Peter O’Brien and his father Rodney had been running a holiday home business in Dorset for 10 years when an amazing property in the Totnes area came up for sale.
The Gitcombe Estate, which Peter and Rodney bought, comprised a Grade II-listed farmhouse, a series of old barns and outbuildings, indoor and outdoor pools, and tennis courts, but although the estate had previously been run as a holiday property, it had not been well-maintained or developed to make the most of the site.
Peter moved into the main house, which required complete renovation, while continuing to run the holiday home business.
“There was a stable block on the plot that I was using for storage,” says Peter. “But it was by far the best spot for a new property on the estate — it had the most magnificent views and was close to the pool and other facilities.” There was already a driveway leading to the stables, and most services were connected — the perfect plot for a self build.
- Homeowners: Peter and Rodney O’Brien
- Location: Devon
- Project: Oak frame self build
- Build Size: 220m²
- Build Time: Nov 2017 — Dec 2018
- Plot Cost: Already owned
- Build Cost: £650,000
- Current Value: Approximately £1million
Peter set about getting planning permission to replace the stable with a house that would do its enviable position justice, turning to Leila Westrope and James Lock, of Roderick James Architects, for a design.
“Peter wanted to create a family home that made the most of the beautiful views all around,” explains Leila. “But we knew that the planners had quite a few stipulations — the ridge height of the new house couldn’t be much higher than the stable block that already stood and should, from the surrounding footpath, look traditional, simple and modest. So we knew we would have to use traditional materials and find a way to build the house into the surrounding landscape to reduce its massing and impact.”
“We wanted it to have an impact — but in a good way,” adds Peter.
Designing for a Sloping Site
Working with an existing level change, the house was designed to be two storeys, with three bedrooms, all opening out on to a terrace on the lower ground floor.
The main open-plan kitchen, dining and living spaces are on the first floor, as is an accessible bedroom and bathroom, with separate access when required.
To navigate the sloping site and keep the ridge height low, the new building is set into the land. “It’s a hybrid construction as we’ve used a mix of concrete and timber,” says Leila. “The insulated concrete block lower floor is sunk into the ground (to keep cool in summer) and then highly insulated timber studwork wraps the green oak frame on the upper, entry level floor. All of the walls (and floor and roof) are highly insulated.”
Other energy efficient measures include an air source heat pump that powers the underfloor heating on both floors of the house, triple glazing and a mechanical ventilation with heat recovery (MVHR) system.
(MORE: MVHR: Beginner’s Guide)
The upper storey was built using a green oak frame, designed by Leila and supplied by Carpenter Oak. “We used two central sling brace truss for the feature frames, combined with A-frames,” explains Leila. “This was to achieve a warm, traditional look.”
The Exterior Details
Peter, who took on the role of project manager, was keen that the external design should feature vertical larch cladding, and this has been fixed in what Leila refers to as a ‘hit and miss’ configuration.
“Horizontal battens with a chamfer for water drainage are fixed to the studwork, before vertical cladding boards are attached. Narrower vertical boards are then fixed to the wider boards behind for a nice visual effect,” she explains. “It is quite a standard method for us — it adds more texture and interesting shadows and we leave the cladding unplaned as it gives it a certain ‘furry’ charm.”
The lower level of the house is clad in Yennadon stone, a local product used widely in the area. The rear elevation of the house features extensive glazing, primarily bifold doors to ensure the external spaces and views can be fully embraced.
“We used wrapping glazing, a relatively new method, for the aluminium windows and doors,” says Leila. “We use a glazed screen that is separate from the frame to appear as though it is floating around the building — it has a contemporary look that contrasts here with the traditional elements.”
Internally, the ‘wow’ factor that Peter was setting out to achieve with this house has certainly been fulfilled — with the generous, vaulted, open-plan living space providing the perfect spot for families to gather and appreciate their surroundings.
“Big open spaces were important for this to work as a family-friendly holiday property,” explains Peter. “Considering the property is new, the oak frame means that it already has its own character and identity and very much feels like a home.”
“We knew this had to be a really good quality kitchen,” says Peter. The kitchen is located to one end of the living area and features an enormous island unit.
“Working around the oak frame, we have provided lots of space for families to spread out and plenty of storage — it is an amazing space.”
The house took just over a year to complete and Peter now lives on site in another property on the retreat which he runs with his father.
“You become used to living this way over time,” Peter says of life on here. “This is a family-run place and Dad and I are a good team. I love meeting guests, it is so enjoyable, like a nice little community.”