Richard Wilson and Ben Baglio’s contemporary self-build on this wild tract of Suffolk marshland allows them to enjoy all the drama of a rapidly changing landscape
One couple’s new contemporary home in Suffolk makes the most of the awe-inspiring coastal landscape
If you’re lucky enough to have a dramatic site to build on – in this case, an eerily beautiful tract of marshland leading down to a river estuary in Suffolk – then embrace it. So thought Ben Baglio and Richard Wilson, who commissioned Meredith Bowles of Mole Architects to design their country retreat (their other home is in London) on this four-acre site.
The result is a simple zinc and brickclad linear building that faces south-east, straight into those estuary views and prevailing winds — allowing Ben and Richard to enjoy the unfolding drama of the weather as it changes hour by hour.
The story of this distinctive self-build isn’t quite that simple, of course. Plans for the new contemporary home, a replacement for a 1970s flat-roofed dwelling, needed to be sensitive to neighbours, who didn’t want their own views spoiled.
To deal with this, the wedge-shaped house tapers, with two storeys at one end and one storey towards the neighbours. Viewed from the one-storey end, the building appears to start from nothing and grow organically — an effect that is enhanced by a sinuous, twisting roofline. “The roof is my favourite feature,” comments Richard. “When you stand on the north-west corner of the plot you can see how it curves and twists in two directions.” Ben agrees: “It’s a striking part of the design,” he says.
Maintaining the neighbours’ view of the estuary was not the only design challenge. The new home needed to cope with an estimated one-in-a-100-year flooding risk from the river; as such, it’s on higher ground than its 1970s predecessor. This has allowed the ground floor level to be 1.8m higher than previously, taking the new house out of the flood plain. New flood defences were also constructed to protect the garden and meadow in 2015, following the failure of a nearby river wall in 2013.
Planning was another potential obstacle. The site is located in an area of outstanding natural beauty, and as such is subject to stricter planning rules than normal. The design of the house and the need to relocate the house up the plot meant that it would be significantly higher than its predecessor at the eastern end. Luckily, the local planning committee accepted the design in full. With planning out of the way, Richard and Ben could start the build, with a bespoke timber frame being constructed off site to save time. “While the piling and foundations were going on, the frame could be prefabricated in the workshop,” says Richard. The build time was just 15 months from start to finish, with a mere five months from breaking ground to watertight shell.
“One of the drawbacks of the prefabricated structure is that it is difficult to make changes during construction,” points out Ben. “For example, we wanted a wall strengthened to support a large bookcase, which caused complications. For other self-builders, I’d suggest avoiding changes to the layout, design and specification during the construction process, as this can lead to delays and increased costs.”
For the interiors, the couple were looking for comfortable, modern spaces with a mid-century Scandinavian feel. A double-height living area allows for the largescale entertaining they both enjoy, while smaller spaces featuring lower ceiling heights, timber cladding and brick pamments (floor tiles) provide cosier spots to relax elsewhere.
The couple, both lovers of fine furniture and design, brought in interior designer Elaine Williams of Interior Couture. They’d worked with her on a couple of other projects and, luckily, she had relocated to Suffolk from London. “The original plans had the woodburning stove on the eastern wall of the living room,” remembers Ben. “That’s not the direction you would normally face — you want to sit and look out over the south towards the views. Elaine was able to figure out a way of making a fireplace work on the southern wall.”
“When you stand on the north-west corner of the plot you can see how the roof curves and twists in two directions”
Richard and Ben also appointed landscape architect Todd Longstaffe- Gowan to design the gardens. He has retained the original marshland, adding gorse and other shrubs, along with several pine trees and a mixed flower meadow that reaches to the house; the meadow has paths through it, created by Ben.
“One of the drawbacks of our previous house [an Edwardian Arts and Crafts property] is that it would take absolutely ages to heat up,” says Ben. “This is purpose-built with top grade insulation. We now spend 60 per cent of our time here, which certainly wasn’t the case with our previous house. I’m semi-retired and I can put more time into making ceramics; the studio is warm all year round.”
Heat for the house is drawn from a ground source heat pump, while water is drawn from a spring, via a borehole, and prepared for household use with a filter system.
“The house has exceeded our expectations and takes full advantage of the fantastic site,” says Richard. “We love the house and really enjoy spending time here.”
The main living space ( right) provides a generous entertaining space with plenty of room to showcase the couple’s artwork and mid-century furniture. South-facing glazing provides spectacular views and allows the winter sun to enter the space. During the summer months, the almost complete lack of glazing in the upper part of the room reduces overheating (and also brings a welcome sense of enclosure). The exposed sloping and twisting roof rafters, meanwhile, add visual interest here and elsewhere in the house. Plywood panels between the rafters have been routed to enhance the feature’s detailing.