Philippa and Stephen's new house in East Sussex re-ignites – should it need any re-ignition – the important debate surrounding the question of how and what should we in the Weald be building for the future. Houses are not ephemera. They are here, many of them, for hundreds of years, defining a landscape and the lives of those that live within it. Bad houses are not bad hats. Get it wrong and generations live with the consequences.
So what are our options if we want to contribute in any meaningful way to the rich architectural heritage of the Weald? Broadly speaking we have two options. The first is to say to the devil with tradition and to boldly go van der Rohe. Cutting edge contemporary architecture such as Michael Manser's Capel Manor in Horsmonden and The Walled Garden (Wealden Times, May 2014) are generous contributions to any environment and will look as good and be as much a pleasure to inhabit in 200 years as they are now.
Our second option is to draw on our architectural legacy, grow an existing concept, improve where we can, have the humility to admit where we can't and leave behind us homes that pay homage to the best of the past but serve present and future.
Both, of course, have their advantages – and pitfalls. Not every contemporary design is as inspiring as the crystal pavilions above and many homes that purport to echo our heritage are nothing more than modern boxes with a bit of weatherboard superglued to their breeze block.
So when Philippa King and Stephen Evans decided to buy the land and run-down cottage just up the hill from their existing house, knock the old property down and build from the ground up, they had some serious decisions to make. However, the couple had an advantage over the rest of us mortals – Stephen is a civil engineer with a career in The Royal Engineers under his belt and experience of managing projects compared with which a family house is a mere Camber sandcastle.
Philippa's strength was interior design so, with a wealth of complementary skills at their disposal, the couple set about designing and building their own new property, opting to mine the rich seam of Wealden architecture for the overall look and feel of the house while incorporating the very latest structural techniques and environmental specifications including solar heating and air-source heat pump technology.
They also opted for light. Lovely though traditional Wealden houses may be, light is rarely their strongest suit so thought would have to be given to how to retain the warmth and intimacy of a farmhouse while allowing in both light and the wonderful view the new plot offered.
"We wanted to get as much out of the plot as possible," says Philippa and this meant not only building up but down. "If we were to stay within the footprint of the original house, this would mean a large basement which would accommodate both our teenage daughters and a guest room."
Overall the house has six bedrooms and includes an office/granny annexe. "We don't really need that many bedrooms," explains Philippa, "but we have always approached this property with an eye on the resale value."
Under Stephen's watchful eye, the property took seven months to build and the fact that the build was relatively straightforward is testament to Stephen's organisational skills. "We had a great team and the most important thing was to make sure everyone knew exactly what they were meant to be doing and when."
The lead builder on the project was Philippa's brother Martyn King of MRK Construction. "He was supported by a really wonderful bunch of craftsmen and the project was finished on time allowing us to move in just five days before welcoming 13 people for Christmas," she says.
It's never easy to get self build finance these days, especially if you run your own businesses as Stephen and Philippa do. "Handelsbanken in Tunbridge Wells were fantastic," she says. "You get to deal one-to-one with their management team and they personally visited the site to assess their risk and made decisions on a very human basis."
The end result is truly outstanding. There are very few properties where all members of the WT team walk through the door and immediately emit "Wow!" in unison but this was one. One steps through the front door to be greeted by a view that goes through the hallway, through a vast kitchen/dining room, through a vaulted two-storey glass atrium, through a soaring covered outside dining area and on into the beautiful countryside beyond.
"In our last house we had a vaulted drawing room but here we wanted the height in the kitchen/dining room," says Philippa, which, since most modern families spend more of their time in the kitchen than anywhere else, makes a lot more sense.
The walls are an unusual mustard with deep teal units below made by Woodwork in Southborough. The central island is an old French cheese-making trolley over which hang three industrial lights, all of which are from Fontaine Decorative in Margate. The window blinds are made from old printed sacks and the curtains extending across the vaulted glass wall from £37-worth of jute, made by Philippa and her mother. The floor is polished brick slips.
The huge nine-foot distressed cabinet Philippa found in Fontaine Decorative. When she first saw it, it was plain old pine but Fontaine painted it to her specifications. The dining table is an elegant white runway seating 20 from OKA, and runs virtually the length of the glass wall which is comprised of eight doors, all of which open outward onto a wonderful rustic covered terrace with a stunning vaulted oak ceiling and an even more stunning view. "Even when it's raining we can sit or dine here and enjoy the view," says Philippa.
Now when it came to decorating a house, most people in her position would naturally be drawn to Farrow & Ball as their paint. It is, after all, a great paint. But Philippa runs her own PR company and one of her clients is PlastiKote spray paint made by the US paint giant Valspar. The company has now decided to distribute paint in the UK under its own name and has teamed up with B&Q to offer a state-of-the-art colour matching service with the most advanced spectrometer currently in use. Even the company's colour chart range will be mixed on site.
"I decided we'd go with Valspar and really the colour matching service is exceptional," she says. "The finish, too, is more flat and chalky than you'd expect – and best of all it got my decorator's seal of approval."
The double aspect drawing room runs the depth of the house. The first thing one notices is the bookshelves spanning the length of one wall. Why? Simply because books are not something that one sees much of these Kindle-ized and iPad-ed days. To say, "Great – now we have Kindles we don't need books," is like saying, "Wonderful – now we have cars we can at last shoot those wretched horses." So to find books once again adding warmth and interest of their own to a room in what is very much a 21st century house is, to put it mildly, pleasing.
Another major feature is a new take on wall panelling – a set of former French room dividers, in a distressed pale green, cover part of another wall and sport a fetching pair of golden antlers. Over the doors are a pair of ornate mantles from an Ardingly Antiques Fair painted the same Valspar pale brown as the surrounding wall. The end wall with its French windows to the garden is in a pale green mixed to match the same colour in the pattern of the hand-printed Rapture & Wright curtains. The floor is engineered oak from Pennells in Heathfield.
A very nice touch is a pair of reclaimed wall lights for which Philippa has commissioned lampshades from old French shopping receipts. She still has a stash waiting to be assigned a new lease of life. "I don't know what I'll do with them but they're such lovely things," she says.
Upstairs is a spacious gallery/hallway with a dramatic view down over the kitchen/dining room and home to an ancient settle, an old leather armchair and an oak gentleman's wardrobe. Off it is the master bedroom with its own spectacular view of the surrounding countryside from its private balcony. Surrounding the elegant bed are a glowing mahogany chest of drawers and an elegant cherry gentleman's wardrobe. At the foot of the bed is a chaise longue stripped back and re-upholstered and painted. As elsewhere, heating is provided by an old Victorian radiator that has been sandblasted and then resprayed – here in PlastiKote warm grey.
The bathroom is a gentle mushroom with cool white woodwork. The bath and basin are contrasting styles – the former a Victorian free-standing claw foot and the latter a contemporary square unit standing on an antique lead-topped table backed by a ceiling height panel made from reclaimed floorboards. Across the landing is a small child's bedroom and I wish I could remember what was in it but my attention was entirely diverted by the overhead light, its lampshade made from a bowler hat. Magritte woz 'ere.
And so down into the basement, the domain of the couple's daughters, Francesca and Elspeth. Underground it may be but this is no dark basement of yore. Light pours in from large wells outside the windows giving a feeling of a ground floor rather than subterranean living. Both the girls' rooms are bright and stylishly feminine rather than girly. Orange is a key colour in Francesca's room – the blinds, a cushion, the valance, the upholstery on the pretty white and pink chair, all echo the orange of her en suite bathroom.
Elspeth's is all elegant teen with lovely gold Nina Campbell swan motif wallpaper. Her deep red Lloyd Loom-esque headboard is another triumph for PlastiKote spray paint and the perfect contrast for the great handmade patchwork bedspread.
The basement also boasts an elegant second bathroom, a teen sitting room and a guestroom. The latter is a very grown-up affair compared to the teen rooms – Victorian style brass bedstead from Ikea, pretty, distressed bedside units from Foxhole Antiques in Hurst Green topped with matching lamps from OKA, which also have a metallic Plasticote treatment to keep them on trend, and a large abstract motif wallpaper from Fabrics & Papers.
When Stephen and Philippa decided to build, they were aiming for a house that not only met the immediate needs of their family but would also be a serious investment – a house that would suit a range of buyers with very different priorities. In doing so they have built a house with a highly flexible range of accommodation, which echoes the rich heritage of the Weald and draws on the latest cutting-edge technology.
This is a true country house for the 21st century and a house that will bring as much pleasure to Wealden families of the future as it obviously does now for Stephen, Philippa, Elspeth and Francesca.