Ric and Judith Blenkharn have painstakingly extended and renovated their next-door neighbours’ stone cottage, creating a home full of light, modern spaces.
It’s very tempting to look inside a neighbour’s house and consider what we’d do differently. Knock out walls, swap rooms around and change the decor are high on the list of alterations we’d make, given half a chance. But few of us ever get the opportunity to turn a bit of idealistic daydreaming into full-blown reality, whereby the neighbours invite you to do just that.
Yet that’s what happened to design partners Ric and Judith Blenkharn, whose work so impressed their friends Harry and Kate Grant-Hanlon next door that, when they wanted to give their stone cottage a major revamp, the Grant-Hanlons literally moved out — and allowed the Blenkharns to ‘move in’.
“It was an extremely unusual situation, but there was a great deal of trust between us,” says Harry. “The cottage had a very traditional interior and our initial thought was to enlarge the bathroom and make the entrance hall more inviting — but we didn’t have the time or design experience to do it ourselves. We needed to bring in people who could offer us advice and then see the project through. We knew Ric and Judith and loved their work and thought, ‘Why not?’ They only lived next door. It was the perfect solution.”
The house was built on the site of a former farmhouse in the 1950s but it looks considerably older from the outside and seemed quite dark and closed in on the inside.
The entrance hall was particularly uninspiring and led to a series of rooms ending at a small kitchen with an add-on porch. The main bathroom upstairs was small and uninviting and the solid staircase made the hall space dark.
“It had huge potential,” says Harry. “We sat down with Ric and Judith and explained what we had in mind. The initial thought was simply to revamp the entrance hall by replacing the staircase with a modern open-tread and stainless steel frame design. It would give more light, feel more spacious, and create a good impression when people walked in.”
The bathroom would also be moved into one of the larger bedrooms, to include a separate bath and shower, and all the timber windows replaced like-for-like to work within the restrictions of a Conservation Area and an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Ric also suggested fitting detailed new architrave and skirting to replace the existing traditional design.
“It’s a very simple, but very specific feature which involves a routed line running along the skirting and round the doors,” says Harry. “It proved to be a nightmare to paint because it’s such a fine line, but it looks fabulous and creates a modern edge in an extremely subtle way.”
Once this work was done the rest of the place looked at odds with the hall, so the decision was made to work through the entire house. By this time Ric had gotten to know the property well, so he began to draw up plans which would change the floorplan and double the size of the kitchen by adding ‘wings’ on either side.
Externally, the Grant-Hanlons wanted to include a linked extension to form a double garage/utility/WC with loft room/WC above. These ideas were met with opposition from some villagers, who raised objections to the initial style and size of the garage, so the application was withdrawn.
Consequently Ric revised the scheme, with a number of compromises, before the plans could finally be passed. “The planners were happy with the side extensions and the detached double garage sited in the landscaped garden area,” says Ric. “The materials were sourced to complement the main house, with locally quarried stone, roof slates and reclaimed ridges to make sure it blended in with the street scene, even though it stands behind a high stone wall and tall hedging.”
The exterior of the front of the main house has changed very little, but at the back the kitchen has been extended to incorporate, on one side, a glassfronted breakfast room leading to a paved courtyard. A spacious utility area with a cloakroom flanks the other side of the kitchen.
The foundations for the extensions were taken to the depth of the original house. Although this part of the extension was straightforward, the roof line caused a major challenge.
“The original kitchen was partly converted from a range of outside stores with relatively low ceilings,” says Ric. “When these walls were removed, a series of steel beams were inserted to support the bedroom dormer window. These beams had to be replaced with further steelwork at a higher level to create the free-flowing kitchen/breakfast room.”
By effectively flattening the ceiling, the traditional kitchen was transformed into a square, modern living space and linear kitchen design. “It was quite a challenge structurally, but worth the effort,” says Ric.
“One of the biggest challenges was to complete the building work without damaging what had already been done in phase one, so the door into the hall was well sealed while a huge hole was knocked through the dining room wall to finally open up the kitchen and dining areas,” Ric continues.
With the structural work complete, Harry and Kate invited Judith to turn her attention to the interior. “I was working with them on the concept of the interior within the context of the backdrop Ric had created,” says Judith. “Although the overall effect was to be pared down, it was important to introduce colour and texture to prevent it looking too ‘cold’.”
“We all knew how we wanted it to look,” says Judith. “The house itself was very solid and well built, but it was dated inside and didn’t really live up to its potential. The fact that we were able to control both the build design and interior scheme for the whole project was really exciting — it meant we could renovate the house as a whole, albeit in two phases, and achieve the light, open, modern look it was crying out for.”
But the moment of truth came when it was time to hand back the keys to Kate and Harry, who had moved out for seven months to live abroad while Ric and Judith literally took over their home.
“Although, after lengthy discussions, we’d given Ric and Judith a blank canvas to do what they wanted, and we trusted them implicitly, it was still a nerve-wracking moment when we saw it for the first time,” says Kate. “But we were over the moon. We came back one evening, opened the door and couldn’t believe our eyes. It was such a transformation and everything we’d tried to convey to them was there. We went straight round to Judith and Ric’s and gave them a big hug.”