The Contemporary Dream

When Katie and Richard yearned for a change from their 1960s family farmhouse, they embarked on an epic project to realise their dream home from scratch. Twenty-one months, and 35 tonnes of Turkish marble, later the couple have created a stunning, technology-filled retreat with views out over the Kentish countryside to die for...

Mention Port Lympne today and the immediate association is with conservationist John Aspinall who established one of the country's leading wildlife reserves there in the early 1970s. Fifty years earlier, however, the estate had a very different reputation and a very different owner.

Cities by their very nature are constantly regenerating. Buildings continually come and go with architects continually drawing on the latest technologies and styles. They work, of course, with varying success. Some of their structures will stand the test of time. Those that do not will, in their turn, be replaced. In an urban environment change is the natural order of things. In the countryside, however, we have always been more cautious.

Take our little neck of the woods. There is a considerably greater sense of permanence. We tend to think of the countryside and its traditions as somehow timeless, enduring. When a building is no longer fit for purpose - be that purpose domestic, agricultural or industrial - rather than knock it down and build anew, we adapt, update and renovate, giving it a new lease of life.

Hall houses are a good example of the domestic. Dating from the 14th century, they were originally one vast room. In Tudor times, they were given separate floors. In the 1700s, some picked up Georgian façades. The Victorians gave them mod cons like electric lighting and central heating. The buildings evolved with the requirements of their owners. On the agricultural front, disused barns, oast houses and mills weren't torn down, they were simply recycled into a domestic role becoming attractive new homes.

Our architectural heritage is extraordinarily rich and our desire to protect and conserve can occasionally seem somewhat laudable. This desire, however, has made us perhaps a little over cautious when faced with a blank sheet of paper and an empty field. Such is the respect we have for this heritage that there is the temptation to compromise our own requirements and simply ape the structures of our predecessors.

So when Katie and Richard looked at their blank sheet two years ago one might have thought they too would find themselves wrestling with this age old problem. They had taken over the 1960s family farmhouse nestled within 26 acres in which Katie had lived for 17 years and come to the decision that whilst they didn't dislike the house, it wasn't the house of their dreams. The location, however, is quite simply to die for. Set on a slight rise, the views it offers across open Kent farmland are truly spectacular. They made a bold decision; knock it down and build anew. And then they took an ever bolder decision; they would build not for the countryside or its heritage, not for the past but for themselves and for today.

Nor would they start with the practical. They began with the fantasy, the dream. The couple had visited a friend's new house and, stepping over the threshold, had been faced with a truly breathtaking, soaring staircase. They decided that whatever else their new house had, it would have an equally spectacular centrepiece - they wouldn't base their new home around the size or number of rooms but around a stunning staircase.

Taking this decision meant they would have to compromise on the number and size of the rooms but considering the footprint available and the height they were going to be able to build, there was still going to be scope for a very substantial home with a large kitchen-cum-dining-cum-living area, a formal drawing room, a master bedroom suite, two guest rooms with en suite bathrooms, a bedroom, bathroom and sitting room for their 13-year-old son and, of course, a room for their Weimaraners Ella and Summer. The upper floors would be zoned with their master suite on the eastern side, the guest rooms on the west and their son on the top floor.

Another bold move considering the sheer size of the project was that they would not employ an architect but design the property themselves and work closely with their builder Barry Hutson of Bridgehurst Builders in Marden. Richard also decided that he would source as much in terms of materials himself - a decision that would, among 101 other tasks, find him travelling to Turkey to hand-pick the 35 tonnes of marble needed for the staircase and bathrooms.

They began their build 21 months ago by knocking down two thirds of their old house and leaving themselves the essentials while work went ahead on their doorstep. The new build and its spacious oval pool and terrace extended out to the south. When the build was complete, the remainder of the old house was demolished and the area landscaped.

Arriving at their new home today, its elegant Neo- Georgian fa├žade gives one absolutely no indication whatsoever of what lies beyond. One is expecting a traditional, attractive and comfortable interior with a layout that has served the occupants well for a couple of hundred years. However, as we entered we literally tripped over each other in amazement. Before us a vast and delicate horseshoe staircase sweeps up three floors creating a huge, soaring marble and crystal atrium the like of which I have never seen in a private home. The first impression is that you've stumbled into Elsa's fabulous palace in Frozen.

The chrome-on-brass Art Deco metalwork banister is a one-off designed exclusively for the house by Burvills Ornamental Metalwork in Surrey. Suspended in its centre is a glittering four-and-a-half foot high, 14-stone Wilkinson chandelier...

"I think it works," observed Richard. Works? It's amazing. A complete triumph. The chrome-on-brass Art Deco metalwork banister is a one-off designed exclusively for the house by Burvills Ornamental Metalwork in Surrey. Suspended in its centre is a glittering four-and-a-half foot high, 14-stone Wilkinson chandelier. Gathering round the staircase on the second floor are dramatic glass-fused-on-metal pieces by Clare Wright. Works? I should coco.

But wonderful though the staircase is, the remainder of the house refuses to be upstaged. The kitchen and associated areas take up the whole eastern side of the house. Not only is there the Clive Christian kitchen itself but a dining area surrounded by glass bi-folding doors onto the terrace with terrific views, plus a seating area gathered around a 65-inch TV. Another large TV has been artfully set behind protective glass above the hob so Richard can watch the football while cooking. Also in the kitchen is a full height cabinet that, when opened, reveals more technology than GCHQ - technology that runs the house's state-of-the-art audio-visual systems.

Other cutting edge additions include control items like the safety equipment that guards the atrium. So large is it that building control insisted on a sprinkler system until Richard came up with an Automist arrangement that, in the case of fire, floods the area with mist and so minimizes damage. The heating system is based around Daikin air heat exchange technology while sensors on each floor turn the 250-odd lights on and off in zone as one walks through.

The other main rooms on the ground floor are an orangery, again with superb views and bi-folding doors to the terrace, and the drawing room where three sofas, upholstered in the deco motif of interlocking rectangles that extends throughout the house, gather round a centrepiece fireplace. The ambience of the room can be altered simply by changing the colour of the LEDs concealed in the coving. However, its ambience is not the only thing that can be changed. At the touch of a button a large white screen and projector whisper out of the ceiling and the whole room becomes a home cinema.

The bathroom with its part-vaulted ceiling is superb, its centrepiece a huge bath cut from a single block of Turkish marble...

Whereas the predominant colours here and elsewhere in the house tend to be greys, blacks and silvers, Richard and Katie's master suite has a warm hint of gold in the dramatic bed and dressing table, both from And So to Bed in Tunbridge Wells. The bathroom with its part-vaulted ceiling is superb, its centrepiece a huge bath cut from a single block of Turkish marble. Weighing three tonnes, manoeuvring it into the bathroom alone was a nightmare but how to set it down perfectly in place over the outlet? Barry Hutson hit on a brilliant solution - the load was carefully slid off its massive trolley onto a block of ice that then slowly melted and lowered it into place.

Across the atrium, two guest rooms and their bathrooms are virtually identical with grey leather beds from Dreams - press a button and a flat screen TV rises up out of the tailboard - and elegant grey marble bathrooms. On the top floor Max's room and bathroom share similar decor while his sitting room across the landing is a work in progress.

While the front elevation of the house is Georgian, the rear is considerably more contemporary due largely to the large acreage of glass that allows vast amounts of light to pour into the house and maximises the views from every rear-facing room. The sizeable 750 square metre, Indian sandstone terrace gathers around an oval swimming pool, installed by XL Pools, and cries out for summer parties.

The project was challenging, says Richard, but came in on time and "more or less" on budget. There were the inevitable hiccups but nothing major. In all, he found the experience so enjoyable that the plan is now to team up with Barry for similar future projects. Throughout the house, the finish and attention to detail is outstanding and speaks volumes for Richard's professional partners in the venture. "Where possible, I've used local people and business and everyone has been great," he says. Among those who contributed were stonemasons Radley Stone, Mountshill Joinery in Cranbrook, Old Barn Audio in Tunbridge Wells, The Fuel Effect in Tonbridge, and Lake Electrical in Hildenborough.

But the driving force behind the project and the source of the essential vision was Team Richard and Katie. What they have achieved - particularly if one takes into account the size of the project and that neither have attempted anything like this before in their lives - is exceptional.

There is no doubt that we do have an outstanding architectural heritage in the South but this build is a perfect example of what can be achieved if we learn from the past, have the courage of our convictions and build for today.

Address Book:

  • words John Graham-Hart
  • pictures David Merewether
  • styling Lucy Fleming