John and Anna spent three years scouring the south coast for the perfect spot for their family home, so when they came across a run-down 1950s bungalow on a secluded, wooded plot in Sussex, late in 2005, they wasted no time in arranging a viewing. “An old friend, the music impresario Tom Watkins, knew we were looking and emailed to say he had found this Modernist-inspired single storey house with a pond, three acres and fantastic views,” explains John, founder of London-based brand consultancy Cunning.
“The agent held an open day and showed us around with ten or so other potential buyers. Fortuitously, I dropped my new glasses on the drive and had to go back to collect them later in the evening, and as a result I met the owner. After looking for so long we knew we had found the right place so we struck a deal there and then and shook on it.”
Built in five parts between the late 1950s and 1980s, the flat-roofed, single storey property had been used as a home and studio workshop by a local furniture maker. “It was pretty rough and ready, and very tired,” recalls John. “We really liked the footprint, though, and the open ceiling which had exposed wooden joists.”
John was able to see through the fact that the place was damp and cold, but at the time didn’t fully appreciate just how much work the property would require to bring it up to today’s standards. They ended up replacing the roof, windows, floors, external cladding, heating, wiring, plumbing, kitchen and bathrooms. They also replaced a totally inappropriate 1980s neo-Georgian conservatory and added a thick layer of insulation around the entire building envelope. “In retrospect, we would have been much better off if we had knocked it down and started again,” says John. “Replacing everything new for old is much more expensive than just starting with an empty site. It would have been far easier and cheaper — especially as we wouldn’t have paid any VAT on a new build.
“I don’t think we had any idea just how extensive the project would be at that time, though. Inevitably, like many renovation projects, the work snowballed as we got further into it and the project grew. Also, we thought that it would take for ever to get planning permission for a replacement dwelling.”
If John has any regrets they are long forgotten, judging by his enthusiasm for the project. Gaining consent from the local authority for the renovation and remodelling scheme, which dramatically improved the appearance of the house, proved to be no problem. The couple chose to work with Andrew Whiting of London-based My Architect, who had previously been involved in creating a successful extension for their former family home in Primrose Hill. “My Architect primarily worked with us on redesigning the exterior, the new internal layout, the window openings and the bathrooms and kitchen,” explains John. “Our previous project had been a great success and we were very keen to work with them again.”
Originally a six bedroom property, John and Anna chose to sacrifice two of the smaller bedrooms to create more space for themselves. One became a dressing room, and the other was subdivided to enlarge the master bedroom and to create an en suite bathroom. The separate dining room was integrated into the kitchen to create an open plan kitchen breakfast room by removing a non-structural wall. All of the original window openings were enlarged, and an external wall in the living room removed to make way for a dramatic floor-to-ceiling window, which extends around an entire corner of the room and affords wonderful views across the property’s woodland surroundings.
“The footprint remains essentially the same, but the external materials have all been renewed,” explains John. The flat roof was stripped, repaired, insulated and given a new bitumen roof covering. The walls stripped, insulated and clad in rough-sawn horizontal boards of Siberian larch, left to weather naturally. “I obsessed over this, down the very last detail, like what the nails would look like,” admits John. One of the hardest tasks was digging up the old concrete floor, necessary to make way for a new insulated polished concrete floor and warm-water underfloor heating. “We thought it would be easy to find someone to lay a polished concrete floor, but it turns out most installations are commercial and do not have underfloor heating, so everyone was very worried about it cracking. We spec’ed up the concrete to include lots of large stones so that we could expose these in the finish to get a terrazzo effect. Once it was pumped into place and levelled, and had started to go off, we had only 24 hours to polish it using diamondtipped grinders, before it set solid.” recalls John. “We had several people working on it at once all night, and it was a messy, dusty job.”
Thanks to thin-crack joints placed at the intersections of each underfloor heating zone, and in doorways, the floor has never crazed or crumbled. “Finding the right finish to seal the floor was very difficult,” says John. “In the end we managed to find a product called MEGA, which comes in a gloss or matt finish. We chose matt and this has proved to be the perfect solution.”
John and Anna found their contractor, J Soan and Sons, through Tom Watkins, and entered into a somewhat unusual contractual arrangement. “We didn’t have a full specification for the project, so the contractor could not produce a full quote. Instead we agreed to let their quantity surveyor, Tim Brand, estimate a fair price based on the information we had, and we agreed to proceed on this basis. It sounds like a very risky approach, but the builders came so highly recommended that we felt we could trust them.
“When the project was complete we hired our own independent quantity surveyor to look through all of the invoices to make sure the cost was reasonable and fair. He concluded that we had paid a full price, but that the quality of workmanship was excellent.”
The build, managed by Paul Soan, was relatively uneventful as far as John and Anna were concerned. They visited most weekends to check on progress and to keep up with decisions, sometimes staying overnight in their classic 1950s Airstream travel trailer.
John and Anna worked with artist Neil Jolliffe on the interiors. After coming across his work in two shops in London’s Brick Lane, John tracked Neil down and hired him. “He has since become a good friend,” says John. “He built our kitchen, the beds, wardrobes, dining tables and more. He’s very talented.”
Despite a delay caused by the late arrival of the metal frame windows and sliding doors, the project was completed in 2006. “I really like what we have got,” says John. “The best advice I could pass on from our experience is to hire the best people you can find and get along with, rather than go for the cheapest price. If we had chosen our contractor just on price, we wouldn’t have got the quality of finish we have achieved, and wouldn’t have had the collaborative relationship between us, our builder and our architects that has proved so successful.”
Polished Concrete for Perfect Flooring
Polished concrete can be a very elegant flooring solution in contemporary homes, although there is a lot of skill involved in getting the finish just right. As a material it behaves in a similar way to natural stone, and is just as durable. The concrete can be pigmented, and stones added for visual effect, while hardeners can be added before sealing to ensure it is able to withstand heavy traffic. Concrete is ideal for use with underfloor heating because it is an excellent radiator of heat. It can, however, crack with thermal expansion and contraction, but the cracks are a natural way of relieving stress and are not structural. You can minimise cracking with the use of reinforcing mesh and expansion joints set into the floor. Perhaps surprisingly, concrete is quite eco-friendly: it can be made with waste byproducts, reducing the consumption of raw materials, and can also be recycled. Additionally, it works well with passive solar designs. Try local suppliers or polishedconcrete.co.uk. Expect to pay between £140-160/m².