Back in 2009, Matt Watton spotted a secluded half-acre plot of land that was advertised for sale together with a 200-year-old, single-storey cottage. The property had been renovated in the 1940s by adding a flat-roofed extension but was virtually derelict when he went to view it.
‘The house was falling down, and the garden was completely overgrown and full of oak trees,’ he says. ‘I showed it to Rachel, my partner at the time, and we both fell in love with the idea of living in such a private rural location – but we only had four days to act before it went to sealed bids.’
The short deadline meant that Matt and Rachel had no idea whether they would get planning permission to replace the derelict property with a new house. Their offer of £169,000 was not the highest bid, but the elderly owner sold the cottage to them because they planned to keep the large oak tree that stands prominently on the site.
The owners: Matt Watton, a fitness manager at a tennis club, and his partner Anita Raben, a public relations consultant who also teaches Zumba (both pictured right), live here with Anita’s sons, Zachary, five, and Sebastian, three
‘The vendor had grown up here and enjoyed climbing the tree as a child, so he hated the idea of it being cut down,’ Matt says. ‘We explained that we also loved the tree and wanted to keep it, without even knowing that this was a condition of sale.’
With their offer accepted, Matt and Rachel looked into renovating the cottage, which has no near neighbours and stands on Green Belt land. As it was in such poor condition it was going to be very difficult to create the modern space that they wanted, so they decided building a new house would be better option, and asked architect friends for informal advice before sketching out ideas.
‘We searched online for local architects and eventually met with five of them,’ Matt explains. ‘One of them, James Spiteri, is a similar age to me and we hit it off immediately. He understood what we wanted instantly and we changed very little from his original design, which took into account the proximity of the oak tree.
The main focus of the new single-storey house is a glazed open-plan kitchen/dining/ living space with folding-sliding doors that completely open up the corner of the building closest to the oak tree. A glazed link entrance hall connects this to the bedroom block, where the master bedroom includes an unusual, fully glazed shower. Materials used for the interior, such as the timber flooring, are replicated outside to enhance the indoor-outdoor feel.
In contrast to the extensively glazed rear of the house, with glass sliding doors and flush thresholds that connect the house to the garden seamlessly and make the most of the uninterrupted views over farmland, the front of the property has been designed to appear more cottage-like, with smaller windows facing onto a busy road. ‘It was never about building the biggest house we could on the plot, but about fitting in with the surroundings,’ explains Matt.
Green Belt policy restrictions meant the size of the new house was limited, but although the planning process was drawn out, with delays when planning meetings were cancelled due to bad weather, it also proved relatively straightforward, and the planners encouraged the idea of a modern design. ‘We didn’t push any boundaries as we wanted consent to come through quickly, so we stayed within the Green Belt planning guidelines,’ recalls Matt. ‘In the end, it took eight months to receive planning approval.’
Matt wanted to take an active role in the construction, but as he worked full-time he was unable to tackle all the work himself. Instead, he liaised with James to develop a phased plan to build the watertight shell, which Matt could fit out and complete. ‘It meant I had more control over what was going on, and was able to try my hand at some of the work,’ explains Matt, who built several internal walls and an outbuilding to contain the air source heat pump that heats the house and generates hot water.
The stages of construction involved demolishing the old cottage, building new piled foundations to accommodate the oak tree, constructing the walls and roof, installing windows, rendering the walls and completing the zinc roof covering. Matt opted for modern building methods, using structural insulated panels to construct the walls and roof of the house.
Rather than engaging a main building contractor, Matt directly employed the tradespeople on separate contracts, paying architect James to manage the overall process. ‘This worked well, although a four-month delay with delivering the glazing was disastrous,’ says Matt. ‘The weather changed and we had snow drifts inside the house, which was open to the elements. We later discovered that the underfloor heating pipes had perished in the extreme cold. There were puddles of water everywhere and we had to rip up the screed and re-lay pipes. It was a real nightmare.’
Work started on site in June 2010 and was eventually fully completed in December 2011, with Matt undertaking a great deal of the project himself. ‘The zinc roof needed to be battened and boarded out, and rather than paying someone else to do it, I got up on the roof with Paul, a good friend of mine, and worked at it during weekends,’ says Matt. ‘I’d never done anything like it before, and it turned out to be the high point of the project for me.’
Matt and Rachel funded the build privately, living in a caravan on site during the project, which they found extremely testing. Pipes burst during the cold winter and Matt contracted a chest infection that lasted for 18 months. Part way through the project, the couple took the difficult decision to split up.
‘At one stage we planned to finish the work on the house and then sell it on, because neither of us wanted to live here alone, which was really disappointing after all our hard work. I’d grown tired of the whole build and by this point I had lost momentum,’ admits Matt.
Several months passed when no progress was made to complete the house, which still had no kitchen, bathrooms or flooring, but a change in Matt’s circumstances altered everything. ‘I’d been friends with Anita for 15 years, and when we eventually got together as a couple it rekindled my passion for the house,’ he says. ‘Knowing that Anita and her boys would be moving in here spurred me on to finish the project, and Anita was able to get involved and make her own design suggestions.’
Anita is Danish, and the interior design of the finished house has a Scandinavian feel, with simple white walls and wooden or tiled floors. The two guest bedrooms have become rooms for Anita’s sons Zachary and Sebastian, and the house easily adapted to being a family home. ‘I wouldn’t have designed it any differently,’ says Matt. ‘It works really well for young children as they have plenty of space to run around and ride their bikes, with a large decking area.’
The highly insulated structure means that noise from the road is virtually eradicated and the house remains warm even though the glazed ‘open’ side faces north. Despite featuring so much glass, the building is energy-efficient and extremely airtight. For this reason, a ventilation and heat recovery system has been installed, which means that the interior retains a constant comfortable temperature.
Living in a house largely made of glass can occasionally create privacy issues, however. ‘Our walk-in shower has glass walls on to the garden, so we do have to make sure that visitors aren’t outside when we’re using it, but it’s fantastic to feel as though you’re showering outdoors, and the children love it,’ explains Matt. ‘It felt brave including so much glass in the design of the house, but it’s definitely paid off because we get an amazing amount of light and can fully enjoy living in such a great setting surrounded by wildlife.’
|Building materials and labour||£185,000|
|Plumbing, electrics and heating||£36,000|
|Deck and landscaping||£10,000|
|Furniture and accessories||£5,000|