Creating an eco cottage

'We've given our listed cottage a complete eco transformation': When architect and TV presenter Charlie Luxton and his wife Kate took on a semi-derelict 19th-century cottage, it turned out to be a major project with lots of challenges – but ultimately it was incredibly satisfying

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Practising what he preaches has been a long five-year journey for eco expert Charlie Luxton and his young family – but lots of vision and plain hard work have secured them their dream home.

Charlie, an eco architectural designer and the presenter of Channel Five’s Build A New Life in the Country, was living with his wife Kate and their baby Maia in a flat in Camden, north London, five years ago – but he was becoming increasingly disillusioned with his life, as he explains:

‘I was cycling to work as I couldn’t bear travelling on the tube, but felt that I was taking my life in my hands every time I left the front door and thought it was only a matter of time before I’d be knocked off my bike by a car. We didn’t want to bring Maia up in London – we wanted her to to be able to run around in the countryside.’

Fact file

  • The owners: Eco architectural designer and broadcaster Charlie Luxton lives here with his wife Kate and their two children, Maia, 5, and Toby, 2, plus dog Tilda.
  • The property: A two-bedroom Grade II listed thatched cottage dating from 1860 with 1970s additions. The property also includes a two-bedroom converted stable block and an acre of land.
  • The location: Hook Norton in north Oxfordshire, where the couple moved five years ago.
  • What they spent: The Luxtons have completely renovated both the cottage and the stable block along eco lines, reducing their carbon emissions by 87 per cent – the project cost £140,000 The house was bought for £205,000 in 2005; it is now worth around £450,000.

Kate, who had been brought up in Oxfordshire, had fond memories of the area. When the couple heard that her great aunt was selling a cottage there, a plan started to form.

‘The cottage was semi-derelict and in a real mess. Nothing much had been done since the 1970s, but it had the added bonus of a stable block and the possibility of some land at the back,’ says Charlie. ‘Kate’s great aunt was about to sell it, but we matched the price. I think she liked the idea of keeping it in the family somehow.

‘When we moved in, we realised the most sensible thing to do would be to convert the stable block first, giving it two bedrooms, a shower room and a large open-plan office before we tackled the main house.’#

It was a tough 18 months for the family as they lived in the house while work on the stables progressed. ‘We had no central heating, so when it was really cold in the winter we sometimes went to bed wearing scarves and gloves,’ says Charlie. ‘But we were not in a desperate hurry and wanted to give the stables a contemporary feel while still operating along eco lines.’

When they finally moved out from the house into the newly decorated stable block it was a breath of fresh air for Kate. Charlie’s spectacular picture window in the shower room, however, was slightly problematical at first.

‘The space allotted for the shower room originally had a door bang in the middle of it, but instead of blocking it in I decided to replace it with a window, so I could shower and look out over the field beyond with its fantastic views. The window would provide plenty of light too,’ Charlie explains. ‘We still had the builders working on the main house for another 18 months, though, so you had to make sure you were showered before 8 o’clock, or you could find yourself flashing to a couple of guys wandering past!’

Work started in earnest on the main house in 2008. ‘It was very exciting for me,’ admits Charlie, ‘as I wanted the cottage to be as eco-friendly as possible. I had designed countless projects for other people, watching them on Build A New Life In The Country struggling with their own problems, so this was my chance to see it first hand and get my own hands dirty. I tried to learn as much as I could on the practical side, like standing beside the plumber while he installed the boiler, asking questions and being an extra pair of hands when I wasn’t working in my office or filming.’

The first major investment was the insulation, which was key to heat conservation and keeping down their costs. The floors of the cottage were raised by 150mm to allow for super-insulation underneath and the walls and roof were insulated too.

A wood pellet-burning boiler was installed next to provide all the heat and hot water – it has cut their fuel bills from around £1,200 a year to just £400, which has been aided by solar panels on the stable’s roof.

‘The super-insulation is so efficient that this house is always at the right temperature now,’ says Charlie. ‘It is warm in the winter and cool during the summer months.

The Forestry Commission-approved Scottish elm floors and shelving throughout the house were personally sourced by Charlie.

‘I found the saw mill, chose the wood and arranged for it to be cut to size. It was a lot of work having it transported down from the lorry to the cottage and getting it fitted, but it has made a huge difference throughout the house,’ he says.

‘The walls here are incredibly thick – around 500mm – and had lots of storage holes, so we put in elm shelving and doors and turned them into attractive cupboards,’ Charlie explains. ‘The old floorboards, which weren’t original, have been recycled and used to line the walls, mainly in our family bathroom.’

The cottage’s extension had been added in the 1970s. ‘They put in a huge pillar, which really stuck out in our bedroom and the kitchen, so we removed it, hugely extending the space in both rooms and replaced it with a steel lintel,’ says Charlie. ‘We then had a solid wood handmade kitchen fitted and put in the en suite and dressing area in our room, making the best use of all the space.’

A rainwater harvesting system provides water to flush the toilet, run the washing machine and water their plants in the garden. Charlie thinks this will become more important, especially when water meters come into use and costs increase.

‘I won’t pretend that eco renovations are particularly cheap initially, but they’ll save you money in the long run and will last if you go for quality items,’ he says. Their eco-friendly renovations also included using solvent-free, breathable paints throughout the house and all the windows were replaced with wooden designs. That just left the remaining décor to contend with. The cottage’s pretty off-white rooms have been filled with craftsman-made furniture, original artworks and little flashes of colour in the cushions and accessories.

‘I’ve got to have things around me that mean something,’ says Kate. ‘We’d rather save up for something special we really love than just pop into any old store.

‘I like Scandinavian design and fabrics, but Charlie and I have to agree on everything. Sometimes I think it would be easier if he was like some of my friends’ husbands and not too bothered about the interiors in the house, but I know he’s passionate about design and colour.’ While they often agree straightaway, Kate admits they sometimes spend ages arguing about new things. ‘But it’s important that we’re both happy.’

All the curtains in the house were made by Charlie’s mother Jane and all their artworks were created by relatives or friends. ‘That’s what makes it so much more personal,’ says Kate.

And now that the cottage is finally finished, what’s next? ‘We’re going to enjoy the house,’ says Charlie, “though we have just bought an old barn in Cornwall with my brother, so there is a new project on the horizon.’

Costs

New kitchen£10,000
Wood pellet boiler & accessories£10,000
Bathrooms£8,000
Insulation£5,000
Wooden flooring & shelving£4,500
Rainwater harvesting system£3,000
New windows£12,000
Decorating£6,000
General building work£81,500
TOTAL£140,000

 

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