Despite facing a host of unexpected cost issues from subcontractors, Julie and Michael Clifford successfully melded contrasting styles to achieve their dream modernist home in a highly desirable part of the south east
TEXT TOM BODDY IMAGES JULIE CLIFFORD
Situated in the affluent and scenic ‘super village’ of Sunningdale, Berkshire, sits a contemporary new home boasting an unorthodox exterior. Despite the design differing from its nearby traditional counterparts, both planning and local residents were in full support of its bold design.
It took two long years for Julie and Michael Clifford to search for a suitable site for their next project, and it was only because of Julie’s connections working for a large interior designer that they found one. “You don’t get many shots at land in Sunningdale,” says Michael, “you either wanted to buy it or you didn’t. It’s not like there’s 10 other plots to choose from.” When the opportunity arose, the couple quickly jumped at the chance.
Their credentials for tackling this challenge didn’t end with Julie’s experience in the design world. Their previous residence, an oak-framed barn in Maidens Green, was their first self-build, and had been their cherished home for two decades. Experience, therefore, was firmly in their favour.
Although their two daughters had enjoyed a great childhood in that house, the Cliffords decided it was time to embark on a fresh and exciting new chapter in their lives. “There was no ulterior motive, we just wanted a new house,” says Michael.
With a successful self-build already under their belt, the couple had a clear idea of what they wanted to achieve. Michael asserts their primary goal which was a contrast to their previous oak home: “We wanted to build a modernist house, that was the key aim.”
Their vision encompassed ideas such as the creation of a spacious communal area, which they referred to as a “big super room,” and for each bedroom to have its own ensuite. In terms of the exterior, Michael was keen to explore the idea of a cantilevered house; “that was his big priority’” states Julie.
Their interior inspiration drew heavily from the villas they had seen holidaying in Marbella, Spain. “There’s a really strong modernist design over there,” asserts Michael. “Over here we seem to just do pointy roofs and chimney pots, and build old Victorian-looking houses for some reason.”
The couple wanted to steer clear of this traditional feel and avoid anything like a mock Victorian home. “We wanted something much more 21st century!”
However, this modernist vision contrasted with the existing century-old homes that graced the streets surrounding their chosen site. It was clear that their concept would make a bold statement within the local built landscape.
Thankfully, when the couple put forward their ideas to their architect Warren Joseph, owner of Ascot Design, he noted that the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead Council held a favourable view of modern architectural designs which aligned with their intentions. As Julie explains, “The two aspects fitted together seamlessly.”
Upon submitting planning, both the council and local residents welcomed the concept with open arms and were “hugely supportive” throughout the process.
However, a minor obstacle arose due to the site’s close proximity to protected oak trees. Yet, as Michael emphasises, by forging a close collaboration with the council, respecting their expertise, and adhering to the proper procedures, you can navigate these challenges and “work things out with them effectively.”
The couple acquired the land in late 2020 and successfully obtained planning permission during the summer of 2021. Despite enduring a significant amount of paperwork, they managed the process in a way that made it run smoothly, and they even found it fairly straightforward.
Breaking ground in April 2022, Michael and Julie embarked on the build itself. Even in the midst of pandemic concerns about being able to supply concrete, the Cliffords encountered no such issues, and “we used a lot of it!” says Michael.
Despite an otherwise seamless construction process, the couple faced some painful financial hiccups. “The biggest challenge for us was the unpredictability of British builders when it came to agreeing prices,” says Michael. While their primary contractor proved to be “fantastic” and remained supportive throughout, some subcontractors delivered initial quotes that were wildly off beam compared with their final costings.
Michael sheds more light on this tricky issue, noting, “Without naming names, some individuals provided quotes based on the plans and architectural drawings, only to drastically revise them after visiting the site and realising Sunningdale is an expensive place to live, often tripling the original figures.”
According to the couple, Covid and supply issues were used as excuses to hike prices up; as Michael asserts, “We had no issue with getting anything.” He adds, “It was clear that they were just being opportunistic.” Michael offers advice to other self-builders here, emphasising the importance of selecting reliable professionals that “you can trust to price properly.”
Despite the challenging price fluctuations, the couple acknowledges the exceptional quality of the work. “In a modernist home like this, you can’t hide behind anything because everything is on show,” says Michael. With intricate shadow gaps featured throughout the home, any mistakes would be clearly seen.
One fortunate aspect during the construction phase was how the family struck gold while the project took place, with a living situation that most self-builders can only dream of. “We amazingly managed to sell our old house to the neighbours and rent it back off of them until the project was finished,” explains Julie. This provided them with the funds to carry out the project without the inconvenience of relocating.
While the family are still waiting for some of the landscaping and finishes to be complete, the actual home itself has now been fully finished.
CONSTRUCTION & LAYOUT
The home has been constructed using 600 mm x 300 mm standard concrete blocks, which have formed distinctive white-rendered boxes that seamlessly stack together. This design effectively distinguishes between the upper and lower levels, where the upper ‘box’ extends further outward, resulting in a cantilevered section that envelops the house. The distinctive architectural design leads to a configuration where the upper level boasts a larger square footage compared to the ground floor. An abundance of variously-sized double-glazed windows and sliding doors offer extensive views of the nearby fields and trees. “We’re so surprised with the amazing views that we’ve got from the upstairs,” says Julie. “Every window provides the most amazing views, which we never expected!”
Given their family make-up, with two daughters aged 21 and 15, ensuring a functional living space was paramount. Upstairs, four bedrooms, each with its own ensuite, cater to the family’s needs. “The girls already love it as they have their own bathroom as well as built-in furniture!” says Julie. One of the upstairs rooms is the spacious master bedroom, complete with a built-in dressing area. The home’s location also offers significant advantages for their daughters. “Previously, our home was on a little country lane with no nearby amenities. Now, the girls can walk into Sunningdale,” explains Julie.
Downstairs, the expansive super room/kitchen serves as the social hub of the home, ideal for entertaining and cooking, according to Julie. This floor also accommodates an additional lounge, a generously sized utility room, and a restroom.
Another crucial consideration for the couple was sound insulation. They wanted the concrete floors to extend to the upstairs to prevent noise transmission. Julie explains, “In our previous wooden house, we could hear the girls returning home after an evening out. Now, you can’t hear anything!” Underneath the concrete, underfloor heating heats the various rooms, adding to the comfortability of the home.
Even the staircase, which bears Michael’s distinctive design touch, is constructed from concrete and, according to Julie, “it works really well.”
INTERIOR DESIGN CHALLENGE
When it came to interior design, finding a balance between Julie’s desire for maximalist luxury and Michael’s preference for minimalist simplicity presented a challenge. Julie’s company specialises in traditional interiors, so Michael’s desire for this style was a departure from her norm. While the end result is very much a modern, clean aesthetic, Julie has tried to incorporate touches of warmth and comfort by throwing in some timber elements and textured fabrics. “We’re constantly trying to compromise between luxury and comfort,” asserts Julie.
Elements of walnut are dotted throughout the interior, while Julie has introduced two four poster beds, which Michael isn’t so keen on. However she defends her decision: “I was aiming for classic contemporary with those!” says Julie.
As the furniture from their previous cottage-style home couldn’t fit into the new spaces, it was sold – resulting in them having sourced an entirely new collection. “It’s wonderful to have all new furniture, the girls love it,” Julie adds. The home’s generous internal space totals around 275 square metres.
With the project almost complete, the couple reflect on their journey and in doing so have some advice for anyone taking on a similar project. They emphasise the importance of making ample time to tackle questions and deal with construction issues. According to Michael, this is crucial because you’ll likely encounter a barrage of queries every week, and find yourself delving into extensive research to source subcontractors, especially given the tight labour market. “It’s all been worth it, but it is a lot of hard work.”
Another valuable piece of advice, echoed by both, is the need for a substantial contingency plan. Despite Michael having earned the title of ‘Mr. Spreadsheet,’ given to him by his wife, even his meticulous planning couldn’t keep up with the fluctuations in project costs. “Prices are so variable, how can you plan without a massive contingency?” says Julie. “You just can’t.”
What they thought were “solid numbers,” had actually become unforeseen and dramatic cost variations, which ultimately forced them to exceed their budget.
Despite encountering what were some highly taxing challenges along their journey, the couple say their new home is nothing less than perfect. Julie is proud of their “quite remarkable” achievement, concluding that they’re so satisfied with their home that “even though we spent two decades in our previous one, we don’t miss it in the slightest.”