23 Sep 2019

The house on the hill

Ian and Julie Perrin were exploring different parts of the country looking for somewhere to retire to when they came across the historic market town of Montgomery in Wales.

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“Julie and I were researching some family history here – my grandparents came from this part of the world,” Ian explains. “We saw a Georgian house we liked in the town centre and afterwards we sat in the square eating an ice cream and said, we think we could be happy living here.”

Unfortunately the Georgian property wasn’t to be, though the couple were invested in the idea of a future in Montgomery. They were aware of a garden building plot with planning permission on the edge of town but weren’t comfortable with the idea of building, especially as this was a difficult site.

“The plot sloped diagonally upwards from the front corner to the back corner and was two metres higher than the lane,” Ian explains. “The neighbour’s sewer pipe also ran through the middle. We thought it was an impossible site, yet loved the beautiful countryside views with the historic castle on the hill, and that it was a short walk to the town square.”

Ian and Julie took another look and wondered if a kit house could be the solution. They went to the National Self Build & Renovation Centre in Swindon for ideas. It was here they saw the Welsh Oak Frame stand with an example of a real oak frame structure.

“This was our first introduction to oak framing and the method seemed right for historic Montgomery,” says Ian. “Welsh Oak Frame was a short drive from the plot so we went to meet them and they showed us around their local projects. We were impressed from the start, particularly with the care they took over the detailing in their oak – other companies seemed plain in comparison.”

However, the couple were still unsure whether to buy the tricky piece of land. “Welsh Oak Frame made it very clear that building on a plot like this wouldn’t be a problem and we felt confident and reassured enough with their ideas and suggestions to proceed,” says Julie.

Once the agreement was in place, the Ian and Julie began the design process with Welsh Oak Frame’s Design Director, John Edmunds. The couple wanted a house large enough to accommodate visiting family and a main open plan living area capturing the views. They liked the idea of a vaulted ceiling and a glazed front gable; features they’d seen in the Welsh Oak Frame brochure.

“Sometimes a front gable forms the hallway, but in our design we have a seating area at the window and a master bedroom above to take advantage of the picturesque views,” says Ian.

The house would be energy efficient with an air source heat pump and rainwater harvesting, as well as a mechanical heat recovery ventilation system and underfloor heating. Solar was rejected as the feed-in tariff was no longer available.

“John interpreted our thoughts very well,” says Julie. “He produced a 3D walk-through that made it much easier for us to understand how the layout worked with the gradient of the site.”

The 300m2 house has a double garage at basement level with the front opening onto the drive, and the rear built underground with a utility and Ian’s hobby room for his model railway. The main living space is all at ground level with a dramatic cathedral ceiling soaring over the living area. A contemporary glass and oak stairwell leads to a spacious and light-filled first floor landing.

“A void above the dining table means we can sit here and look directly up through the landing to the top of the house and see the sky above us,” says Julie.

Welsh Oak Frame recommended a planning consultant to help the couple through the planning amendment to change the previously approved mock-Victorian design. Their drawings remained within the same footprint and took into account window restrictions on elevations that overlook neighbouring properties.

Building work began a month after planning approval with the next-door neighbour allowing the couple to bring a small digger through his garden, so they could create their own access in the 2m-high bank. As the site is in a conservation area, a planning condition meant an archaeological watching brief.

“They found the remains of a medieval corn-drying kiln where our entrance needed to be,” says Ian. “It was an interesting find but removing it held us up by three weeks.”

Welsh Oak Frame recommended contractors and a project manager to help Ian and Julie get through the complex groundworks stage, ready for the frame. The sewer pipe was diverted and a 3500L rainwater harvesting tank installed, which takes water run-off and flushes the toilets. Lorry-loads of excavated soil needed removing as the lower ground floor at the back is built below ground.

“This level needed overhead steel beams to support the concrete beams above, effectively creating the robust foundation structure the oak frame sits on,” Ian explains.

About six months into the project, the frame arrived. “It was really exciting for us – and the town!” says Julie. “The crane lifting the great timbers caused quite a spectacle. It took about three weeks to get the main structure up and then we really felt like we had a house.”

Ian and Julie continued the project managing alone, sourcing trades and materials, and being on site every day to organise deliveries. They also scrubbed the internal oak and treated it.

“We were told to expect the tannin to run out and stain the oak, which we then removed by scrubbing in oxalic acid and power-washing off,” says Ian. “It was a big job but well worth it as the oak looks stunning now.” The couple moved in 19 months after the build started with the following months spent finishing off smaller jobs, and then the planting outside.

“There were lots of stressful times,” admits Ian. “But now we’re finished, those stresses have faded away. We had a very wet winter before we had the roof on and we hadn’t appreciated it would take three months for the floor screed to dry out, and that held us up.

“We’re both very happy living here – we’ve got the house we wanted in the town we wanted to live in – and that’s all credit to Welsh Oak Frame. They were always on hand to give us advice and come to site if we needed them to. Without them we wouldn’t have been able to take on such a great project.”

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