Eight years ago, brothers and dentist duo Dr Stephen and Dr Declan Keane bought some land on which to build two modern five-bedroom houses. Completed as a money-making venture, they employed the skills of friend and builder Craig Allen to undertake the project. Inspired by this experience, a short while later, Stephen and his wife Sophie began another search to find a suitable plot for their own bespoke home.
A local estate agent contacted the Keanes about a bungalow in their ideal location that seemed fit for a vast extension. The property had just had a sale fall through at the last minute, so when Stephen and Sophie viewed the dwelling they were able to negotiate an offer that was accepted straight away with the promise of a quick completion.
Fact file: Stephen & Sophie Keane
Project: Self build
Construction method: Brick & block
Plot cost: £600,000
House size: 372m2
Build cost: £670,000
Total cost: £1,270,000
Build cost per m2: £1,801
Construction time: 52 weeks
Current value: £1,500,000
“The house was located in the centre of a woodland half acre plot on the village boundary of Danbury and appeared to be just what we were looking for,” says Stephen.
The couple moved into the residence in March 2012, along with their young children Rosie and Freddie. They updated the interiors and lived in the property for two years, but it soon became apparent that an extension was simply not a viable solution for them.
A demolish and rebuild was the only option, but the Keanes were up to the challenge. “Living in the house allowed us to get to grips with how the site worked. We gained a good understanding of when the sun rose and set during the changing seasons, and we were able to gather ideas about how we could utilise all the space,” says Stephen.
The intervening years spent in the bungalow gave the Keanes plenty of time to do their research. “Sophie knocked on doors of properties nearby whose style we really admired. We enquired about designers and sought recommendations, which is actually how we found our architect, Andrew Pipe,” says Stephen. “The first time we met him we spent three hours chatting on a warm summer’s evening. We just loved his vision for the house right from the beginning.”
The scheme saw the living space increase from 130m2 to 372m2 in the new build. The couple used a combination of savings and money gained from the sale of their previous house to finance the project.
The village of Danbury has extensive woodland, plus the National Trust and other conservation organisations own the nearby heath. So, having worked in the area before, Andrew warned the Keanes that they might be in for a struggle when it came to gaining planning consent. To their surprise, permission was granted in just one month.
“The new design is 1.5-storey and has a larger footprint, stretching out to the rear by 6m on each side,” says Stephen. “We’re surrounded by a number of large trees, with their roots sited along the boundary lines of our plot. This meant we had to dig down 3m in some areas of the foundations.”
The demolition began at the end of February 2014, when Stephen hired Craig Allen as master builder and project manager. Not only did they have the experience of working together on the two new builds in Hockley, but Craig had also recently built Stephen’s brother’s new house in Shenfield.
“He employed local subcontractors for our electrics and plumbing works,” says Stephen. “We were realistic and planned for a year-long project. We knew it would take time using a one-man builder, but Craig did a great job.”
Stephen and Sophie had to adhere to Level 3 of the Code for Sustainable Homes, as demanded by their local authority. Until fairly recently, this national standard measured the performance of new homes, and some councils used to require projects to meet certain levels as planning conditions – but the Code has now been withdrawn. The Keanes had to submit a formal assessment for approval, which was an extra cost they hadn’t anticipated.
One month into the build they came up against a problem with the bricklaying. “We made the mistake of selecting expensive bricks and opting for the cheapest labour quote,” says Stephen. “We wanted straight arches above some of the windows using thinner vertical pointed products, but instead, the bricklayer we hired turned the normal units on their vertical side like soldiers. We stuck to our guns and found another firm to do the task, but obviously the whole situation caused unnecessary stress and delays.”
After overcoming the initial obstacles and with the shell of the house built, the next phase was to create the aesthetic appeal that Stephen and Sophie wanted. They had a clear vision for the look of their home, which enabled them to approach their project with a solid strategy to ensure it all came together as planned.
“We did a lot of our own research and sourced elements for the kitchen and bathrooms ourselves,” he says. “We wanted our home to feel as if it has stood here for years. We sought inspiration from the woodland setting and were keen to specify air-dried oak beams for the vaulted kitchen ceiling. Our builder initially suggested glulam, but we decided instead to invest in the joists we longed for.”
The doors and windows were another factor that had a very important role to play in connecting the house with its surroundings and providing the light-filled home that the Keanes desired. They approached Mumford & Wood for traditional bespoke timber fenestration throughout their home. Keen to use local businesses, suppliers and service providers where possible in their project, Stephen and Sophie loved that the company were a based nearby.
“It makes good sense to support industry in the area,” says Stephen. “My good friend Bob Wright of Gatecraft created the handmade solid oak garage doors, for example.”
After an intense year-long build, the Keanes finally moved into their home in March 2015. It had been a lifelong dream of theirs to create a bespoke family dwelling and the result certainly lives up to their expectations. “It was amazing to watch the scheme come together, from viewing the project on paper to seeing it emerge out of the ground and grow day by day, week by week,” says Stephen. “We were so excited to move in. The house has a real holiday-hotel feel about it, along with the sensation of never wanting to check out.”
Although they adore their new home, the couple are open to the idea of doing another project. “We’d welcome the chance to work with our architect, Andrew Pipe, again. We’d love for him to design us a retirement bungalow with a lovely view of the sea,” he adds. “Self building comes with a great sense of achievement, and it’s wonderful to think that we have inspired other people along the way, too.”
Words: Natalie Flaum Photos: Alison Hammond First published: August 2016