Self-build first-timers Ed and Vicky Versluys transformed a Somerset cowshed into a sustainable contemporary home packed with clever features and stacks of charm.
Names Ed and Vicky Versluys
Ages 32 and 29
Location Winsham, South Somerset
Property Converted cowshed
Bedrooms 3 Bathrooms 3
Project started February 2015
Project finished Ongoing; moved in December 2015
Size of house 270sqm
Plot cost £235,000
Build cost £238,000
That bit on Grand Designs where I’m laying the concrete has made me famous! Everyone who saw it has commented on it, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked to do concreting in friends’ houses,’ laughs Ed Versluys. Ed is referring to the moment when he took a delivery of 14 tons of concrete to lay a six square-metre subfloor – within half an hour and in a heatwave. A hefty effort for an experienced build team, but for Ed, a first-time self-builder armed with only a wheelbarrow, the task was simply Herculean. However, his fearless, gung-ho attitude to this particular job reflects the overall approach to this project, which Ed and wife Vicky embarked upon after setting eyes on a semi-derelict concrete and brick cowshed in Somerset.
Perhaps surprisingly, the couple, both urbanites and living and working in London when they first saw the rural ruin in 2014, hadn’t been planning to move to the country at the time. ‘We weren’t looking to build a house,’ explains Ed. ‘We were thinking more along the lines of buying a property together and doing it up, maybe changing a few rooms, a bit of DIY.’
The couple spotted the site entirely by accident. ‘We were on our way to Dartmoor to take a week off from house hunting,’ reveals Ed. ‘We decided to stay with my parents in Somerset to break up our journey and went for a walk with my mum and dad who remembered this really cool barn in the area; we climbed through the hedge and there it was. So we decided to contact the farmer even though there was no For Sale sign.’
Fortunately, the landowner said that he would be willing to sell the five-acre plot, although there was no planning permission. The couple took a six-month option on the site, and feverishly set about designing a building that would change the mindset of planners from a long-standing 20-year ‘No’ in the face of various proposals to develop the site into a single dwelling, into a ‘Yes’. This wouldn’t be easy; in fact, seat of the pants springs to mind when summing up the whole pre-planning process.‘We were keen to pursue this option as it was way better than anything we had looked at or could possibly afford. It was too good a site to let go, so we persevered,’ explains Ed.
Persevering involved an overall design scheme worked up by Ed, Vicky and Ed’s dad. ‘My dad isn’t an architect, but he likes doing the computer drawings. We put together the planning proposal between us, so there wasn’t a huge cost involved,’ explains Ed. ‘We were very fortunate that someone had tried to build a house there some years ago and had spent a lot of money on architects, designers and engineers to try to get permission. They were turned down at appeal. But all this information was public, so we looked at why it had been turned down and then designed the house specifically to get planning approval.
‘We visited everyone in the neighbouring village to discuss our design and 30 to 40 people wrote letters to the planners supporting us. We didn’t get a single objection. All the way through the authorities were still saying ‘No’ until the last minute when they finally agreed.’
Ed and Vicky then had to race against the clock to purchase the site before their option ran out on 1 January 2015. This involved pushing through the sale of Vicky’s London flat in order to afford the purchase, and exchanging and completing on the land within two days of losing their option. ‘We knew that the plot would be worth a lot more with planning permission in place and we couldn’t have afforded it with our tiny budget,’ says Ed. ‘It was horribly stressful. It certainly aged me; I think that’s why I haven’t thought about it since!’
Hardly drawing breath, Ed, helped by a labourer friend, began clearing the site almost immediately, then getting down to the self-build itself, which was, according to Ed, a matter of learning as he went along, with a fair amount of internet searches for answers to his construction conundrums.
The design of the house, which follows the original sprawling footprint, takes its cues from the cowshed in terms of orientation and layout. ‘We worked out the rooms within 24 hours of seeing the building for the first time. It speaks for itself,’ says Ed. ‘We didn’t want to mess around with the layout and we wanted to keep the original internal brick pillars. Three of the four main walls were still there and we knew what spaces we wanted; it was just a case of arranging them in the right way.’
Consequently, the large open-plan living, dining and kitchen area looks out over the panoramic south-facing views of the Somerset hills with the enclosed north-facing side featuring Vicky’s Pilates studio plus a cold room and utility area for food production and preparation. Two bedrooms flank the living area to the west and one to the east, separated by timber-framed, straw bale walls, celebrating the original cowshed aesthetic.
‘The walls have this bumpy, knobbly effect that contrasts with the clean lines of the plasterboard and engineered timber beams and floors. It creates the feeling that part of the house has been built into the side of a cliff; it’s cave-like, an effect that we both really like,’ says Ed.
An eco-savvy approach is writ large in this off-grid home, which includes reclaimed timber floors and a north-facing roof of tiles made from recycled plastic bottletops. The building is externally insulated and clad in agricultural timber board, with glulam beams and a weatherproofed laminated timber roof anchoring the house to this exposed site. A structural engineer helped with the roof span calculations. ‘We also had an architect on board to help us with the building regulations; someone to hold my hand when I needed it,’ admits Ed.
A wood-burning stove and connected boiler caters for the heating needs of the 270 square metre building, with 10 photovoltaic roof panels and a wind turbine generating electricity. Following four unsuccessful attempts at drilling a borehole to bring in a water supply the couple recently switched to a water harvesting system.
Ed’s overly optimistic build schedule of five months doubled, mainly due to elements outside his and Vicky’s control, such as the delays with some specialist contractors and delivery of items including the windows. These delays also pushed up the budget. But despite a bumpy self-build journey, the pair are thrilled with their new home, and moved in just before Christmas 2015. ‘The only disagreements we had were about compromising on some of the high-tech elements. I always tried to look for cheaper options as I didn’t want a house that was going to bankrupt us,’ says Ed.
‘There’s still a lot to be done, but it’s exciting. I’d like to build some pigsties, a hobbit house-style studio in the hill, and a traditional Scandinavian wooden sauna. We’ve already planted trees, hedges and an orchard, which will take years to grow, but we’re not going anywhere. I wouldn’t be wasting my time planting them if I was thinking of moving. When we get to our sixties it will be idyllic!’