So it’s a sunny day when H&R visits Roger and Jane Paulson at their little piece of California on the River Trent in Nottingham, and we’re sitting outside on one of their several terraces eating a lovely lunch and enjoying watching the passing entertainment that the river brings and talking about the cheers rising from the 20/20 cricket (you can see the floodlights from the terrace). H&R is having a much better time than it usually has at 1 o’clock on a Monday afternoon and thinking that there has to be some catch to all of this. Roger and Jane’s story, in a nutshell, goes like this: charming, down-to-earth people who have never built a house before but manage to pull off an audacious contemporary home, with none of the downsides that other contemporary homes seem to have, in the best location their home town has to offer, and all for around £1,000/m² — a ridiculously low price for something of this quality, and around half the price of many projects H&R has seen that have the same feel but none of the quality of design.
It’s not as if Roger and Jane approached this project in an entirely conventional or risk-free way — indeed, it sometimes feels as if they kind of ended up here through a mixture of circumstance and good fortune rather than the usual cold calculation. “We had been living in our 1930s house – the house our children grew up in – for 20 years,” says Jane. “Once the children left, and we thought about extending and remodelling it for the fourth time, we began to think perhaps we needed a change. We wanted to give ourselves a bit of shock treatment to do something, well, a bit different.”
Different for Roger and Jane meant purchasing an interesting rectangular riverside development site in the local neighbourhood just a few minutes’ walk from Nottingham city centre. It was home to two rather run-down buildings — a 1960s dormer bungalow (which was next to the river, at the back of the plot) and a coach house to the roadside front. “In truth, it was a brave decision,” says Roger. “It’s not like the road is full of million-pound houses, and the dormer bungalow at the rear was derelict — a home for squatters and local drug users.”
There followed much discussion about quite what to do with their new life-changing site, and the decision fell to build a house for themselves at the riverside rear (in place of the dormer bungalow) and replace the coach house at the front of the site with a block of apartments that would help, in time, to finance the whole venture. “It was something new and exciting for us, and we were obviously wary but just excited to have a project to work on,” says Jane.
The couple then made the first of their key decisions — to take up a contact made through friends and meet with local designer Andy Roberts, who was keen to get into bespoke contemporary homes in addition to his day job in a practice devoted to more commercial projects. They all hit it off right away, Roger and Jane liked what Andy had to say on house design (more of which later) and Andy got to work on making the most of the site layout.
“The site posed several constraints,” says Andy, “all of which influenced the design in some way.” Firstly, Andy needed to work out a plan for the apartment block that would maximise the amount of apartments in the space – along with their requisite car-parking spaces, turning areas and so on – but would also allow the house that effectively sits behind it, and facing it, to have privacy and singularity. Cue much work with the local planning department, which Andy knew pretty well anyway, to convince them of their plans. Secondly, the river obviously posed a flood risk so any new development would have to design out any potential flooding. Thirdly, the rear of the house faced north, so the design would have to take this into account not just from an outside living perspective but also in a thermal context, particularly pertinent considering the amount of glazing within most contemporary designs.
With these parameters in mind, Andy began an intensive briefing process with Jane and Roger, which Jane in particular took up with enthusiasm. “I asked her to initially go through around 300 images I’d got, and she’d collected, from magazines, and not just put them into piles of ‘like’, ‘don’t like’ and ‘don’t know’ but tell me, for each one, what it was that she liked about them,” says Andy. “I could then begin to interpret why and perhaps see the reasons behind her decisions that might not have been obvious to her. For example, I noted that she liked contemporary spaces that focused on the doorways, and it was only when I put four or five of these images together that I noticed a common theme, which in this instance was full-height doors.”
This intensive programme was highly enjoyable for the couple. “It was just so refreshing for us to really think about houses in such a way,” says Jane.
Andy continues: “So many homes are built really without the owners in mind, resulting in wasted spaces and an uneasy fit. We worked tirelessly on this theme, so that there was a mix of open and cosy spaces, of drama and intimacy, and most importantly places for all parts of their lives. So the result is that they have the perfect spot for Sunday afternoon barbecues [including a simple sheltered outdoors space — how simple but brilliant], Saturday evening dinner parties, watching the tennis on the telly, sitting out on a Sunday morning enjoying the river, and so on. Every place has its time, and every time its place.”
Armed with a full brief, Andy then hit upon a way of working that would be key to the whole process. “I wanted two things out of the project in essence. Firstly, to show that we could build high-quality contemporary spaces to a modest budget and at a guaranteed price; and secondly, that I wanted Roger and Jane to concentrate their thoughts on the things that mattered to them — the decisions about key interiors.
“I call it decision overload,” Andy continues. “Selfbuilders in my experience seem to spend so much energy on every detail of the project that they are completely exhausted when it comes to thinking about the things that really matter. They’re also pressured into making detailed decisions before any of the space has been created; it’s very difficult to visualise. When a self builder is busy worrying about other things, like plumbers turning up late or materials delivery or a tiny construction detail, they miss out on the key decisions, and the fun of it all.
“I also wanted to take away a lot of the budget worry for Roger and Jane. The budget we approached in the same way as a commercial venture; namely, we guaranteed a price for the weathertight shell, and when it came to the fitting out, allotted PC (prime cost) sums that Roger and Jane could then elect to go over if they desired. I said to them that the shell itself would cost £780/m² (a fixed price of £265,000) and the interiors around £220/m². This was partly because of my experience but also because I knew contractors and the prices they would charge, but also we did an awful lot of creative ‘value engineering.’”
This other commercial-sounding term – value engineering – would prove to be the key to Roger and Jane achieving a well-beyond-average look on an average budget. “I wanted things to look great but realised that, with a bit of creativity, Roger and Jane could achieve them in a relatively good-value way. So, for example, on the side of the apartment block that Roger and Jane face, rather than building a simple wall we opted for plywood boxes that were then given different polished finishes. It cost a couple of thousand pounds more but was well worth it. With the front door we wanted to mimic the look of the brilliant garage door but couldn’t afford to, so the joiner made it up for us and we saved £1,000s.
“Likewise, we were efficient with the guys on site. For a start, in the first hour on site we walked them around individually, showed them the plans and really sold how different it was to them. They really bought into it, and we had zero problems even though some of the detailing was quite different to what they were used to. There was a lot of craftsmanship in evidence, and I think people responded to that.”
This is a deeply thoughtful and sophisticated approach to self build. Roger and Jane have enjoyed a very pleasant middle ground — between hands-on, up-to-wellies-in-the-mud self build battle, and handsoff, traditional architect/client relationship, approach. They also benefitted from an exceptional site foreman — Andy calls him “a datum of exceptional quality”, and it’s difficult to disagree; the number-one reason contemporary homes fail is poor on-site practice. “We’d be tempted to move and do it all again,” says Roger, sitting back and looking out over the river. “But I doubt we’d get a better home than this, and a better location than this in the city.”