Dare to be different (but mind the rules)
How do you build a striking home that also blends into its natural surroundings? Cherry Maslen heads to the Cotswolds to find out
If you have a fantastic plot with spectacular views, why would you want to build an ordinary house? It’s a big issue for home owners, architects and planners alike – how to create a home with a design that’s worthy of its beautiful location but won’t be seen as a blot on the landscape.
Getting the balance right is tricky. It involves layers of planning rules and the neighbours’ subjective opinions, not to mention the considerable expense as plans, materials and schedules get altered along the way. But despite the inevitable compromises, few self-builders of well-designed contemporary homes regret the experience.
The owners of Elysium, an award-winning house in a superb spot in the Cotswold Hills just above Cheltenham in Gloucestershire, are proud of the strikingly bold new home they have created.
Built on a sloping meadow surrounded by open country and grazing livestock, it has everything a rural location has to offer – and the lively town, renowned for its arts festivals and Regency architecture, is just a few minutes’ drive downhill.
Views are truly panoramic from both inside the house and from the raised terrace, where there’s nothing to obstruct the gaze across oaks and fields all the way down to Cheltenham’s famous racecourse. In contrast to the soft green landscape, the house’s low, stone-clad rectangular design is almost brutalist, its sharp corners and flat roof seemingly paying no homage to the traditional pitched-roof farmhouses and barns in the area. But up close, Elysium reveals its secrets. Its walls are clad in the same honey-coloured Cotswold stone as s some of Cheltenham’s finest h houses and cottages in the nearby villages and the farm buildings that dot t the hills. Each stone has b been positioned by hand, reflecting t the drystone w walls that have e enclosed fi fields and meadows in t this region for c centuries. It’s this, and the comparatively modest scale of the building, with the lower o of the two levels embedded in the hillside, that helps anchor the house in the landscape.
“We never intended to build our own home, we just wanted to move to the Cotswolds,” says Pilar Albertson, who bought the Sixties house where Elysium now stands with her husband, Scott, in 2008.
“I imagined living in a Georgian house, but when we saw this location we were mesmerised. We knew it was where we wanted to be.”
The Albertsons moved to England from their native United States after their three children left home. Scott’s work as a petroleum engineer often took him to north Africa, and Pilar had decided to wind down her antiques and design business, so the couple were free to relocate to the UK.
“We thought of remodelling the existing house, but our architect recommended building from scratch,” says Pilar. “The important thing was to make the most of this very special location. We have the most amazing views day and night, and the sunsets are really wonderful.”
The Albertsons moved into a flat in Cheltenham and began the adventure of building the house, a process that lasted several years. They had never attempted a self-build before.
The hillside is in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and planning permission alone took more than six months. “We were foreigners with no idea of the complexities of the planning system here,” says Pilar. “One important decision we made was to engage a planning consultant, which I would recommend for anyone in our situation.”
Using the architect’s template, the Albertsons hired an architectural technician to prepare detailed drawings for the builders. The house is close to the architect’s original design, though Pilar insisted on an open-plan layout and it’s easy to see why.
Coming into the house via a secluded courtyard garden, you are immediately entranced by the wide views from the open living space through full-height sliding doors, which lead out to a large sun terrace peering over the sloping rear garden.
A second set of sliding glass doors opens onto the courtyard, leaving the central dining space flooded with light from both sides.
And yet the glazing doesn’t dominate the house; the kitchen and study windows are large but not full height, framing the views for a different perspective. The kitchen and dining area is partially separated from the soft seating space by a spectacular
contemporary double-sided fireplace, creating two distinct zones for relaxing and entertaining. The master bedroom suite – complete with a bath from which there’s yet another bucolic vista – plus a large utility/boot room completes the ground floor.
The lower ground floor contains two more en-suite bedrooms, a cosy family room and a large gym which could become another bedroom.
The interior is streamlined – sleek Italian kitchen, polished limestone floor tiles and high ceilings – but every room has quirky antiques, colourful artwork and personal treasures collected from years of travel. If any property proves that a 200-year-old chandelier can look right at home in a contemporary house, it is this one.
The house was finally finished in 2012, with the stonemasons’ work on the exterior alone taking 18 months. “We had the gift of time,” says Pilar. “We didn’t have to get the building finished by a certain date, so we could take the time needed to get things right.” The Albertsons far exceeded their original budget for the build – by around 40 per cent – but neither regrets either the time or expense.
Using his engineering skills, Scott spent long evenings working on the structural integrity of the building and helping to project-manage the build from his base in the Algerian desert. “Scott always said, ‘If you’re going to do something, do it right. It must stand the test of time,’” says Pilar. “We went beyond the building regulation requirements for insulation and glazing because we wanted a very sustainable home.”
Decisions on the interiors, from the high-spec kitchen and bathrooms to the flooring and lighting, were mainly Pilar’s. “I wouldn’t let Scott near my interiors,” she says, smiling.
Engineering and groundwork fees alone came to more than £350,000, and the Albertsons reserved an entire section of a local quarry to make sure they’d have enough Cotswold stone for the walls. It was cut and chipped on site by six stonemasons, at a cost of around £165,000.
Scott is planning to retire soon, and with children and grandchildren in the US, the couple have decided to leave Elysium. “We’ve had five wonderful years in this house,” says Pilar. “Now we want to free up our lives and spend more time with our loved ones.”
The house, which sits in 1.8 acres, is on the market with Savills for £3million. Chris Jarrett, sales director at Savills Cheltenham, says the value reflects the sublime location as well as the design, craftsmanship and high-quality materials inside and out. “It’s rare to find a house with this combination of location and design quality,” he says.
Another strikingly original house in an idyllic setting currently on the market is a Grade II listed Sixties house near Kenilworth, Warwickshire. Inspired by modernist architect Frank Lloyd Wright, the linear stone and timber building’s living space is all on the upper floor, to make the most of views over hills and fields. The original owner asked his architect for a home that would “still look modern in 20 years”. The five-bedroom house is for sale at £1.395million through the Modern House.
In an elevated spot over woodland and water is Genesis, an extraordinary contemporary house near Newbury, Berkshire, with substantial glazing and large terraces from which to admire the views. The six-bedroom house has an indoor pool and Moroccaninspired palm room, and is for sale at £1.95million via JacksonStops & Staff.
At Home House, a timberclad house designed as a series of rectangles near St Albans, Hertfordshire, the roof terrace is the best place to take in the extensive views.
Courtyards and a galleried walkway add to the inside-outside living space at the four-bedroom house, which is available for £1.75million through Strutt & Parker.
Home: Elysium’s Pilar and Scott Albertson
Herculean: it took the Albertsons four years to build Elysium, their three-bedroom Cheltenham home
Light the way: the modern interior is full of quirky antiques, including a 200-year-old chandelier