Those readers who easily succumb to plot envy may wish to skip this story.
Torrent House sits in a Conservation Area overlooking the verdant acres of a Royal Park. To the rear, the River Thames – as the house name rather suggests – swirls and eddies its way past the back garden. On the opposite bank, the only thing breaking the view is a tree-covered island and some boat moorings. If it weren’t for the small matter of the road that roars between the house and the park, then it would be utterly perfect.
Yes, those with a peevish turn of mind who have read on despite themselves will be comforted to know that local drivers really like to go full throttle along this stretch but Simon Knowles, who owns the house, is stoical, as his pride in the building and his Yorkshire roots dictate. “If it weren’t for that road, I would never have been able to afford the place, so I put up with it,” he says philosophically.
You see, living by the river had long been a dream of Simon’s and although the Thames runs tantalisingly close to his old home in Kingston, on the London/Surrey border, it wasn’t near enough to dip a toe into, to float a boat on and to gaze at from the comfort of his own sofa. Virgin plots in the area are unheard of, so when a tired but interesting 1960s architect-designed house came up in nearby East Molesey, Simon and his partner, Ann, went to look.
“It started off in the 1930s as an electrical substation for the trams,” says Simon, “but it was converted into a house by two designers in the 1960s. It was very contemporary for its time – it was featured in Ideal Home and won a Civic Trust award – but it hadn’t aged that well. It wasn’t great for the modern day.”
Although the house had embraced such authentic period detailing as asbestos cladding, the fact that it was a resoundingly modern design meant that it had scope in Simon and Ann’s eyes. Most of the other houses along this stretch of the river are either centuries old and listed, or flatulent 1930s copies of the same — the couple ached for something a little less bourgeois after more than 20 years living in a Victorian semi. However, Torrent House’s unashamed mid-century manners were not a general draw and there was very little competition for the sale.
Through his work as a quantity surveyor, Simon knew and “was in awe of” several architects, and eventually settled on the Aesthetic Response practice. In all it took a year to finalise plans and gain consent, during which time Simon and Ann rented out Torrent House and lived in rented accommodation nearby themselves. The idea was to extend into the carport and reconfigure the layout of the downstairs, much of which had been given over to the previous owners’ design business. Instead of two bedrooms, the family now have four/five, each with its own bathroom, plus new living areas both upstairs and on the ground floor to make the most of the mesmerising view of the river.
Although Simon admits it is not a big house, the space has been terrifically well thought out. ‘Compact’ is often used as a slightly sneering description but here it translates as an intelligent use of the footprint that respects the plot size and the constraints of Conservation Area rules. The two ground floor bedrooms have cantilevered sleeping platforms so that both Simon’s son and his younger daughter can create more of a living/study area on the available floor space. The guest bedroom, located in what was the carport, doubles as a cinema room and opens out, via large folding doors, onto the gorgeous cream family room/ kitchen/diner at the rear of the house.
A floating oak staircase with glass balustrades leads up to a large living room and office area. Both the living rooms have vast windows overlooking the Thames — apparently using the largest single pane of glass that it is possible to manufacture. The couple’s own bedroom has stolen the first floor view via an internal window in the bedroom wall, but even the two front-facing downstairs bedrooms have made the most of neighbouring Bushy Park and minimised the impact of that road by building the garden wall just high enough so that the grass on the opposite slope bobs above it and only occasional lorries peep over the top.
Although Torrent House Mk II does not look a million miles from its precursor, Simon says that 90% of the structure was demolished to get it to that stage — given the choice he would have bulldozed the lot and saved the VAT. The lessons he has learnt – and imparted – in nearly 30 years of service as a quantity surveyor have not been rigorously applied to his own build. His initial costings of £500,000 were way too high so he cut back and pared down in various areas and ended up spending… £500,000.
Likewise, despite always advising clients to take the contractual route on a large build, he decided not to and had to cope with the inevitable over-runs. Even after all these months, he can’t give a really convincing explanation about why he didn’t use a contract with a punishing over-run clause: “I had a personal relationship with the builder, I thought it would be fine,” he squirms. “I suppose I should have known better.” Ann looks unimpressed.
When the family moved in, in August 2006, the house was far from finished. For a few nights they all had to share a bedroom and for a while there was only the hob and a kettle with which to cook. Ultimately the house wasn’t finished and the family camped in the usual site detritus until Christmas. “At the end of the day, it was 12 months of discomfort and it was worth it,” says Simon.
And, yes, it is. The house is as coolly contemporary as its predecessor was in its heyday. The rear, largely glass elevation is stunning but smaller windows built into the side wall to sneak glances of the sedum planted flat roof of the carport extension have a less showy charm. A simple palette of neutrals – limestone flooring, cream tiling, white walls, polar Corian worktops – gives the house a simplicity and ties together the furniture, chosen for comfort rather than bling value. The sofas in the first floor living room as well as the dining room banquettes and glass table were designed by the original house’s owners.
The £1.2 million costs don’t quite justify the £1.1 million valuation from a local agent but, again, Simon is stoical. “We’ll be alright in a few years time,” he says. “And, anyway, I’m not moving.”