A sure bet

Despite their background working in the gambling industry, the Cammeghs weren’t prepared to risk anything when they decided to build their forever home, a Passivhaus in a rural spot in Kent

As the founders of an internationally- renowned family business making roulette tables, octogenarians Bill and Barbara Cammegh are used to gambling on the wheel of fortune.

But when it came to building their ‘lifetime’ home, a rustic Passivhaus in the Kent countryside at Smarden, near Ashford, they left absolutely nothing to chance.

Halfpenny House, which takes its delightful name from a toll bridge over the River Thames in Lechlade, Oxfordshire where the couple share many fond memories, was custom-built – complete with a lift from the kitchen to the bedrooms – with Bill and Barbara’s future needs to the fore.

“We purchased the site with the planning consent already agreed,” says Bill. “But there were some tweaks we wanted to make as to how we would use the house so we worked with Richard and his team to incorporate these changes. In particular, we wanted to reconfigure the utility room and back kitchen to suit us.”

Richard Hawkes, whose Kent-based architecture practice specialises almost entirely in this very particular type of rural build all over the UK, introduced the Cammeghs to a builder he trusted. He also put together the team for the project, which included a landscape architect to maximise the site, which started out as part of an old farmstead where chicken sheds and a silage clamp once stood. As well as having an overall picture of how Halfpenny House sat in the landscape, the team took painstaking care to what might appear to the casual observer to be insignificant details.

For example, Bill explains that Richard was very keen for the main barrel of the water-saving system to not have rainwater pipes visible, so he cleverly hid them inside the columns which support the roof: “It meant getting the pipes in just the right place long before when the foundations were being done. This attention to detail certainly helps. Something like rainwater running off isn’t necessarily something you’d think too much about, but it’s been cleverly dealt with here.”

So did Bill and Barbara get hands-on and do any of the work themselves? “Oh no!” laughs Bill. “Our DIY days are over. We enjoy working in the garden, but we prefer to leave the hands-on stuff to the professionals.”

Their three-acre plot cost in the region of £400,000, and the build cost and landscaping came in at £800,000 and £100,000 respectively.

The project had gained planning approval under the exacting standards of Paragraph 55 (now revised to Paragraph 79) legislation and was finished at Christmas 2016, having taken just nine months to build.

Although Halfpenny House is packed with innovative contemporary features such as a mechanical heat recovery system, its form is simple; a two-storey Dutch barn with two single-storey projections encompassing 420 m2 of living space.

One of the key demands of Paragraph 55 (79) is that a new home in an isolated rural location should look totally at ease in its setting. “Our home looks like it might have once been a Dutch barn even though it’s actually a timber-framed new build house,” Bill explains. “It does fit in very well with its surroundings too. It feels like it has always been here, which is a testament to the quality of the design.”

The house and its surrounding landscaping, which includes a series of picturesque ponds devised as a flood prevention system, have replaced what Barbara describes as a “scruffy and redundant part of a former working farm, so that’s a big improvement”.

A stream runs through the site and some parts sit within flood zones so the landscape architect designed in the ponds to store flood water by altering various levels around the farmyard as part of a SuDS sustainable drainage strategy.

Now that the landscaping has had a chance to mature a little, Bill says that he’s delighted to see wildlife settling in around his new home: “A noisy frog has moved in to one of the ponds recently and we see lots of different insects, birds and bats flying around.”

As you enter the house from the garden, the entrance hall provides a clear view through the dining area and lounge and out to the landscape beyond, with the gardens carefully planted with a wide range of native plants and trees to help assimilate the building into its rural setting.

The kitchen and dining table share a large open-plan space in the middle of the house. “Everything revolves around the kitchen,” says Barbara. “And we use the dining table every day but not necessarily just for eating around – we use it for business meetings as well.”

A double-sided fireplace built into a section of wall which also contains the fridge freezer separates this area from the lounge, which has large full-height corner windows to provide a strong connection to the outside spaces while flooding the interior with daylight.

The lounge leads into a self-contained television room in the north-facing single storey extension. “The TV is in a separate room off the lounge,” Bill explains. “We like to watch the cricket so it’s lovely to kick back in my armchair in front of a big screen, but when we have guests we generally keep the TV room closed off. It’s not a cinema!”

The other single-storey space, on the south side of the house, provides a self-contained annex and is accessed via the entrance hall. It’s currently being used as a spacious home office but it is equipped with a bathroom and small contained store area which can serve as a kitchenette.

“The ground floor annex was designed to be flexible but capable of providing suitable accommodation for a live-in carer should that be something Bill and Barbara need at some point,” explains the building’s architect, Richard Hawkes. “At the moment it’s working well as a home office and hobby room so it’s good to see these spaces adapting well to different functions.”

The first floor can be accessed from the staircase within the main hall or by the lift which is discreetly located off the back kitchen area. “We love having the lift,” says Bill. “It’s a real treat to use the lift rather than the stairs these days.”

Upstairs, the house has four bedrooms, two with ensuite bathrooms, and the master bedroom benefits from a large walk-in wardrobe.

Barbara says that when she was thinking about how her new house should look, she loved the idea of being able to live in a more open-plan way with lots of insulation and low running costs.

It’s a completely different prospect to their previous home, a two-storey Edwardian property on the edge of Smarden, with formal gardens, outbuildings and garaging, which the couple used as collateral for the bridging loan which part-financed their project. “It was a lovely house and it certainly didn’t take long to sell,” adds Barbara.

But with only a steep staircase to the first floor, it was proving a difficult house to live in as Barbara and her husband advanced in years. She says: “Not having to go upstairs to bed now is a welcome luxury.”

“Also, it’s lovely not having draughts and always feeling warm and protected. There’s no whistling wind from leaky old windows.”

“And it’s much easier to get about within the house,” interjects Bill. “It’s one level throughout. The doors are a generous size. You wouldn’t really know it was a timber-framed building to be honest.”

However, Bill and Barbara do admit that it took a while to get used to how the house worked. “We had no experience of heat recovery systems or underfloor heating, so getting used to the various controls was interesting,” laughs Bill. “Thankfully, Richard and the builders were always on the end of the phone if we needed any help so it didn’t take long to get things set up as efficiently as possible.”

There is underfloor heating downstairs and in the bathrooms but no heating in the bedrooms, as these areas benefit from the heat distributed across the property by the heat recovery system.

Richard worked closely with the Cammeghs to address the house’s overall energy needs. “He was always talking about how to reduce the amount of energy we need before looking at which technologies to use, so we know we’ve got one foot thick timber-framed walls stuffed with insulation and triple-glazed windows everywhere,” says Bill.

“The ventilation system transfers heat from the old air and uses it to warm up the fresh air. The air in the house always just feels right. It never gets stuffy like our old house did. We don’t feel compelled to open all the windows to air the house out anymore.”

That said, the energy-efficient aspects of the house did require some adjustments to the Cammeghs’ interior design ideas. Their original plan for solid wood floors had to bow to the demands of underfloor heating and solar gain.

“Richard insisted that timber flooring wouldn’t work so well with underfloor heating or for soaking up the sun’s heat from the windows,” says Barbara. “We weren’t too sure about the timber-effect porcelain tiles at first, but we love them now. They’re easy to clean and they stay nice and warm when the underfloor heating is on.”

Richard says that Bill and Barbara wished their house to be light, airy and easy to live with and get around, but with separation and cosiness where they wanted it; he feels that together, they have achieved their aim.

“The requirements of any home will vary at different stages of life so for a house to be a genuine lifetime home it needs to work well in all seasons of life,” he says. “The same is true of how well it functions through the seasons of the year. We’re delighted with how Bill and Barbara have embraced the Passivhaus model. It took a while for them to get their head around living in an airtight building but now they’ve lived in it they get it completely.”

And what do Bill and Barbara think?

“It’s all nice,” says Barbara, “And it makes us feel very relaxed. Having been able to tailor a home so much to suit our own lifestyle is wonderful. Everything is just where we want it, so it makes the house so easy to be in and live with.”

Bill thinks for a moment and looks around his comfortable, stylish, and above all practical new ‘lifetime home’. “We just wish we’d done it sooner,” he says.