John and Sue Lawson bought a small cottage in a Cheshire village back in 1999, with a view to doing it up. “The property had originally been a one-up, one-down,” says John. “It was built against the rear boundary of the main plot, with a large front garden but no space at the back, and had been poorly extended by previous owners using various types of brick.”
Having lived in a modern estate house for some time, the 1930s cottage presented the couple with an opportunity to change their lifestyle. Sue was particularly keen to find a home with plenty of land where she could keep her own horses.
Fact file: John & Sue Lawson
Style: Contemporary farmhouse
Construction method: Oak frame
Plot cost: £390,000 (incl. original cottage)
House size: 340m2
Build cost: £922,000
Total cost: £1,312,000
Build cost per m2: £2,712
Construction time: 15 months
Current value: £1,600,000
“We spent the summer of 1999 driving around Cheshire looking at properties, and kept passing this little cottage. It stuck out because it had six acres, including some stables and paddocks,” she says. “We got chatting to a friend who lives in the village and happened to know the owner, and then two weeks later we had a call to say they were thinking of selling up if we were interested.”
Despite the cottage’s problems – the rooms were small and poky, with ceilings so low John would regularly bang his head – the couple knew that a property with so much land was a rare find in Cheshire. So they put their house on the market and went ahead with the purchase, hopeful of securing planning consent to remodel their new home so it would better suit their needs.
Unfortunately, John and Sue’s ideas for renovating and extending were rebuffed by the local planning department, as the property had already been added to several times over the years.
A new tack
In 2007 John sold his insurance business and retired. With more free time at his disposal he decided to make another attempt at gaining consent for the remodel. Despite employing a planning consultant, the couple’s ideas were once again dismissed.
With few options remaining, the couple consulted another planning expert, who advised them that the rules had recently changed and they should now be free to make an application to replace the cottage with a brand new, tailor-made home. Even better, they stood a good chance of being able to relocate the house on the plot to create a private rear garden, plus there was potential to dig out a basement level to maximise space.
“We’d tackled major renovations before but had never built a house from scratch,” says John, who was wary of how the planners would react given the previous refusals for remodelling. After extensive research, the couple decided their dream home would incorporate an oak frame and engaged an architect to help them develop their ideas.
They arranged a meeting with the council and came armed with a folder of inspiring images, floorplans and architect’s drawings – which evidently impressed the planning officer, who ultimately agreed to the concept.
In the frame
Sue and John were both attracted by the instant character and organic look offered by oak framing, with its appealing exposed structural timbers. They wanted a home that, from the front, would echo the design of traditional Cheshire farmhouses in the area. At the rear, however, it would present a more contemporary aesthetic, incorporating plenty of glazing.
After talking to several specialists, the couple selected Welsh Oak Frame to take their project forward. “They promised to meet our timescales and the company’s pricing was competitive,” says John.
“The quality and style of what they produce was exactly what we were looking for – not too modern and not too rustic. The design team was also highly professional. Whenever we phoned with queries, nothing was too much trouble – and that continued even after the frame had been delivered and erected.”
The couple drew on Welsh Oak’s experience at the design stages, during which the company worked closely with their architect. The frame was loaded into 3D software so that John and Sue could take a virtual walk-through of the house and visualise their new home.
“Our architect recommended a builder, who agreed to work to a price with a fixed, pre-agreed profit,” says John. With planning permission now in place and the construction team appointed, the couple rented a nearby house in the village to live in while the works were underway.
“We then had monthly site meetings with the architect, builder and quantity surveyor to try to make sure that things were on track,” says John. “I’m a bit of a perfectionist and wanted everything to be absolutely right.”
The old cottage was swiftly demolished in just a single morning, ready for the site to be cleared. Much of the leftover material was put through a grinding machine to produce a large quantity of crushed aggregate that could be reused in the main build. Work then commenced on excavating the partial basement level for the new house, which was to be brought forward on the plot in order to create a south west-facing rear garden.
“We had an issue with the ground conditions due to the sandy soil and a high water table, which essentially mean the basement is standing in water,” says John. “Cast concrete was used for the main structure, with a Xypex crystalline additive to make it waterproof. It’s been fantastic and completely prevented any moisture ingress.”
Structural engineers devised a series of beams to help support the house, and the perimeter walls were surrounded with aggregate. This was complicated work and, all told, it took three months to complete, which set the build schedule back.
The pace started to pick up when Welsh Oak arrived on site to deliver and erect the structural frame; an exciting stage of the project that took just four weeks in total. “It was quite strange seeing the oak skeleton going up,” says Sue. “But after spending three months looking at a hole in the ground it was a relief to finally see our home taking shape. The team finished absolutely on time, and once the house was watertight the frame was hand-cleaned with oxalic acid and waxed for a honey-coloured finish.”
A site manager and two labourers worked permanently on the rest of the project, with subcontractors brought in to complete the various phases according to the skillsets required. This included erecting the brick walls, covering the roof and fitting the glazing.
Sue and John spent a great deal of time choosing materials. In addition to searching online, they drove around photographing properties all over Cheshire for inspiration. “The old cottage had little cherry red roof tiles, and we wanted to keep that hue for the new house and oak garage, as it would match the stables,” says John.
Self-coloured cream render contrasts with the red brick, and the hardwood windows were handcrafted. “We spent weeks trying to find the right shade of green paint for the windows, which we felt blended well with the oak, brick and render.”
Building the dream
Having spent so many years living in the cramped cottage, unsuccessfully trying to secure permission to remodel it, the couple were eager to sample life in their new home as soon as possible. “We were scheduled to complete in a year, but it actually took 15 months, and we moved in on 22nd July 2012,” says John, who puts most of the delay down to the basement works.
Thankfully, the results were worth the wait. “The basement cinema and bar is a great place for relaxing, but we tend to favour different parts of the house depending on the time of year,” says John. “For instance, in summer we enjoy spending our time in the glazed garden room and kitchen, with the bifold doors and electric rooflights open,” says John. “In winter we use the snug sitting room with the woodburning stove roaring away.”
Words: Debbie Jeffery Photos: Welsh Oak Frame First published: March 2017