Peter and Di Ablewhite always wanted to self-build but could never find a plot in their village. “It was a complete fluke that we found a site,” recalls Di. “I was taking a group of fellow amateur archaeologists to some local sites of interest when I spotted a new ‘for sale’ sign in an area where the houses back down to the river.” The following day, Di phoned the estate agent for details of the 1970s house, which stood on an 0.9-acre plot with 140 feet of river frontage complete with fishing rights. “I went to view it immediately and was impressed more with its location and fantastic views downstream than with the house itself, and we put in an offer with the idea of renovating the existing house.”
Once they took possession of the property they asked a few friends connected with the building trade for their opinions. It rapidly became clear that Pete and Di’s plans for a conversion were not feasible due to differing floor and ceiling levels and other structural difficulties. Not one to be defeated, Pete suggested that they demolish the house and rebuild to their own specification nearer the river to take full advantage of the views.
“I searched the local planning applications to find an architect, but as Pete likes modern houses while I prefer traditional build, I knew it would be a difficult task,” says Di, “although we do share an appreciation of Georgian symmetry.”
They interviewed architect Bernard Martin and immediately realised he was on their wavelength and was prepared to design a house that would incorporate their ideas but also include his own useful input.
“We requested the front of the house to be as symmetrical as possible although this did cause some problems with the internal layout, whereas to the rear it was to be extensively glazed adding a somewhat contemporary dimension with – in the Georgian theme. We put large windows in the three main rooms: the sitting room, the living room and the master bedroom. Not only does this take full advantage of the views but it also floods the house with natural light, something that is extremely important to me,” explains Di. “The thought of having a poorly-lit internal bathroom on the first floor worried me for a while, until I saw lightpipes at one of the Homebuilding & Renovating Shows, which proved to be the ideal solution. Even on a dull day you don’t need to turn on the light to use the bathroom.”
Pete and Di were fortunate to obtain planning consent at first attempt without any hitches. Peter Murray, the structural engineer, advised them on the type of foundations they would require to build as near to the river as possible, prior of course to checking the hundred-year flood plan. Once this was decided, the old house was pulled down.
“One of the worst moments for me was watching the existing house being demolished. It seemed to disappear in seconds and suddenly I had the sense of being back in rented accommodation, without a roof of our own over our heads and a feeling of panic wondering how everything was going to work out. It seemed such a drastic step with no turning back!” exclaims Di.
Works started off well, helped by a spell of dry weather whilst the foundations were dug. “I have to say building a house makes you obsessive about the weather. We had to make contingencies to be able to pump water out of the deep trenches in case of torrential rain and the consequent rise of the water table, so Peter Murray devised a clever two-trench system in case we hit bad weather conditions.
“The next stage was to find a builder/project manager, although of course we should have done this prior to starting the project! It had to be someone we felt comfortable working with on a day-to-day basis to implement the design.” The couple drew up a shortlist of recommended tradesmen and Gary Harris’ name came up twice. Pete contacted him and luckily he was one month off finishing another job. “Fortunately he was able to take on our build and meet our start date,” says Di. “We worked well together and Gary tried hard to put all my design ideas into practice.
He had lots of good contacts that he knew and trusted and who worked well as a team – which I consider incredibly important for site morale. They put up with my foibles and designer’s temperament and whilst I sorted out all the fittings, design problems and general finishes, Gary and his team did their utmost to fulfil my demands.
“As well as the symmetry of the building, Pete and I had very definite ideas as to how the house should look and one of the major decisions was choice of brick.” The couple drove around checking out other new builds in the area but struggled to find something suitable. “Finally we went to The Brick Centre in Chesterfield who produced several types of bricks they thought would suit our requirements,” recalls Di. “They then produced samples for Gary to build a variety of walls for our approval.” As the handmade bricks are random in dimension it did cause a few problems for the brickies until they got the hang of them. Slate for the roof was another issue and Pete and Di decided on one that they thought would weather attractively.
Di was a perfectionist when it came to the fittings. “I didn’t realise just how long it would take to source materials. Giles at Jackson Building Centre, Newark, helped with lot of choices, bringing samples on site – even a complete sash window. He also found my team of groundworkers who sorted out the drainage, pathways, drives and some of the landscaping. Bereco made all the timber factory-finished windows and doors, including the extra-wide front door, the huge windows to the rear and the atrium windows, whereas Taylor Maxwell dealt with the Forticrete cills and copings for the rear pillars.”
Having completed an interior design course prior to embarking on the project, Di knew how to prepare plans for the trades. “I did, however, forget a TV aerial in the TV room!” she admits. And when it came to positioning radiators, there are none. “I am a radiator hater so opted for underfloor heating on the ground floor. I am delighted with it as it not only frees up wall space for furniture but it emits a gentle heat which, when combined with the flagstones, keeps the house at an all over comfortable temperature.”
The house took approximately 15 months to build, spread over a 19-month period. “It became rapidly apparent that our initial budget of £250,000 was completely out of the window as the footprint of the house ended up being much larger than we had intended,” explains Di. “In order to meet the cost we also built another property on the front garden to sell, retaining the 0.5-acre riverside plot for our dream house.
The majority of the time, construction went pretty much to plan but exceptional circumstances delayed our target – for one, the local craftsman commissioned to build the staircase had a car accident and was unable to work for a few weeks, but it didn’t stop us moving in.”
Di realises how lucky they were to find the plot: “We had been looking for something like this for the past 13 years and had tried all the usual leaflet dropping and scouring planning applications, but finally we struck gold!” The couple are thrilled with their dream house in a location that is so very scenic. “After three years living in rented accommodation we are here, and waking up to see the ducks, swans, moorhens and kingfishers and hear the gentle sound of the weir just upstream makes it all so worthwhile. The only problem is, it does make it incredibly difficult to get out of bed in the morning!”