Building a new future

After a car accident devastated her family, Merula Frankel put all plans for a self-build on hold – but a few years later life took a new turn when she came across a company that shared her sustainable ethos


Merula and Richard Frankel had lived in their beloved Grade II listed Hampshire home since 1977, but over the years they had begun to dream that perhaps one day, when their four children had grown up and left home, they might build a new house for themselves in their 3.5-acre garden. Located in an East Hampshire conservation area, the 16th- century village property had extensive grounds, including a paddock and an old swimming pool, and the couple felt they could see the perfect plot for a new house on their tennis court, positioned next to a slope that led down to a stream. In the early 2000s they decided to turn their dream into a reality, and engaged a local architect.

“We were pretty ignorant, but I was never entirely happy with what the architect suggested,” says Merula. “It was certainly not a system build – it was a traditional build – and it was far too big. I also didn’t think he embraced environmental and sustainable matters in the way that I wanted. So at this point I was dragging my feet about it.”

Planning consent was initially refused, so they modified the plan, and then went to appeal and won. Just as they were on the point of committing to the project, tragedy struck – Richard, together with the couple’s seven-year- old grandchild, were killed in a car accident.
“I made an executive decision. I paid off the architect, and thanked him for what he had done. And then I just put the whole project to bed, as I, and my family, tried to grapple with what had happened,” says Merula.

She did, however, make what turned out to have been a crucial move at this point, and chose to renew planning consent. This had the effect of pushing any kind of deadline further down the road, and allowed her three more years before having to make a final decision on the matter. “I did nothing for a while,” she recalls. “But finally I decided that if I was going to do a build, I just had to get on with it. So then I picked up the phone to a company called Baufritz.”

A meeting was arranged with Baufritz architect Robert Lumme, and Merula’s brother and sister-in-law came along to give an objective ear, as by then Merula had done some research and was concerned that it all sounded too good to be true. “I asked Robert what is it about a Baufritz house that is so different? What is so special? Why should I go to Germany to choose a house when there are a million architects here in England? And the fundamental thing for me was their ethos,” she says. “Their absolute commitment to using materials that have no toxins, and using sustainable materials from top to toe – from their paints to the carpet. That really rang a bell with me.”

Visits to some homes built by Baufritz in the UK only served to fuel Merula’s enthusiasm, so Robert Lumme suggested she travel to Baufritz’s German headquarters in Erkheim, Bavaria, to settle on a design and meet the people who would be working on her project.

“Going to Germany was a wonderful experience,” she says. “You see the sort of materials that you can select for the internal fit and external cladding. One of the things that I really warmed to was the fact that I could have any design I wanted, subject to the span of a section being able to be produced in their factory. You could have pitched roof, flat roof, Bauhaus – any style that’s likely to be approved by your local district council.”

Merula opted for a gable roof with dark charcoal clay tiles, larch cladding in a contemporary profile on the upper floor and attic, and organic mineral render on the lower half. “Around the windows I chose olive green powder-coated aluminium, just to be different and because it settles well with the garden,” she explains.

At this point an issue with planning arose. Standards had evolved since the Frankels first received consent, and the district council now required the build to have 25 per cent renewables in order to maximise energy saving, but wouldn’t permit solar panels to be installed because it was a conservation area. Baufritz solved the problem by opting for a small gas boiler, and introducing a mechanical heat recovery and ventilation system to meet the energy savings needed.

Two months before the build, Merula made a second trip to Germany to go through the ‘sampling’ process, which took nearly three days. “Your project manager holds your hand through the whole process, room by room until you’ve done it all,” says Merula. “Every detail, from the door handles to whether the woodgrain on the front door should be vertical or horizontal.” Then work to demolish the tennis court and start building a slab began.

A vital element of the Baufritz service that was instantly attractive to Merula was the fact that, through the company’s partner network, they were able to provide most of the trade contacts that were needed to complete the project. “So the business of me worrying about who was going to fit the windows, or the doors, or install the showers – all those questions were answered,” she says.

One such key contact was garden designer Hannah Genders, who had worked with Baufritz on a number of projects and specialises in creating eco landscapes and therapy gardens. Recognising early on in the process that a plot positioned by a slope added a layer of complexity to the build, and that gardening and eco concerns were important to Merula, Baufritz architect Robert Lumme recommended working with Hannah. “She was brilliant and absolutely took on board sensitivity to the environment around the build, and marrying the practical with the aesthetic,” says Merula.

An industrial estate had to be found to house the sections arriving from Germany before they were transferred onto smaller lorries to navigate the narrow Hampshire village lanes with ease. Then work began, and things moved quickly. Conveniently, Merula was still living in her old property so she was able to pop in and check on progress every day. “We had a dry shell in four days, and then teams of people came to do the fit out. The house arrived at the beginning of April, and the keys were handed over to me in the last week of August,” she says. “By mid November that year I had moved in.”

The finished four-bedroom property has a downstairs, first floor and loft, and sits comfortably within its 1-acre garden, which Hannah Genders designed to include a vegetable patch, soft perennial planting and a wildflower meadow. Benefitting from stunning vistas from all aspects, the triple-glazed aluminium-clad wooden windows let in plenty of natural light, so that Merula always feels connected to the outside.

“As soon as you come into the house there is a sense of space,” she says. “I’ve been greedy with the entrance hall, which is 2 metres wide as I wanted it to be a circulation area – and when you walk in you can see straight through to the garden beyond.” When she has big family gatherings she can seat everyone comfortably in the dining area, “and I can put a trestle table up in the hallway for all the kids so it becomes a usable space,” she adds.

The ground floor’s open-plan layout has wooden floorboards throughout and is carefully designed so that all the elements flow easily into one another. Each room has underfloor heating with its own thermostat for ultimate temperature control. Beyond the dining area is a cosy sitting space around a wood-burning stove for spending time during the winter, along with a more open space adjoining it for relaxing in during the summer months. With a downstairs study, large utility room, two shower rooms and two bathrooms, the house is designed to be comfortable and functional. “I would say it’s enriched my quality of life,” she says.

Merula feels that her kitchen was probably her greatest extravagance, but that on reflection it was absolutely worth the expense. “If you’ve got a kitchen that’s very much on view you want it to be aesthetically pleasing,” she says. “It’s so different from our old house which had a big green Aga and a farmhouse-style kitchen. Here I’ve got a beautiful Bulthaup kitchen – which I have always wanted – and Gaggenau ovens. And instead of a larder I have a large Liebherr larder fridge.”

The Baufritz part of the project came in on budget at 631,000 Euros, and this includes all aspects of the project apart from the slab, ground work, utilities, engineering costs, land registry, landscaping and the garage. Merula estimates that the total cost of the build probably came in at around £1 million. Now that the house is finished, the Baufritz servicing department still deals with any snagging issues – there have only been a couple – and Merula continues to be on good terms with Robert Lumme. Another happy outcome is that a local family from the village bought the Frankels’ old house, so that Merula already knew her neighbours.

So now that she’s settled in and had time to experience living in her new eco home, how does she feel it turned out? “It’s wonderful. I wanted it to be crisp and contemporary, but restful – not minimalist and harsh. It looks lovely, and I love the fact that I played a part in designing it,” says Merula. “People were so worried for me – that I wouldn’t be able to manage, and that it would be difficult living next-door to so many happy memories. But there isn’t a day that goes by now that I don’t come in and I feel joy and good fortune – good fortune that after such a tragedy, this project has given me so much pleasure.”