Beautiful village home on River Cam in Essex

A planning consent story: from the perspective of Oakwrights Architectural Designer, Pete Tonks.

This is a project I designed and undertook a full planning application service on back in 2008/2009 in a beautiful spot in Essex. The plot faces the village green in one direction and in another, a large sweeping bend of the River Cam, so in terms of location, this one had it sorted in all respects. However, there is always a ‘but’ right?

Yes, there was indeed a ‘but’… the house on the plot was, let’s say, architecturally challenged. It was in effect an ‘ugly duckling’ and it was my task as a designer to create a ‘beautiful swan’. The house was a post-modernist attempt at creating a contemporary village home and in some respects it hit the mark but ultimately it was both mine and my clients decision that it was beyond economical updating and remodelling and as such, we decided on the route of a demolition and replacement dwelling project.

The site is located within the village framework and also the designated Conservation Area (CA). Relevant policy stated that the demolition of dwellings within the CA is normally resisted unless the proposed new development preserves or enhances the character and appearance of the CA. Furthermore, in respect of replacement dwellings, these will only be permitted if the existing dwelling is lawful and that it can be demonstrated that the dwelling is structurally unsound or poorly constructed and that the current property in terms of design and setting does not make a positive contribution to the local character of the area and that its replacement will result in an improvement of these aspects. Any replacement dwelling should also be of a scale and character that respects neighbouring properties.

In essence, this set of circumstances provided us all with a challenge with various aspects that had to be addressed. This was not going to be as simple a replacement dwelling project as we had first of all expected; we had to establish that the property was lawful, was unsound or poorly constructed and did not make a positive contribution. All of this, even before we got around to the fun bit… designing the house!

We worked closely with the local planning authority (LPA) and first of all established the lawful aspect in that it was an existing dwelling which was being inhabited for private residential use and this was relatively straightforward.

We then commissioned a structural survey to look at the fabric of the building and its infrastructure in terms of services. Most of the plumbing and electrics were substandard, the house was poorly insulated and featured inefficient doors and windows all of which led to a low performing building. A low performing building has a high carbon footprint and will only get worse over time making it an inefficient and unsustainable place to live for future occupants. The survey work and justification process that we went through met with the LPA’s approval and this aspect had been satisfactorily overcome.

In other words, we got the ‘green light’ to progress to the design stage…. Happy days! As always, I held an in depth design and planning strategy meeting with my clients to establish the brief. This is the most vital stage of the design process as I approach this on a very personal one to one level. I want to get to know clients and to fully understand what they want from their project. I am honoured and privileged to be involved in such a personal capacity,

so we have to get it right… building your own home is likely to be the most ambitious thing you ever do in life!

During this meeting, we discuss all aspects of design and space planning and how to get spaces to connect and result in a positive flow. We look at materials and how they can make or break a scheme. We also look at how you intend to build your project and for what budget. All of these variables have to be considered at the design stage as they have a direct impact on how the process is approached and what the output will be.

With these particular clients, they knew they wanted to create a courtyard feel at the front, with accommodation located to the left of the courtyard so as to benefit from the views out to the front towards the village green and to the side overlooking the river. At the rear of the courtyard, they wanted the main entrance into the house and to the right, they felt it would be a good place for the garaging and utility area.

This worked really well as the front of the site was generally East facing and therefore we designed the kitchen at the front to get the morning sunrise together with the master bedroom suite and guest bedroom as this particular client liked to be woken up naturally by the morning sun. The master bedroom suite consisted of walk in dressing room, en-suite and sitting area with balcony looking out over the river. Moving back to the ground floor, the dining room, study and utility area were all positioned to the rear (West) as these are largely evening or private rooms and did not need to get the primary view out.

The formal living room was something a little different but ended up being amazing. We decided to locate this at the rear southern corner with a fully glazed elevation out to the garden and river beyond but also to make it the full height of building within! This was ambitious but I felt that it could be very exciting and step away from the norm which is something I am always up for. This full height vaulted space allowed a gallery view down from the first floor landing and results in a well-connected and cohesive space for our clients.

The ground floor also featured a wc /cloakroom, utility room and linked double garage. In addition to the master bedroom suite upstairs, there is the guest bedroom suite above the linked garage and a further 2 bedrooms sharing a bathroom. We also designed a double height gallery space above the front door so that as soon as you enter the building, you know you are in for something a little different.

With regards to the external appearance of this project, my clients had originally wanted to go with the classic oak and infill panel, very much along the lines of Tudor manor house. Whilst I do appreciate this vernacular, I did make the point that in my opinion, this would be over dominant in this location and would not honestly reflect the local architecture and would compete with the natural features such as the river and village green.

I worked up some sketches to show that on this occasion, ‘less is more’. I wanted to present the house as a much simpler plain lime rendered building with subtle elements of oak frame and for the link and garage, this most definitely had to be finished in Cambridgeshire black stained timber weatherboarding over a low brick plinth. We did however move away from cladding all of the garage and link in weatherboarding as it was felt this would dilute the feel of the courtyard and instead just applied boarding to the front gable.

I absolutely love how this house has ended up exactly how I had envisaged and its simplicity is its charm. If you combine this simplicity with the solidity and presence that only an oak frame can achieve then you have perfection in my view.


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