Going up the hill to downsize

Building a contemporary home had always been at the back of one West Sussex couple’s minds, but it wasn’t until downsizing became the sensible decision that it became a reality. Roseanne Field reports

In a village in rural West Sussex sits a house that’s quite different from anything else in the area. The country lane leading to it gives little hint of the building sat behind the gates. Driving up the sloped driveway, it’s only as visitors reach the top of the elevated site that they first glimpse the very modern, zinc-clad house – which is in stark contrast to the traditional English properties around it.

One such house is Jackie and John’s old property, just down the hill from the new one – a Grade II listed, 17th century house that they and their two daughters called home for 16 years. However, with both girls having grown up and moved out, the time had come for the couple to look at downsizing, and this sparked an idea to build their own home at the top of the hill, on land they already owned.

“Self-build had always been at the back of our minds,” Jackie explains. But with both of them working full-time, it was never a practical option. It was only when looking to move that it became a more serious conversation. “We thought actually this is our opportunity to build something that we would like – that isn’t somebody else’s dream,” she says. “We were at the right time of life really.”

To get the ball rolling they contacted a planning consultant, who advised them to arrange a pre-application meeting with their local planning team – a decision they’re very glad they made, and one Jackie urges other self- builders to make. The original design comprised three elements around a central courtyard but they were told it wouldn’t be approved because it was too big for the site and wasn’t in-keeping with the location and existing buildings.

“It was very worthwhile,” she comments. “For the sake of a drawing and a couple of hundred quid, we saved a fortune.”

The other thing flagged up in the pre-app meeting was the height of the building, and so the ground was dug out slightly in order for the house to sit lower down. Having amended designs before submitting the application, the process was more or less plain sailing.

“Although it was lengthy, and there were a few hitches, it was probably as straightforward as you can get,” Jackie says. “We’re lucky we don’t have any immediate neighbours, so we didn’t get any personal objections.”

They ended up with an L-shaped design – an idea John came up with, as it allowed them to still have a courtyard of sorts. They worked on the design with an architectural practice (Felce & Guy) who they’d worked with previously, and who, says Jackie, were “super!” They had a few other design criteria which contrasted with the house they were leaving behind.

“We wanted a contemporary house,” Jackie says. “We thought this is our chance, let’s do something different. We really wanted to have an interesting piece of architecture.”

They wanted neither a flat nor pitched roof, which has resulted in an interesting angled roof design that flattens in the middle and is supported by a ridge beam at the back. Their other main requirement, having come from a period property at the bottom of a hill, was to have lots of light.

A bump in the road

The couple’s desire to get a large amount of natural light into the property naturally meant a lot of glass was incorporated into the design. However, explains Jackie, “one of the things we didn’t really realise was that this would mean it gets very hot.”

The design process was therefore delayed while various technical calculations were done to combat the possibility of overheating, as they wanted to avoid having to install air conditioning. An IES model was used to calculate the risk of overheating using typical summer temperatures, based on the amount of glass and number of opening windows.

In particular, the couple were concerned about the house retaining heat overnight and so the model analysed the temperatures likely between 10 pm and 7 am. They ran the tests using glass with a 0.28 ‘g’ value – ‘g’ being a measurement of solar gain. “It’s one of the darkest, most heat- resistant types of glass you can get in this country,” Jackie explains. “It cost more but it means we don’t have to have air conditioning.” A high-performing triple glazed unit has an average g value of 0.5, while a Building Regs-compliant double glazed unit is around 0.7.

By using this glass and including additional opening windows, the tests concluded the overnight temperature wouldn’t exceed 26 degrees, aligning with the Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers (CIBSE) guidelines. In addition, pipework for air conditioning has also been incorporated so it can be easily installed in the future if necessary.

Once the glass issues were ironed out, they were finally ready to start onsite in February last year. The couple had moved into a cottage just to the side of the site where the new house sits, having portioned off the land and sold their house in August 2017. “We could have built while we still owned the house, but we didn’t want to end up owning two,” explains Jackie.

One of the first jobs to take care of was connecting to utilities – which should have been relatively simple as they were already connected to water and electric, and had a sewage treatment system. At the last minute, they learned the electric supply needed to be improved. “We found we had to improve the earthing after we started onsite, it hadn’t been flagged up,” Jackie says. “Nobody realised until the electrical engineer turned up, so that was an extra cost.”

Moving forwards

After the initial hiccups, the build finally got into full swing. The house is constructed using a traditional brick and block system. Jackie says: “We thought about using something else, but with the angles used in the design, the architect said ‘actually, you might as well go traditional.’”

The house is clad in a mixture of yellow brick and zinc – a recommendation of the architect. To the right of the driveway as you enter the property is an old barn, clad in horizontal weatherboarding. The zinc panels have been fixed horizontally as opposed to the usual vertical placement to echo the barn in a contemporary way. The planners were reportedly favourable to the use of zinc for its ability to achieve this aim, despite its modern aesthetic.

The house also features porticos at one end, which again were included to reflect the barn. It was these that proved challenging when deciding what to clad the house in, as Jackie explains: “We were thinking about having a cement fibre tile, but we couldn’t figure out how to do it with the porticos.” The house also has no visible gutters or downpipes – another of the couple’s requirements.

The schedule of the build meant the zinc installation was being done at the height of the hot 2018 summer. “Up here you’re so exposed, and the zinc was fabricated onsite so they were out there getting very hot, they struggled with that,” says Jackie. In addition, some fiddlier elements of the build caused issues, such as the unique shape of the roof, and the shadow gaps that have been included around the house’s interior – an idea they got from the home of a friend. “The builders hated doing it, but we really like it!” Jackie says.

The two ‘arms’ of the L-shape are connected by a glass-fronted entrance hall. Off to the right is the large open-plan kitchen/living area, which includes sliding doors out onto the courtyard area. There’s also a utility room at the side of the kitchen. To the left of the entrance hall is a small book room/home office and at the end a TV/music room. “It’s a really nice room, it’s very cosy,” says Jackie. The room features a built-in unit with a sliding glass door that hides the TV, an idea she got from an interior design course that she took. “It was a really good thing to do, because it makes you view how you’re living in different ways.”

Leading from the entrance hall, the stairs follow the walls around three corners up to the first floor. They were built of concrete in order to avoid creaking, and are finished with a slate tile. A gallery-style landing leads to the guest bedroom – which benefits from views of the fields out the back – with ensuite, and the master bedroom which includes a walk-through dressing room and ensuite. The floor-to-ceiling glass in the master bedroom is angled into the apex to make the most of the views out over the land, including the pond.

At the other side of the stairs are a further two double bedrooms – one for each of their daughters – and a shared bathroom. The bedrooms feature built-in wardrobes, done by Hubble who also did the kitchen and the unit in the music room. The same tiling has been used throughout all the bathrooms and in a downstairs WC. The bedrooms on either end of the ‘L’ have automatic curtains that were custom-made to fit the sloping windows. “It was important we had them because of the overheating,” says Jackie.

Automatic lighting placed above the skirting board runs up the stairs and along the corridors. The house is heated throughout by underfloor heating via an oil-fired boiler. The decision to locate it upstairs is an unusual one as people normally opt for radiators due to the cost, but because of the shadow gaps they had concerns radiators might look odd.

As well as funding the build, the couple had to find money to replace the majority of their furniture. “We couldn’t put stuff in that had been in a period property, so all the furniture’s new!” The flooring is finished with porcelain tiles downstairs plus Karndean wood-effect both downstairs and upstairs.

The project management was a team effort, with Jackie and John taking on some responsibility along with the site manager from Pilbeam and contract management firm ACP, who also helped with putting the job out to tender and cost control. “We were very glad we had them on board,” says Jackie. “They could keep abreast of it all and say ‘this is right, this is wrong’.”

The final ascent

Having moved into the cottage at the start of the project, the idea was to live in it right up until the new house was ready to move in to, but things didn’t quite go to plan. The build had fallen behind schedule, and the discovery of bats in the cottage meant it needed to be demolished sooner than planned (before they started hibernating!). They managed to find a holiday let to move in to which they could stay in until Christmas when it had already been let out.

Their cats couldn’t go with them and had to live in the old barn. “We were here at least twice a day, trying to look after them and make them feel loved!” Jackie explains. “And because it was winter and they were short days we couldn’t come in the house and look around much.”

It was also around this time that the site manager suddenly left the company, at what was a “critical stage” explains Jackie. “When someone takes over someone else’s project it’s not quite the same,” she says. “That was when it got very difficult and very tiring. You’re trying to lead a normal life as well – we gave up trying!”

Because they only had a two month window in the holiday let, they moved into the house just before Christmas 2018, despite the fact it wasn’t quite ready. Although they faced another rocky few months while the finishing touches inside were finalised, they’re now very happy to be in the house.

Unsurprisingly, given the less-than-ideal end to the project, they think it’s unlikely they’d take on a self-build again. “It’s exhausting,” Jackie says. “It’s not on our agenda – we don’t think we’ll need to, we’re happy with the result.” She admits that in hindsight there are a couple of tweaks they’d have made – a bigger airing cupboard and utility room – but overall they love the design. “It’s how we imagined it. It’s a lovely place to live,” Jackie says. “The odd but nice thing about it is having owned the property for 16 years it’s all very familiar!”