For 19 years Sheila and Richard Hope had lived happily in the same 1930s house in the rural market town of Crowborough in Sussex. Their daughters, Charlotte and Sarah, grew up in the four bedroom property and the family had made many friends in the area and were not planning to move on. Until, that is, some friends happened to mention they were planning to sell off part of their large garden as a building plot.
“We all lived in the same road, so buying the plot only meant moving a short distance,” says Sheila. “It seemed like too good an opportunity to miss – particularly as it meant that we’d have friendly neighbours living right next door. I knew immediately that we should buy it and build ourselves a new house there.”
The piece of land measured just under half an acre and was totally overgrown when the Hopes first saw it, making it difficult to see the full extent of the plot. Outline Planning Permission had already been secured for a new house, but the couple had very definite ideas about the kind of home they wanted to build.
“A friend of ours, Julian Bluck, specialises in designing green oak framed houses,” says Sheila, a production editor. “We loved the idea of building with oak, and although we explained what we needed in terms of rooms, we left everything else up to Julian. He had a free hand regarding the look of the house, and came up with a weatherboarded barn-style design which perfectly suited the site.”
Sheila and Richard made very few alterations to these initial sketches, only changing the position of an en suite bathroom upstairs in order to slightly enlarge Sheila’s home office. The guest bedroom next door jetties out to the front of the house, overhanging the TV snug below and creating an attractive feature – with sturdy oak joists projecting outside to form a small canopy. “The exposed oak frame brings instant character, and every room in the house features some kind of talking point,” says Richard.
In the dining room a single storey section with a sloping glass roof casts shadows onto the brick wall below. The main sitting room and the kitchen have walls of glass doors overlooking the garden which can be folded back, and the stunning master bedroom is vaulted right up into the roof space, with incredible floor-to-ceiling curved oak braces.
The footprint of the new house was dictated by the existing planning consent and the planners were happy to approve the Hopes’ new design. The couple had put their old home up for sale and – after several false starts – were able to move into a small one bedroom flat for the duration of the build.
“It took a few months longer for us to sell our house than we’d anticipated,” recalls Sheila, “so finally breaking through the garden wall to access our plot felt like a major step. The land was cleared and a new driveway made. After that we turned our attention to landscaping the garden and digging out a pond while we waited for the oak frame to be delivered.”
The Hopes had asked three oak frame companies to quote for the main house frame, as well as a smaller version for their three-bay garage, and were impressed by the professional service and competitive price offered by Oakwrights, who specialise in bespoke, traditionally jointed and pegged oak homes.
“I’m a chartered surveyor by profession, and co-director of a building company, but this is the first time that I’ve built my own house,” explains Richard. “I was keen to act as project manager and to take on some of the work myself, including keeping the site clean and tidy. Sheila also enjoyed getting involved, and we’re both pretty well organised so there were no rows or disagreements during the build – despite the fact we were putting in long hours before and after work.”
The Hopes thoroughly enjoyed their project and struggle to recall any low points during the ninemonth build. “Many of the tradesmen we used were friends, and everyone just got on with the job,” says Richard. “There was one sticky moment, when some neighbours wrongly believed we weren’t following the approved plans and an enforcement officer was called in, but that was soon cleared up.”
It took just six days for the oak frame to be delivered to site and erected, before Richard’s team of tradesmen could complete the highly insulated structure – which is roofed in handmade clay tiles and finished externally in a combination of natural oak weatherboarding and red bricks.
The house has been designed to accommodate the sloping nature of the site by forming split-level accommodation, with steps leading up from the hallway into the dining room, which is partially open plan to the neighbouring sitting room. Upstairs, the same arrangement also effectively divides the first floor into two distinct levels.
“I found designing the interiors fairly easy,” says Sheila. “We bought some rusted outdoor lights, which gave me the idea of using similar handmade ironwork light fittings indoors. I visited showrooms because I like to see and touch things before I buy them, and once I’d started on a theme I just continued it throughout the house – keeping everything as simple and natural as possible lets the oak frame make a really strong statement.”
The frame had been sandblasted and it was Richard who then painstakingly cleaned off the timbers with oxalic acid once the house had been plastered, bringing out the natural golden colour of the wood.
Oak features prominently in every room, including the doors, skirtings and architraves, which were all handcrafted and then fitted by a joiner friend. The sweeping oak staircase in the hallway is simply detailed, and even the free-standing bath in the family bathroom has been customised to stand on solid blocks of natural oak.
“Everything about this house is robust and low-maintenance,” enthuses Richard. “It’s certainly not a fussy home, and visitors always comment on how relaxing it feels. After spending so long in our previous 1930s house we’re just happy to be able to put down roots again and enjoy living here after all the hard work.”