Grand Designs Ely

Malaysia-inspired minimalism in Ely

Gretta's steel-framed open-plan pavilion is a fitting tribute to her late husband

By Jayne Dowle |

Gretta Funnell built her own piece of paradise in the Cambridgeshire Fens. The spacious and airy single-storey Grand Designs house in Ely is called Sayang, which means ‘the most loved’ in Malay. Gretta, 60, who is a teacher, and her late husband Ray spent almost 20 years living and working in Malaysia. But following Ray’s sudden death in 2019, she returned to the UK at a loss to where she should put down new roots.

Her elder sister Mary Gris, 63, and husband Fernando, 64, proffered an invitation to live with them in a village near Ely. After the collapse of their business in the 2008 financial crash, they were forced to downsize to a caravan in the garden, renting out their house to pay off their debts. Gretta’s new home was to be an adjoining caravan, and she accepted the offer with gratitude.

Gretta Funnell's Grand Designs Malaysian house in Ely

A planter by the entrance contains willow trees, cordylines and heucheras. Photo: Jefferson Smith

A family project

‘I’ve known Fernando since I was nine years old,’ she says. ‘He was at school with my brother and used to come and stay with us during the holidays. Mary and Fernando have been together since the age of 14, so we have all grown up together. He’s always been part of the family.’

Shortly before Gretta returned to England, Mary and Fernando had begun working on plans to build a new house where the two caravans stood. It would then be sold, allowing the couple to pay off their debts and move back into their family home.

‘Soon after my return, I realised Ely would be a good place for me to settle,’ says Gretta. ‘I asked Mary and Fernando whether I could buy the plot myself. And they said that would be amazing.’

Master bathroom of Ely Malaysia-inspired Pavillion

A freestanding bath with a floor-mounted tap sits by the window. Photo: Jefferson Smith

Planning permission

The local authority gave permission for a home to be built on the site providing it was no higher than the caravans. Unable to find a prefabricated house design that she liked, Gretta turned to her nephew for help. Mary and Fernando’s son Carlos, 36, has a degree in architecture and is creative director of his own design studio, Carlos Gris Studio, in London.

‘When I told Carlos I wanted the house to be streamlined and contemporary, he was really surprised,’ says Gretta. ‘He thought I would go for something much more traditional.’ Carlos drew up designs for a minimalist, open-plan home – soon to become the Grand Designs Malaysian house in Ely. Built on a steel frame, it features lots of glazing and an overhanging roof made from structural insulated panels.

Gretta's Grand Designs Malaysian pavilion in Ely, Cambridgeshire

The house is on a half-acre plot, formerly part of the garden of the house next door. Photo: Jefferson Smith

Anything is possible

Fernando, who had worked as project manager in corporate roles but never in construction, agreed to take on the job of building the Grand Designs Malaysian house in Ely. He marshalled a gang of independent tradesmen and dealt with delays caused by the pandemic, which included a shortage of Douglas fir for the cladding.

Despite this, Carlos says the 18-month build progressed smoothly. ‘It was 90% inspiration and 10% disagreement,’ he laughs. ‘Most of the time, my dad was stepping out of his comfort zone and showing me that anything is possible if you put your mind to it. He was back on site only a few days after having knee replacement surgery, which was inspiring.’

Fernando also learnt a lot from the process. ‘My advice for anyone taking on a job like this would be to draw up a careful budget, have it approved by a quantity surveyor and then review it regularly,’ he says. ‘Making a detailed spreadsheet means that you can manage it carefully and be eagle-eyed with suppliers.’

Bifold doors in chair with family photos on walls in the Grand Designs house in Ely

Family memories of Malaysia are showcased throughout the pavilion. Photo: Jefferson Smith

Stressful moments

Gretta admits that there were a few stressful moments along the way. There was a mix-up with the windows, which led to extra costs. ‘But the biggest stress was having to cut down Fernando’s beloved old apple tree,’ she says. ‘There was no way we could build the house without felling it, but he was very upset. I did buy him a new one to make up for it.’

Although Sayang sits perfectly in the Cambridgeshire countryside, it has definite echoes of Malaysia. ‘The big windows, the tiled floor and high ceilings are the main elements that remind me of our home there,’ says Gretta. ‘Then there’s the overhang, which gives shade on a sunny day and, unless you’re very unlucky with the direction of the wind, allows you to sit out and watch the rain too.’

Mary and Fernando are pleased to have settled back in their own house, and Gretta, who is now working part-time at a primary school, is delighted with her new home. ‘Sayang has become everything I dreamed it would be,’ she says. ‘It’s a very happy home where I will create many new memories in the years to come. I feel sure that Ray would have loved it.’

Courtyard area with clear doors in Malaysian-inspired Grand Designs pavilion

Each room in Gretta’s home has views of the paved terrace and gardens. Photo: Jefferson Smith

Watch the Grand Designs Cambridgeshire 2021 episode on All4