Strawberry Fields forever home

When a couple decided to build their Beatles-inspired ‘forever’ home in a north London suburb, the speed at which their kit home took shape left them suitably impressed. Roseanne Field reports.

From the street, Mr and Mrs Young’s house, while far from unimpressive, doesn’t stand out as being dramatically different from the other fairly modest detached houses it sits alongside. But view it from the bottom of its rear garden, and it reveals what an architectural achievement it really is.

The house – built by German kit home specialist firm Baufritz – sits within a conservation area, and so its somewhat understated appearance at the front was largely dictated by the brick and tile houses of the suburban locale. When the couple bought the site, the house sitting on it was in “an incredibly poor condition”.

The Youngs both work in construction so were not daunted by building, and they had always talked about building their own home. With the incumbent house in such a run-down state, it seemed the perfect opportunity for them to fulfil their dream; there was just the small matter of purchasing the site and demolishing the house before they could get on with their own construction. Although the ‘kit home’ method would turn out to be the perfect solution, they almost didn’t go down that route. Mrs Young explains, “We spoke to architects about doing a traditional build, but, we decided there was just no contest.”

They looked at various kit home providers but found in some cases it could be a struggle to achieve what they wanted. She continues:“It was much more regimented, for example the floor to ceiling height was fixed or the front of the house was a regimented style,” she says. “Because our house is in the middle of a normal suburban street, we needed the front to be subtle.”

It was in fact an episode of Grand Designs that introduced them to Baufritz and led them to investigate what the company had to offer, which then saw them taking a trip to the company’s headquarters in Bavaria. Having decided on a build method, chosen a manufacturer and got the design right, the next hurdle was of course getting planning permission. The fact they were within a conservation area meant the local council was able to make gaining permission a frustrating and drawn-out experience.

“It took a long time,” which isn’t overstating it – it took about 15 months to get the plans approved. The couple took it upon themselves to speak to the conservation officer at the council about what they wanted to do, but despite this, the council “just weren’t madly keen,” she explains. “It was an annoying start to the project.” Project architect Nick Blunt worked closely with them throughout the process and after “numerous meetings” with the council, their plans were finally agreed without too much compromise being required, although the council had some stringent demands. “They were very specific about the materials we had to use at the front of the house, and how the front had to look,” says Mrs Young.

A flying start

Having finally secured planning permission, the couple got to work and the existing house was demolished. They made various final decisions on materials at a visit to Baufritz’s head office later on that summer, and by October, they were ready for the build to begin. It was at this point that the pace picked up and the kit building method really began to show what it was capable of.

The house arrived in the form of timber panels on the back of lorries, ready to be assembled by the team. Just three days later, the four-storey house (it includes a basement and attic space) was up and watertight. “Getting the timber frame onsite and put up was amazing,” recalls Mrs Young. “There were no problems at all.” The external walls were installed one at a time, floor by floor, starting with the partial basement. Each side of the house was dropped in to place, then the back and front walls are slotted in. “It’s like a jigsaw,” Mrs Young says. “It’s all tongue and groove and the panels all just slot into each other. When you watch it and it all comes together, it’s just so clever.”

Once the external walls were in place, the internal walls for that floor were installed, before the ceiling/floor was laid down and the process began again on the next floor. Each external wall comes with any doors and windows already installed – which Mrs Young remembers being fascinated to discover. “When they dropped down the piece with the front door in, the door already had the key in,” she explains. “So when they had to start putting in the internal walls, they just turned the key and walked into the house!”

The project was managed by a third party recommended by Baufritz, but the couple naturally made sure they stayed heavily involved throughout. Almost all of the internal fixtures and fittings were dealt with Baufritz – the only elements the Youngs had to take care of were the kitchen and fitted wardrobes. However, the couple’s construction experience stood them in good stead, and they arranged meetings with various UK kitchen companies to look at layouts and designs. “Understanding plans was definitely an advantage,” says Mrs Young.

This was one area where the difference between the accuracy of kit home construction and traditional builds reared its head. They were repeatedly told by manufacturers that they would have to take their own final measurements once the house was built, to allow for any slight changes to what was on plan. “We explained it was going to be cut and built in a factory so it would be accurate,” Mrs Young says. “When they came out they were so impressed! They’d never seen dimensions where what was drawn on the plan was what had been delivered.”

The couple says that along with its impressive eco credentials, the pinpoint accuracy of the build was the key reason their decision to use a kit house provider proved a good one.

Going green

Sustainable living is important to the Youngs, and their house isn’t short of eco-friendly features in addition to its timber construction being inherently green. PV panels on the roof generate all of their electricity, with any unused energy sold back into the grid. A solar thermal array also provides their hot water, and a large tank underneath the property’s driveway holds rainwater used to flush toilets and for watering the garden.

The house is heated throughout with underfloor heating, although it’s not something they find themselves needing very often. “It’s on a very low setting,” explains Mrs Young. This is largely down to the 100 per cent natural wood shaving insulation installed throughout the house. The house has an AA energy efficiency rating – the UK average is D. In fact, the house is so efficient that it was scored a 0.7 in its airtightness test, which “means we’re just shy of Passivhaus,” explains Mrs Young.

Design & layout

Anyone building their own home wants to ensure they can hone the layout and design to meet all their needs. Although the Youngs were working with a kit housebuilder, they still tried to have as much input on the design and layout of the house as possible. “I wanted to ensure that when you open the front door you could see straight through to the garden, to have that crucial link,” says Mrs Young.

Space and light were key drivers for the overall design. The white-rendered front of the house features contrasting zinc-clad bay windows on the ground and first floors, the zinc connecting the two. Due to the site’s sloping nature, from the front the house appears to be two storeys, but at the back – which features vast amounts of glass – the house presents a far more substantial facade.

The garden sits slightly lower than the ground floor, with steps leading down to it from this level. The top of the basement/lower ground floor is therefore also just visible from the garden and features its own sunken terrace area. Beneath the hipped roof, the attic level is home to the master suite (complete with bedroom, ensuite and dressing room), which has its own private terrace.

Being keen fans of The Beatles, the couple couldn’t resist introducing a theme. The house is named ‘Imagine’ (which could also perhaps refer to how the build has realised their vision, with a little perseverance). When standing at the large wooden front door, visitors are greeted by a replica of the John Lennon Strawberry Fields memorial on the wall with ‘Imagine’ printed at its centre, functioning as the house’s nameplate.

As per the couple’s request, upon entering, it is possible to see right through to the garden. To the left is a bicycle storage area and toilet, on the right is a small study. At the rear is a large open plan kitchen/living/dining area. Downstairs is the semi-basement, home to a utility room, playroom and home cinema, complete with a pool table and, continuing the theme, a huge Beatles mural. The sunken terrace provides the space with natural light.

The first floor houses five bedrooms, including their two children’s rooms which are almost identically sized – another of the Youngs’ requests. “They’re within about a centimetre of each other!” Mrs Young says. Each of these has its own bathroom, with a third serving the other two guest bedrooms. They also ensured that plenty of built-in storage was provided throughout.

The couple had a clear idea of they wanted when it came to the overall layout. They praise Baufritz’s flexibility, down to offering three different ceiling heights as standard. They also report that they found more than enough choice within their range of designs, displayed in the various show houses and room mock-ups at firm’s German offices – including a bathroom with moveable walls. This made making decisions relatively stress-free, says Mrs Young: “You can pick within the ranges quite happily.”

In total the build and internal fit out took just five months and the house was ready to move in to. “Right at the beginning of the build you get a schedule telling you all the different dates,” explains Mrs Young. “You get a date when you’re going to get the key, and actually we got it a day early!” The project went so smoothly that the house was built and the family moved in before one of their neighbours had finished a kitchen extension started around the same time.

Since moving in the couple have had no issues with the home, and love living there. A couple of small cracks appeared after a few months – as is normal with a new build – but as part of Baufritz’s offering staff were returned to touch up and repaint. “We’re totally happy,” Mrs Young says. She credits part of this feel-good factor to the timber and other materials used: “Their houses just have a real sense of calm, which I think comes from the materials,” she explains.

They have discussed the possibility of doing another build one day, but for now they’re very much settled. “We’ve toyed with the idea of doing it again,” Mrs Young says. “But I can’t see us ever moving from here, it’s got everything that we’ve ever wanted.”