The Glass House - Real Homes


A modernist home built on time and to budget

Peter and Christine Benjamin have been retired for 30 years now but are only just beginning to take it seriously. Their version of retirement has so far included running a farm, building a holiday business and, now, overseeing the design and build of their retirement home.

It's the last project that marks something of a turning point. They came to realise, says Christine, that as they enter their seventies, their existing house with its many stairs and on-going maintenance requirements, to say nothing of huge heating bills and extensive gardens, would one day become too much for them. It's a predicament that many older couples face but the Benjamins' version of downsizing is radically different to the route most retirees take. Not only did they decide to build their own home, they also chose to create a beguiling, two-faced, modernist-inspired property, which featured on Grand Designs.

‘We bought a few books on modern architecture and really admired Mies van der Rohe's work,' says Peter by way of explanation. ‘We knew we wanted a house with floor-to-ceiling glass and an overhanging, low, flat roof.'

Armed with drawings and ideas, they appointed their architect and submitted plans. The local planning authority's new chief planner had just issued an edict to support architecturally interesting homes and the plans ‘passed without objections,' says Peter.

Peter project managed the entire build from start to finish. On the television programme, Kevin was horrified with the decision not to use an architect to see the development through. He pointed out, rightly, that a design such as this one stands and falls on its finer details.

But Peter was confident. He'd had extensive project management experience in a senior role at Reuters and, though the couple had never built their own home before, they had restored a manor house and renovated nine cottages and three properties, including one listed building in the past. ‘We're amateur [developers] but not inexperienced ones,' says Peter.

And it's fair to say his confidence paid off. The building was delivered on time and on budget and is filled with practical and environmentally friendly considerations.

The new house sits in the grounds of the Arts and Crafts period manor house that is their current home and which they plan to give to their children. It straddles the boundary of an early 19th-century walled garden and its public face looks onto a small square surrounded by Victorian stable buildings. A low slung rectangle clad in Shiplap boarding with simple, black framed windows, it fits comfortably among its Victorian-era neighbours and offers no hint of the modernist style that the private aspect of the home reveals.

Surrounded by glass, the living spaces feel integral to the outdoors. This is not a big home but it feels vast because of the endless glass and the views of the garden and beyond.

The living space is simply furnished. A glossy red Magnet kitchen faces a travertine marble dining table and a red leather sofa sits in the living space. By far the most striking feature is the bespoke cabinet that covers an entire wall in the living area. Made by local craftsmen from a single piece of olive ash veneer, it is framed by pillars of walnut and adds warmth, interest and a stylish focal point to the interior space.

Maximising space was an important consideration throughout the house (the Benjamins are moving from a seven-bedroom home to this much smaller place), and a functional utility room has been incorporated behind the kitchen. It houses the dishwasher and washing machine and offers much needed storage. It will also be home to the couple's two exuberant Great Danes, Bert and Daisy, who were the real stars of the TV programme, frolicking for the cameras and doing their best to upstage the house.

Peter is a physicist, and brought this background to bear on the rollout of the project: ‘I wanted to employ the very best of various crafts, and to find and use the latest techniques,' he says.
As a result of his research, the couple tested a number of new materials and approaches on the house including an innovative spray plaster technique (see right) and specialist sound insulation products. They also employed decorators that sprayed paint, rather than using the more traditional brush and rollers.

This approach also saw Peter make some big decisions. One of the most controversial was choosing a wood frame for the house rather than working with concrete, the material that modernists generally favour. Kevin felt it diminished the modernist traditions of the home but Peter believes a wood-framed house is more practical and more sustainable.
‘There were quite a few advantages,' he says. ‘Builders in the UK are more comfortable with wood frames, it's more cost effective and more environmentally sound.'

Environmental considerations played a part in many of the decisions the couple made. They chose a natural material - sheep's wool - as thermal insulation and implemented a policy of working as far as possible with local contractors. With the exception of the deck, which surrounds the rear of the house and comes from America, almost all the other building materials were sourced locally. And while the deck might not be local it is made from 60 per cent sawdust and 40 per cent recycled plastic, which means its green credentials stack up. Peter and Christine also installed a ‘heat recovery ventilation system' that captures 90 per cent of the building's outgoing heat and re-uses it; making the house both cheaper to heat and energy efficient. 

With its functional living spaces and the overwhelming tranquility that the stunning open aspect provides this could prove to be a seriously addictive home.

Useful Contacts

Architect: Woodward Smith
Structural Engineer: Michael Ralph
Builders: DJB Building Services 01962 843377
Timber frame: Tru-Homes
Thermal Insulation: Second Nature UK
Sound insulation: E-Cousti Acoustic Solutions
Cabinet makers: Touchwood Devon
Roof lights: Brett Martin Daylight Systems
Decking: Environmental Composites
Windows: Saint-Gobain Glass
Blinds: North Devon Blinds
Aluminium frames: Comar
Fabrication and installation: MPS Glass Centre
Plaster: Plaster Faster
Plaster: ICP Alltek

Words: Trish Lorenz Images: Eddie Van

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