Having waited 14 years to gain permission to build their own home on a plot on the outskirts of Bath, at last Chris and Val Smith 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 lot 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 until 2009.
In truth, the idea of creating a home atop this awkward-but-lovely chunk of land on Bath’s outskirts went back much further than 14 years. Chris’ family have owned land around these parts for decades – the 1.75-acre plot has been in the family for about 80 years – and there were once pig sties where the house now stands. Chris played in the fields here as a boy and the Smiths began their marriage in Bath, so there is a palpable sense of coming full circle. ‘We won’t ever be moving again,’ says Val, with total certainty. This was never going to be an easy project. The stand-off between the Smiths, aided by their architect, Designscape, and the local planners was epic.
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). ‘Everyone else was supportive,’ says Val. ‘There weren’t any objections from the public and the parish council were on our side, too.’ 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, with a road at the back and a public footpath (after which the house, Twinneys, is named) to one side, but much of the ground is unstable. Directly below the house runs a seam where two very different soil types meet – one of permeable silt, the other clay. Architect Alex Sykes ruefully remembers a surveyor’s land report ‘an inch thick, which was pretty scary.’ On discovering this most self-builders would have walked away, but the emotional ties the Smiths had with this plot of land made that unthinkable.
The next step was to employ a wellregarded 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 local, honey-tinged Cotswold stone. Both materials blend sympathetically yet stylishly with the surrounding countryside. As Alex puts it, ‘we used vernacular materials in a contemporary way.’
Difficult to spot from the opposite side of the valley, the house is entirely invisible from the nearby lane. Even from within the garden it’s unobtrusive. 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 for when he’s not away sailing, with squashy leather armchair, telescope trained on the bird boxes in the trees outside and a 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 and light-diffusing wells in the ceiling.
The home's entrance is here, reached via what seems to be a wild-flower meadow surrounding 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. 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. Seeing Twinneys now, the surrounding meadows teeming with flowers and the views towards Bath as pretty as a picture postcard, it’s obvious it was worth the (very long) slog. In a strange way, what makes it so special now comes as a direct result of what made it so difficult then. After all, this is a true labour of love. No one else would have seen this build through, so it seems only fitting that the Smiths have been so justly rewarded now.
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