Malaysian-inspired minimalism in Ely

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

By Jayne Dowle | 22 September 2021

Gretta Funnell built her own piece of paradise in the Cambridgeshire Fens in the 2021 TV series. Her new Grand Designs Malaysian House in Ely is a spacious and airy single-storey house 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.