Monday, 14 June 2021
IT took Dick and Judith Fletcher 13 years to realise their dream of building a spectacular retirement home.
The couple started work on Pheasants, which is next to the River Thames at Mill End, near Hambleden, in 2003 and finally moved in at the end of 2016.
They faced stiff opposition from conservation bodies and some of their neighbours who argued that the modern, angular design in bare concrete and glass would spoil views of the surrounding countryside.
As a result, construction of the house was delayed for several years while the Fletchers fought to obtain planning permission in a legal battle that went all the way to the High Court.
The building, which was designed by British architects Sarah Griffiths and Amin Taha, consists of a main two-storey house with five bedrooms and a smaller gatehouse with a one-bedroom flat upstairs.
The ground floor of the main house is largely open plan with a kitchen and various living areas as well as one bedroom, while the other four bedrooms are on the first floor.
It replaced an aging five-bedroom timber-clad bungalow of the same name which was built in 1956 and was owned by Mrs Fletcher’s parents Ken and Mary Wilkinson.
This was in a poor state of repair and was at risk of collapse when the Fletchers moved there from Highgate in 1991.
The wood had rotted due to repeated flooding and it had no insulation, making it uneconomical to heat.
The new house was raised by 2ft on a solid concrete base, bringing it out of the flood risk zone, and has a set of seven concrete steps at the back leading down towards the river.
It has 16 solar panels on the roof, which provide a portion of its energy requirements, as well as underfloor heating powered by ground heat pumps, which extract natural warmth from the earth beneath the property via a series of pipes.
It also has a mechanical ventilation with heat recovery system, which sucks warm air from the kitchen and bathrooms and stores the heat in an exchange mechanism. It then sucks in cold air from outside and passes it through the exchange to heat the interior. Because it is made of concrete, the house has a naturally high “thermal mass”, meaning it stores heat well.
The lighting is controlled by a central computer so any room can be lit up using any switch. There are no visible lightbulbs or sockets as all internal lighting is provided by strips of LEDs tucked away in grooves around the edges of the ceilings.
The doors slide open and shut and have vertical grooves rather than handles so can be opened at any height. This makes the property more accessible for people with mobility problems, which is important as the Fletchers, who are in their seventies, plan to stay there for the rest of their lives.
The main building and gatehouse are linked by a new pond featuring a metal sculpture of three swans in flight by Lloyd le Blanc, whose works are also displayed in the grounds of the Michelin-starred Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons at Great Milton. The couple became aware of his work after visiting an architectural scrapyard.
The Fletchers had wanted to build a new home for some time and resolved to do so after the old house narrowly avoided flooding in the autumn downpours of 2001.
They sold their business New Media, which sold children’s education software, for a “substantial” sum two years later.
They then commissioned designs from local architects but none of these was satisfactory as they all imitated the traditional style of the surrounding buildings whereas the couple wanted something original.
In 2004 they organised a design competition through the Royal Institute of British Architects which attracted 67 entries from around the world.
A mentor from the institute helped the couple narrow the entrants down to 10 and the Fletchers visited them all before asking their four favourites to submit detailed proposals.
Finally, they enlisted their friends and family, including their daughters Linda, Lucy and Katy, to help make the final decision.
They were inspired in principle by Culham Court, the Grade II listed 18th-century mansion on the opposite side of the river which they can see from their back garden.
The property, which was purchased by Swiss financier Urs Schwarzenbach for £35 million in 2006, was built by Sir William Chambers on the site of an earlier medieval residence.
Mr Fletcher says: “We had always been interested in architecture but the first people we approached were only interested in imitating the local vernacular of brick, flint and tiles.
“This is an amazing two-acre site beside the Thames. It’s south-facing with no public views overlooking it and we felt it merited a building of quality.
“Without being too negative, there’s an awful lot of rubbish up and down the river and not many properties like Culham Court. We wanted this to be as much a statement about early 21st century architecture as Culham Court was about its own period.
“It was highly innovative and is now seen as a treasure but at the time it would have drawn lots of objection and I’m sure many people considered it a blot on the landscape.
“Once RIBA became involved, we received a wonderfully wide selection of proposals, including a series of interconnected treehouses.
“Some people just submitted their standard brochures so we didn’t go any further with them.
“Amin and Sarah won because they had taken account of the setting and the landscape as well as our interest in Palladian buildings.
“We made the decision over lunch with the children and about 20 close friends. There were some pretty diverse opinions but we made sure it was unanimous by the end of it!
“It was useful discussing such an important issue with people who care about you because they can flag up all kinds of practical considerations that you might overlook, such as parking.”
The couple then sought planning permission from Wycombe District Council.
The planning officers recommended approval despite objections from residents of Mill End, Hambleden and Remenham and as far as Richmond.
The opponents, whose comments are now proudly framed in the Fletchers’ toilet, said it would spoil views as they drove their boats along the river at weekends.
There were also complaints from the Chilterns Conservation Board and the Campaign to Protect Rural England as well as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which said wildfowl would not notice the building’s glass and would hurt themselves flying into it at speed.
The planning officers said the design didn’t have to follow the local vernacular because it had “considerable merit” and the council’s planning committee granted consent in 2005.
Mr Fletcher recalls: “David Gibbon, one of the council’s chief planners, was extraordinarily encouraging and enthusiastic and gave us lots of useful advice. He also suggested changes which would fit in better with the landscape.
“We encountered a certain amount of organised objection from people who called it an ‘industrial estate’, a ‘Second World War pillbox’, out of keeping with the area and so on.
“Some people even refused to believe it was a house and accused us of planning a conference centre. They argued concrete was too modern and inappropriate but everyone forgets the Romans had concrete.
“I think it’s also a myth that concrete goes grey over time. That only happens when you neglect it but it can be cleaned with a scrubbing brush, which we do regularly.”
The issue became more complicated after the Sunday Times carried a report on the couple being granted planning permission as two days later they received a letter from a neighbour’s
The neighbour claimed to have a restrictive covenant on the Fletchers’ land, which had once been part of their own grounds. They said this gave them a right of veto over the siting and design of any new building.
After lengthy negotiations, the case went to the High Court, which found in the Fletchers’ favour in 2008. The judge ruled that the covenant only applied to the late John Edward Bull, from Henley, who originally developed the neighbour’s plot, and not any subsequent owners.
An objector then discovered that, owing to a clerical error, a narrow strip of land immediately in front of the site had no registered owner and attempted to buy it.
This would have prevented the Fletchers from accessing their own driveway but the objector’s bid was rejected and the couple registered the strip as their own.
Construction started in 2009 with the gatehouse, which took three years while the Fletchers continued to live in the bungalow. They then moved into the gatehouse flat while the old house was demolished and its replacement was built.
The new house was finished in 2016 and the couple moved in shortly before Christmas, which they celebrated with a housewarming party.
The gatehouse, which includes an office and an art studio for Mrs Fletcher, who is a painter, was built by a contractor but the couple wanted more control over the process so they directly employed a project manager and about 50 specialists for the second phase.
They worked with several Henley businesses, including builders’ merchants Gibbs & Dandy, welder J R Hill and Southern Plant.
The main structure was built by a company called Toureen Mangan, which had recently completed a staircase at the Victoria and Albert Museum.
After laying the foundations, they built the house in sections using 8ft by 4ft plywood moulds which were removed once each concrete slab had set.
The interior staircase, which is made of a single steel concertina and is supported by the bookcase it is attached to, was welded into place step by step then blasted at high-speed with thousands of glass beads to polish it.
Mr Fletcher says: “We were always clear that we wanted the build done correctly, not quickly, and we’re really grateful to all the tradesmen who took part.
“Some of them said certain things were impossible and had a bit of a negative outlook but they were able to do wonderful things with a bit of encouragement.
“The problem is that no one else asks them to do something a bit different. I could go on forever about the restrictiveness of planning laws as I think we’ve only seen badly designed projects since they came into effect.
“There are so many marvellous Edwardian villas in Henley, for example, but it has all gone downhill since then.
“The hardest thing was just the sheer number of decisions that had to be made. We spent a lot of time discussing where electrical sockets or outside lighting should go.
“The lack of visible lights really confused the housing inspector when he came to do our energy performance certificate. He marched straight back outside after two minutes, saying: ‘I thought you said this house was finished but you haven’t even put the lights in’. We had to show him how it all worked.
“We were very excited to move in as it had been a long process and I suppose it’s similar to how one might feel at the end of a marathon. We are absolutely in love with this place and enjoy having the whole family around the table for Christmas. The children are very complimentary about it and we see a lot of them.
“It still feels novel to be living here and we often entertain guests as it’s a good venue for that. It has a different character at different times of year and the pond is lit up at night.
“We love the open design and its ‘outside looking in’ feel, which gives us beautiful views of our surroundings. No water fowl have hit the glass yet, although there have been a few collisions by pigeons fleeing from red kites!
“People react with surprise when they see it because it isn’t what they expected at all. Walkers will often stop on the footpath to have a look and if they’re very unlucky I’ll go and talk to them! They really want to know more about it.
“A lot of people ask if we’ve been on Grand Designs and we were actually approached by the show’s production team early in the process but we were in the middle of a legal battle and didn’t want to make the situation any more complex.”
The couple were not deterred by the opposition they faced.
Mr Fletcher says: “We never lost hope that it would go ahead and I’m almost tempted to say we pressed ahead because of the opposition.
“I’m exaggerating, of course, but you have to be persistent, particularly in the face of negative and completely unsubstantiated claims.
“RIBA asked us the expected lifespan of the building and we told them ‘for all time’. You’ve got the Pantheon in Rome, which is still standing more than 2,000 years after it was built by Hadrian, so we hope this will last just as long. It will need new doors every 50 to 100 years but the structure will remain.
“We hadn’t particularly thought about the award scheme but it’s clearly very popular as many of our visitors end up singing its praises. Our architect Sarah put it forward last year and we helped her to put the application together.
“That’s one of the nice things about this project — it wasn’t one of those scenarios where you’ve got a client sitting in their villa in France barking orders to ‘get it done’. It was very much a working partnership where we were involved in every decision.”
Mr Fletcher says he and his wife were thrilled by the award, adding: “It’s a great reward for having stuck to our original idea.”
28 May 2018
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