Back to nature

The world of home improvement is nothing new to Athena and Mark, but their latest project renovating a house to help it nestle into a Sussex nature reserve proved a challenge

For some, a major renovation or self-build project is a daunting task – arguably one of the biggest challenges they’ll face. Yet for Athena Hubble and husband Mark, their latest undertaking is the latest in a line of successful projects.

Athena’s love for restoring period properties began when she bought her first house at the age of 19. “I was always tinkering with it, I started taking up floorboards and uncovering things and I got the bug,” she says. “It was just lovely to find stuff and make the most of it.”

Since that first foray Athena has undertaken five further projects. Whenever looking for the next one, she asks herself three questions: “‘do I like the area, has the property got ‘good bones,’ and has it got potential?’ The rest you can make happen, it’s just a matter of time and effort,” she explains.

Her latest project is an 1800s cottage in rural West Sussex that had seen three generations of “horrendous” extensions added in the 1960s, 70s and 90s. It had been owned by an elderly couple and so, explains Athena, “was desperately old and things had been building up over time. The roof was sagging, there was damp in the walls.”

The main attraction for Athena and Mark was the location. Not only was it closer to her family, it also achieved the right balance for the couple. They were moving from a “small property very close to the sea” and “wanted to be in sight of the water but with a little bit more of a rural feel,” she says. The house backs on to Pagham Harbour and is surrounded by a nature reserve.


Although it was appealing, the location also presented a few challenges. Being situated within an RSPB nature reserve meant there were certain restrictions. They were limited as to what they could do in terms of extending further because there was a covenant on the garden and also because the property is situated close to a quay. “It used to be surrounded by water until they put the harbour wall in,” explains Athena. A north-facing courtyard would have been “useful” for an extension but it contains a main drain not only for their property, but also the local area. “We were limited as to what we could do. We had to make best use of it, reconfigure it,” she says.

For this reason the bulk of the work undertaken was making good the existing cottage and extensions, bar one small cantilevered steel extension – about three m2 – on the kitchen. “It was triangular so we squared it off, so that we could have a kitchen- diner where the doors open fully into the garden.”

Because Athena and Mark wanted to make changes to the exterior, they were forced to put the project through local planning – a process that caused some difficulty. During its multiple renovations, the house – including the cottage – had ended up with PVCu windows, and the cottage’s original flintwork had been plastered over. “It stood out like a sore thumb,” Athena says. “The area is lots of flint, agricultural barns, old cottages, wood panelling and terracotta tiles. Having a bright white house didn’t feel like it was hunkering down in its environment at all.”

Despite their desire to restore the flintwork, install wood windows and clad the extensions in larch, their initial ideas were rejected by the planners. Athena therefore took it upon herself to photograph as many of the neighbouring properties as possible to build their case. Their architect, Paul Cashin, also helped them contest the decision. “He explained the intent to be sympathetic to the local area, and asked which hardwood they’d like us to use etc,” explains Athena. “We made the case that it was environmentally sound and a value added to the local area.”

Eventually they managed to agree a compromise – oak windows and a larch cladding that would weather over time. “It was a big win for us,” says Athena. “It was pretty critical because it would have looked like a house with two extensions irrespective of what you did, unless you were able to clad it in some way.” Their case was helped by their neighbour’s support – they were happy as their view got “a lot better.” Not only were they planning to incorporate the garage into the main part of the house and therefore remove its “big plastic door”, they would also conceal an existing flat roof with terracotta tiles, as well as remove the balustrading and the PVCu door to the roof. In addition a flat, electric rooflight would be added plus sedum so it would “become part of the nature reserve,” says Athena.

Design collaboration

Having done projects previously, Athena was keen to work closely with their architect on the design – and picking them wasn’t a decision she took lightly. Working with architects “can be challenging,” she says of previous experiences. “They can go off on tangents and spend your money for you!” She was impressed by Paul’s website. “I could tell he was about blending in, a natural feel,” she says.

Upon meeting him, she says she could tell immediately “we were on the same page. He’s passionate about it and so am I so that’s what bonded us.” Athena describes her process as designing “inside out” and Paul responded to that. “It’s a passion of mine, interiors and design and using organic materials,” she says.

The project evolved with Athena describing and sketching how she wanted things to feel, how she wanted to use the space, or what particular views she wanted and Paul coming up with ideas and solutions to give her that. “He really listened,” she says. However, he also challenged her on certain areas where he felt strongly she needed to reconsider or look at alternatives. “He was good at reminding me about little things, like the light, and adding a second fuseboard outside so it wouldn’t cost as much to run everything to it,” she says. “Making the right decisions at that point will save you money.”

The couple’s main requirement, other than using organic materials, was to create spaces that worked for socialising, while restoring character to the cottage, as well as adding it to

the extensions. “We’re quite social,” Athena says. Mark runs a music company in Brighton and colleagues as well as friends often come to the house. He therefore needed an office that was large enough to accommodate people.

One of Athena’s priorities was getting the kitchen-diner – and its connection to the garden – right. While she wanted a certain openness and a space large enough for hosting guests, she also likes “cosy rooms” and therefore needed some separation from other rooms as well. “The kitchen-diner was the big focal point for me,” she says. “I didn’t want a bank of units, a fitted kitchen all the way round the outside of the room, I wanted to flow round the space and have a big table and chairs.” Athena’s brother Richard runs Hubble Kitchens and helped her design it around a central island. She wanted something that stayed true to the organic materials yet was sleek and modern, and they settled on a Leicht black wood. They also included an internal vented hob, due to the
low ceiling.

They restored the one-room-deep cottage, which includes a library, taking it back to “more of an original look and feel.” This also serves as a retreat from the more social back of the house. In order to bring some character to the extensions, the pair installed two woodburning stoves – one in the downstairs snug and one in the upstairs lounge, which maximises on the views over the wetlands – another of Athena’s requirements. “The woodburners bring a focal point to the room,” she says. In addition, they included some exposed brick and wood

panelled walls “to bring warmth.” She adds: “I wanted the snug to feel like a little log cabin, with wood walls and a thick carpet.”

Installing the woodburners proved slightly problematic. “We had to do a lot of work to manoeuvre the steels so the flues were in the right place and to get the clearance we needed,” explains Athena, “and it dictated we had to use a certain type of fireproof plaster.”

The three-bedroom house has three bathrooms and Athena wanted two of them to be wetrooms. She also wanted underfloor heating in each one. “You have to factor that in because the floor has to be thick enough,” she says. “Thinking about how you want things to feel and how you want to live, how you’re going to have furniture, has an impact on the design. But that’s the luxury of designing your own home.” The rest of the house is heated with industrial-style radiators.

Aside from these specifics, the couple’s main requirement was to reconfigure the layout. Previously, Athena explains, “we had to walk through rooms to get to rooms, adding, “We had to get the flow right.” They incorporated the garage into the house and added utility/boot rooms and the snug. The internal walls were knocked down and new ones constructed to create the new rooms, which make the most of the views out the back. The roof and structure was reinforced with new steels, and they installed all new electrics.

The restrictions on the land meant their hands were pretty tied when it came to installing sustainable features. However, they reinsulated

the loft and installed a new boiler system to accommodate the size of the house. “For everything else we just tried to use natural materials so we weren’t imprinting too much,” she explains. “And with the woodburners you don’t really need the rest of the heating – I’m just a very cold person!”

Bumps in the road

Naturally, it being a renovation of an existing property, unforeseen hurdles were thrown into the mix. They found the joists supporting the

bathroom on the first floor of the cottage didn’t comply with today’s regulations, being neither wide enough nor fitted correctly. “If we’d filled the bath with water it would have gone straight through!”

There were also other areas where “we just had to flex, we couldn’t get exactly what we wanted,” Athena says. They had planned to add a downstairs toilet in the boot room but connecting it to a drain would have proved complicated and costly. They also couldn’t move a wall as originally planned, but, says Athena, their architect Paul would “come down, talk with the builders and redesign it. You’ve got to be able to not panic.”

The project also took slightly longer than they anticipated due to a couple of delays. They started in April 2016 and the bulk of the work was finished in August 2018, although “you never really finish!” Athena jokes. The project came to a complete halt while they were waiting on the custom-made windows. “We were told it would be six weeks, but it took five and a half months,” she explains. “My dad actually went down and worked with the carpenter to try and speed it up!”

A couple of minor errors were made, such as the water draining the wrong way in one of the wetrooms, away from the drain, meaning the floor had to be redone. They also changed builders at multiple points throughout the project – “they kept getting stumped and leaving us” – which caused another few months delay.

As well as project managing herself – “it’s not my first time and I’m quite hands-on” – Athena and Mark lived in the house, which she admits was challenging. “We just moved from room to room, we didn’t unpack anything,” she says. They had sold most of their furniture with their previous property, something Athena often does as it enables her to “start afresh”, but they “still had a lot of stuff.”

They were without hot water for a long time so were using neighbours’ and friends’ showers. “You’ve got to love it to do that,” she says, and does recommend living offsite if the budget allows. “But I wanted to be here, there’s decisions to be made every day. Builders are good at their trade but they’re not designers, and they don’t have your vision – you have to be around.”

Athena says she doesn’t recommend project managing for first timers. “The point where the architect leaves and builders join is the most dangerous,” she says. “It’s where everything can go wrong and end up spiralling.”

Having overcome the setbacks, they’re hugely pleased with the finished result. “It’s a really lovely, social space,” says Athena. She says one of the biggest compliments is that their children, 24-year-old Tyler and 22-year-old Kaya, “want to come here instead of going down the pub! It’s nice to have created spaces people want to be in.”

She also regularly receives positive comments from passers by. “The locals love what we’ve done. From the other side of the harbour you now can’t see the house so that’s a value added to the area.” The project’s ‘environment-first’ approach is something she’s very passionate about. “If it’s all about the house you feel like you’ve somehow taken a selfish path,” she says.

“I’m most happy with the fact it has blended in well with the local area.”

Athena credits the overall success of the project to team she had around her. “I’m very grateful for all the support – from my father Terry who lent his building skills, Mark for his patience, the encouragement of the neighbours and Paul for all his support,” she says. “It’s always about great teamwork.

Despite the hiccups, Athena is already looking forward to her next project. “You get the chance to explore something different,” she says. “It’s all an adventure! It’s nice to be able to create your own environment.”