Watson and Marsha Watson-Steele became reluctant self-builders when a fire devastated their listed farmhouse — the traditional-style replacement is the result of quality design and a large dose of perseverance.

Watson and Marsha were only 36 hours into a holiday in France when they received a phone call informing them that their large listed 17th century timber frame Essex farmhouse had been destroyed by fire. It was a huge upset to say the least, particularly for Watson, whose parents had bought the farm in 1952.

The interiors had to be gutted following the fire, with the remaining walls demolished. All that was left standing was the 110m2 south wing – itself an extension added in the 1960s – which looked sadly stunted on the large plot.

Ever optimistic, Watson hoped the house could be rebuilt within 15 months. However, by the time he and Marsha finally moved into their newly built home in June 2010, the process had instead taken four-and-a-half years. The long delay was not due, as one might expect, to the planners, but instead to insurance issues and an 18-month wait to have the house de-listed by English Heritage.

Once it dawned upon the Watson-Steeles that there would be a considerable wait, they decided to convert the adjacent former cowshed into a temporary home. “I thought converting it into a house would be a good dress rehearsal as, sooner or later, we were going to have a five-bed house to rebuild” Watson explains.

The couple also needed to find a designer to get a plan for a new home approved and give thought to the construction system. As things happened, they were leafing through an issue of HB&R and spotted the work of designer Stephen Mattick. Realising he lived just 25 miles away, they made contact.

Stephen consequently produced a scheme based on the original footprint in brick and block – the couple were adamantly against traditional oak frame after what had happened to the original farmhouse. He added an extra gable on the north-east elevation and two sections of jettying, in which the first floor overhangs the ground floor. “Stephen specialises in making traditional-style new builds look as though they’ve been there many years, and this is what we wanted,” says Marsha.

Planning permission was duly granted, and work began on site in August 2008, with the couple managing the project themselves. “After the farmhouse renovation and the cowshed conversion project, I reckoned I had just about enough experience,” says Watson. By taking this course and buying all the materials, the couple believe they saved around £200,000 — possibly more.

After two years of constant battling with their insurers, Watson and Marsha managed to get their initial, lowly offer of £186,000 increased to £525,000. The remainder of the build cost was covered by the couple’s own funds.

“We loved the old house and still feel hugely sad that all the contents went,” Marsha says. “But we love its replacement. All the rooms are in the same place, and we have retained the cellar — something we were very keen to do. And when you approach it along the long drive it really doesn’t appear to be a new house at all.”

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