Making a modern statement with glass and timber

One family's task was to please planners and local residents while building a radical new home. They tell Emily Wright how they did it
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Liz and Kim Bradbury
Jimmi Bradbury's wife, Liz, and their daughter, Kim, with pet dog Bailey, enjoy the rear garden of New Pipers, their home in the Hertfordshire countryside

He may have found the perfect plot to build his family home but Jimmi Bradbury knew there would be trouble ahead. The reaction from local planners and change-averse neighbours was predictable enough.

This was no run-of-the-mill design application and certainly nothing like it had been seen in Letty Green, an overwhelmingly traditional Hertfordshire hamlet.

It seemed the prospect of someone coming along to knock down a 250-year-old farmhouse to replace it with a glass-and-timber statement property didn't sit well with anyone.

But persistence pays. Now New Pipers is standing proud on the site. Simple and stunning in equal measure, and not just another glass box but a design that links with sensitivity to the neighbouring rollling countryside. The house brims with ingenious design and environmentally friendly functions that, in turn, helped it past those tricky planners and persuaded local residents that it was a good thing for the village.

Jimmi, 49, worked on the project with a childhood friend, the now acclaimed modern architect Niall McLaughlin. The house is so striking that it is regularly in demand for use in films and TV commercials. And all of this is only 45 minutes from King's Cross.

Bradbury home
(Left) Liz, Kim and Jimmi Bradbury; (right) a wall of glass brings light into the home's communal living areas

But, like every success story, the New Pipers journey was far from hurdle-free. Jimmi and his wife, Liz, had their work cut out from the word go — but that didn't put either of them off.

Says Jimmi: "As with anything you want to do in this life, think about everything that could go right. Don't get paralysed by the fear of everything that could go wrong."

Looking back, Jimmi says that, with a firm, realistic handle on finances and a clear idea of what you want, anyone can create a dream home — no matter how unusual.

The New Pipers project began back in 2001 when Jimmi and his family moved back to the UK after years travelling for his work as a construction project manager. He bought the £500,000 plot at Letty Green because of the hamlet's proximity to London and because he loved the light and the natural surroundings.

How to win over sceptical planners

To create a modern space that could keep the local community on side, Jimmi needed an architect who was on his wavelength and one who understood how to mix the built and natural environments.

So he went back to his roots and enlisted the help of childhood friend Niall McLaughlin. The pair worked together tirelessly for more than two years to create a design that fulfilled Jimmi's brief for a modern property but one which could appease local residents and planners with sympathetic material choices and sustainable innovation.

Says Jimmi: "We used a lot of wood, rather than metal, to counterbalance the glass and to make sure the materials were in keeping with the building's surroundings."

Indeed, the glass only makes up the front of the south-facing property to allow maximum light into the communal areas — the living, dining and sitting rooms. This section of the house backs on to another section made of timber becoming "a piece of architectural cabinetry" which houses the bedrooms, bathrooms, utility and storage rooms.

Linking the glass front with the field beyond is a 19-metre pond and a terrace covered with a large canopy. And this is one of the property's key sustainable design functions. The canopy is carefully positioned to regulate how much light falls on the building depending on the season, to keep a largely constant temperature inside.

"The glass part of the building faces south but in the summer, when the sun is high in the sky, it hits the canopy and bounces into the building. The result is that we get all of the light but not all of the heat," Jimmi explains.

"In the winter, when the sun is lower, it comes into the building under the canopy, warming the house throughout the day and into the evening. This doesn't eliminate the need for heating entirely, but cuts our energy bills in half."

Bradbury home
A green terrace and pond on the garden side of the house sit under a tall canopy which regulates temperatures indoors

The intriguing canopy, along with other sustainable features, proved to be the key to the planners' hearts. "We put solar panels on the roof, which is a green roof to start with, and we had a non-fossil fuel boiler — but we also had a planning officer who understood sustainability. In general, the greener the design, the more likely you are to get it approved."

Of course, getting planning approval is not the only challenge associated with building your own house. If you don't have a firm grasp on the costs, you'll come unstuck. Fast.

Watching the costs

Jimmi knew exactly how much he had to spend and, on top of the £500,000 he paid for the site, the design and 15 months of building work put another £550,000 on the bill. The ongoing cost of window cleaning, incidentally, is a mere £250 twice a year. Not bad considering how much glass Jimmi has used.

"Within four years, the property was valued at £1.5 million at an absolute minimum," says Jimmi. "We paid a premium of about 20 per cent on a standard house build but the costs will depend on what you want. If you want a building like this, something completely unique, you'll have to pay for it. Ultimately we think we got good value for money because we got exactly what we wanted."

Of course, Jimmi was better placed than many. With a background in projectm-anaging construction he was well positioned to know how to reduce costs when necessary and how to avoid common, and costly, pitfalls.

"Let the architect design and the builder build," he says. "You can minimise risk by making sure the house is fully designed before you go on site. Don't design as you go along. It gets messy and expensive. You need to be patient and resist the urge to get on site before you're ready. Find a good contractor with prior experience in building the type of thing you want. Asking the architect for advice is worth doing as they will most likely suggest someone they have worked with before and who they know is good."

And hire a project manager, he urges. "You should probably get someone on board to help manage the process — particularly the architect. Architects can sometimes be quite egotistical but they also like guidelines because they realise there are limited funds and they know it won't benefit anyone if the client turns around and says, 'We have to stop the project. I can't pay for this.'"

An unexpected bonus

A benefit of designing such a striking home has been interest from advertising and film agencies looking to use the house for photo shoots and filming.

"We have let out our house about six times in the past two years at about £1,000 a day," says Jimmi. "It's an unexpected supplemental income, certainly. But this is a family home first and was not built as a commercial venture. I loved building this house, I should have done it years ago."

Emily Wright is features editor of Estates Gazette.

Pictures by John Lawrence

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