The Browns had never considered building their own home, but the chance to create a ‘Glasshouse’ with views of the Forth Bridge and Edinburgh Castle was too good to miss. Roseanne Field reports
Alan and Lucy Brown had been looking to move for some time, but after viewing over 50 properties, still hadn’t found their dream home. It was while walking their dog in their beloved home town of Dalgety Bay in Fife, Scotland – overlooking the Firth of Forth and Forth Bridge – that their luck changed.
They were walking past an empty plot of land and spotted a For Sale sign. Alan and Lucy had lived in Dalgety Bay for most of their lives, and the couple, who have twin daughters, wanted to stay in the area. Alan did some research and found out they only had three days to put in a sealed bid.
Despite the fact the land had no planning permission, they decided to go for it. A few years earlier Alan suffered the double setback of a brain haemorrhage and stroke, forcing him to take early retirement from his job as duty manager at a hotel. However it also made him grab the chance to get this rare site. “Life’s too short,” he says. “When I see an opportunity I go for it. We took a punt on it.”
The fact the land had no planning meant they were able to secure it for a bargain price. They put in a bid of £31,313.13, a figure concocted by Alan based on the couple’s unlikely lucky number of 13, and later found out they’d been successful.
The next task was to try and get planning permission, and Alan and Lucy set about contacting an architect friend. Unfortunately, now living in Dubai, he was unable to help. He gave them details of another architect he knew, Andrew Black, and after speaking to a few practices they decided to go with him. “It was kind of a tender process. We got four or five architects out to site,” Alan explains. “It was interesting to find out what their view was. That was before getting planning permission, to see if they felt they could get it.”
Their decision to go with Andrew was based largely on the fact he’d obtained planning for some houses in the in-demand town of St Andrews, a few miles up the coast. “It’s really difficult to get planning there, so I thought if he can get it in St Andrews, he can get it in Dalgety Bay!” Alan says. “He ticked all the boxes.”
They decided it was essential to show the planners that they were serious, so they went in with a full set of detailed designs. The tactic worked – they were granted planning straight away, for a two and a half storey house.
However, having concentrated so much on designing the interior, neither Alan nor Lucy, a teacher, had paid a huge amount of attention to the exterior. “We decided that we actually hated the look of the house and couldn’t build it!” Alan says, explaining further that “we’d never been through this process before.”
At this point, they actually considered selling the land on, as being granted planning meant its value had increased significantly. It was the architect Andrew who convinced them they would regret it which Alan admits he “definitely would have.”
Because they’d now been through the process and had a much better idea of how it worked, they “took the lead” when redesigning the house. They came up with the new design – a two-storey house with a detached double garage (including additional living space above) – and once again received planning with no hitches. “They were tremendous,” Alan says of the planners. “They were happy for us to do something different to the rest of the street.”
The day before work was due to begin onsite Alan and Lucy’s project got somewhat more interesting. It was at this point that designer and TV presenter Charlie Luxton arrived to offer his thoughts on the couple’s designs, as their project was to feature on an episode of Building the Dream. Although for the most part he was on board with their plans, he also wanted them to reconsider a few elements, such as extending the balcony.
Work began onsite the next day, but it wasn’t long before things ground to a halt while the design changes were made, which meant going back to the structural engineers and planners for a third time. Alan estimates this cost them roughly £15,000, and nearly six months of time.
Despite the hold up, they persevered, and the builders eventually returned to the site. The main contractor, Marc Hendry, was a good friend of Alan’s. “It was him from day one,” he says. Marc attended meetings with the architect and had input into the design. “The architect would come up with ideas – curved walls for instance – and Marc would say ‘that’s costly for what you’re getting,’” Alan explains.
With Marc’s help, Alan project managed the build himself. A few months in, the couple sold their house and moved in with Lucy’s parents just a 10-minute walk away, so he was able to be onsite everyday. He also bought a caravan to sit onsite as his office. Despite being there most of the time, he wasn’t hands-on. “I’m useless at anything to do with DIY!” he admits. “But whenever major decisions had to be made I was always onsite to make them, and make sure it was done right.”
The house was built using a timber kit frame, completely assembled onsite, but it allowed last minute changes. “If something wasn’t in the right place I could move it, before it was constructed,” Alan says. For example, the position of the Velux rooflights was shifted slightly, as were some windows in the girls’ bedrooms, in order to provide a view straight out onto the courtyard. “Everything was tweaked onsite as we went along – we even moved doorways that didn’t sit right before it was built,” he says. “It was just pieces of wood when it arrived.”
Organising sub-contractors was a responsibility Alan shared with Marc. Many were people Marc had used in the past, while Alan took care of organising the areas he hadn’t had previous experience with. For example, he wanted a special sprayed guttering that was colour matched to the house. “I sourced the companies and negotiated prices. I like to get a bargain, and I could use the fact it was on TV to my advantage!”
With the house’s enviable location, it was designed very much with the view in mind. “We told the architect we wanted every room to have a view,” says Alan.
The house is finished with a mix of white render and slate cladding. There are large amounts of glass, hence the ‘Glasshouse’ name – floor to ceiling windows stretch all the way along the south elevation at the first floor, providing panoramic views out over the Firth of Forth. There are also several rooflights, frameless glass balustrades around the balcony and stairs, and even a two metre by two metre glass floor above the entrance hallway. Entering the house, you can see right up to the pitched roof.
The glass floor proved controversial throughout the project. Lucy wasn’t keen on the basis they would lose the floor space upstairs, and Luxton tried to convince Alan to leave it open and put a red, metal balustrade around it to echo the Forth Bridge – a suggestion he firmly resisted.
The house has an ‘upside down’ layout – the four bedrooms are on the ground floor with the living areas upstairs, in order to maximise the views. The master bedroom includes an ensuite and dressing room and the twins each have their own room, sharing a ‘Jack and Jill’ bathroom. There’s also a guest bedroom, also with ensuite.
Upstairs is one large open plan space – one of Alan and Lucy’s requirements. The bespoke timber stairs lead up to the kitchen/living area, and to the left is a more formal dining and lounge area. The kitchen units are dark grey gloss and the whole house is painted white, with the only notes of colour brought in by various accessories. “We just wanted something clean and minimal,” Alan explains. “Something simple.”
This decision was inspired in part by Alan’s self-confessed “OCD with cleanliness”. The kitchen company also installed matching units throughout the house, such as the TV unit, all of which are wall hung in order to allow for easy cleaning underneath.
Alan worked with another friend, electrician Johnny Cassells, on designing eye-catching lighting. The house has colour-changing LED lighting throughout – including around the edge of the glass floor – which they can control from phone apps. Adding this feature meant their original projected spend on electrical fittings tripled from £12,000 to £35,000. “That cost a bit more than we expected,” he admits.
Despite this overspend, and breaking the budget in other areas such as landscaping, Alan’s glad he went for it and didn’t compromise. “My goal was to not scrimp on anything,” he says. “Overall, Alan estimates they went approximately £140,000 over their original budget.
The wee glasshouse
When they made the decision to redesign and reduce the main house from two and a half storeys to two, Alan and Lucy decided that, rather than lose the additional space, they would relocate it by including a room above the detached garage.
Although originally earmarked as a potential play space for the twins, halfway through the build they came up with another idea. “With my hospitality background, we thought maybe it’s something we can use for holidaymakers to enjoy the view,” explains Alan. And in allowing others to share the joys of the location, renting out the space also of course provides additional income for the family.
The name comes from the fact the extra building is “literally a mini version of Glasshouse,” says Alan. “It’s even got the same kitchen.” The couple let it through Airbnb and HomeAway, and so far have had rave reviews. “Everyone absolutely loves it,” Alan says. “They treat it with respect, and it keeps me busy, with me being retired.”
Living in a glasshouse
Alan and Lucy eventually moved into Glasshouse in December 2016, four years after first stumbling across the plot. However, completing the work was bittersweet for Alan. “I loved it, I didn’t want it to end!”
During the build, the site was a friendly place, with several familiar faces working on the project. They encountered no major issues, and Alan says he’d “do it again tomorrow” if he could, his confidence aided by having tackled his serious health worries. “Because of what’s happened to me medically, I just see that everything can be overcome.”
The couple installed underfloor heating throughout, but having been living in the house for a while, they have rarely had to turn it on, thanks to the insulation, airtightness, and copious amounts of triple-glazed glass. “It literally is like a greenhouse,” Alan says. He adds that, while it retains the heat, “Obviously you have to manage that.” The automatic rooflights, together with an MVHR system, provide good ventilation to help mitigate overheating.
Despite his perhaps surprising disappointment about the build coming to an end, Alan and his family are extremely happy with the finished house, so much so that he can’t pinpoint a favourite feature. “It’s the whole thing, just everything!” he says. “Of course I wish I hadn’t spent as much money on it, but I can’t say it’s not been worth it.”
Since moving in, they’ve had the house valued at £1m, a figure much higher than they estimated beforehand. However, as much as Alan would like to do another project, selling is not a likely prospect at the moment. Alan and Lucy feel very lucky to have got the plot they did – although he jokes about the possibility of knocking the house down and building on it again! “It would have been brilliant to have sold it and used the money to do another project, but I can’t,” he says. “It was designed for our family, for our kids. I love this house.”