Site of interest

These Grand Designers succeeded against the odds at building a new home on a historically significant site.

By Jayne Dowle | 23 October 2020

Built on protected land close to one of Britain’s oldest abbeys, this Grand Designs Hertfordshire Abbey home had to pay respect to the history that underpins its foundations.

Perhaps the most important part of every successful design and build project is collaboration. But the long-standing friendship that led to this inspirational home in south Hertfordshire goes beyond the usual brief. ‘I’ve known Rogan Gale-Brown for more than 20 years,’ says entrepreneur Chris, whose golf interests encompass all aspects of the game, from coaching to course design. ‘We’ve worked together on the design of golf club complexes and he has also previously been involved in creating homes for me.’

Designer Rogan says that this connection with Chris and his wife, Kayo, goes deeper than a typical client relationship: ‘I’d become infused with their way
of life before starting the design. Chris met Kayo, who represented Japan at figure skating, when she came to him for golf lessons. The couple have three teenagers and because the design evolved, it took into account the youngsters’ growing need for independence. Each of them has a self-contained bedroom, with a terrace and ‘space for contemplation’, as Rogan puts it. This is much more than a passing reference to adolescent need for privacy. The cell-like design of these bedrooms goes straight to the heart of the site and its history.

Exterior view of the Grand Designs Hertfordshire abbey project with plenty of trees and green grassland surrounding the property

The planting reflects the history of the site and formal Japanese gardens. Photo: Fiona Arnott-Walker

A historic plot

This plot, between a historic cathedral and a picturesque river, is a Scheduled Ancient Monuments Site, and it covers the buried remains of a medieval monastery precinct. It is almost inconceivable that permission to build a house on it would be achieved at all. Yet this building manages to pay respect to all the history that underpins its foundations, and at the same time is a welcoming family home.

For more than three decades, various people had tried to build on the site, with no success. Sadly, this area had become a strip of vandalised wasteland between the river and Chris and Kayo’s existing house, which is being sold to finance their new home. It took the couple six years of steely determination, compromise and endless alterations to convince English Heritage and the local council that this new house would work. ‘When I want to do something, I don’t like to back down,’ says Chris. ‘So I was determined to sort this out.’

Side table with bar and seating area with neutral design throughout

The maple furniture was produced in Slovakia. Photo: Fiona Arnott-Walker

Unusual layout

The unusual shape of the house echoes a zig-zagging ‘H’ in order to respect the surroundings and underlying artefacts. It follows the gentle contours of the sloping site. The property is single storey to preserve sight lines to and from the cathedral. It’s constructed from light timber cassettes to prevent disturbing the medieval treasures beneath. Distinctive cinder-coloured narrow bricks clad the building, in a style that connects it to the Romans who left their traces on the area.

This brickwork is softened with a mass of planting to create colour and an organic link between the man-made structure and nature. This can be seen in the green and gold of Hedera Golden Ripple ivy. You can also see it in the soft blue Japanese Wisteria Chinensis, which evokes a connection with Kayo’s homeland. The glazed link between the two wings – broadly, the sleeping area and the living area – gives the impression of invisibility, which pleased the planners. The flat and bio-diverse sedum-covered roof with three roof lights and light tubes provides additional thermal and sound insulation.

Kitchen with minimalist scheme and grey kitchen island in the centre with a ceiling light hanging above

Handleless cupboards and wraparound worktops create a streamlined look. Photo: Fiona Arnott-Walker