Although Matthew and Emma Greenland’s west Wales self-build would not turn out to be their ‘forever home’ due to a change in their future plans, they created a building that makes the most of its spectacular site. Roseanne Field reports
Building their own home was something Matthew and Emma Greenland had always wanted to do. A builder by trade, working on private residential projects, Matthew had the inside knowledge on the merits of doing it themselves, as well as the necessary skills.
Matthew and Emma had been keeping their eye out for suitable plots around their village – St Dogmaels on the Pembrokeshire coast – for a while, as they were after something with a good amount of land to house Emma’s horses. They finally found an elevated 10-acre plot with great views overlooking the village and the River Teifi that had been up for sale for some time, and it won them over. “Standing on this plot looking at the view, we just said ‘this is it.’” Matthew tells Selfbuilder & Homemaker.
The plot was actually part of a group of three situated on an old farmyard. These plots had been given planning consent twice before – originally as four plots for semi-detached houses which lapsed after five years, then for three detached – but nobody had bought or built on them due to what Matthew says was “bad design”. He approached the owner with a view to doing a deal. He proposed to buy the large plot at the top which came with the farm’s agricultural land, while an architect he had worked with previously would buy the other two, situated between Matthew’s plot and the adjacent farmhouse, to develop and sell on, both of which Matthew would also build. “It is a sort of complex of different properties that all work together,” he says.
The fact the owner had been marketing the land for a total of seven years meant the couple were able to get a good deal, which also included an old pig shed, which Matthew transformed into a three-bedroom cottage. They bought the site in October 2013 and moved into the converted pig shed in May 2014 once their previous house had sold. This would serve as an excellent base for Matthew, Emma and their three children while the main house was constructed. “We lived onsite in a caravan, but within two months we pretty much had the conversion finished because I didn’t want to go through winter in a caravan,” Matthew says.
Although planning had already been consented, Matthew and Emma wanted to design something that closely suited them. “It had planning permission for detached, dormer- style houses,” explains Matthew. “There was no way I was ever going to build that on such a unique plot in this area.”
They worked closely with their architect, Roger Bell, who Matthew already had a good working relationship with, and came up with a design inspired by houses they’d seen on holiday in Australia. In fact, it’s their love for the country and dream to move there one day that has seen them put their dream home on the market. In February last year, midway through the build, they discovered they had been granted visas to make a permanent move down under.
Matthew and Emma decided to go the route of providing a building notice, which meant they didn’t have to have full, detailed plans drawn up for their application. “We saved quite a lot of money not having to have detailed drawings,” says Matthew.
Although they were submitting a design that was very different to the original approved plans – including the work to the pig shed (which had originally been approved for conversion into a garage) – the couple didn’t face serious objection from their local planning office. “The only thing they were concerned about was the height of the tallest side of the property, where it’s three storeys,” explains Matthew. “They were concerned with how that would look from the other side of the bank and lower down in the village.”
Despite the planning officer’s worries, Matthew and Emma were able to prove that due to the height and slope of the site, nobody would be able to see the basement level from below. “It just looks like a two-storey house,” he says. There were also other minor queries regarding things like the shape of windows, but he found the best approach was to visit the planning office and discuss it face-to-face. “Because this was going through planning for the third time they’d spent too much time on it – in the end they’d had enough of seeing us!” Matthew says. “Going down there was a good thing to do.”
In the end, the only condition they had to follow was keeping the ridge height the same as the other two new properties next door, which sit lower on the hill and have pitched roofs. “That’s the reason we came up with the arched sedum roof,” says Matthew. “The site warrants keeping the building as high as you can, so I wanted to go higher and reduce the roof down.”
Once they were ready to begin work onsite, the first job was bringing all the utilities up the hill. The road had mains gas, electric and water connections so it was a reasonably simple job to extend these slightly further up the slope to the site. However, connecting to mains drainage was a different story. “We had to bring it a good 200 metres from the lowest point on the road, and then it swept round the back of the other sites to get to ours,” Matthew explains. “That was very expensive.”
They looked at other options – they even had a septic tank onsite temporarily while living in the barn – but ultimately wanted to be connected to mains. It also seemed the logical thing to do, given it was being brought up the road for the other two houses anyway. However, in hindsight Matthew says: “Had I known what the end result would be I would have stuck with an alternative.” The work meant closing the road for three weeks and the estimated cost ended up doubling. “But once we’d started,” he says, “we were committed to it.”
Design & Build
Being a builder, Matthew took on the majority of work himself, along with his team. But this naturally meant fitting it in around other jobs. “I was busy doing other stuff so we built the main house over the space of two to three years, taking bites at it when we could,” he explains. “We got the slab in, then we worked to get the blockwork up, then we came back and did the roof and got it watertight. It was a stage by stage process.” Hitting a timescale wasn’t Matthew and Emma’s biggest concern, as they were “comfortable” in the barn conversion.
The only work not undertaken by Matthew’s team was the plumbing, electrics, and steel frame. He also worked with a structural engineer to figure out the logistics of certain aspects. Having not had full drawings done meant a lot of structural decisions were made on the hoof, as well as cost-saving tweaks. “My experience in the building trade made it a lot easier,” he admits, adding: “I’ve enjoyed doing this with Emma, designing it as we go.” Matthew’s experience also meant he knew plenty of local places to source materials.
Due to the slope, the basement level doesn’t cover the same footprint as the rest of the house. The entrance is at the level above, the front door leading into a large Australian- inspired open plan living/dining/kitchen area – a must-have for Matthew and Emma – along with a pantry. The angle of the front door means guests are immediately faced with floor-to- ceiling windows in the opposite corner, delivering the panoramic view. “The main thing when you walk through the front door is you see that view,” Matthew explains.
Making the most of the surroundings was a high priority in the design. Having both lived in and worked on Welsh cottages and farmhouses, Matthew wanted something different. “It’s great to have that ‘comfy’ feel, but we wanted to have something that could let plenty of light in and feel airy and open,” he says.
The ground level also features a utility room and toilet. Upstairs is the master suite, including a large ensuite and dressing room, situated at the back of the house and maximising the view with more floor-to-ceiling windows and a glass balustrade balcony. There are also a further four double bedrooms, all with ensuite shower rooms. “We wanted bathrooms for everybody,” says Matthew. “The kids have got that flexibility – that was something we liked.”
The 52 m2 basement level, which sits on a raft foundation slab, features a large open space, used to store this active family’s mountain bikes, and as a games room. This was something they wanted to include to keep their children entertained during the bad weather the west Wales coast has been known to endure. It also features sliding patio doors that lead out to the fields below. “It would have been easy for me to have put bifold doors across the back but it wasn’t worth it,” he explains – we’d only ever open them once or twice a year.”
Matthew used a couple of different construction methods. The three-storey end of the property is built using steel frame in order to get the height and large openings they wanted, while the rest is of traditional block construction. The house is finished with a mix of white render and cedar cladding, and features hidden gutters to maintain the minimal aesthetic.
The timber trusses for the arched roof were “a little bit more complex” than traditional ones. The arch also meant they were limited in terms of finish options. In the end, it was waterproofed with a fibreglass underside and finished with a sedum roof, which also boosts the house’s thermal properties. Matthew says: “It was something different for me to do, and for our own home it was a bit of a risk, but we love it.”
The house is heated with a mix of underfloor heating and anthracite radiators. These are fed by a gas boiler, although they are also installing solar panels to help with heating hot water. Originally the pair considered including additional PVs and rainwater harvesting, but, explains Matthew, “That came after we found out we had our visas, so some things had to take a little bit of a back seat.” However, future owners could incorporate additional sustainable features, he says.
Outside the house, there is a grey limestone patio and abundant oak sleepers. “It works up here and we wanted that beachy feel,” says Matthew. Oak sleepers also separate their property from next door, which he prefers, as it’s “not as harsh as a big dividing wall or timber-panelled fence.”
The site also has planning permission for a manège – which has been constructed – and stables, which were originally intended to house Emma’s horses before the move to Australia became a reality.
Having fallen head over heels in love with Australia, emigrating “had always been in the back of our minds,” Matthew says. “We’re outdoors people, we spend a lot of time out surfing and biking, so we’ve found it hard living in Wales and having such long winters.”
It was on their third trip in 2016 that they decided to set the wheels in motion on a permanent move. But, explains Matthew, with no idea whether they’d be successful, their plan to create their ideal home needed to continue. “It took 18 months to get the visas, and until you have that you don’t know whether you can go.”
Despite the imminent move, Matthew, Emma and their children moved into the house in time for Christmas last year. “Although it’s on the market, it could take two months, six months or a year to sell,” Matthew says. In the meantime they’ll also rent the barn conversion out. This “was always the original plan, because that would then pay for us to live in the new house.”
When the house was valued, they were pleasantly surprised by the figure. “It had never popped into my mind once, that if we build this home it’s going to be worth ‘x’ amount of money,” says Matthew. “It didn’t matter because it was going to be our family home.” And although moving to Australia has long been the dream, they “will be sad to leave it,” he says. “We’ve put our heart and soul into it. Moving abroad is the only reason we’d ever consider selling it.”
So will they self-build again down under? “I want to,” Matthew says. “Another spectacular home, but closer to the beach in a sunny climate!”