Saturday, 18 September 2021

Brave or just plain bonkers?

FORMER Henley Standard gardening correspondent Jennie Herrington has embarked on a new project with her husband Andy — building their

FORMER Henley Standard gardening correspondent Jennie Herrington has embarked on a new project with her husband Andy — building their own home in Wargrave. We decided to follow their progress.

Q. What has led you to build your own home?

A. It has always been a dream of mine. My dad’s a civil engineer so I’ve always been surrounded by blueprints and drawing boards, I’ve grown up with it. It took me a while to recognise my calling in life was along the design lines, though. I ended up doing German at university and working in marketing for five years until I worked out what I really wanted to do.

Being involved in garden design for the past 11 years has been amazing, but it has led me to realise my heart really lies in creating environments that enhance peoples’ lives across the board including landscapes, gardens, buildings and interiors.

As far as the house is concerned, Andy and I always talked about building our own home and we thought that a Sixties bungalow would really fit our desire for quite a modern design as they are often on quite big plots of land. We were lucky enough to find our plot just under two years ago. We bought it knowing we would make huge changes.

Q. What is your husband’s background?

A. Andy did oceanography and geology at university and now works in security. His dad was an engineer too. I think we have both inherited the practical side of our dads. He’s a hugely self-sufficient person and just gets on with things in general.

Q.Is the design entirely yours? What are the priorities from the design?

A. When we first moved in I had some strong ideas about what we should do, but we originally asked a couple of architects for their input. In the end I was able to persuade Andy that I should design it. He agreed that if I was going to be designing things for other people, I was more than qualified to do it for us. I think this was the best course of action — it meant we’ve got exactly what we wanted and needed.

In terms of design priorities, the original house wasn’t necessarily too small for us, it just didn’t work that well as a space and needed some serious updating. We both love contemporary design, open-plan living and the house was crying out to be opened up. We will end up with a four-bedroom house that is hopefully practical, easy to keep clean and should connect well with the site and surrounding landscapes.

Q. How does it vary from where you lived previously?

A. We moved into the bungalow from a three-storey Victorian house with lots of period features. We lived there for 12 years and it was great, if a little dark and hemmed in, but I really wanted to go much more contemporary and I never really liked the stairs, so living on one floor has been brilliant from the outset. Having big gardens is just fantastic too, but they are a lot of work to keep straight!

Q. How did you choose the location? What is the land/view like?

A. I always knew the house was there, tucked behind a hedge. Only I would notice it as I’m so nosy about houses. We always fancied a bungalow but they are scarce in Wargrave and it was a fluke we got it. We put our house on the market and were going to go into rented to find the right place. But the day we got an offer on our house, the bungalow came on to the market. We were the first and only viewers — it was meant to be.

The site is about one third of an acre with parking and a courtyard garden to the front and a larger grassed garden to the back with views across fields in the winter. It’s also tucked away from the rest of the village, which is great.

Q. What is the time-frame you are looking at for the build?

A. Initially the builders said six to seven months, but once they got on site this came down quite a bit. I should think it will be four months. The windows could hold us up, otherwise they are getting on really well.

Q. What is the style of your property (barn/modern/traditional/open-plan)?

A. We will stay single storey. The outside will be clad in cedar, shiplap-style. The windows will be off-black aluminium and there will be lots of glass with bi-fold doors and picture windows. Inside we hope to have polished concrete floors in the main living areas and cathedral ceilings in the kitchen and sitting room. These will be quite big rooms but the bedrooms and bathrooms are more modest.

Q. What has been the highlight and the low point so far?

A. The highlight was just getting started. We waited for about six months for our builder throughout all that amazing summer weather. The low point came at week six — it was not a great weather week, there were a few little teething troubles, and one bigger one with a beam that was too small. Things also started getting awkward living in the caravan.

Q. How are you finding living in a caravan? Is it easier or harder than you thought? Are you dreading going through the winter?

A. This is week nine and to be honest it feels completely normal. It’s been a great exercise in minimal living and makes you realise what you just don’t need! It’s been tricky at some points, but I now wake up in the morning feeling like it’s home. The weather has been incredibly kind to us though. We’ve had a few cold evenings and mornings, but really, it’s been super warm. I’m not looking forward to the colder weather as I get a kind of Reynaud’s disease where your fingers and toes go cold, but I am hoping we have gradually acclimatised ourselves and it won’t be too bad — only time will tell!

Q. How are you finding the process of constant decision-making?

A. I am project-managing, but our builder is great and is on top of most things. He does most of the ordering but constant decision-making, which I thought would be the fun bit, isn’t always. I’m finding it quite hard to juggle running my business, running the family and running the caravan. I’m finding I just have to treat this project as if it were any other project/client otherwise it will run out of control and we won’t get what we want in the end.

Q. Is it like an adventure for all of you?

A. We have one daughter, aged six. We moved out/in just before term started in September and I think she found it tough at first as she likes her own space. Also, I don’t really think she understood exactly what we were doing and why. But now the house looks like a house again and not a pile of debris, she’s loving it and loves the freedom of the site and the fun of caravan living — probably more than us.

It is a big adventure and while I sometimes wonder what on earth we were thinking (the caravan bit, not the build), I truly think we will look back and be glad we did it this way. It’s taught us that minimal living is possible. There’s less waste, more time to have fun together, play games, see friends and so on. Plus it will probably save us about £10k. Definitely worth it.

Q. What do your friends and family think about your project?

A. The most common word is “brave” — though I have come to understand “brave” as “bonkers”. Those who know us well think that we are just taking it in our stride, that we really want it and therefore will make it happen. Others who don’t know us quite as well don’t always get it and think we are barmy, especially the caravan bit. My dad is heavily involved as he’s our structural engineer, so he’s totally into it, too.

Q. Have you thought about the interior design?

A. Things are going to be really simple with quite a lot of grey with some accent colours on certain walls, but nothing too garish. We are having honed basalt on the bathroom walls and we will use a split-faced basalt behind the wood-burner as an accent to give some texture. We love natural materials so we will soften up the hardness of all the concrete and the big spaces by using things like wood and wool, big rugs and some focal points like stag’s antlers. I’m trying not to be too prescriptive on the interiors other than the basics like the kitchen, bathrooms and decorating though, as money is tight and there may be nothing for the finishing touches for a while yet.

Q. Presumably the garden landscaping will be very important to you. Have you considered that yet?

A. The garden will be integral to the overall success of the project but as with all projects that have tight budgets, the garden is left with a meagre budget. I’ve designed something really simple and fitting. We will get the builders to do a basic rendered blockwork wall around the front courtyard, form a path to the front door and leave the site with the appropriate levels to allow us to lay other surfaces ourselves. I’ve stockpiled some plants in a far corner of the garden away from the chaos, so at least we have some plants to soften the site.

lThe Standard will return to the site in Wargrave with regular updates.

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