Sisters Anna and Rachel Bruce fought a lengthy planning battle to build a small but perfectly formed oak frame home in the New Forest.

Anna and her sister Rachel decided to name their self-built home ‘Wren Cottage’ as, like its namesake, the property is small — measuring in at just 46m². But there’s nothing compact about its design. Instead, it’s proof that even the smallest of projects can be creative with space — particularly when you’re restricted by extremely prescriptive planning requirements.

Anna and Rachel’s story goes back to the days when caravans and railway carriages sprung up within the New Forest to house evacuees during World War II. After the war, wooden chalets were built in their place and over time they were developed into proper homes.

The Project

  • Name: Anna and Rachel Bruce
  • Build cost: £128,000 (£2,783/m²)
  • Build time: 6 months
  • Location: New Forest, Hampshire

There was, however, one chalet still standing and it belonged to Anna and Rachel’s neighbours. They had moved out some years before but returned to use it as a holiday house, but more recently had left it to ruin.

“One day in 2004 they came round and generously offered Rachel and I the chance to buy the shack at a good price, so we were really pleased.” explains Anna. It was a fantastic opportunity for the sisters as it would allow them to get on the property ladder without having to leave the New Forest. Anna and Rachel were keen to build a timber frame home and went in search of a style they liked. They ended up at the National Homebuilding and Renovating Show, and this was where they found Border Oak.

“We loved the quality of Border Oak’s houses and the simplicity of the style,” explains Anna. “The people there were lovely to deal with too.”

Although the plot was a decent size at one-third of an acre, the shack was only 30m². Initially Anna and Rachel didn’t know whether to be concerned about the size and settled on Border Oak’s ‘Pearmain’ design, and presented their plans to the local planning authority.

The planners had other ideas — rejecting the plan, stipulating the house would have to be a single storey dwelling no bigger than 46m². Then they delivered a second blow — informing the sisters the house couldn’t be used as a permanent dwelling, as the shack’s previous and most recent use had been as a holiday home.

It was devastating news but Anna and Rachel decided to fight their case and hired a planning consultant. During the next four years they spent thousands in consultancy fees, yet in the end the sisters had to give up any chance of living in the house — they did however get approval on plans in April 2009 for a holiday home.

Although the sisters had to compromise on size, Border Oak have achieved a sense of space and volume with vaulted ceilings in the open plan living, kitchen and dining area. They’ve also squeezed in a mezzanine storage space above the bedroom and bathroom, which is accessed by a ladder to save room, and the design also allows for an extension later on.

It’s a bittersweet end since the pair haven’t been able to enjoy living in their cottage, but they’re still hopeful the planning laws might change one day.

“Even though we’ve used all our savings, we don’t regret buying the shack as it had become an eyesore and we wanted to honour what had been there before,” says Anna. “The house is beautiful and I think it’s the best we could have done to get the feeling of a proper home in such a small space.”

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