James and Claudia Gray’s brilliant new timber frame farmhouse is a fitting addition to a site steeped in military history.
There can be few building plots more interesting and bathed in real, atmospheric history than that owned by James Gray, a young farmer/businessman and his wife, actress Claudia. This was first and foremost a pretty good bit of north Essex farmland, some 30 acres plus a collection of stores, and cried out for a farmhouse, which James and Claudia planned to build.
But the fact that this place was in fact a Second World War airbase, occupied by the USAF 381st Bombardment Group, and the stores were in fact some of the finest surviving original Nissen hut complexes remaining in the UK, made this not so much a housebuilding project as a voyage of discovery.
- Name: James and Claudia Gray
- Build cost: £600,000 (£1,530/m²)
- Build time: 2 years 6 months
- Location: Essex
Some 13 years on from buying the land, they have ended up with a beautiful, modern, timber farmhouse and taken on a new role as unofficial custodians/historians/celebrants of the airbase and its brave former occupants — 1 in 2 aircrew didn’t return back after their missions.
“It was back in 2004 when we started to try and get planning. We needed to prove the economic viability of the site to make a case for a new farmhouse here,” explains James. “The first planning application was refused — in fact a Planning Committee member said, ‘Why would anyone want to live here?’”
With the project running out of steam, James, who was drenched in research for the future project, met a designer called Cameron Scott at a timber framing conference. “We didn’t want to build a traditional timber frame house,” explains James. “It wouldn’t have been appropriate here surrounded by all these Nissen huts. I was listening to Cameron talk about introducing steel ties and curved roofing into timber systems and it just clicked.”
With a growing family – the Grays now have three young children – the brief was simple: a sustainable, timber, family home that would work with the unique surroundings and sit low to the landscape. Devon-based Cameron’s resulting design is a house formed of two linear elements (one a single storey ‘public’ space with living rooms and kitchen, the other a one-and-a -half storey ‘family’ space with bedrooms) linked by two walkways, forming a central courtyard that provides a safe area for the children on this busy working farm.
The structure is a perfect juxtaposition of traditional and modern techniques. The Douglas fir frame utilises mortice and tenon joints, but does away with the corner bracing found in traditional frames and replaces them with steel tension rods. This means that the frame allows a much freer, open approach to the internal layout than would be allowed by the more traditional bay arrangement.
“We took on very traditional boy/girl roles in the project!” laughs Claudia. “James managed all the structural stuff and I concentrated on the interiors.” And what a job she did too — the interior feel is warm and relaxed, with the open plan spaces toned down to give a cosier feel without losing any of the light that is a key part of the design’s success.
Of course, this project isn’t just about a new contemporary timber farmhouse, as wonderful as it is. James and Claudia have fully embraced their accidental role as custodians of the airfield, discovering more about its history, and gradually beginning to open up the buildings for special weekends celebrating the remarkable achievements of the people who called this airfield home — temporarily at least. The new occupants have certainly done them proud.