Hidden contemporary oak delight with stunning views over Weardale, County Durham

This wooden frame home was designed to be built into a hillside, with a lower ground floor

Containing garaging, studios and office space

Mike and Eileen Leatherland have exchanged their rambling Georgian house for a brand new home, built to their own design and enjoying the same stunning views over Weardale in County Durham. “We’d lived in our previous house for 20 years, but once the children had grown up and moved away we were rattling around in a property which required constant maintenance.”

The Leatherlands employed the services of a knowledgeable planning consultant, who recommended a local architect, and together they worked on a suitable design which would successfully blend into the rural setting.

“We wanted to sell our Georgian house, so we had to be very careful and preserve the view for the next owners,” Mike explains. “Positioning the new house on the site of two deep ponds in the lower garden was the perfect way to avoid blocking the view, but it did create a few structural headaches along the way.”

“The new house was designed to be built into the hillside, with a lower ground floor containing additional garaging, studios and office space. Two bedrooms, two bathrooms and an open plan kitchen / dining and living area have been positioned on the ground floor, with stairs leading up to a mezzanine dressing room, laundry and library level above.”

Traditional design & modern materials

“Only the very tip of the roof is visible from our old house, and planning permission was granted almost immediately,” say Eileen, who is currently completing a PHD in architectural glass. “We’ve combined traditional local materials with some highly contemporary features, and glass plays a prominent part in the overall design.” It was Eileen who produced a model of the proposed house, which demonstrated exactly how the building would nestle into the hillside – appearing as a log, low and relatively modest stone bungalow from the driveway.

The front elevation is altogether more contemporary however, dropping down to form a stunning two storey structure with an oak and glass prow projecting out towards the view. Originally this had been designed as a standard conservatory, but once planning permission was granted the Leatherlands applied to tweak and alter the exterior. “We knew from the start that we wanted to build our house around a green oak frame, but the planners’ structural engineer was unnecessarily wary of the idea, ” says Mike, a retained fireman with his own clock restoration business.

Choosing an oak frame company 

The couple attended self-build exhibitions and conducted extensive research before contacting several oak frame manufacturers for quotes. “We chose Oakwrights because we liked their friendly, personal approach,” says Eileen. “They designed the frame and worked closely with our architect, who had no previous experience of building with green oak.”

Excavation work began during the snowy winter of 2004, and the ponds were expanded to form a base for the blockwork basement, which was externally tanked with bitumen and a layer of insulation. In order for the tanking to take place adequate space was created around the walls, which required supporting structures to prevent the pit from caving in, prior to being back-filled.

“The porch was built as a separate entity, and because the land had been disturbed it began to sink and subside,” says Mike. “With hindsight we should have included it in the main footprint, which would have meant that it was supported by a basement area, but instead we needed to retrofit concrete reinforcement. Building on level ground would have been so much easier than burying half the house into the hillside.”

Self-build finance 

Initially Mike and Eileen had planned to sell their previous home and move onto a caravan on site, but potential buyers were daunted by the prospect of purchasing a house next door to a building site. “They couldn’t envisage exactly how the new house would impact on the view, so in the end we decided to stay put and sell the Georgian house once our new home was finished,” Mike explains. “It meant that we needed to raise funds for the build, but then we discovered BuildStore’s Accelerator mortgage, which releases stage payments in advance. We were also allocated a personal manager who advised us on sourcing materials at trade prices.”

Project managing the self-build

The couple approached several local building contractors to price for the entire build, but the quotes were prohibitively high and so Mike decided to manage the project himself, with Eileen taking charge of the paperwork.

“We tried to use local tradesmen and materials wherever we could, but juggling so many different people was hard work,” says Eileen. “In the end we employed six different plumbers, and of course then no one was willing to take responsibility for the finished work.”

“Erecting the post and beam oak frame went without a hitch however, and was completed by the Oakwrights team in just four days – proving to be the highlight of the build. The exposed frame sits on pillars which have been built into the reinforced blockwork of walls of the basement, and the beauty of the oak imbues the house with instant drama and character.”

“Oakwrights were incredible, and the four guys who made up their site team were absolutely superb workmen,” says Eileen, who had enjoyed visiting the framing yard to see the frame being constructed. “They arrived when they should, worked really hard and were polite and tidy. They just never stopped and were a real pleasure to have around. The crane dropped and broke a piece of oak one afternoon, but its replacement was cut and delivered by the following morning – one of the advantages of modern technology.”

“The Leatherlands tackled a great deal of work on a DIY basis, installing the insulation and laying the underfloor heating pipework, which is connected to a ground source heat pump. They even fitted the incredible solid glass bridge, which appears to float across the entrance hallway to reach a glass floored viewing gallery above the vaulted sitting room. “It took Mike and seven other firemen to lift the laminated glass bridge into place,” says Eileen. “It weighs half a ton, so we were just praying that they didn’t get a callout when it was still halfway up.”

Living in a timber frame building

With the new house almost complete The Leatherlands were able to sell their previous home and move in towards the end of 2007. The contrast between their draughty high maintenance Georgian house and the high-tech, sustainable new one proved even greater than they had first imagined.

“The sheer amount of glass makes the house extremely bright and airy, but our fuel bills are a fraction of what they used to be,” says Eileen. “We love the open-plan layout, and people are always surprised when they walk into what looks like a fairly compact bungalow to discover such an open expanse of living space.”

Award winning oak frame home

Since its completion Crawley Edge has won several awards and commendations for both its outstanding design and technical innovation. In addition to the ground-source heat pump, rainwater is recovered and discharged into a pond, windows are argon-filled, and a ventilation and heat recovery system has been installed. The house also has intelligent lighting controls and a state of the art multi-media network system.

All materials were carefully researched and purchased from sustainable sources wherever possible, including locally quarried and reclaimed stone for the external walls. A reclaimed slate roof and copper guttering help to ensure that the new building blends into its stunning setting without unduly impacting on the natural surroundings.

“Building this house definitely wasn’t the easiest project for first time self-builders to take on, but we received plenty of useful help and advice along the way and managed to sort out the various construction issues,” says Mike. “the technology continues to amaze us, and living here definitely exceeds our expectations.”


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