A kit home has plenty of benefits – including its price tag – but buying a ‘house in a box’ doesn’t mean sticking to the plan, as this wheelchair-friendly redesign near Cornwall’s Atlantic coast illustrates
TEXT CAROL BURNS IMAGES EWEN MACDONALD
Sarah and Trevor Wright knew exactly where they wanted to build their new house – as close to their old cottage near Perranporth on Cornwall’s Atlantic coast as possible – and had resorted to asking neighbours if they had a piece of land available to buy. Eventually one agreed to sell them their old tennis court and garden – sitting just half a mile from their cottage and a field’s length from their grandchildren. “We liked it because it was flat, had a nice view and was next door to our daughter,” says Sarah of the plot. She is disabled, and living in an old cob cottage was not suitable.
Having found and bought their plot in August 2018, it was time to decide what the house would look like. The couple decided on a kit house that recreated a Scandinavian log cabin which came with a £75,000 price tag (for the standard design).
Although called a ‘kit house,’ the finished building – from Finnish company Arctichouse – bears little resemblance to the houses that arrive partially built in a convoy of lorries from Germany, plus the tradesmen that put it up in two weeks. Pre-cut logs for the frame and the triple glazed windows are supplied, but the wood which made up the walls, ceilings and floors is supplied uncut. Even carpenter Trevor admitted he was a little overwhelmed, especially when it came to making and raising a 350 kg, 12 metre-long roof beam to the five-metre-high ceiling. Fortunately, sons-in-law Ric Wright and Chris Waters were able to lend a hand.
The couple had undertaken renovation projects before, including two cottages, but this was their biggest – and probably last – adventure. The timescale for the project was significantly higher than the two-week kit house template: the build took 18 months. For the first few months, the couple lived in a caravan in the garden that they had bought for £200, sleeping in a nearby shed if the weather got too bad (unbelievably, Sarah also helped homeschool her grandchildren in the makeshift home, as Covid 19 and the resulting lockdowns struck).
Among the major design changes were to open up the ceilings and take the building up to the exposed beams as well as adding three Velux windows to the roof for plenty of light. The house was also built south-west facing to make the most of Cornwall’s famous light.
The design also needed to consider Sarah’s mobility. Due to long term nerve damage, she sometimes needs a wheelchair, but neither she nor Trevor wanted a wide open plan living space, which would have been an easy solution. Instead, double doors separate the kitchen from the living space, the entrance porch from the living area and the wide corridor leading to the bedrooms, bathroom and Sarah’s art studio. The hand painted and stencilled blue doors add a splash of colour to the pine interior and can be left open when Sarah uses her chair.
The result is a large, bright wood-lined living space with high walls perfectly designed to display Sarah’s artwork, alongside work by friends and their grandchildren. The interior is Tardis-like. Outside the building appears to have a much smaller footprint and the double height ceiling is totally unexpected.
The project was very much a joint enterprise, with Trevor handling the wood and Sarah researching all the details and products they needed for their self-build home project – including how to buy and fit your own underfloor heating. She comments: “If you are really open and honest and ring people and ask: can we have that or how do you do that, people are very helpful.” She adds: “The planning officer is also a resource: you can ask them things – like `would we be allowed to do this or that?’”
Shopping around also proved vital to achieving their goal (and their budget). Sarah spent many, many hours researching and contacting people to find out more about individual elements and flesh out ideas. “I’ve got very good at maths,” she jokes.
A key element for the couple was the project’s environmental impact – all the furniture inside the house is ‘preloved,’ and the design has considered every eco-possibility. The wood used in the build is a slow-grown arctic pine which becomes a hardwood and the house has a heat exchange system (which keeps the house at a temperate 18 degrees at all times by taking warm air and circulating it in cold areas of the house). There’s also a source heat pump and underfloor heating, which Trevor laid himself.
“We included as many eco-friendly features as possible as this is very important to us,” says Sarah. “We couldn’t find a suitable kit house in the UK, and would have obviously preferred this. We have installed solar panels, an air source heat pump for heating and rainwater collection for flushing the toilet. And we also used as much insulation as we could possibly fit in.”
Installing the many eco-friendly elements in the house came with many challenges. The toilets use a pump-free rainwater collection system which uses gravity. But the couple found it required a lot of adaptations to get working. The device used to take spare energy generated from solar panels to heat water had – at the time of writing – stopped working.
There were other challenges along the way. “Probably, the worst part of the build was digging the foundations which is something Trevor hadn’t done before, but on the other hand he did quite enjoy driving the digger,” Sarah says.
“I think our best buy was probably the slate tiles for the roof which cost us about half the cost of new ones and had been taken off a school and were being sold second-hand in perfectly good condition.”
The interior is kitted out with second hand finds and often repainted or stencilled with Sarah’s own designs. She also found a place for home accessories and furniture from her favourite shop, the Swedish store Gudrun Sjoden. “I bought quite a lot of furniture while we were living in the caravan and knew where everything was going and what I was doing with it.”
The building itself sits within the landscape as though it has been there for many years. It is tardis-like: from the outside it looks unlikely to boast four bedrooms and a huge living/dining area that extends far above your head. The five-metre high ceiling is treated as an architectural feature with three Velux windows that draw the eye. Above the dining table an oar from the family’s old rowing boat has been repurposed as a chandelier, while elsewhere hang large tree branches which hang with seasonal ornaments.
Despite the many changes to the original design, the one storey house maintains its Scandinavian log cabin feel. “We have achieved the style we hoped for,” says Sarah. “Trevor is a carpenter, so not only did we want to build something environmentally-friendly but also something made of wood.”
Giant ceiling beams aside, Trevor admits he was mostly unphased by the project. His career had seen him work on huge projects including hotels.
“We love the high ceiling in the living room with the Velux windows and surrounding full-length windows looking onto the garden,” says Sarah, discussing their favourite bits. The large garden though the triple-glazed windows follows the eco-concept of the build, and has areas left to rewild that will become wildlife meadows.
While Trevor really did take the concept of self-build literally, the couple called on the help of Falmouth-based architecture firm Marraum, who had a 21st century solution to their design issue. “The best help we had was from Marraum, who helped us redesign the interior of the log cabin. Although it was a kit house we were able to make what changes we wanted to the interior layout before the design was finalised and then sent to us.”
“Adam at Marraum was able to input the house structure into a 3D programme so that with the help of virtual reality headsets we could walk around the house and see what it would actually look like. Adam even set this up so that the sun moved throughout the day to show you where light would be coming into the house.” She adds: “Being disabled, it was very important to me to have wide doorways and easy access to all areas.”
Having an architect also meant that even the smallest of details were considered and accommodated. While the homeowners focused on where to place furniture and the look of their kitchen, the team also had an eye on practical things, like ensuring there was enough storage. “It made sure we had places to store things like a mop and Hoover, that you don’t always think about.”
Virtual reality allows architects – and their clients – to experience and understand buildings before they actually exist. In the case of Rose Wood House, Sarah and Trevor could walk through their house before it is built. Changes can be made with a few clicks of a keyboard – and even allow you to drop in the furniture and decide ahead what you need and where things will go. “This was invaluable,” says Sarah. The couple could then pay Arctichouse in Finland to make the changes to the design for their layout.
“Sarah and Trevor asked us to review the initial plans of their home,” explains Adam Laskey at Marraum. “We quickly realised that the layout wasn’t considered for a wheelchair user, and set about redesigning, while also taking the opportunity to ensure the space made the most of its surroundings.
“We created a virtual reality experience that allowed us to test Sarah’s wheelchair and ensure that the space worked for her. Once approved, these designs were sent back to the manufacturer for amendments. Trevor then built the home himself, a labour of love, with Sarah researching all the ins and outs, ensuring the family got the best ethical and environmental solutions for their budget. Embracing the aesthetic of a log cabin – resulting in a beautiful eco-friendly project.”
Despite the challenges and the major redesign it needed, Sarah remains a fan of the kit house concept. “I would advise anyone to consider a kit house because you get everything delivered in one go including the glass for the windows, and all the doors.
“You need to buy your own kitchen and bathroom fittings and we in fact managed to use leftover wood to build most of the kitchen and bathroom and just had to buy appliances. You also need to provide your own insulation and electrician for wiring.
“We sourced anything we did need locally such as the second-hand slate tiles for the roof and materials for the foundations from a local company called Travails who we would highly recommend. Because access to our plot was difficult they also allowed us to store some materials at their site and they are literally a couple of miles away. They also hired us equipment such as the digger for the foundations.”
While the house is officially finished, Trevor still has plans – creating a mezzanine floor in one of the guest rooms to make room for an en suite among them. “I would do it again,” he says enthusiastically.
Sarah is more adamant that it will be their forever home. “Every day I think about how lucky I am,” she says. “I am never going to stop being grateful that I live here.”
“Enjoying the view from the full-length windows looking onto the garden from the living space”
“Digging the foundations ourselves, and having to raise a 12 metre beam up to the five-metre high ceiling. The beam weighed three tonnes!
“Be really open & honest; ring people and ask: can we have that; how do you do that? People are very helpful.”