Having waited 14 years for the go-ahead to build their own home near Bath, Chris and Val Smith now have a modern home nestling in idyllic countryside.
Anyone who decides to build their own home from scratch needs to be both determined and patient, but it takes a higher order of perseverance to battle planning authorities for a full 14 years just to get permission to start. Chris and Val Smith did just this – little realising that the dream they hatched back in the distant Nineties wouldn't become habitable reality for such a long time. The 1.75-acre plot has been in Chris’s family for over 80 years and there were once piggeries where the house now stands, but this was never going to be a straightforward project.
The stand-off between the Smiths and their architect, Designscape, and the local planners was as epic as it was because while an earlier ruling had seemed to give the Smiths permission to build, leaving only the type of dwelling in question, the planners were now adamant there shouldn’t be a building on the site at all. The land is officially green belt, as well as being within the Cotswolds, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB).
Even once permission had finally been granted – albeit with modifications (a smaller chimney stack, lowered ceilings) – there was still the problem of the land itself. Overgrown with head-high brambles and used as a local fly-tip, it was what was beneath that caused the real headaches. Not only is it a very steep plot, but much of the ground is unstable. The next step was to employ a structural engineer; without their expertise and specially built foundations, there was a very real chance of the house simply sliding down the valley towards Bath. The single-aspect design is bottom heavy, partly to increase thermal mass, but also for stability, with the lighter, timber-clad floor above. For this they chose Douglas fir, which is silvering beautifully with age already, while the lower, sturdier floor is encased in drystone wall, using the local, honey-tinged Cotswold stone. The house is entirely invisible from the nearby lane, even from within the garden it’s unobtrusive; much more a woodsman’s cabin hidden among the trees than a look-at-me contemporary build lording it over the valley.
The interior layout is upside down, with the four en-suite bedrooms, utility and garage areas downstairs, and a large open-plan living room above. It’s a clean, white space but it doesn’t feel devoid of personality. Chris has his own snug with squashy leather armchair, telescope (trained on the bird boxes in the trees outside) and TV for watching sport. Val – an artist – has her own self-contained studio and gallery space set into the hill at the back of the property, complete with huge sliding glass doors out to a small, decked suntrap.
The official entrance to the house is here, reached via a path through what seems to be a continuation of the wild-flower meadows that surround the house. In fact, this is the roof of the building’s lower storey – the bedrooms and garage unseen below. As with the real meadows, the vegetation of the green roof has been encouraged and then left to its own devices.
From Val’s studio you reach the open-plan living space. In the predominance of white, the huge expanses of glazing and clever storage solutions, you can certainly detect the architect’s skillful hand. However, thanks to Val’s artwork, cheery pieces from Ikea and a scattering of the French antiques that filled their last property, there is a great deal of the Smiths here, too.
There have been compromises, of course, and those that weren’t enforced by the planners came down to cost. The garage space was simplified, and the ceiling heights throughout are lower than originally planned, but the finished result is arguably more homely and less like an architectural showcase. With the surrounding meadows teeming with flowers and the views across the valley towards Bath as pretty as a picture postcard, it’s obvious it was worth the (very long) slog.
Architect Designscape (01225 858 500; dscape.co.uk)
Structural engineer Momentum Engineering (01225 444 194; momentumengineering.com)
Windows, rooflights, glass balustrade Space Glass (01249 700 260; spaceglass.co.uk)
Solar thermal system Consolar (01452 772 030; consolar.co.uk)
Engineered timber Howarth Timber Engineering (howarth-timber.co.uk)
Timber flitch beams/columns James Latham (lathamtimber.co.uk)
Steelwork Robin Butler Engineering (01249 815 672; robinbutler.com)
Drystone Knockdown Stone (01666 840 443; knockdownstone-cotswold-stone.com)
Piling GeMech (0117 301 5480; gemech.co.uk)
Underfloor heating Nu-Heat (0800 731 1976; nu-heat.co.uk)
Kitchen Porcelanosa (porcelanosa.co.uk)
Bathrooms Bathroom Solutions (01225 335 664; bathroomsolutionsltd.co.uk)
Fireplace Mendip Fireplaces (01749 344 015; mendipfireplaces.co.uk)
Timber flooring Boen UK (0800 652 5280; boen.co.uk)