When it comes to timber frame, Peter Hutchinson is an expert in the field. He started Potton as a family business back in 1964, manufacturing just about anything that could be made from timber – including potato crates and pallets – and soon progressed to timber frame housing components.
The 1980s saw the birth of ‘Heritage’, an award-winning range of self build houses with masses of period features, exposed posts and beams, and today the company (which is now owned by Kingspan) offers a diverse product range, including barn-style homes and the ‘Lighthouse’ — the UK’s first zero-carbon package house design for self builders.
Peter was instrumental in founding and developing the self build industry, and in 2007 he was awarded an OBE for his services to the building trade. Now aged 76, he recently fulfilled another dream — designing and building his own timber frame Potton home specifically for the couple’s retirement.
“We’d lived in the same brick and block house for almost 40 years, just a short distance from Potton in Bedfordshire, where I was born,” says Peter. “The building evolved with the family, and over the years we extended the house in timber, testing out various styles and techniques and more than doubling its size.”
Recently, however, Peter suffered with hip problems which encouraged the couple to consider the possibility of single storey living. At first, Rita was concerned about leaving their spacious, much-loved family home, but soon warmed to the idea of designing an indulgent and totally bespoke property which would suit their current needs.
“We already owned a two-acre piece of land nearby, which I originally bought many years ago and always thought I might do something with,” says Peter. “The village location was perfect, but getting planning permission to build a house took us almost a year because the plot stands in a strict Conservation Area, and wasn’t previously designated as building land.”
Peter and Rita worked with retired architect and long-standing friend Clive Plumb to plan their new home, which was designed to emulate two old weatherboarded barns connected by a glazed conservatory link — which helped to appease the conservation officer.
The spacious 400m² single storey layout contains only two bedrooms, and has been totally dictated by the couple’s lifestyle and their overriding desire for open spaces and large rooms with high ceilings.
“The planners insisted the house should be set right back on the plot, close to the eastern boundary, to avoid blocking views of the bordering woodland,” says Peter.
“We built a lovely decorative brick and flint garden wall bounding the plot, and devised a wide glazed corridor to run along this side of the house, opening onto a ‘secret garden’ through sets of French doors. My son calls this orangery my folly, because it has no particular use, but it’s definitely my favourite feature because of the wonderful light and shadows it casts.”
This orangery, with its glazed roof and pale stone floor, opens into the central conservatory/TV room where Peter and Rita spend much of their time. This in turn leads into the neighbouring kitchen, with its four-metre-high ceiling and a separate boot room, which was specifically designed for collie dog Jake.
“Rita enjoys cooking and sewing, and our study doubles as a sewing room,” Peter explains. “She also requested half an acre of dressing room space, but I think it was the promise of a Mark Wilkinson kitchen that finally persuaded her to leave our old house.”
Unsurprisingly, considering their background, the Hutchinsons’ build proved to be a totally stress-free experience. The couple employed local builder David McGregor to organise their project, and used a bespoke timber frame kit which was designed and erected by Potton.
“They treated me exactly as they would every other self builder, and the insulated frame took around two weeks to erect,” says Peter, who was constantly on site to help oversee the build. “We’ve known most of the tradesmen for many years, so every face was familiar, and they had all worked together in the past. It was fun coming out of retirement to be involved in one more build. Zero stress — absolute pleasure!”
The two black timber-clad ‘barns’ are roofed in slate and create four-metre-high ceilings in some of the rooms. These rectangular structures appear to have been extended with two lean-to elements, which are finished in contrasting cream weatherboarding and the same clay pantiles chosen to roof the attached double garage.
“We went to a lot of trouble to find one of the old traditional profiles for the weatherboarding, with a very distinctive moulding,” says Peter. “It’s the small details which you tend to notice, and which can bring a real sense of achievement.”
During the eight-month build, the Hutchinsons remained living in their old home, which they are now in the process of selling. At no point did they set a specific budget for the new house or consider its potential resale value — preferring instead to indulge themselves and to studiously ignore the bottom line.
“I’d rather not think about what it cost us to build, because we certainly haven’t scrimped on the finishes, and lovely things do cost,” says Peter. “When we’re gone, I suspect that such a large retirement bungalow with only two bedrooms will be virtually unsalable, but the whole point was to create something specifically for us at this time of our lives.”
Modern comforts such as zoned underfloor heating have certainly proved a hit with the couple, who enjoy the constant background warmth the system provides in winter, and love stepping into the pre-warmed walk-in showers.
They also employed a specialist lighting designer, who has created some stunning contemporary effects throughout the house, highlighting various features and using energy-efficient halogen spotlights to produce a pretty star-like illusion at night.
Natural light is also plentiful, with glass roofs, doors and windows creating brightly lit interiors. Internal openings enable light from the orangery to percolate into the neighbouring kitchen/breakfast room, where high-level lighting emphasises the lofty ceiling, and lower pendant lights have been positioned above the island unit.
For Peter and Rita their build has definitely been a real labour of love, and they are extremely pleased with their new home and its convenient village location. After a lifetime spent working on thousands of designs for other people’s houses, Peter Hutchinson finally has his very own Potton creation, and can experience first hand the benefits of an energy-efficient, low-maintenance bespoke home. Which somehow seems only right and fitting.
Editor’s note: We are sad to share the sad news that Peter passed away in July 2015.