This horseshoe shaped Grand Designs house was built around an ancient protected oak tree in the Suffolk countryside

west suffolk gdsquare - Grand Designs TV House 2019 episode 5: West Suffolk - TV houses -

Planning permission stated that the roots of an oak and two other nearby trees couldn’t be damaged Image: Jefferson Smith

Toby and Libby Leeming met and fell in love at a friend’s wedding, then two years later, while musician Toby was touring the USA with his then-band Duologue, he became so ill with leukaemia that doctors thought he might not last the night. It was during his long period of recovery from a life-saving bone-marrow transplant that Toby began to formulate a plan. He imagined the house he wanted to build for himself and Libby. 'The house would focus on the flow of one space moving seamlessly into another,' he said. 'I could imagine the footprint working for a family in the countryside; I would plan the path from the drive to the boot-room to the larder where we could dump the shopping. Planning our new home helped me with my recovery.'

 window seat

Toby built the triangular window seat off the dining area. Image: Jefferson Smith

Countryside plot

To this end, in 2015, the couple moved from London to a Suffolk cottage, to be near his parents, where they had their daughter, Margot. It was here that they found the ideal site – a four-acre rural plot with a lake, bordered by fields on three sides and with a 250-year-old oak tree at its centre. Funded by a mixture of savings, inheritance and selling their cottage, they bought the plot for £180,000, without planning permission. So an uplift payment of £80,000 was added, a common aspect of land sales that allows the seller to benefit from a subsequent increase in land value should planning permission be achieved. Which, thanks to Toby’s diligent research, it was.

Toby enlisted the help of East London architect Edward McCann, a close family friend. 'I wanted to share the exciting opportunity with someone for whom it was equally as important. This was Ed’s first full new-build house and so a landmark project for both of us.'

Ed was instrumental in persuading Toby to site the house around the oak tree. Toby’s original idea had been to make the most of the lake on the site by placing his house next to it or even projecting over it. However, Ed talked him into building under the shade of the tree in a neglected corner of the plot that had been used for bonfires and storing junk, leaving the area around the lake pristine and well-preserved.

Tree protection order

As Toby’s immune system has been compromised by his illness, he has to avoid direct sunlight. While the ancient oak and two other protected trees could provide this, their presence also presented an architectural challenge. The planning permissions stipulated that construction must not endanger any tree roots, so deep foundations were impossible. Luckily, a friend put Toby in touch with Darren Howard, a local builder who had developed an innovative low-impact building system known as MBloc, which relies on a series of small concrete padstones that keep the need for foundations to an absolute minimum. 'It really was serendipitous to have such a perfect fit so close to us,' said Toby.

 log burner

A centrally positioned inset log burner provides a focal point for the living room. Image: Jefferson Smith

Suffolk barn effect

The house consists of four separates but connected buildings in a horseshoe shape centred on the oak tree. Steel famed and highly insulated, each block is clad in black corrugated concrete, an ingeniously cost-effective way of creating the traditional charred timber Suffolk black barn look. The construction process was quick and efficient; all four steel structures were completed in just 14 days. 'If I have one piece of advice to give other self-builders it is to appoint a main contractor. There is no way on God’s earth we could have done this without one,’ said Toby.

A determined effort

Underfloor heating runs throughout the house, powered by 6W photo-voltaic panels and two air-source pumps; one was not sufficient for the size and spread of the buildings. The builder also devised a hot water loop, which runs in armoured cable underneath the building. Toby splashed out on a water filtration system as his condition means his skin is easily irritated.


The seating area benefits from fantastic views of the fields surrounding the home. Image: Jefferson Smith

The build budget of £540,000 was stretched to the limit to create a colossal 375 square metres of living space, so to save on labour costs Toby decided to take on much of the carpentry work himself.

'His dad is an engineer,' explains Libby. 'When Toby was on steroids, I’d find him at 3am drilling or putting another shelf up. His response to recovery was always DIY, not watching a movie. I knew that he had it in him but didn’t know that he could build bedside tables and wardrobes.'

 glazed room

A glazed room links the main living rooms with the bedrooms. Image: Jefferson Smith

Although Toby was on doctor’s orders to take it easy, he built and fitted the whole kitchen, sourcing the carcasses from an online retailer. He also installed shelving throughout the house, as well as window seats and various pieces of furniture, and laid all of the hundreds of square metres of laminate flooring. It’s not surprising then that Libby says the biggest thing she learned about her husband during the year-long build was 'how stubborn and determined he is'.

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