Richard Noble battled for five years to build a hi-tech oak frame home in an idyllic garden setting, combining traditional framing methods with modern materials.

Self-builders are renowned for taking the odd calculated risk, but retired landscape gardener Richard upped the stakes to a whole new level by sinking his life savings into a planning battle he simply could not afford to lose.

More than 20 years ago, Richard had purchased a semi-derelict yard and a small 1960s cottage on three acres in the Surrey Hills, which he used as a base for his landscaping company. In 2002 he closed his business and began to concentrate on a very different project altogether.

Project Details

  • Name: Richard Noble
  • Build Cost: £620,000 (£2,583/m²)
  • Build Time: 1 Year
  • Build Route: Project manager and subcontractors
  • Region: Surrey

The Plans

“I’d worked pretty hard all my life, and planned to build a house here for my retirement,” he explains. “Previously, I’d used the ground floor of the cottage as offices with tenants living upstairs in a flat, and when they moved out I decided to sell my home in a neighbouring village and move in to live there myself.”

Richard employed a local planning consultancy, who applied to remove the Agricultural Occupancy Condition on the whole premises, which dictated that they must be used for an agricultural business.

“This was the key to the whole project,” explains Richard, “so when my application was rejected my consultants advised that we should engage an eminent London QC to take on the case. He proved that the agricultural conditions had been breached, opening the way for the Tie to be lifted — a process which took more than two years.”

Further planning applications to extend the existing cottage were then approved but never built, before Richard was finally granted the permission he sought to demolish the cottage and build a new home which, at 240m², is approximately 60% larger than the original building.

The Design

“It’s still not a huge property for such a large plot, so it had to have ‘wow’ factor to make it worthwhile,” Richard explains. “This was my first attempt at building a house, and after waiting more than five years I wanted to make sure it was something special.”

The result of Richard’s labours is a stunning composition of oak and glass. The four bedroom property stands in 2.3 acres of beautifully landscaped grounds, including a one-acre paddock, and is connected to a neighbouring garage via a glazed link.

Packed with hi-tech gadgets including automated roof windows, integrated lighting and entertainment systems, with control panels and speakers in virtually every room, the house is also extremely environmentally friendly. Massively insulated, it features large areas of argon-filled double glazing, with rainwater harvesting and a licensed bio-digester sewage treatment plant. The heating and hot water systems are linked to a ground-source heat pump, which runs both the ground floor underfloor heating and radiators on the first floor.

“With so much time on my hands waiting for planning approval, I was able to clear and landscape the old nursery site, as well as build a stable block and a garden studio — which were allowed under Permitted Development rights for the old house,” Richard explains.

Determined to build an oak frame house, he settled on The Green Oak Carpentry Company in Liss, a specialist in building using green oak, who recommended Aventa Architects, an architectural practice familiar with this style of building.

“I wanted to make the interiors feel as spacious and open as possible, with high, vaulted bedroom ceilings upstairs and an open plan layout on the ground floor,” says Richard. “The entrance vestibule and dining hall open directly into the kitchen and family areas, with steps down into the drawing room. It’s perfect for entertaining, but there are also more intimate rooms and private spaces.”

Building Work

At this point, Richard had spent around £70,000 of his savings in fees, and detailed design drawings had been sent to the oak framing company, who was preparing to construct the building — even before planning permission had been granted.

“People told me that all of this money could be lost, and I wrote a letter to the planning officer once a week to explain how much their delays were costing me,” he recalls. “I cracked open a bottle of champagne when I knew it was all finally going ahead — especially as it was only passed by three votes!”

Building work began almost immediately; foundations and a brick plinth were constructed and the sturdy pegged and jointed green oak frame was craned into place and completed within five days. “I wanted to incorporate an oak frame because of the character which the exposed timbers bring to a new home, but I wasn’t planning on building an 18th century pastiche,” says Richard.

Scaffolding and a temporary roof structure were then erected to protect the house from the elements, and the structure was externally clad in oak weather – boarding and roofed with handmade clay tiles.

Everything is of exceptional quality, and Richard has lavished a huge amount of care and attention on the interiors, which combine contemporary steel and glass features, softened by the warm golden tones of sandblasted oak timbers and polished oak doors.

“I employed a professional project manager from Rostrum Building Contractors to oversee the build. He was well worth his fee and made sure everything ran smoothly, recommending subcontractors and keeping everything on schedule. I wrote a diary of the project, and the build took exactly a year to complete,” recalls Richard, who continued living on site in the 1960s cottage, which was ultimately demolished to make way for the new garage building.

“I didn’t work on the house myself, although I was responsible for digging trenches for the ground-source heating pipes in the paddock,” he recalls. “The rain meant that we were slipping and sliding around in the mud and constantly pumping out water, so it wasn’t a particularly pleasant job.”

Interior Design

A local company was employed to supply and install the painted Shaker-inspired kitchen, which has oak-lined cupboards, and mains gas was brought to the site for the gas-fired Aga, which includes an electric oven and gas hob module.

“Instead of a standard chimney breast in the drawing room I designed a double-sided fireplace, which opens into the entrance hall and is visible as soon as you step inside the front door,” says Richard. “As a garden designer I’ve spent my life thinking up concepts which are pleasing to the eye, and I loved working on the interiors of the house.”

Richard also sketched the dramatic steel and oak staircase with glass balustrades, which leads up from the open plan entrance hall. “I visited a number of exhibitions and found a company which was able to make the staircase, incorporating LED lights inset under each tread,” he says. Above this, the galleried landing is lit by a bank of automated roof windows, which create a lightwell and ventilation shaft in the centre of the house. All of the major windows throughout the property have been carefully positioned to frame individual views, looking out onto the beautifully landscaped grounds beyond.

Even before the house was approved to be built, Richard sourced the limestone flooring and tiles, storing crates of stone products. “It meant getting the best-quality limestone and handmade wall tiles for an affordable price,” he says.

Finally, after so many years of uncertainty, Richard is happily ensconced in his new home. “It’s the nicest house I’ve lived in,” he states. “Despite all the risks, the stresses and strains, I’m very glad I persevered. It’s not a huge building, but everyone comments on how open and inviting it feels. It’s most definitely been worth the wait.”

Removing an agricultural tie

An Agricultural Tie is a condition imposed by a planning authority when granting consent for a new dwelling. They are enforced in areas where development might not normally be given (i.e. the countryside), and are usually put in place to restrict the type of person entitled to occupy the property (e.g. agricultural worker).

Removing a restriction is not an easy process and requires expert advice from a planning consultant, who is likely to advise one of two routes.

Firstly, to make a planning application for variation of the earlier consent (which Richard initially did but was refused) or to apply for a Certificate of Lawfulness, which is used where there has been a sustained breach of a planning condition for over ten years and the local authority has not served an Enforcement Notice.

A breach of the condition might be where non-agricultural workers have occupied the property for more than ten years, as in Richard’s case. However, tread carefully, because if you get it wrong you may be faced with an Enforcement Notice to put right the breach.

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