In pursuit of peace

By having their own ‘forever’ house built on the grounds of the long-standing family home in the village of Dinnington, near Rotherham, South Yorkshire, Alison and Jonathan Berry have found peace, in all senses of the word


Alison and Jonathan Berry have embraced multi-generational living, with their larch-clad contemporary one-bedroom bungalow just a short stroll up a neat sleeper-edged gravel path from the large 1960s four-bedroom house where their son, George, 29, his wife, Ashleigh, 28, and their own children, seven-year-old twins Norah and Grace, and Harry, two, live. They have named their new home ‘Mtendre House,’ which means ‘peace’ in Chichewa, the language spoken in Malawi.

Alison (who’s 56) explains: “Jonathan’s late father used to go there a lot, and Jonathan thought that this would be a meaningful thing to do.” The Berrys own a family business repairing gearboxes and transmission systems for lorries, which is also based on the six-acre plot.

They had an aim to build their own home which was designed to maximise every centimetre of its 50.4 m2 internal space and to provide high-performance energy-saving standards. They also wanted to be on hand as the children grow up; Alison and Jonathan were already used to being in close proximity to the next generations.

“We lived in a motorhome on the grounds for about four years,” Alison explains. “We bought it to go travelling around the UK, exploring Scotland and the rest of Yorkshire.” 

However, Jonathan’s mother, Elaine, who originally owned the main house, had an accident and suffered a gradual deterioration of her health. So her son and daughter-in-law decided to set up a home in their motorhome in the garden so they could be on hand to help, but each party could retain their independence.

When Elaine died a couple of years later, Jonathan and Elaine asked their son George if he would like to move into the main house with his young family. Having already sold their own family home in Worksop, Nottinghamshire, they eventually began to formulate a plan to build their own new permanent home, with the proceeds of the sale helping to fund the project.

But first they needed an architect, and found Paul Testa and his team at HEM Architects in Sheffield on Google. Alison says: “We were keen on finding someone who would be happy to go down the environmentally-friendly route, and being in Sheffield he wasn’t too far away from us either.” Paul, whose award-winning practice has a strong reputation for creating family-friendly low-energy houses and extensions and retrofitting existing houses, was up for the challenge. He took the approach of building the house as an annexe, designing a single-storey, “very low-impact building” as it would meet the criteria for permitted development rights.

Paul didn’t do a specific thermal model, but followed HEM’s standard best practice. He believes that this project is performing as well as most Passivhaus builds. His major regret is that if he was building it now, he would likely specify an air source heat pump, rather than the gas boiler.

“The annexe was constructed using a high-performance timber frame and an Eternit fibre cement roof,” he explains. “We used breathable wood fibre insulation to make the construction as efficient as possible. The wood fibre is heavier than most other insulation, meaning the building stays cooler in periods of hot weather.” 

Paul combined this highly-insulated approach with high levels of air tightness, triple-glazed windows and an MVHR system. This means that the building is very energy-efficient, with what Paul calls “an incredibly low energy demand.”

He says Alison and Jonathan told him that since moving into their finished house in the autumn of 2021, they have only switched on a radiator once; there are just two, one in the living room and a heated towel rail in the bathroom. 

Is this really true? “Well, put it this way,” laughs Alison. “Last night it was about minus five outside, we got up this morning and the living room was 17 degrees. We have a gas boiler, a gas hob and an electric oven. Our energy use is certainly very low. Our monthly bills are somewhere between £50 and £70.”

Delays and supply chain hold-ups “caused by Brexit and Covid”, according to Alison, meant that the build took around three months longer than the planned six months. 

However, the biggest challenge was creating a liveable home within such tight constraints. “It’s certainly the smallest one we’ve ever built and designed – kitchens are bigger than this!” says Paul. “Unlike some people, however, Alison and Jonathan didn’t have unrealistic expectations of what could be achieved in a small space.”

He believes that although turning 50.4 m2 into a liveable home tested his design powers, the end result feels generous and spacious. It’s laid out on a simple plan; the main open-plan living/dining/kitchen space measures 30.24 m2. The shower room and bedroom stack up neatly beside each other, with the bathroom and kitchen walls adjacent to make fitting the services simple and cost-effective.

BB Grade birch plywood (the general commercial grade) was used as internal cladding for the exposed-beam internal roof/ceilings – and to face the fitted kitchen and bedroom furniture the main contractors built. Paul says it “helps to pull the internal space; it tricks the eye into making the area seem larger.” He adds: “I’m really glad that Alison and Jonathan like the idea of plywood,” Paul says. “It’s been around for a long time, but also it has that mid-century thing of being modern but not fashionable.” The walls have been plastered and painted white to complement the plywood. 

The house has an open-plan living room and kitchen, plus a bedroom and a bathroom. Not a centimetre of space has been wasted. The white-tiled bathroom (white being chosen to enhance the sense of space) has a step-free, walk-in shower. This is a way to maximise the tight proportions of the room, and is also designed as a future-proofing measure to help Alison and Jonathan with any future mobility needs. 

Full-height cupboards and wardrobes in the bedroom store all the couple’s immediately- needed clothes and footwear, but other items are kept elsewhere in the main house or in storage. There are a number of outbuildings in the garden, plus the motorhome for overspill, which means in-built storage in the new house could be kept to a practical minimum.

The kitchen cabinetry, also designed by the contractor, mirrors the bedroom, creating a pleasing symmetry as Alison and Jonathan move through the different parts of their home. Kitchen appliances, such as the fridge and microwave, are mostly built in, as is the TV in the bedroom. This trick saves space as these items don’t protrude out into the room.

Paul employed further clever design tricks to prevent the internal space from feeling too box-like and focused on bringing in as much light as possible to elongate the sense of space out into the garden: “The height and the variation of the angled roof has been designed to give some distinction to the different areas within the open-plan living room. And all the windows make it feel open.”

To add a sense of grandeur, the ceiling is higher over the dining area, but drops lower to create a cosier and more intimate feel to the living area, which even incorporates a corner office space. A large glazed sliding door allows easy access to the veranda, and a separate main door is also glazed. Polished stone-effect floor tiles reflect available light too. 

Jonathan did much research beforehand and there were many features he wanted to include. “The internal timber cladding was important to us,” he says. “We have visited a place in Cyprus a number of times which inspired us, and we loved the open-plan living idea. It just seems simple and open. We had a good idea of what we wanted and it was brought together by Paul on our first meeting.” 

The couple were very clear that they wanted their new home to be one storey, not just to meet permitted development rights but because they wished “to keep things simple and practical for older age”. 

Another idea that Jonathan and Alison really wanted was the veranda which runs along the front of the house. Held up by deceptively strong timber posts, it creates a covered external canopy over the full-length terrace, simply and effectively extending the living space, especially in warmer months. “It is also practical when the sun is strong, as it helps to shade the house, it’s a lovely area to sit and chill, and it looks good,” says Jonathan. “It was designed by Paul with a few tweaks from us.”

Jonathan and Alison say that they both contributed equally to the initial planning and ideas for their new home, but they trusted the experience of project architect Claire Taylor at HEMS, to professionally manage the project. “Jonathan is a very hands-on person,” says Claire, “But as he’s running the business he didn’t really get involved with anything practical. However, we did feel very invested in it. You’re living on site and seeing everything happening in front of you. So you see it all from the very first day to the very end. It was a good experience, but also makes it a little stressful; you’re very invested.”

The build was undertaken by main contractors Jordan and Somerfield Joinery, a firm based in the nearby South Yorkshire town of Barnsley, which Paul had employed on his own home in Sheffield. “We have nothing but praise for these lads – Sean, Ryan and Jonathan,” says Alison. “From the first moment we met them to the finished home they exceeded our expectations and left us as friends.”

Paul makes an interesting point, in explaining that for a self-build project, the £162,000 total build cost was very reasonable. Despite this, the project’s scale meant that the cost per m2 of £3,240 is relatively expensive, especially considering the plain and simple finishing and overall style of the house. “You’re paying a joiner to come, for instance, so there are always going to be initial costs connected to the set-up,” he explains. “So there is that lack of economy of scale on one level. However, because the size is compact, you can get to choose more superior materials.”

Paul is very pleased that the finished house has the “moments of delight” he tries to include in every project: “You’ve got to be able to see beyond the home. So, for instance, at the front you can look in either direction and see out into the landscape.” This is thanks to the verandah, but it’s also a practical addition, giving Alison and Jonathan extra living space, particularly in the warmer months. And because it overhangs the windows, it shades the windows to counteract overheating in very hot weather.

While Paul thinks now that the clerestory window across the front of the house isn’t quite as large as he would have liked it to be, it still helps to flood the living space with light. In fact, both Alison and Jonathan say that they love to gaze out of the windows; Alison to watch wildlife – which includes kestrels and pheasants – in the garden, and Jonathan to spend time looking at the Pennines, which loom in the distance to the west of their house. 

And of course, the home helps them look out for their three grandchildren, and they’ve been a constant, naturally evolving part of the story. Alison says that even before she and Jonathan built their house, they would have them over to sleep in the motorhome. “George and Ashleigh and the children moving into the house has been a kind of gradual process.” She adds that because the family business is also based on the same site, everyone is already used to getting along with each other on a daily basis.

Would they ever consider undertaking a self-build project again? Alison shakes her head: “This has felt like a once-in-a-lifetime experience and we wouldn’t change anything. We really wouldn’t like to do it again as this has been so special.”


“Our first evening in the finished home, and the kids running up the path, shouting ‘Grandma, Grandad!’”



“The mess of the groundworks, and the delays of materials arriving on site – which was due to either Brexit or Covid”




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