A picture postcard cottage on the Roseland peninsula in Cornwall has been enveloped in a distinctly modern addition which also strikes a balance with the property’s traditional half
TEXT EWEN MACDONALD IMAGES RICHARD DOWNER
For self-builders in the south west, it has become common to buy up a past-it mid-20th century cheaply- built bungalow with a priceless coastal view, and raze it to the ground to create a modern glass and concrete ocean pad. Glass-enclosed, flat-roofed white modernist homes have become something of a Cornish vernacular in architectural terms.
But for those looking to stretch the skills of their architect – not to mention their own sanity – working with an existing building can offer much more of a challenge. All the decisions to be made can make it an architectural adventure: which bits to keep and what bits to get rid of? Can a modernist twist work in a traditional setting? For the brave, the spoils can be ultimately more rewarding than a complete new build with a bespoke design incorporating all that is best across distinct eras.
Jason and Fiona Ellis undertook just such a challenge when they bought a 200-year-old and unloved cottage on Cornwall’s sought-after Roseland Peninsula. Homes here rarely come on the market – so the Ellis family snapped it up and then sat back to consider the possibilities. “Cornwall had a deep connection with Jason as he had spent every summer holiday as a child on The Lizard peninsula, and later in his life I would also fall for the county,” says Fiona. “We wanted a ‘picture postcard’ Cornish cottage due to our love of period properties to which we could eventually retire.” They started to search for a property along the coastline between St Mawes and Fowey, ultimately ending up on the Roseland peninsula.
After two years of planning, designing and building, the cottage has been given a distinctly modern twist with the addition of a floor-to- ceiling glass extension that manages to contrast with – and complement – the existing historic building. The building has also been extended with a wing made from local granite that more closely matches the age of the house.
When considering adding to the size of a property – one of the major aims is often to create something seamless through a near- invisible extension that blends in with the style of the house. For Jason and Fiona, they knew that their newly bought character cottage would need additional space and wanted something that would stand out while complementing the building’s existing charm. The couple had already embarked on a major renovation on their former Edwardian period home in London. “This is where we got a taste for combining period architecture and materials with modern design,” says Jason. The previous work had taken 10 months to complete, and they felt well prepared for the major works on what would be their perfect new Cornish home.
The couple bought the cottage to become their forever home, and had undertaken work to turn it into a home before embarking on an extensive project that went beyond updating and modernising the inside. Enter van Ellen + Sheryn architects, who created a design to double the size of the building. Work began on site in October 2018 and was completed at the end of 2019. The couple worked with a quantity surveyor which made cost control and managing stage payments much easier for them and their contractor – something Jason recommends to anyone undertaking a self-build or major renovation.
The design and building work took 12 months to complete. The couple chose architects van Ellen + Sheryn after reading about them in a homes magazine. “We hoped to achieve a style of two distinctive halves, deliberately bringing together a period and modern element,” adds Fiona. “We didn’t want the new addition to look like an extension built in white stone like the cottage. There were easily identifiable issues that any design would need to rectify, not least an awkwardly-positioned garage. The original house was orientated in such a way that the large rear garden was cut off from the house – and as with many period properties of this type, the windows were small, and the ceilings were low, creating a dark interior losing the light that the Roseland peninsula is famous for. The overall feel was cosy but cramped.
The contrasting extension incorporates a rear glass sun-room, making the most of the new- look private garden, the far-reaching views of the countryside, and the all-important sunlight. This new space also houses one of their biggest extravagances: a dedicated coffee and gin station showcasing a La Marzocco espresso machine and featuring a GANT ‘Oak and Concrete’ light above.
The existing garage was badly positioned and the couple decided it was surplus to requirements. It has been converted into secondary accommodation, housing a utility room, a downstairs bathroom and storage.
Local granite was used from Cornish Lantoom Quarry to replace the existing garage with a granite barn structure that reflected other period properties in the area and reclaimed slate for the roof prevented it from looking new. Other materials that feature heavily in the new design are glass, birch plywood, cedar battening and reused Cornish local stone for landscaping.
The spaces between the two elements are distinct: one cosy and one spacious and light, utilising FineLine architectural glazing to provide a transparent enclosure. The floor-to-ceiling glass extends between the house and the former garage, and allows the white painted stone walls of the cottage to still be appreciated in the background. Similarly, the exposed granite wall of the new barn-like extension is visible through the floor-to-ceiling glass, bringing a great textural element to an internal wall that also celebrates the new part of the house.
The couple have succeeded in creating an addition that is both contrasting and modern in design rather than pastiche the era of the rest of the house. A contemporary and calm palette of materials has been used inside and out. Polished concrete floors and bright white walls bounce light around the room, while the timber coffee island and locally sourced Cornish stone provide natural colour and texture. The quality of the build and design helps prevent a visual clash when moving between the different spaces.
“The exterior of the property is ‘picture postcard’ cottage meets modern floating glass,” says Fiona. She describes the interior of the original cottage as “New England modern coastal,” with the extension bringing an “industrial design edge” with materials like polished concrete and marine birch plywood. Fiona adds: “The exposed granite wall of the new barn-like extension that is visible through the floor-to-ceiling glass and brings a great textural element to an internal wall.”
This calm palette of materials is continued out into the garden with the use of granite setts as paving; perfectly matching the colour of the polished concrete inside. The floor-to-ceiling glass extends between the house and the garage and allows the white painted stone walls of the cottage to still be appreciated in the background.
To enhance the feeling of lightness when viewed externally, the extension has been designed with the thinnest of roof depths at its eaves. The thick, insulated roof above the room tapers out from the glazing line to a thin overhang, in an almost aerofoil shape. This roof plane ‘floats’ above the glass and stone walls below, and the lack of structure at the glass-to- glass corner in the glazing system further accentuates the effect.
“The clients had already undertaken substantial improvements internally at the time of our initial meeting with them, and showed a good eye for interiors,” says Ian Phillips, director of van Ellen + Sheryn. “Due to the attractive and honest character of the existing cottage, it was agreed early on that any new addition should be of a contrasting and modern design. This would allow both the cottage and the extension to be enjoyed in their own right.”
He continues: “The resultant spaces should be different in what they provide to the overall property; one cosy, one spacious and light.” The composition of slimline glazing and an ultra-thin roof plane would “combine to create an elegant and light-touch addition to the cottage,” he added. “We’re very pleased to see that the client’s eye for detail, and the talented construction team, have been able to realise the design concept with such accuracy and finesse.”
There were plenty of other challenges along the way – not least discovering a well under the site of the proposed extension. To allow the extension to sit comfortably against the existing house, and provide a level access throughout, it was also necessary to dig down into the existing ground and underpin the existing stone walls. Below-ground structural work is expensive to undertake and added cost.
“We had quite a few low points at the beginning of the project when surprises revealed themselves as the extensive excavation works started,” admits Fiona. “Even though we’d spent 18 months from concept to breaking earth including test site digs. Our advice to anyone renovating or extending an old property would be to set a contingency and double it! Even when you think you have every eventuality covered, surprises happen.”
But the sleepless nights and hours bent over a calculator have all but been forgotten in the joy of spending time in their new home. The end result is a stunning combination of new and old, history is preserved with a modern industrial addition that highlights the beauty of the cottage, rather than dwarf it.
“The high point of the build came from a passer-by who congratulated us on such a great addition to the cottage linking it to the original granite barn,” says Jason. “Little did they know that the granite barn was part of the new addition and was spot on the brief – it makes it look as if it’s always been there!”