Muswell House in Oxfordshire is the kind of confident and assertive architecture that people tend to either love or hate. The untreated cedar, handmade clay tiles and natural Cotswold stone which clad this brave and sustainable new house may be traditional, but its form is distinctly unconventional — with jutting oversized stainless-steel dormers and a massive curved roof dropping down like a tightly fitting skirt over the shapely outer walls.

For its proud owners, Nick and Sarah Paine, building such a unique and eye-catching home proved to be an incredibly uplifting and enjoyable experience, almost totally devoid of the traumas and tribulations often associated with such ambitious self-build projects.

Project Details

  • Name: Nick and Sarah Paine
  • Build Cost: £500,000 (£1,577/m²)
  • Build Time: 10 Months
  • Build Route: Self-managed subcontractors
  • Region: Oxfordshire

“Of course there were problems, but overall they were pretty insignificant compared to the sheer pleasure of creating the house,” says Nick. “After the builders had gone home I would wander around the site with a glass of beer, perusing the building and planning ahead for the following day. All in all this was a build where many of the decisions were made as the house progressed, simply because everything was just so unusual.”

Once the couple had located their building plot – a small, awkwardly shaped piece of land in an Oxfordshire village, with existing planning consent for a three storey building – they approached award-winning architect Adrian James, who specialises in sustainable designs. His buildings stand out with their meaty modelling but are considerate in scale and the choice of materials: bold and uplifting on the outside, spacious and bright on the inside.

“We were determined not to stifle Adrian’s creativity by giving him a detailed brief,” says Nick. “To put restrictions on an architect of his calibre would have been pointless. We wanted a house of architectural significance – a true Adrian James design – not a watered-down version. We needed four bedrooms and an open plan living space and the rest we left to him.”

The resulting three storey house was designed to match its more conventional neighbours in its use of stone and tiles, but most definitely not in its form. The distinctive curved roof maximises the internal space, and the wall of glass to the open plan living room capitalises on the splendid views to the south, while giant dormer windows incorporate glazed doors which open onto Juliet balconies with glass safety balustrades.

Constructed using a hybrid frame of timber and steel, the house is innovative both structurally and environ – mentally. A ground-source heat pump provides space heating for the massively insulated structure, and a heat recovery ventilation system uses stale exhaust air to warm incoming fresh air and retain a comfortable living environment throughout the changing seasons.

“I really enjoy finding out about the latest materials and building techniques, including eco-friendly options, so the house was always going to be stuffed with every kind of gadget!” laughs Nick. “Sarah wasn’t convinced – particularly as the budget started to go out of the window as I got more carried away with sophisticated automated lighting and integrated music systems!

“She was concerned that there wouldn’t be enough money left for finishes such as the walnut flooring, but I was having far too much fun to give up any of the boys’ toys – which ended up swelling the budget quite a bit.”

As an airline pilot, Nick – who had previously extended and remodelled several of the family’s homes – was able to organise his flights around the build, ensuring that he could take on the demanding role of project manager, employing a hand-picked team of local tradesmen and specialist subcontractors for the task.

“The plot of land came with a small stone cottage, which we totally renovated while we were waiting the 18 months it took for revised planning permission to be approved,” he explains. “It meant that we were able to sell our house and move into the cottage during the build – making me ideally placed to oversee everything.”

Nick’s chosen team proved a young and enthusiastic crowd who brought a great sense of fun to the site. His 24-year-old foreman was keen to learn about the various methods and materials involved, and had a positive outlook about everything from sinking the groundsource heat pump to excavating a full-sized basement.

This lower ground floor level has been built into the slope of the site, and contains a playroom with a reinforced corner window to the north for seven-year old Tom and his five-year-old sister, Georgia. There’s a double garage, a laundry, a stylish cloakroom and a plant room as well as the flat-like studio space, with its own shower room and kitchenette, which Sarah uses for her business of importing jewellery.

“For me, it was vital that the basement should be massively over-constructed to prevent even the slightest possibility of damp,” Nick states. “It was a real belt and braces affair, involving insulated concrete formwork (ICF), with drainage designed to divert moisture away from the building and an over-specified tanking system.”

With the reinforced raft foundations, basement and concrete slab in place, the skeletal form of the imposing steel frame could be craned into position – a process which took mere days and which Nick found to be one of the highlights of the entire build. This was later infilled with a structural timber frame, and the result is a totally self-supporting form, offering maximum flexibility for the internal layout.

Windows were imported from Denmark and play a prominent role in the overall design, with the grey stainless-steel cheeks of the dormers protruding proudly from soft red clay tiles, which were used to clad the split roof – a complex task for the patient roofer. Between the two curving profiles, a flat-roofed ‘spine’ offers space to conceal unsightly services including the soil stack and satellite dish, and is inset with four self-cleaning roof windows allowing plenty of natural light onto the landing and two of the upstairs bathrooms.

At entrance level, the upper ground floor is predominantly dedicated to a large, open plan kitchen/dining/living space, with a curving free-standing stud wall acting as a room divider – behind which Sarah has created a private adult refuge. A bank of fullheight sliding windows ensures that the main living area is filled with light and enjoys uninterrupted views across fields and lush open countryside.

“We wanted to avoid wasted space, and felt that a separate dining room wouldn’t be used, so an open plan room was the obvious choice,” says Sarah. “Every day there are different birds and wildlife to watch through the glass, and when it’s warm we can spill out through the doors onto the deck, which has its own inbuilt speakers for music just like the rest of the house.”

Incredibly, the complex build took just ten months to complete and came in at a relatively modest £450,000.

“Adrian James’ design is beyond anything we could ever have envisaged – it’s absolutely extraordinary,” says Nick. “He’s made the whole house work for our family, with plenty of practical areas like the large pantry off the kitchen. This was an incredibly tight site, but building a basement has given us all the space we need. There’s absolutely nothing that we would change – everyone paid phenomenal attention to detail and the finished house really is exactly what we’d both hoped for.”

The impressive curved roof was not, according to architect Adrian James, actually that difficult to create. “The essence of it is that you use small or non-rigid elements except for the primary structure which was constructed using curved steels – but those were the only bits that were curved; timber joists span between them. We used a flexible insulation, which was packed between the joists, and then a batten with Tri-iso foil insulation laid over, followed by a batten and a counter batten, which together created a curve. A key design point was that at the top of the roof we didn’t go for too shallow a pitch, so water cannot penetrate, but we did install a breathable membrane, just in case.

“To finish the roof off, on the exterior we used clay tiles, which are small and have a camber already, meaning they are perfect for sweeping around a gentle curve like this. Slates would have been too big and flat.

“It’s really quite simple to build a curved roof. People shouldn’t be scared of them because they’re not that much more expensive – and you get a lot more space inside to play with than you do with a standard roof.”

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