Com­pact but clever

Chris and Mar­garet Swales’ new home, built in the gar­den of the house where their son lives, may be mod­est in size – but it’s packed with per­son­al­ity and prac­ti­cal fea­tures that help to max­imise space


A site at the end of their son’s gar­den pro­vided the per­fect place for Chris and Mar­garet Swales to con­struct a small but stylish home with plenty of space-savvy fea­tures

South African ar­chi­tect Chris Swales and his wife Mar­garet have lived in a va­ri­ety of places over the years while Chris worked on large-scale projects such as air­ports. Af­ter their last overseas post­ing in Salalah, a stun­ning coastal re­gion in south­ern Oman, the cou­ple – now semi-re­tired – re­turned to Eng­land, where they have long owned prop­er­ties. e cou­ple’s Uk-based son Tristin and his wife both work full time in high-pressure jobs and have two small en­er­getic boys. Chris and Mar­garet were keen to spend time with their grand­sons and help with the child­care, and so the fam­ily hatched a plan.

Three gen­er­a­tions, one plot

e Swales clan wanted a home large enough to ac­com­mo­date them all in the short term. e idea was that the prop­erty would have ca­pac­ity for an an­nexe or sep­a­rate dwelling for Chris and Mar­garet in the grounds, af­ter which time the main house would be just for Tristin and his fam­ily. e prop­erty had to af­ford easy ac­cess to in­fra­struc­ture for com­mut­ing and trav­el­ling, be near to good schools, walk­ing dis­tance to shops and close enough to a lar­gish town that could of­fer good ameni­ties and ac­tiv­i­ties for the boys.

It was quite a long list of cri­te­ria – and the search wasn’t easy – but af­ter three years they even­tu­ally found a suit­able place in the Es­sex vil­lage of Claver­ing, a few miles from Bishop’s Stort­ford and Saf­fron Walden. e house looked mod­est from the out­side but was enor­mous in­side, with plenty of space for a fam­ily of four and an­other

cou­ple. Even more ap­peal­ing was the large sum­mer­house at the bot­tom of the long gar­den, which of­fered all sort of pos­si­bil­i­ties.

Hav­ing bought the prop­erty, they set about putting their mas­ter­plan into ac­tion. ey ap­plied for per­mis­sion to re­place the out­door room with an 83m2 sin­gle-storey build­ing for Chris and Mar­garet. e cou­ple had plenty of ex­pe­ri­ence with res­i­den­tial projects, hav­ing de­signed and ren­o­vated a num­ber of homes for them­selves be­fore, both in the UK and South Africa. Ini­tially the plan­ners wanted the new liv­ing space to be built as an ex­ten­sion to the main house, but af­ter sev­eral meet­ings the Swales got their per­mis­sion to re­place the sum­mer­house.

e process was made eas­ier by the fact that Chris was act­ing as de­signer and project man­ager, as well as the in­tended res­i­dent, and was happy to adopt a sen­si­ble ap­proach of rea­son­able com­pro­mise. Once plan­ning con­sent was granted, the cou­ple sold their prop­erty in Hert­ford­shire and joined Tristin and his fam­ily in the main house.

is al­lowed them to re­lease the cap­i­tal for the build and be on site for the du­ra­tion of the project, which was in­valu­able.

Lo­gis­ti­cal is­sues

e tucked-away po­si­tion of the sum­mer­house, over­look­ing fields at the back of the plot, was mag­i­cal and beau­ti­fully pri­vate but ac­cess was re­stricted. “All new-build projects come with chal­lenges and our scheme was no ex­cep­tion. It is al­ways an ex­er­cise in find­ing the right so­lu­tions,” says Chris. In this case, it was not pos­si­ble for any large machin­ery or ma­te­ri­als to reach the site, so ev­ery­thing had to come through the small gar­den gate and be car­ried around 75m up the path. is meant that there could be no con­crete lor­ries, cranes, dig­gers or any of the usual equip­ment as­so­ci­ated with con­struc­tion. e new house would have to be cre­ated com­pletely in situ, in­clud­ing the wall pan­els and roof trusses.

e site lay on ac­tive clay, which would ne­ces­si­tate en­gi­neered foun­da­tions. Pil­ing is a typ­i­cal so­lu­tion in such cir­cum­stances – but the tra­di­tional method uses large drilling machin­ery, which wasn’t

ere will al­ways be new things to tackle that you haven’t come across be­fore – self-build­ing is all about prob­lem solv­ing

an op­tion here. Fol­low­ing some re­search, Chris found a com­pany called Sure­foot that of­fered a clever al­ter­na­tive.

e firm’s method does not utilise ce­ment or wa­ter and no dig­ging or pil­ing rig is nec­es­sary. In­stead, gal­vanised steel pipes are driven into the ground at var­i­ous an­gles (in a pat­tern sim­i­lar to the roots of a tree) with portable power tools. “A to­tal of 15 piles, which were cheaper and have higher struc­tural ca­pac­i­ties than con­ven­tional ver­sions, were con­structed in only five days,” says Chris.

e house’s floor struc­ture was sus­pended on top of the piles, leav­ing a gap be­tween the un­der­side of the build­ing and the ground – de­signed to pre­vent is­sues with rot or damp. e space be­low the build­ing was net­ted to stop any an­i­mals tak­ing up res­i­dence.

The build sys­tem

e walls are stick-built tim­ber frame, con­structed on site be­cause of the ac­cess is­sue. Alu­minium foil-cov­ered rigid foam in­su­la­tion (120mm thick) fills the panel cav­i­ties, which are en­cap­su­lated with ori­ented strand­board (OSB) on both faces.

e cou­ple were keen to cre­ate a con­tem­po­rary home in keep­ing with the lo­cal ver­nac­u­lar of black wooden barns and houses that’s preva­lent in this part of Es­sex. How­ever, the an­nexe’s prox­im­ity to the bound­ary wall meant that fire reg­u­la­tions came into play – and a tim­ber fin­ish wasn’t per­mit­ted. In­stead, they opted for smooth fi­bre-ce­ment cladding. is is laid on bat­tens and counter bat­tens, cre­at­ing a rain screen, with a breather mem­brane on the face of the tim­ber frame to cre­ate a void for air cir­cu­la­tion and for ser­vices to run. e alu­minium gut­ters are also con­cealed within this cav­ity, help­ing to main­tain a clean, un­clut­tered aes­thetic. Black fi­bre­ce­ment slate was used for the roof to com­ple­ment the cladding, while the gables are trimmed with bright yel­low-coated alu­minium chan­nels. ese de­fine the edges of the fa­cades and are echoed in the frame colour for the glazed doors that lead out onto the deck.

All the ser­vices for the build­ing are lo­cated along one wall, with easy ac­cess to the plumb­ing valves and junc­tions granted via a PEX (cross-linked poly­eth­yl­ene) man­i­fold sys­tem. is clever setup al­lows dis­crete con­trol of the dif­fer­ent net­works in the house so that if, say, a prob­lem arises in the bath­room, wa­ter to the kitchen will still be avail­able. ought­ful, prac­ti­cal de­tails such as this just go to demon­strate the value of Chris’s de­sign ex­pe­ri­ence.

Max­imis­ing space

e house is un­de­ni­ably com­pact, and for some cou­ples hav­ing just 83m2 to live in full time could be a chal­lenge. e lay­out, how­ever, is skil­fully de­signed to make the in­te­rior feel airy and spa­cious. Waste­ful cor­ri­dor space is min­i­mal – in fact there’s just one tiny link area, which can be closed off to make the bath­room en­suite to the bed­room, or opened up so it’s ac­ces­si­ble for the whole house. is good use of cir­cu­la­tion space al­lows for gen­er­ous room sizes.

High vaulted ceil­ings, com­bined with open-plan liv­ing ar­eas and a lot of glass, pre­vent the house from feel­ing en­closed, while the large cov­ered deck en­cour­ages use of the out­side as an ex­tra liv­ing area. Chris and Mar­garet are able to en­joy this zone all year round, as the lou­vred roof pro­vides pro­tec­tion against the el­e­ments in the

win­ter and wel­come shade in the sum­mer. “We make use of a pa­tio heater dur­ing the colder weather and we even cook our turkey on the bar­be­cue ev­ery Christ­mas,” says Mar­garet.

Un­der­stated el­e­gance

e sleek style of the out­side of the prop­erty con­tin­ues in­doors. Chris and Mar­garet de­signed the in­te­rior to re­duce clut­ter, yet have man­aged to in­ject their own per­son­al­ity with art­work and a few choice items col­lected from around the world. eir South African her­itage is re­vealed ev­ery­where in lit­tle touches, from a mask out­side the main door to an ele­phant wall-hang­ing in the main bed­room. One large white wall in the din­ing area shows off some of their art col­lec­tion, in­clud­ing some pieces by Chris him­self.

e calm, un­der­stated mas­ter suite is sim­i­larly un­pre­ten­tious and the bath­room is de­cep­tively sim­ple. “We spent a great deal of time sourc­ing the san­i­tary­ware and tiles,” says Chris. “Be­ing some­thing of a per­fec­tion­ist I was de­ter­mined that each pipe, tube or fit­ting would be fixed ex­actly in the cen­tre of a tile.”

e Swales’ high stan­dards mean that ev­ery el­e­ment of their scheme has been care­fully con­sid­ered for both its prac­ti­cal and aes­thetic qual­i­ties. A good ex­am­ple of this is the sculp­tural Ital­ian fire, which runs on bioethanol. When not in use it looks like a piece of art; a slash of red on a min­i­mal­ist black sur­round.

Even for some­one as well-prac­tised as Chris, tak­ing on a self-build can be stress­ful. “I am the ar­chi­tect, the project man­ager and the in­te­rior de­signer, so if there is any er­ror with the fin­ished prod­uct I have no­body to blame but my­self,” he says. “Ev­ery scheme comes with its own chal­lenges. You never stop learn­ing. How­ever ex­pe­ri­enced you are, there will al­ways be new things to tackle that you haven’t come across be­fore – self-build­ing is all about prob­lem solv­ing.” Still, the Swales have clearly made a real suc­cess of their scheme: the main con­struc­tion came in on bud­get and took just 35 weeks.

Chris and Mar­garet lived with Tristin and his fam­ily dur­ing the works. Although they had their own bed­room, bath­room and sit­ting room dur­ing this pe­riod (and used the con­ser­va­tory as a site of­fice), they did share the kitchen with the rest of the gang, which could have been tricky at times. “We man­aged fine and we still get on well, and it was lovely to get to spend so much time with our fam­ily,” says Mar­garet. And now the Swales se­niors have their dream home, the next gen­er­a­tions get some­thing even bet­ter – en­thu­si­as­tic grand­par­ents liv­ing right at the bot­tom of their gar­den.

Be­low: The cou­ple have opted for min­i­mal­is­tic in­te­ri­ors, with pops of colour added by their art­work and ac­ces­sories

Apex glaz­ing at the top of the gable wall brings in plenty of high-level nat­u­ral light

The black fi­bre-ce­ment cladding is in­flu­enced by the lo­cal ver­nac­u­lar. It pro­vides clean sharp lines to en­hance the min­i­mal­ist con­tem­po­rary style of the house

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