Howard Reay and Amber Valentine both worked in TV and film, but this didn’t prepare them for the drama of their own journey to creating a grand home in Buckinghamshire. Roseanne Field reports.
Tucked away up a steep lane in the Buckinghamshire village of Hedsor, just north of Maidenhead, is Amber Valentine and Howard Reay’s strikingly modern, three- storey home.
Having worked in the TV and film business, they have since made successful second careers in property and interiors. They couldn’t be happier with their appropriately ‘designer’ des res, but the story of how they got here is straight out of a drama.
Amber and Howard own and run two businesses – Amber Valentine Interiors sells luxury bespoke furniture, while for their other venture, Zodiac Design, they design, build and furnish new build houses.
Their combined skills make them the perfect team when it comes to getting projects just right – Amber is an interior designer, while Howard undertakes the building design.
He says he has often found himself having to revise architect’s drawings where they were lacking in information. “I found I’d done so many corrections I’d think I should just start again,” he says. “I knew what I wanted to do and my father’s an architect so I thought, ‘let’s just do it from scratch.’”
He took a month out and taught himself how to use CAD. “I’d sit there for 10 hours a day just working out how to do one thing, but then eventually it started to slot into place,” he says.
A TEAR-JERKER OF AN OPENING
Unfortunately, no matter how good your team, things don’t always go to plan. The story began with Amber and Howard deciding to harness their abilities and build a home for them and their three daughters. “We built a forever home,” says Howard. “It was exactly what we wanted.”
Around the same time, they had built another house to sell on for their business. However, the unstable political and economic climate in the UK in the mid 2010s meant they were struggling to find a buyer. “It just would not sell,” Howard explains. Under increasing pressure to pay back the money they’d borrowed, it dawned on them they were going to have to do the unthinkable and sell their beloved new home.
“We thought ‘we have no choice.’ It was really awful,” Howard recalls. “It was very painful because it was just the best site,” adds Amber.
They accepted an offer, which meant moving into a rented home. “It was horrendous,” Howard says. In a cruel twist of fate, the project they were struggling to sell then sold “almost immediately” after.
Despite the heartbreak, they were determined not to wallow in self-pity. They began looking for somewhere to live and were exploring the area where their new home is when their attention was captured by the house that now sits next door. Situated high up with uninterrupted 10-mile westerly views, this large, contemporary home inspired them. “Amber said, ‘what we need is something with a view, something spectacular,’” says Howard. “We thought – we could build something like that.”
They took a chance and knocked on the door of a house on the adjacent plot and asked the owner whether they’d be interested in selling. As luck would have it, a previous sale had fallen through, so as Amber explains, they “negotiated on the front porch, and bought it within two weeks, in cash.”
Howard drew up plans for the site which were something of a contrast to the modest house they would be demolishing. The couple like to challenge themselves with each project they take on, and this would be no exception. The three-storey, 10,000 ft2 house includes a semi- basement level – the sloping site means at the back this leads out to the garden – and a “staggered” design. “It was really technically challenging to do,” Howard explains.
Despite the substantial nature of the design and the fact no previous planning applications had ever been submitted for the site, they were pleasantly surprised to encounter no snags gaining planning permission. “It was actually a delightful process,” remarks Howard. Having never worked with Wycombe Council before, they weren’t sure how their contemporary, terraced and flat-roofed design would be received. “The planning officer came, had a walk around, then said ‘I absolutely love it!’ and it went straight through.”
However, the smooth progress was short- lived. “There was a high voltage cable running straight across our site, and we worked out we would be able to put our hand up and hold it once the house was built,” explains Amber. So it needed to be removed and a new one installed underground before the build could proceed.
However because it served 200 people in the village, every house involved had to be sent a letter informing them the power would be off while the installation took place. When the day finally arrived, the cable brought by the utility company was a metre short – meaning the whole process had to be repeated. “There was a huge amount of money, plus months spent,” says Amber. “It really screwed up our schedule.”
Because of the slope, they had to excavate and insert a retaining wall. “It’s 12 ft high, a huge piece of engineering,” Howard explains. “For six weeks we built nothing but the wall, leaving us with a big flat site.”
Although these factors meant the project suffered a small hiatus after the demolition of the old house, once building work began everything accelerated. In fact, the build of the house itself took 10 months.
CASTING THE RIGHT PEOPLE
The couple assigned themselves strictly defined roles. “We’ve worked together for the last 10 years full-time and we have to have set roles,” says Amber. “I’m project manager, I deal with all the budgets and I deal with all the trades – hiring them, organising where they work and getting all materials, but I’m not allowed to discuss detail!” This type of role suits her, she says – she worked as a location manager in the film industry before launching into business; Howard was a director in TV.
Amber would designate a floor of the house to a particular trade, allowing them to sometimes have 15 people working onsite on a given day – significantly contributing to the speed at which the project was completed. Their experience in previous projects was key,
as they could apply lessons learned. “Something I’m particularly keen on is that it doesn’t change from the drawing,” says Howard. “There has to be a really good reason to deviate, because in my experience it always goes wrong.” He explains further: “When a decision is made onsite in 10 minutes with people making noise, you can’t really know what the implications are.” Aside from a few additional light fittings, Amber and Howard’s house is identical to the initial drawings he prepared.
Unfortunately, one last bit of drama stood in their way before their big finale. The couple had to move in slightly earlier than they had hoped, as their rental had come to an end. “The house wasn’t quite finished – the classic story,” Howard explains. “There were no lights working downstairs, so it was still a building site on the lower floor – it was piled high with materials and nothing was really finished.”
The roofer also hadn’t quite completed his work, but told the couple that despite some small details to finish it was ‘kind of watertight’. However one ‘detail’ he hadn’t finished was “opening up the holes to the downpipes,” says Howard. They discovered this during a big storm when their daughter awoke to find water coming into her bedroom. “I was up on the roof in the storm trying to work out what had gone wrong. I couldn’t see because it was dark but it was definitely filling with water,” says Howard.
They put towels down and tried to sleep, but after continued alarm from the cat, Amber followed him down to the lower floor. “I found water coming through every single light fitting,” she says. The house had been painted by this point, but there was “four inches of water covering the whole of the ground floor.”
They spent the rest of the night trying to push as much water out the doors as they could, including Amber’s parents coming to the rescue with mops and buckets. Despite everyone’s best efforts, they were convinced the floor would be ruined. “I was just thinking that’s it, that’s £15,000 worth of floor that’s definitely destroyed,” grimaces Howard.
However, they decided to hold off on replacing it and see how it went. Even though the floor had bowed, “it basically dried out and it’s fine, it’s still down there now!” Howard says. Incredibly, the only repair work that had to be done was repainting the 11 ceilings that had been damaged.
DESIGN & LAYOUT
Howard’s design for the house was actually largely based on a concept he had dreamed up eight years earlier. “I’d always had this idea of doing this tiered house with glass and balconies,” he says. A lot of the house’s features can be found across others they have built, such as extensive use of glass. “My obsession is sightlines. You’ll find that the centre of a window is exactly in line with the centre of a doorway and so on,” says Howard. “He’s never designed a house where you can’t open the front door and see straight through into the garden,” adds Amber.
The house is entered through a grand double front door at the middle level, with double height glass surrounding the entrance and reaching up 6.5 metres. The stairs and living room are on one side of the hallway and the large kitchen, dining and living space on the other. Upstairs are the bedrooms and bathrooms – all of which feature the same crema grey honed marble from Oman that Amber and Howard use in every project. The landing features an interesting circular cut-out in the floor below a skylight, allowing light to flood right down into the entrance hall. The lower floor is home to a large open area with a guest bedroom and ensuite on either side. This space also opens out to the garden and swimming pool.
To the side of the house, next to the bespoke kitchen, is a large pond featuring a tree which appears to ‘float’ on the water, which Howard included in order to bounce light and warmth into the room. The house also benefits from solar gain from the large windows, doors and rooflights, and has solar panels on the flat roof. The house is heated by underfloor heating throughout, and there are also two fireplaces. The house has a Rako lighting system, which can be controlled via their phones, as can the Sonos sound system. The house is ventilated with an MVHR (mechanical ventilation with heat recovery) system.
Despite the modern exterior, Amber and Howard approached the interior design slightly differently. Amber explains: “Modernist houses are normally tiled, echoey, don’t have any detailing, but we’ve actually done ours in quite a traditional way.” They’ve installed traditional skirting boards and architraves, wooden floors and curtains. “The kitchen/dining area is a massive space but it’s comfortable and warm. You don’t feel lost.”
Their work both building houses and designing interiors and furniture means they’ve honed their skills to provide a highly tailored result to suit each house. “Most things here are bespoke, designed by both of us, including the paint colours. We find a formula and we work with it,” says Amber. “When you’ve built as many houses as we have you know what works and what doesn’t, and you refine, refine, refine,” adds Howard.
Their hard work and determination has paid off – Amber and Howard say there’s nothing about the house they would change. “We absolutely love living here,” she smiles.