Wednesday, 19 January 2022

Bright and beautiful: our dream house by the river

Bright and beautiful: our dream house by the river

IT was never the intention of Antony and Charlotte Narula to live in an award-winning house.

Their passion for the river brought them to Wargrave in 2014 but it was another five years before they could move into their dream home.

The couple’s idea was to create a sustainable property that their three grown-up children would want to visit and somewhere they could enjoy their future retirement.

Crucially, since the site was on a bank of the River Loddon, the house also had to be flood-proof.

Firstly, the Narulas had to knock down the old house, which was badly flooded in 2013 and caused the previous owners to relocate.

Although it was raised up on short brick piers and shallow arches, it was still highly vulnerable to flood damage.

The new house, which was completed in May 2019, stands on steel stilts that are 2.2m above ground level.

It covers 334sq m, has four en-suite bathrooms, a detached garage, two steel staircases, a lift, two study rooms and, of course, enviable views of the river.

The Narulas were pleased when they were told earlier this year that their house had won a South region and a national award from the Royal Institute of British Architects.

It is now in the running for the overall House of the Year award.

The couple employed a project manager, Clive Hicks, and John Pardey Architects, which had worked on two other award-winning houses in Wargrave.

Being the daughter of an architect with a penchant for modernism, Mrs Narula, 65, enjoyed being hands-on with the project.

“I was very involved in the building of it and I was here every day,” she said. “We didn’t necessarily want an award-winning house, we just wanted a lovely house to live in.

“People do go ‘wow’ when they see it and when you’ve spent so much time and effort and
emotion building something, it
is rather nice to have it
appreciated.”

Mr Narula, 66, an ear, nose and throat surgeon with more than 40 years’ experience, was happy to take a back seat.

“I’m not very creative,” he said. “It was very much Charlotte’s project and I would just go with the flow.

“We spent many years moving around the country because of my work and it was sort of her turn to say, ‘This is what I want to do’.”

The couple were living in a small mews house in central London when they decided they wanted to move. They had been attending Henley Royal Regatta for 40 years, so were aware of the stunning scenery and tranquil riverside environments in the area.

To get a better feel for it, they rented a house in Dark Lane, Wargrave, and found a house nearby that they wanted to buy but the deal fell through.

A year later, they moved to the other side of the River Thames in Shiplake but felt this was too far away from the river.

They then found their current plot in a private road and saw its potential.

They moved into the old four-bedroomed property in May 2016 and lived in it for a year without any heating or insulation.

Although not a pleasant experience, this gave them a greater appreciation of the need to optimise the orientation of the house in order to maximise light. The Narulas had met John Pardey, who is based in Lymington, Hampshire, two years before buying the house and it was his meticulous planning that ensured the designs for “The Glass River House” were approved by Wokingham Borough Council, the planning authority.

There were no objections from residents or Wargrave Parish Council so it was a smooth
process.

Mrs Narula recalled: “The architect had drawn up the plans and stipulated absolutely everything and submitted this amazing brochure with drawings and descriptions.

“The project manager had been communicating with the planning authority and there was no stone left unturned. There were no concerns locally. Everyone was actually very excited about it.”

This area of Wargrave is affected by flooding nearly every year and the experience of the previous owners demonstrated the need for protection.

Mrs Narula said: “They were very sad about leaving and one of the sons told us this horrendous story about when he was in his bedroom and suddenly he heard this water gushing in and the room was flooded. He had to climb out of the window.”

Mr Narula added: “The house was about eight steps up from ground level but in 2013 the water came in.

“There was a tide mark left on the wall. It was a proper flood, so that was not sustainable.

“Everyone says it floods every three years but so far it has flooded almost every year we’ve been here.

“We could have gone a bit lower but we took the 200-year estimated flood level and then increased it by 50 per cent because that’s what the architect advised.”

The old house was demolished in August 2017 and two months later the foundations for the new property were laid.

In the interim, the Narulas lived in Charvil, which allowed them to visit the building site as often as they wanted so they could discuss progress with Mr Hicks. Construction started in January 2018 after the “big freeze” and this turned out to be the only year when the plot hasn’t flooded.

They moved in the following March and the scaffolding came down two months later, with the landscaping completed in
October.

Mrs Narula is the daughter of Gerald Beech, who was a lecturer at the University of Liverpool School of Architecture.

Her father also ran his own architectural firm in Liverpool and he designed a home, called Cedarwood, which was named House of the Year in 1960 by Woman’s Journal.

Her mother, June, was a painter who enjoyed tapestry.

Mr Narula came to England at age three when his family
relocated from Burma.

His Indian parents settled in Farnham, Surrey, after his father Yashpal, a doctor, came over for surgical training and had to stay because of the political problems in Burma.

Dr Narula was affectionately known as “Papa” and his wife, Prakash, was an English teacher.

Mrs Narula’s family moved from Liverpool to Chester when she was a girl and enjoyed life in their house on the river.

In the Seventies and Eighties, she went on to work in contemporary art for Christie’s at a gallery in Mayfair.

The couple’s eldest child, Alex, 36, works in clinical psychology and lives in Leicestershire with her husband Dan.

Their youngest child, Henry, 26, works for a medical concierge company in London.

Middle child Max, 28, is a theatrical lighting designer, who still lives in London.

Henry was involved in the design of the front door handle at River House, which is a woman in the style of the Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti, while Max would frequently share ideas with his mother. Mrs Narula said: “Max was very much involved in helping us design the house.

“He understands how to do clever lighting via a computer system and he has a good eye for design.

“He would do a lot of technical drawings and work with the architects and project manager.

“Max and I would Pinterest what we were going to do and we treated Tony like a client, which was fun.”

In fact, if it hadn’t been for Max, the design of the house could have been very different.

Mr Narula explained: “Originally, the living room was going to be at the far end.

“I said to the architect about putting the living room at the west end so I had the evening sun. I wanted to face the river as well.

“Then we chopped all the trees and Max recalled how I loved sitting on the previous terrace and said, ‘Dad, you realise you’ll never see that view from your living room’ and he was right.

“We had to ask the architect to flip it 180 degrees and that has worked really well. We were still in the design stage so they were fairly flexible.

“Max was good at making practical suggestions as well as helping with the lighting design. He and Charlotte were very in tune with the whole thing. They used to plot together and then I would be told this is what we were doing.”

Now the Narulas enjoy looking out on to the river every day, waving at passing boats and walking their dogs, Minty, nine, a cavalier King Charles spaniel, and Bolly, a seven-month-old cavapoo.

Part of creating a modern house was being aware of the environment.

The Narulas’ home is fitted with 24 solar panels, which generate enough energy to allow them to sell power back to the National Grid.

They also have their own water pump and an aquifer below the ground with two filters in the garage. There is a sewage treatment plant and a ground source heat pump that provides underfloor heating.

The house has a touchscreen device on the wall of the living area, which allows the couple to control the lights and heating as well as the security cameras and gates.

The house has larch cladding and no nails as all the boards are clipped together. During the build, they realised the trees on the riverbank were blocking their view and so they had to raise the canopies.

Mrs Narula said: “The environmental aspect was very important to us. We get a little bit of electricity and we give a little bit back to the grid. Today, one has to be aware of what’s going on and try to be as eco-friendly as you can.”

Mr Narula added: “We wanted to make it appropriate for the next 20 years. COP26 has been in the news recently but we were planning this five years ago.

“We wanted to keep the house low-energy and easy to run. It’s 3,500 sq ft, so it was never going to be cheap but with the sun you get lots of heat.”

The large open-plan living space has Swiss glazed sliding doors and in the summer heating is not a problem. The couple can step out on to their balcony and watch nature, which Mrs Narula enjoys taking pictures of.

Part of this family space is a kitchen and lounge area, which has a television concealed by sliding wooden panels

A key element of making the property “future-proof” was ensuring that, even on stilts, it was suitable for disabled people.

There was a time when Mr Narula’s mother may have moved in, so the architect designed a “pod” on the side of the house, which has wider doors and a bathroom suitable for a disabled person.

The house also has a small lift that comes from the bottom of the staircase to outside their front door.

Although suitable sized for a wheelchair, Mrs Narula says the lift is mainly used for taking wine and wood upwards.

Having lived in the house for nearly a year before the coronavirus pandemic struck, the couple had already developed an attachment to it but this appreciation grew stronger during the long days of lockdown.

Mrs Narula explained: “It made us realise how lucky we are. If we had been living in London in that mews house it would have been dreadful. My routine was fairly similar to what I do now. I cut the grass, tidy the house, take the dogs for a walk, cook a curry and take lots of photographs. I was free to do whatever I liked.”

Mr Narula, whose practice is in Harley Street, could not see patients, but continued to do Zoom calls.

He was also the “resident doctor” and would visit people in an emergency.

Earlier this year, the couple got to experience the benefits of raised living.

Mr Narula said: “In February, at the bottom of the stairs, there was floodwater 2ft deep, which is above the knee so you can’t wear wellington boots.

“You’d think when it floods it is like being in a great big swimming pool but the water is going massively fast and we’re on the corner. It’s only when you step into the water that you realise there’s quite a current and it’s cold. We knew it was going to flood but we didn’t realise how tricky it would be.

“We have waders at the top of the stairs and I take a walking stick so I have an extra point of balance.”

In times of flooding, the couple sometimes use a dinghy to make it to dry land. They are able to park their 4x4 near the gate without a problem as it is 18 in higher than the ground level of the house.

Summing up the reasons the couple love their house, Mr Narula said: “It’s a very clean building. A minimalist style is something that’s very difficult to build. It is quite soothing.

“I love the view, of course, and it’s a very relaxing house to be in. I have my study which is cluttered but the rest of the house is very Zen-like. The children enjoy coming and it’s nice being near the river.

“For years and years, we would drive down Remenham Church Lane and see the river and the boat tents and say, ‘Oh, this is so beautiful’ and then we thought about getting a place outside London but we never really thought about here, even though we know it is so beautiful.”

Mrs Narula added: “There is a wonderful feeling when you come off the motorway and you drive down Remenham Hill.

“You can see the bridge and the river and you just think, ‘Wow, this is brilliant’ and it is a very happy feeling.

“We love the house and we are so lucky to have the space and the view where we can watch the river every day.”

• River House is one of the houses featured in the third episode of Channel 4’s Grand Designs: House of the Year series on Wednesday next week. The winner will be revealed in the final episode a week later.

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