When Clare and Patrick Michell’s little daughter thought “jungle” meant a clump of trees in the nearby park, they realised it was time for a rethink.
Living in a Victorian house they’d extended in Hackney, the couple had both trained as architects, though Clare is now an architectural adviser. But they both grew up in the country and wanted their children to know real countryside as well as London, where Patrick works and where the family lives during the week.
What it cost
- Plot in 2012: £330,000
- Total build (excluding fees): £600,000
- Value now (estimate): £1.15 million
They have just finished building the solution — a three-bedroom, two-bathroom house on stilts in the Norfolk Broads, for weekends and holidays. Made of timber with timber shingles and huge sliding windows looking out on to a lagoon and other waterways all round, this house is quite something.
BIRD WATCHING FROM THE BATH
Swans honk in mating season “like monkeys”, heron float overhead like prehistoric gliders and dragonflies flash among the flag iris. And when daughter, Rae, four, and her sister Margo, two, have their bath under the eaves, they can watch wild ducks through the huge windows, sporting among the waterlilies.
Their project decided, the couple’s search for the right spot began in Kent then pushed out to Norfolk. It had to be within a two-hour drive of London, so that Patrick, 39, could commute when necessary, and the couple hoped for something near water. They also looked for “oddities” other people didn’t want.
A SITE WITH POTENTIAL
They spotted two plots close together in the Norfolk Broads, though one was inaccessible, which ruled it out. The other plot held what looked like a rotting scout hut. But, reached down country lanes, the decrepit house was surrounded by water and flanked by a magical private lagoon with the Broads visible beyond, full of yacht sails in summer. “And on our first visit, a pair of otter were playing,” says Clare, 38.
They bought it, knowing that the presence of a house, especially a grotty, decaying one, meant they’d be permitted to build something to replace it. Even so, Patrick verified that was the case before exchanging.
THE VENICE OF NORFOLK
Their structural engineer chillingly described the peat bog the house stood on as “reinforced water”. All the local houses are built on piles driven through the peat, which can be more than 30 feet deep, till they hit limestone. In essence, it’s like Venice, but with modern piles — hollow steel tubes filled with concrete.
Other difficulties piled up, too. The roads are also piled, so no trucks and definitely no cranes go down them — just a Transit van. And there are no mains drains, so the couple would have to purify their own well water and arrange the property’s sewage treatment. None of that put them off, but it slowed things down. The house took two years to build.
Patrick created a contemporary design with strong vernacular links, which would also be light. This meant a timber frame hung with red-cedar shingles, a shingled roof, and lots of big sliding windows with views in all directions, all surrounded by decking like a wide pontoon.
Pale-skinned Clare wanted an 11ft-wide overhang above the deck so she could be outside without getting sunburned. A triple-roof design has steep pitches that recall the style of local boathouses. The cladding of light brown shingles resembles the feathered breast of a mallard hen preening amid the mix of alder, birch and willow trees.
Meanwhile, the couple’s engineer worked out a clever piling system. No fewer than 52 steel piles were sunk to hold up the steel raft on which the light timber house sits. It’s all bespoke, so testing, surveying and testing the piles again took six months. But once everyone was happy with the steel foundation, the timber frame went up fast. “We used local builders,” Patrick explains, “real old-school. There was a lot of swearing, but they were great.”
A MODERN ECO-HOME
They raised the frame by hand, then clad it. Inside this charming exterior, to which no locals objected, the house is super-modern.
First, it’s very hi-tech, with underfloor heating, mechanical ventilation with heat-recovery, top-notch water purification, a wood-burning stove, double- and triple-glazed windows, and massive insulation. And it looks modern: the three interior sections are emphasised by big sliding pocket doors.
All the floors are done in whitened oak, and a bold steel corkscrew stair leads up to the master bedroom. Which caused more swearing, as it came in bits, to be welded on site.
From the spacious black-and-white kitchen looking across the dining area to the lagoon, to the master bedroom with its spellbinding picture window facing in the same direction, this is a special place. Furnished with a lot of bespoke pieces it’s topped off by striking oversize pendant lights that inhabit and enhance the soaring pitches.
London may only be two hours away, but surrounded by sweeps of water and sky reflecting endlessly, this is a place to dream in.
GET THE LOOK
- Architect: Patrick Michell of Platform 5 Architects
- Structural engineer: Morph Structures
- Builder and joiner: Wroxham Builders
- Landscape design: by Thomas Hoblyn
- White oiled oak floors: by Barham and Sons
- Black kitchen: Naked Kitchens
- Marble-look worktop: from Silestone
- Black limestone bathrooms: from GD Stones
- Big copper round pendant lamps: from Tom Dixon
- Burred oak bespoke coffee table: Paul Frampton
- Steel spiral stair: EE Stairs
- Sliding windows: Maxlight
- Modular sofa: Camerich
- For summer let enquiries, visit Backwater Norfolk