Investing in the right people

When City types Rachel and Lee Oliver decided to build their rural home, putting faith in their architect and builder to make the right decisions proved to be the making of their project. Roseanne Field reports

Pulling into the driveway of Rachel and Lee Oliver’s house on the outskirts of Tunbridge Wells in Kent, you’d be forgiven for thinking there wasn’t a house here at all. However nestling behind the substantial wall of a former estate kitchen garden, is an unusual green-roofed architectural gem. This is a project which shows the benefits of letting a meticulous design and build firm do what they’re good at.

It’s the outside of one of the old walls that greets you as you arrive, running the length of the left hand side of the driveway. The low-rise home in which Rachel and Lee live along with children Katie, 21 and Tom, 20, is hidden behind a huge square gate, made from a piece of corten steel. This electrically slides open to dramatic effect, revealing an attractive building which has been neatly integrated into the wall, making a virtue of it as a feature.

Rachel first started to get ‘itchy feet’ about 10 years ago. The couple were living in a Victorian house in Tunbridge Wells but she dreamed of moving to the country and building her own house. Lee, who writes for a financial news service, commuted to London every day, and was initially resistant to moving further away from the town.

However self-confessed “serial Right- mover” Rachel – who like Lee worked in the City but is now an office manager for an interior design firm – was quick off the mark when a plot containing a dilapidated bungalow came up. After running the idea past a friend who renovates properties, she then brought Lee to see it. Realising it was the right location and wouldn’t add to his commute, they put in their sealed bid, and after a nervous wait found that they had won.

Planning

But it wasn’t time to sit on their laurels yet. “We took the risk when we bought it that we knew it was on green belt land and within an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB),” explains Rachel, “so we couldn’t guarantee we’d get planning permission.”

They had originally planned to site the new home where the existing bungalow was, in the middle of the plot, but archi- tect Nicole Lafone from CO3 advised building on the boundary instead. “Lee in particular wasn’t sure it felt right,” Rachel recalls. Nevertheless they trusted her, and as Rachel says: “It’s unusual, but actually it’s completely right.”

The house was designed to incorpo- rate the historic wall as well as to emulate the buildings that were once here. Within the boundary of the wall the steel and glass structure that forms the majority of the house stands where greenhouses once stood. The wall bisects the house, creating an architec- tural feature, and on the external side is a smaller pitched roof section, reminiscent of the outbuildings that were once there.

The design’s historical context is in part why it succeeded in gaining planning permission first time, along with some insider knowledge and help. Planning consultant Simon McKay, who used to work for Tunbridge Wells Borough Council, advised Rachel and Lee on the steps to take to give them the best chance of achieving planning. Following several surveys, and much research by the couple, they identified how much more energy efficient a new home would be in comparison to the bungalow. McKay then compiled the results of their efforts into a report to give to the planning officers.

Design & build

Once CO3’s design had gained planning, Rachel and Lee commissioned architectural, construction and project management firm Architecturall to take the scheme forward. They were renovating and extending a house near their plot that Rachel walked past every day, and she noticed how neat and tidy the site looked. The owners told her their experience of the firm had been good, so Rachel and Lee set up a meeting with the directors, architect Simon Skeffington and project manager Julian Cotet. “You’ve got to have trust, and as soon as we met Simon and Julian something just clicked,” explains Rachel. “As soon as they left, I said to Lee, ‘I want them to do our house.’”

Confident that their chosen contrac- tor’s ideas aligned with theirs, Rachel and Lee more or less handed the entire project over. Many of the major decisions along the way were made by either Simon or Julian, which Rachel says helped create a stress-free build for this busy couple. With Lee being made redundant near the start of the project, they had other concerns: “The build was probably the least stressful thing going on for us at the time and in fact we used to find it quite refreshing coming here and seeing what was going on.”

Rachel in fact says the only pressure was that which Architecturall put on themselves trying to get things right. “If they find something’s not quite as they expected they don’t bring that back to you or ask for more money.”

The couple told the company at the start of the project roughly how much they wanted to spend, who from the plans then estimated a cost breakdown. The budget was fixed and stuck to, but Rachel believes that working within constraints has helped the designers to be creative. “We don’t feel as if we’ve compromised,” she says.

When it came to the house’s design, Lee and Rachel only had a couple of key requirements – they knew they wanted an open-plan layout and Rachel was adamant that she didn’t want big pillars interrupting the glazing. The construc- tion was largely designed around that principle, with the majority of the glass being supported by the steel frame and internal concrete supporting walls. The longest glass wall has just two slim, solid pillars for added support. “Simon totally listened,” Rachel says.

The house is larger than they had anticipated – they gained planning permission for a 4,000 ft2 house but at the time didn’t realise that any space below ground doesn’t count towards the square footage, so long as there’s no access. Taking into account the basement space, which includes storage rooms, a gym, and an office/music room for Lee, the house totals 5,000 ft2.

The basement also houses the incred- ibly neat yet complex pipework for the underfloor heating. “A lot of people admire the pipework!” Rachel says. “It’s a reflection of the quality and the way they wanted to the job. Everything had to be as immaculate as it could be.”

One large central feature wall, running next to the stairs from the ground floor to the basement, has a polished concrete finish – an idea suggested by Architecturall. “They’d not done polished concrete before and actually ended up doing it three times to get it right,” says Rachel. “They wanted to do everything perfectly.”

The section of original wall that runs through the house was knocked down and rebuilt with reclaimed bricks which were also used to help build the pitched roof part of the house. This meant builders chipping the old mortar off brick by brick before rebuilding it with new mortar – which the contractors precisely matched to the original.

Finishing touches

Even when it came to the finishes and finer details, Rachel and Lee left much of the decision-making to Simon and

Julian. She says they were “ideal customers,” being amenable to all of their design ideas.

This extended to specifying the bathrooms, partly because they had seen, and liked, previous examples of Architecturall’s work. “We’d seen a few of the houses they’d designed and finished,” Rachel says. “They’d done similar things before, and clearly knew how to do it.”

All cupboards throughout the house – including built-in wardrobes and bathroom cabinets – are in the same bookmatched oak, designed and finished by the contractors. “I didn’t want just white walls and shiny floors with nothing else, so I asked for textures and different materials. Bringing the wood in makes it more interesting.”

In another example of the contractor’s thoughtful approach, Simon asked Lee and Rachel where they planned to put furniture before the electrical plan was done so that all power points would be in sensible places. “He had us thinking about things we would not have thought about,” she says.

With her knowledge of interior design, Rachel knew specifying lighting and fittings can be an overwhelming task, so she was grateful this task was taken off her hands. “They thought of neat little things like automatic lights in some rooms,” she explains. Architec- turall also built the kitchen from scratch.

The couple’s trust in the firm’s discerning taste went to perhaps unusual extremes – far from just choos- ing paint colours, they even let Simon choose the sofas. “We went to see one of his houses and he was a bit sniffy about the sofas they’d chosen not working with his design, so I said ‘you can choose my sofas if you want!’” Rachel explains.

Simon’s painstaking approach meant he was anxious that they had picked the wrong window frame colour, says Rachel. “We decided it was fine. They had all the anxieties.”

In total the project took 11 months, from demolishing the bungalow to completion. Rachel credits much of the success to having a combined architect and project manager. “They weren’t going to make mistakes, but if they did, they just sucked it up – it was never anyone else’s fault,” she says. She also believes it helps keep the architect on track, commenting: “Architects can be idealistic, and having the partnership with the project manager helped on the practical side of things.”

Rachel and Lee couldn’t be more pleased with the end result. “We still say we can’t believe we live in a house like this!” Rachel says. “Because the process was so enjoyable and stress- free we wouldn’t think twice about doing it again.”

Rachel’s top tips

  • Make sure you get on with your architect/builder
    “Go with your instincts to a certain extent, as to who you get on with, because getting on with that person is key, as is maintaining a good relationship.”
  • Get your finances in check and ensure everyone’s on the same page
    “I’m very financially focused and if we’d worked with somebody that we’d constantly been having to nail down on costs it would have put a lot of pressure on us and on our relationship with the builder.”
  • Have faith in them
    “Trust their expertise!”