Investing in the right people

When City types Rachel and Lee Oliver decided to build their rural home, putting faith in their architect and builder to make the right decisions proved to be the making of their project. Roseanne Field reports


ulling into the driveway of Rachel and Lee Oliver’s house on the outskirts of Tunbridge Wells in Kent, you’d be forgiven for thinking there wasn’t a house here at all. However nestling behind the substantial wall of a former estate kitchen garden, is an unusual green-roofed architectural gem. This is a project which shows the benefits of letting a meticulous design and build firm do what they’re good at. It’s the outside of one of the old walls that greets you as you arrive, running the length of the left hand side of the driveway. The low-rise home in which Rachel and Lee live along with children Katie, 21 and Tom, 20, is hidden behind a huge square gate, made from a piece of corten steel. This electrically slides open to dramatic effect, revealing an attractive building which has been neatly integrated into the wall, making a virtue of it as a feature.

Rachel first started to get ‘itchy feet’ about 10 years ago. The couple were living in a Victorian house in Tunbridge Wells but she dreamed of moving to the country and building her own house. Lee, who writes for a financial news service, commuted to London every day, and was initially resistant to moving further away from the town.

However self-confessed “serial Right- mover” Rachel – who like Lee worked in the City but is now an office manager for an interior design firm – was quick off the mark when a plot containing a dilapidated bungalow came up. After running the idea past a friend who renovates properties, she then brought


Lee to see it. Realising it was the right location and wouldn’t add to his commute, they put in their sealed bid, and after a nervous wait found that they had won.


But it wasn’t time to sit on their laurels yet. “We took the risk when we bought it that we knew it was on green belt land and within an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB),” explains Rachel, “so we couldn’t guarantee we’d get planning permission.”

They had originally planned to site the new home where the existing bungalow was, in the middle of the plot, but archi- tect Nicole Lafone from CO3 advised building on the boundary instead. “Lee in particular wasn’t sure it felt right,” Rachel recalls. Nevertheless they trusted her, and as Rachel says: “It’s unusual, but actually it’s completely right.” The house was designed to incorpo- rate the historic wall as well as to emulate the buildings that were once here. Within the boundary of the wall the steel and glass structure that forms the majority of the house stands where greenhouses once stood. The wall bisects the house, creating an architec- tural feature, and on the external side is a smaller pitched roof section, reminiscent of the outbuildings that were once there.

The design’s historical context is in part why it succeeded in gaining planning permission first time, along with some insider knowledge and help. Planning consultant Simon McKay, who

used to work for Tunbridge Wells Borough Council, advised Rachel and Lee on the steps to take to give them the best chance of achieving planning. Following several surveys, and much research by the couple, they identified how much more energy efficient a new home would be in comparison to the bungalow. McKay then compiled the results of their efforts into a report to give to the planning officers.


Once CO3’s design had gained planning, Rachel and Lee commissioned architectural, construction and project management firm Architecturall to take the scheme forward. They were renovat- ing and extending a house near their plot that Rachel walked past every day, and she noticed how neat and tidy the site looked. The owners told her their experience of the firm had been good, so Rachel and Lee set up a meeting with the directors, architect Simon Skeffington and project manager Julian Cotet. “You’ve got to have trust, and as soon as we met Simon and Julian something just clicked,” explains Rachel. “As soon as they left, I said to Lee, ‘I want them to do our house.’”

“They’d not done polished concrete before and ended up doing it three times to get it right. They wanted to do every- thing perfectly” – Rachel Oliver

Confident that their chosen contrac- tor’s ideas aligned with theirs, Rachel and Lee more or less handed the entire project over. Many of the major decisions along the way were made by either Simon or Julian, which Rachel says helped create a stress-free build for this busy couple. With Lee being made redundant near the start of the project, they had other concerns: “The build was probably the least stressful thing going on for us at the time and in fact we used to find it quite refreshing coming here and seeing what was going on.” Rachel in fact says the only pressure was that which Architecturall put on themselves trying to get things right. “If

november/december 2017

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