granted and he could set out to build his 270m² barn.

Oakmasters recommended a local building contractor Williams Builders, which undertook all aspects of building work apart from the oak frame itself. Once the foundations had been laid, the oak frame – which was pre-manufactured off site – was delivered as a kit and assembled on site by Oakmasters’ team. The oak frame structure was then wrapped, insulated and sealed, the roof laid and the outside clad with oak in a traditional barn style. All the services were placed in the void between the oak frame and the external envelope.

Solar Advance, a local company from Edenbridge, installed solar panels on the roof and an air source heat pump, which provides the house with renewable energy. Peter’s brother, Simon Child, who is a Joiner, got stuck in with all the joinery starting with doors and windows and finishing with handmade oak kitchen furniture.

When sourcing materials, Peter was guided by a simple set of principles: “I believe in uncomplicated design, where less is more. I’d rather invest in a fewer pieces of exceptional quality, rather than surround myself with a lot of temporary stuff. I wanted as much natural materials and as much locally sourced components as I could get. Whilst I didn’t want to put in luxuries, I didn’t want to skimp either. For example, there is about £20,000 worth of locally sourced sandstone on the walls, but I didn’t feel I needed fibre optic cables or similar. I chose coloured clay render – a more expensive option, because I didn’t want to worry about chipping the walls and having to repaint them every couple of years.”

Getting stuck in

Peter was actively involved throughout the build process: “I was here to make sure everything ticked along smoothly. I kept the site clear, booked lorries, made tea and was here to answer questions. Every morning, I’d have a little confab with everyone on site together, so that we were all clear on what we were doing. You can waste an awful lot of time by waiting for the right tools or materials, or clearing the part of the site you are meant to be working on. As a result, the project went very smoothly and we moved in after just 10 months. I also managed to stay within budget and built the house for £380,000. I’m yet to claim back the VAT.”

The two-storey barn provides ample space for the family of three. The ground floor comprises a split level, open-plan hall and kitchen diner. A separate living room goes off the other side of the hall and features a double-sided fireplace connecting the space back to the hall. The kitchen opens out onto the back of the house and overlooks the stables and the field. The quirky hidden staircase clad in cedar wood panelling leads up from the hall and opens out onto a large landing with a ‘resting area’, which is somehow reminiscent of a small stage. “You make it into what you want. You can put cushions on it and read a book, or keep your most prized possessions on display.” There is a large family bathroom clad in cedar, three bedrooms (one with an en-suite bathroom) and a master suite with its own bathroom and walk-in wardrobe.

Complementary materials

The structural oak frame is visible throughout the inside of the house and is perfectly complemented by coloured clay render in subtle natural shades. It is a lovely combination of colours and materials, giving the house a real organic feel. Some internal walls as well as floors that require to be more hard-wearing are clad with a local grey sandstone. Living areas have hardwood flooring and upstairs bathrooms are all clad with cedar wood, which, according to Peter, required hardly any maintenance. The master suite and the other en-suite bedroom feature another quirky design detail: floating trusses. The bedrooms appear to have vaulted ceilings, but the trusses are only part the width of the building. “The wrap around window in the master bedroom has to be my favourite part of the house. The view is so breathtaking; we didn’t even want curtains.”

Landscape vision

The family are very happy in their new home. They decided to add another outbuilding next to the house, which is still in progress. Peter is too busy landscaping other people’s gardens, but he gave us his vision for the outside areas of the house. “I want to keep it simple and uncomplicated. I have already installed a living gate with plants growing out of stone columns. There is also a lovely gate house and I want the fence to be quite low key. I don’t want it to say: don’t come here, I’d like it to be inviting. I will plant lavender and some other small plants around the house, because tall plants allow mice to climb up the walls. And the rest of the outside will be simple and open. There is a lot of wild chamomile, which I’d like to mix with the grass. It is hard-wearing and gives off a lovely smell. Then I’ll just pop in the odd paving stone to step on.”

When asked whether he would do it again, Peter said: “Definitely. I loved the process and I’m so happy with the result. If I did it again, I would probably go a little further with my quirky details. Not think about the property’s re-sell potential, but build it just as I like it.” His advice to self-builders is to use local resources and to communicate with everyone. “Start with the neighbours, get them on board with your project, then continue with the planners to iron out all misunderstandings and finally with the builders, to make sure everything goes smoothly and no money or time is wasted.”

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