Photography: Alison Hammond

A Year In The Making

13th January 2017

Stephen and Sophie Keane knocked down an existing bungalow to make room for a traditional family home, which blends beautifully into a woodland setting. Natalie Flaum takes a closer look…

Several years ago, brothers Stephen and Declan Keane, both dentists, bought some land on which to build two modern five-bedroom houses as a money-making venture, employing the skills of a builder friend to undertake the project. A short while later, inspired by the experience, Stephen and his wife Sophie began a search to find another suitable building plot – this time for their own bespoke home.

Neither were newcomers to property development, thanks both to Stephen’s previous undertaking, and the fact that Sophie’s father was a builder. “Sophie spent most of her childhood in and around demolition sites,” says Stephen. “That, coupled with the experience we had from building new houses and selling them on, gave us a true insight into building for ourselves.”

The couple had been in their previous home, which they purchased as a shell, just down the road for eight years. “We decided to stay in the area,” Stephen explains, “but were keen to live in our own self-built, bespoke property.”
Early in their search, they came across a piece of land that appeared ripe for development. They started the motions to buy, but, unfortunately, their surveyor discovered that the plot was part residential and part agricultural. Stephen and Sophie were planning to build in the farmed section, which was positioned in a conservation area. “We knew our chances of gaining permission were very slim, so we pulled out,” Stephen recalls.

A local estate agent then contacted the Keanes about a bungalow that seemed fit for a vast extension. The property was ideally situated – “It was located in the centre of a woodland half acre plot on the village boundary of Danbury, and appeared to be just what we were looking for” – and had just had a sale fall through at the last minute, so when the couple viewed they were able to negotiate an offer that was accepted straightaway with the promise of a quick completion.

They moved into the property in March 2012, along with their young children Rosie and Freddie. Updating the interiors, they lived there for two years, but it soon became apparent that an extension was simply not a viable solution for them. A demolish-and-rebuild was the only option – and they were up for the challenge.

“Living in the house allowed us to get to grips with how the site worked. We gained a good understanding of when the sun rose and set during the changing seasons, and we were able gather ideas about how we could utilise all the space.”
The years spent in the bungalow gave the Keanes plenty of time to do their research. “Sophie knocked on doors of properties nearby whose style we really admired. We enquired about designers and sought recommendations, which is actually how we found our architect, Andrew Pipe,” Stephen explains. “The first time we met him we spent three hours chatting on a warm summer’s evening. We just loved his vision for the house right from the beginning.”

The village of Danbury has extensive woodland, and the National Trust and other conservation organisations own the nearby heath. Having worked in the area before, Andrew warned the Keanes that they might be in for a struggle when it came to gaining planning consent for the scheme, which would see the living space increase from 130m2 to 372m2.

To their surprise, however, permission was granted in just one month. “The new design is 1.5-storey and has a larger footprint, stretching out to the rear by 6m on each side,” says Stephen. “We’re surrounded by a number of large trees, with their roots sited along the boundary lines of our plot. This meant we had to dig down 3m in some areas of the foundations.”

They were instructed by the council to keep the ridge roof height low, so the dwelling is built into the slight incline of the land. “We excavated further down on the north side of the house – where the ground level is a higher slant from the back garden – all the way down to the front of the property,” he adds.

The demolition began at the end of February 2014, when Stephen hired Craig Allen as master builder and project manager. Not only did they have the experience of working together on the two new builds, but Craig had also recently built a new house for Stephen’s brother Declan. “Craig employed local subcontractors for our electrics and plumbing works,” says Stephen. “We were realistic and planned for a year-long project. We knew it would take time using a one-man builder, but Craig did a great job.”

The couple used a combination of savings and money gained from the sale of their previous house to finance the project. They had to adhere to a strict Level 3 of the Code for Sustainable Homes, as demanded by their local authority. Until fairly recently, this national standard measured the performance of new homes, and some councils used to require projects to meet certain levels as planning conditions – but the Code has now been withdrawn. The Keanes had to submit a formal assessment for approval, which was an extra cost they hadn’t anticipated.

One month into the build they came up against a problem with the bricklaying. “We made the mistake of selecting expensive bricks and opting for the cheapest labour quote,” says Stephen. “We wanted straight arches above some of the windows using thinner vertical pointed products, but instead, the bricklayer we hired turned the normal units on their vertical side to do the task… the whole situation caused unnecessary stress and delays.”

After overcoming all the initial obstacles, and with the shell of the house built, the next phase of works was to create the aesthetic appeal that Stephen and Sophie wanted. They had a clear vision for the look of their home, which enabled them to approach their project with a solid strategy to ensure it all came together as planned. “We did a lot of our own research and sourced elements for the kitchen and bathroom ourselves. We wanted our home to feel as it if has stood here for years. We sought inspiration from the woodland setting and were keen to specify air-dried oak beams for the vaulted kitchen ceiling. Our builder initially suggested glulam, but we decided instead to invest in the joists we longed for.”

The doors and windows were another factor that had a very important role to play in connecting the house with its surroundings and providing the light-filled home that the Keanes desired. They approached a local company for traditional bespoke timber fenestration throughout their home. “It makes good sense to support the industry in the area,” says Stephen. “

The Keanes opted for underfloor heating on both floors. They also chose to install CAT 6 cable networking across the entire house, along with a Bluetooth connection to avoid having wired speakers. They selected bespoke products to complete the aesthetic appeal of the kitchen and utility space.

After an intense year-long build, the Keanes finally moved into their home in March 2015. It had been a lifelong dream to create a bespoke family home and the result certainly lives up to their expectations. “It was amazing to watch the scheme come together, from viewing the project on paper to seeing it emerge out of the ground and grow day by day, week by week,” says Stephen. “We were so excited to move in. The house has a real holiday-hotel feel about it, along with the sensation of never wanting to check out.”

Although they adore their new home, the couple are open to the idea of doing another project. “We’d welcome the chance to work with architect Andrew Pipe, again. We’d love for him to design us a retirement bungalow with a lovely view of the sea,” he adds. “Self building comes with a great sense of achievement, and it’s wonderful to think that we have inspired other people along the way, too.”

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