This oak frame open plan home built by Karin and John Skanberg combines contemporary living space design with traditional materials, for the perfect family home. The barn-style house in West Sussex has been built using SIPs and sustainable timber boarding to ensure the house is eco friendly.

The two storey interior has been specifically designed for family living, incorporating two bedrooms and an open plan space downstairs with a grand oak staircase leading to a further two bedrooms upstairs. Underfloor heating and wall to ceiling glazing complete the contemporary feel of the house, without detracting from the traditional exterior.

“John likes quite traditional-looking buildings whereas I prefer a more modern approach, so it felt as though we were never going to agree on a design we both wanted,” says Karin Skanberg of the couple’s recent foray into self build.

Finding a Building Plot

John and Karin were living in a modest 1960s bungalow in a Saxon village in West Sussex and planned to extend the property, but when the next door neighbours decided to sell off their garden as a building plot, the couple dropped everything and snapped up the land, which enjoys spectacular views across wooded slopes to the South Downs.

“We’d already spent a year gaining planning permission for our extension, so I was unsure about the whole thing and didn’t really want to go through it all again, but John persuaded me that it was meant to be, so in the end we just went for it,” Karin continues.

“The plot went to sealed bids and we were successful, so suddenly we had a blank canvas on which to build whatever we wanted – planners permitting. It was all very exciting!”

Designing an Open Plan Oak Frame Home

Once Karin and John started to think about a suitable design for their new home, though, they soon realised that they were pulling in totally opposite directions. Karin is Danish and likes contemporary, open plan wooden houses, whereas John favoured a more traditional brick home. It seemed impossible that the couple would ever reach a compromise, until they came across a beautiful property featured in Homebuilding & Renovating which caught their attention.

“It was a curved oak framed house in Devon and we both absolutely loved it,” says John. “At last we’d found an open, airy, highly glazed design which also had plenty of character. We cut out the picture and carried it around with us while we visited various oak framing companies to find out who could produce what we wanted.”

After speaking to John Greene at Border Oak, Karin and John felt comfortable that they would enjoy working with the family-run business, and asked them to come up with an initial design based on their brief. The new oak framed house should combine a traditional, vernacular exterior with large areas of glazing to embrace the views, and a relaxed, flowing floorplan suitable for a family.

Incredibly, the very first concept which Border Oak’s architect Ewart Hutton produced was so perfect that the design was built with only minor alterations. “We made some small changes, but it was just what we wanted,” John says. “Our previous experience of applying for planning permission for the extension had been fraught, but this time the process went very smoothly.”

The barn-style house is asymmetrical and double gabled, with long sloping roof profiles and stepped ridge lines designed to absorb both height and volume. Upright and strong, the gables are proportional and balanced with enough projections and recessions to form interesting shadows, and the staggered frontage allows the garden to begin to reclaim and soften the building’s edges.

Construction and Materials

A limited palette of external materials was selected to blend with the landscape without cluttering the design. Quintessentially rural yet contemporary and sustainable timber boarding was chosen to suit the wooded location, whilst handmade clay tiles and a deep skirt of local bricks ensure Sussex dialect is acknowledged and mean the house will weather gently.

“We chose to build using SIPs because of their energy efficiency and the speed of construction,” says John. “The structural insulated panels and hand-crafted oak frame are an eco-friendly combination, and the house is so well insulated that we’ve rarely needed to turn on the radiators upstairs – tending to rely on the ground floor underfloor heating and the woodburning stove.”

Internal Layout

Internally, the layout has been arranged specifically for the family, with Karin’s two teenage sons, Johan and Oliver, occupying bedrooms with a shared bathroom to one end of the dining hall. The remainder of the ground floor is predominantly open plan, with a kitchen/family room leading off the hallway.

“We decided to do away with a door between the hall and kitchen so that the space could be completely open,” explains Karin.

An oak staircase rises up from this hallway to a galleried landing, with one side leading into the master bedroom with its dressing room and en suite. A fourth bedroom is used for guests, and a study and bathroom are located off the landing. Karin works from home, so a floor-to-ceiling window was added so that she can look out at the view and work in natural light.

All of the main rooms and passing points, such as the gallery bridge and hallway, enjoy views across the South Downs, and the south-facing windows have been discretely over-scaled to make the most of passive solar gain. From very early design discussions a first floor sitting room was agreed upon, and this forms a magnificent living space with a fully vaulted roof, queen post trusses and windows opening out onto a large balcony. Delightfully unexpected, dramatic and impressive, this room is ideal for entertaining, listening to music or simply relaxing and enjoying the vista.

The Build

“The frame and SIPs were completed in just over four weeks,” says John, “with the remaining work taking five months – after which we were left with a shell which needed completing internally.”

John and Karin organised local subcontractors, sourced materials and did a great deal of the hands-on work themselves, including painting the horizontal weatherboarding and softwood windows – choosing a sage green colour similar to that seen in local buildings. Karin’s sons also helped out, as did John’s son Ashley – who is training as a carpenter and undertook tasks such as fixing stud walling and putting up plasterboard – whilst John’s brother, Martyn, virtually moved in for a year to assist.

The end result is a light new home with open plan spaces and mod cons such as underfloor heating on the ground floor and a heat-recovery and ventilation system. “We’ve had some fantastic compliments, and people often say that the house looks like it’s been here forever, because it really does blend in,” says Karin.

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