The Suffolk horseshoe house built around a tree

The Grand Designs Suffolk house was built in a horse-shoe shape to protect an ancient oak tree

By Jayne Dowle | 7 May 2021

The story of the Grand Designs Suffolk house is a tale of one man’s recovery from illness and the vision that drove him to complete a complex build. 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.’

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

Suffolk 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. The couple agreed an uplift payment of £80,000. This is 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. But Ed talked him into building under the shade of the tree in a neglected corner of the plot. The area around the lake remains pristine and well-preserved.

Tree protection order

Toby’s immune system is compromised by his illness. He must avoid direct sunlight. While the ancient oak and two other protected trees provide shade, their presence 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.