The Grand Designs cave house was a huge hit with TV viewers. Cheery Angelo Mastropietro braved all the odds and fashioned a humble home out of an 800-year-old cave in his native Worcestershire.
Name Angelo Mastropietro
Location Wyre Forest, Worcestershire
Property Converted cave dwelling
Bedrooms 1 Bathrooms 1
Project started January 2015
Project finished September 2015
Size of house 62sqm
Build cost £100,000
During Grand Designs’ 15-series history, there has been an occasional rare project that really captures the imagination of the nation. Angelo Mastropietro’s humble cave house grand design dwelling is one of them. Kevin McCloud likened it to a hobbit house, set in the heart of the Wyre Forest that inspired author JRR Tolkien. But it wasn’t so much the transformation of the 800-year-old cave that engaged viewers as the man himself. Angelo’s sheer determination and back-to-basics approach had wide appeal; after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis back in 2007, Angelo left his job as a high-flying recruitment boss in Australia and decided to return to his roots in Worcestershire in search of a healthier lifestyle and fresh start.
However, not one for an easy life, Angelo decided to turn the cave into a twenty-first-century home almost singlehandedly. He bought the abandoned dwelling for £62,000 after seeing it advertised in a local supplement. ‘I had this bond with the rock house; I was a little bit unsure as to what the next chapter of my life would be, but when I saw it I knew – I was going to be a cave man,’ recalls Angelo. ‘It was a great opportunity to preserve a rock house for the future and inspire people to question how we live; I think we’re often conditioned to believe that we have to live in conventional properties.’
Angelo also bought a 200-year-old stone cottage a few miles away from the rock house (he purchased it online, without seeing it, when he was in Australia), which he planned to live in while he immersed himself in the cave project. Due to planning restrictions on the unusual property, the rock house could only be used as a holiday let, which meant Angelo needed somewhere else to live long term.
He started work on the cave in January 2015 with a hugely optimistic nine-month schedule, plus a modest £100,000 budget to complete the project. Not only this, but Angelo was going to do it largely by himself – a massive undertaking for anyone, let alone for someone with MS, which had left Angelo temporarily paralysed in the past. There was no doubt about it – this was a high-risk scheme. ‘The thing that’s detrimental is that when you’re working to such a tight deadline you can’t just take it easy when you’re tired,’ he admits. ‘It was quite stressful, but it was a real treat to be featured on Grand Designs.’
Angelo’s passion and optimism proved to be the secret ingredient to making it work. ‘The job as a whole seems quite daunting, but I just broke it down like I would any other task,’ says Angelo. ‘I set myself the target of removing 20 barrows of rubble a day and that gave me an achievable goal. There were days when I was exhausted and things like carrying the generator and the tools up the bank made my legs burn, as I was trekking up and down about 30 to 40 times a day. But staying committed helped – I just had to believe that it would happen.’
Angelo started the mammoth task by making the walls straight and lowering the floors by hand – he excavated a huge 70 tons of stone in total. The difficulty was not knowing how to go about it, as there weren’t really any examples of renovated cave houses in the UK to follow. While Angelo had a pretty good idea of the style he wanted to achieve, the practical side of the project proved tricky. ‘If I was doing it again I would employ someone to work alongside me and source the fixtures and fittings – I spent all day on site so I was very time poor,’ he says.
It took two painstaking months to carve out the stone, and once that was finished Angelo had to decide on the layout of the property and dig service channels into the sandstone floors. Getting utilities to the rock house proved challenging – Angelo had to drill his own borehole to get running water and bring cables across his neighbour’s field for power. It cost £1,500 just to dig the 200-metre trench, with the total £35,000 outlay for services eating up a third of the budget.
One other time-consuming element was covering the walls with limewash. It took numerous coats and couldn’t be rushed; each layer needed to dry fully before the next was applied. Plus, there was the worry of condensation seeping through the walls, particularly in the WC where the wall is excavated the deepest. ‘There is a little condensation on the walls here, but the breathable limewash does a great job everywhere else. It doesn’t feel damp though, as the wood burners make it warm and cosy.’
After nine months of hard work, the finished cave pleasingly retains much of its primal spirit – the monolithic terrace has a suitably primordial feel and the external walls are punctuated with chunky oak frames that have been fitted into the original windows from when it was last inhabited in the Sixties. On entering the home via the living area you come to the galley kitchen with a large range cooker at the back, which then leads to the shower room. This was originally meant to have a bath in it; Angelo spent hours hand-carving a tub out of the rock, only to be told that the electric hot-water system wouldn’t have the capacity to fill it. Last is the bedroom, which has a wood-burning stove and a large, appropriately hide-covered bed.
But does the Grand Designs cave house suit twenty-first-century living, and was it all worth it? Angelo seems to think so. ‘The rock house has a soul – it’s a magical place where you connect with nature and you’re a thousand miles from care – it’s a dream come true really,’ he says. ‘I love the terrace as you feel like you’re up in the trees and I’m really pleased with the lighting because it was all intuitive guesswork. I’ve found myself spending the evenings strolling up and down in total amazement and disbelief that I’ve done it.’
What makes this scheme even more momentous is that Angelo wasn’t working on just one development, but two – he was simultaneously extending the nearby cottage. The build was supposed to be completed by the time he started on the rock house, but due to huge delays with some of the materials, he had to run it alongside the cave project.
It’s a Corten steel-clad addition set in three acres of woodland – it’s quite a magical place,’ explains Angelo. ‘So I’m still currently doing work there and hope to be completed in June. It’s in the parish of Rock, so I have a house in Rock as well as a rock house. My friends joke that this build is actually more fitting for Grand Designs than the cave. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, much like the rock house I suppose. It’s very Angelo, shall we say.’
And what next? As a self-confessed workaholic, Angelo’s unlikely to rest on his laurels. ‘I’ll finish the main house and then I’d love to get a camper van and go on a mini trip to meet some other cave dwellers – I’m not sure what to do next really. Maybe I’ll buy another project in a warmer climate that I can hang out in over winter… If I’m left to my own devices anything could happen!’
Words: Charlotte Luxford, Photography: Andrew Wall