This striking building was once an abandoned farm that everyone else had given up on
It’s not a house that puts its arms round you and gives you a hug,’ says Nicole Lawrence, as we lounge on vast sofas at one end of the open-plan living/dining/kitchen space in her new house. She and her partner, Jonathan Falkingham, chief executive of developer Urban Splash, moved into this leafy suburb of Liverpool just over a year ago to live among an army of builders while their home was finished: ‘It’s not like when you get your bathroom done and there are two builders. There were 25 a day,’ she laughs. ‘And now they’re back to do the snagging!’
You get the impression that Nicole can’t wait for it all to be over, which is heightened by the fact that it’s taken her a while to warm to the house. ‘I do feel like I’ve been on a bit of a journey with it,’ she says. ‘It’s incomparable to anywhere I’ve ever lived before. I’ve lived in very ordinary houses.’ Oak Farm is really Jonathan’s dream. ‘We’ve been together two and a half years,’ says Nicole, ‘and I’ve inherited a lot of the design.’ Jonathan on the other hand is beaming: ‘I feel I’ve arrived somewhere, that this is home.’
‘The idea was to put a modern building next to the original to generate a real contrast,’
It’s been a long journey. Back in 2002, Jonathan bought the site with his friend, Dave Gilkes. ‘It was one of the last remaining farm buildings in Liverpool,’ says Jonathan. Owned by the council, the farm was abandoned by tenant farmers 10 years ago. ‘Since then, the whole site had declined,’ says Jonathan. But his eye – Urban Splash converts derelict buildings, that ‘no one else can find a solution to,’ Jonathan says – meant he was able to see the potential.
The idea was for the pair to have a home each. While Dave converted the stables, Jonathan restored the farmhouse, and added a brutally modern extension. He was resolute that any additions to the old building mustn’t be pastiche. ‘One of the key ideas was to put a very modern building next to a building from the 1660s, and generate a real contrast,’ he says, which is an approach that typifies much of Urban Splash’s work. ‘We create new interventions which stand their ground, which stand up to the old building rather than be entirely deferential,’ he says.
Nicole, however, finds the blank, red façade of the new building a little foreboding. ‘It’s very fortress-like,’ she says. ‘It sort of says don’t come near me.’ Clearly modernism isn’t for everyone. Yet Urban Splash has built its entire empire selling this clean, minimalist look to young professionals, successfully persuading them to part with a large chunk of their disposable income to enjoy city centre living. ‘We thought that if we wanted to live in places like this that others might want to, too,’ says Jonathan. ‘We designed for ourselves, rather than for imaginary people.’ Bingo, it worked. First time buyers were soon queuing up.
Clearly it wasn’t just about affordability, style is equally important. Looking around Jonathan’s house, you can tell he’s got it in droves. Although Jonathan’s house is in the suburbs, it has open-plan living, pared-down modernism and high-end finishes. You enter into a double-height lobby, which has a great view into the garden through a floor-to-ceiling window opposite. Turn right, and a sleek, wooden kitchen unit runs the length of the space. Built into its far end is a wood-burning fire complete with shiny, silver flue, which looks on to two, modern, four-seater sofas. Move round the room and there’s a glorious marble-topped table for 10, accompanied by Verner Panton chairs. Turn left, and you enter the ‘snug’, a more intimate room in the old part of the building. ‘It’s my favourite bit,’ says Nicole, who’s still unconvinced by the hard lines of the new building – ‘All these right angles freak me out,’ she laughs.
Upstairs, the feeling that the house is one, large, open, free-flowing space continues. Hidden doors mean that rooms merge into each other, and other clever tricks, such as walls that are actually fixed pieces of furniture, reveal Jonathan’s background as an architect. While it’s a large house, surprisingly there are only three bedrooms. ‘I wanted really nice rooms, rather than lots that never get used,’ he says.
There’s no rulebook, no stock solution – every building is dealt with differently. Clearly, it’s an approach that’s worked. A massive 90 per cent of their buildings have won RIBA awards, as has Jonathan’s house. ‘Yeah, I’m pleased,’ he grins. ‘Winning awards for your work is one thing, but nothing beats winning one for your own home.’ Except, perhaps, winning two.
Folding Glass Doors: I.D. Systems www.i-d-systems.co.uk
Staircases and architectural metal work: Canal Engineering www.canalengineering.co.uk
Kitchens (bespoke): Saxum www.saxum.co.uk
Fireplaces: Robeys www.robeys.co.uk
Furniture: Twenty Twenty One www.twentytwentyone.com
Words: Claire Barrett Images: Jefferson Smith