This straight forward renovation project morphed into an altogether more ambitious self-build
Simon and Anna Ellis’s ambitious Herefordshire house was built to honour the spectacular countryside beyond it. Not only the brooding Malvern Hills to the south-east, or the sloping garden that rolls away to meet the surrounding green pastures, but the ever-changing sky above. You wouldn’t expect a contemporary build to meld with such a bucolic setting – it has sharp, clean lines instead of gently crumbling stones and ultra-modern materials in place of the traditional and rough-hewn. And yet, as the clouds sweep over from the west and the quality of the light changes again, it becomes clear that the house blends very convincingly into nature’s backdrop.
Three years ago, the situation here, close to the pretty town of Ledbury, was very different. The original cottage and its 1.6-acre plot were bought at auction for £230,000. Initially, the couple planned to refurbish the existing building and then add a contrasting modern extension. In the end, they took a deep breath and the advice of their architect and cleared the site completely. It was hardly architectural heresy: the old cottage was not only subsiding but dark and cramped, with an unsightly Eighties extension tacked on. Planning permission wasn’t too difficult in terms of the new design; where the rules were strict was in the permitted increase in size (no more than 30 per cent), and the new building’s position (it could be no further from the road than the original dwelling).
After an initial exchange of ideas with local architect Rod Robinson, Simon took the project into his own hands. ‘I found it really exciting at the beginning, knocking ideas back and forth with the designers. But the actual delivery of the building, and the detailing, was down to me.’ His professional experience, working as a building manager on innovative commercial projects ranging from the British Library to GCHQ’s ‘doughnut’, proved invaluable. It also meant he had working knowledge of cutting-edge materials commonly used in commercial builds but, because of the cost, were often rejected for domestic use.
‘I suppose we did spend more on certain things but these materials are built to last – the single-ply Sarnafil membrane that protects the flat roof is also used to cover most of the buildings in the City of London,’ he says. Similarly, the exterior’s colour-through render will never need repainting to keep it white – its silicon content repels water so all it needs is the occasional hose-down. For the window frames, which needed to be both hardy and huge, Simon went for extruded aluminium sprayed with a subtle grey powder-coated polyester. This hi-tech paint is baked on to the metal, making it extremely durable. ‘It will last forever without a repaint,’ says Simon, proudly. The timber merchants who were originally approached about the windows said they simply couldn’t make the dimensions the couple were after. In hindsight, Simon advises, ‘Listen to people in the trade but keep in mind your own vision.’ Anna’s sentiments are even stronger: ‘Be persistent and don’t listen to people who tell you that you can’t do it. When they said we couldn’t get sliding doors as big as we wanted, we said, “What about car showrooms?’’’
The huge expanses of glass make all the difference to the finished result. ‘I suppose it’s a bit of a cliché now, but we wanted to bring the outside in,’ says Simon. Indeed, in the main living area the outside is visible from every direction. The wall with the finest view has been entirely given over to glass sliding doors, opening on to a slate terrace. The flood of light doesn’t stop there: a thick ribbon of unbroken glass continues high up along two more walls. ‘Even when it’s pouring with rain, the light is lovely,’ says Simon. They’re also perfectly placed for some stargazing from the huge, elevated wooden terrace. ‘At night, the moon and the stars are just incredible from here,’ says Anna.
One of the most eye-catching features of the building is the rounded tower at one end. Inside, its painted a soft white like the rest of the interior. The unadorned walls draw the eye outside once again, unobtrusively framing the fantastic natural vistas. The light-soaked circular room is used as a spare bedroom when Simon’s older children come to stay; otherwise it acts as a turreted sanctuary where someone can curl up with a book. The family are devoted to the house they have invested so much of their time and energy in. As Simon says wistfully, ‘It’s at dawn and dusk that the house really fills with energy, when the skyscapes change so quickly and you can see the elements in all their glory. When it comes to life like that, it reminds you never to take it for granted.’
The build itself took three long years, during which time the family lived in a caravan on site. The immaculately groomed, one-time prep school headteacher Anna looks surprisingly fondly upon those rough-and-ready months. ‘The caravan cost us £500 and it was either boiling hot or freezing cold. I used to teeter across the stepping stones in the mud with my briefcase in one hand and (three-year-old daughter) Jasmine in the other. But we had a great time.’ She does, however, admit to some pleasure in ‘smashing the caravan to bits’ when the house was finally ready.
Architect: RRA Architects www.rra-arch.com
Structural engineer: Davidson Walsh Consulting Engineers www.davidsonwalsh.co.uk
Project and construction management: Simon Ellis 07979 067 432
Groundworks: Malcom Warner www.malcolmgroup.co.uk
Windows and doors: Charter Commercial Windows and Doors www.chartercommercial.com
Colourtex external render: T J Services UK 01594 840 990
Single-ply flat roofing and decking: County Flat Roofing www.countyflatroofing.com
Stairs and balustrades: Bishop & Smith www.stainlesssteelfabrication.biz
External landscaping: Aspects Garden Design 01989 565 071
Words: Kate Riordan Photography: Chris Tubbs