Malaysia-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 has built her own piece of paradise in the Cambridgeshire Fens. The spacious, single-storey Grand Designs Malaysia-inspired pavilion, which features on the new TV Series, is called Sayang, meaning ‘the most loved’ in Malay. The project was an emotional journey, as several members of the family pooled their resources to design and manage the build.

Gretta, 60, and her late husband Ray spent almost 20 years living and working in Malaysia. But sadly, following Ray’s sudden death in 2019, Gretta returned to the UK and was unsure where to put down roots.

Mary Gris, Gretta’s elder sister, and husband Fernando invited her to live with them in a village near Ely. Following the collapse of Mary and Fernando’s business in the 2008 financial crash, the couple had downsized to a caravan in their garden, renting out their house to pay off debts. Gretta’s new home was to be an adjoining caravan, and she welcomed their offer.

Grand Designs Malaysian pavilion in Ely

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

Family ties

‘I’ve known Fernando since I was nine,’ says Gretta. ‘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 formulated plans to build a house where the caravans stood. Selling it would settle their outstanding debts and allow them to return to their own much-loved family home.

Living room with dining table and chairs in Grand Designs Malaysian pavilion

A dining table with bar stools is the perfect place for friends and family to gather. Photo: Jefferson Smith

Purchasing the plot

‘Soon after I arrived back, I realised that Ely would be a good place for me to settle,’ says Gretta. ‘I said to Mary and Fernando, “No pressure, but could I buy the plot myself?” And they said, “That would be amazing”.’

The local authority gave permission for them to build a single-storey home on the site. Unable to find a prefabricated design that she liked, Gretta turned to her nephew – Mary and Fernando’s son Carlos – who has a degree in architecture and is creative director of his own design studio, Carlos Gris Studio. With Fernando as project manager, it seemed like the perfect fit.

Freestanding bath and floor-mounted tap in bathroom of Grand Designs Malaysian pavilion

Concealed blinds provide privacy at the floor-to-ceiling glazing. Photo: Jefferson Smith

‘When I told Carlos that I would like new 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 house with a steel frame, a generously overhanging roof made from structural insulated panels (SIPs) to support a roof garden, exterior cladding in Japanese-style burnt wood – called Shou Sugi Ban – and lots of glass.

Tune in to Grand Designs at 9pm, Wednesday 22 September, on Channel 4 to find out how Gretta’s Grand Designs Malaysia-inspired pavilion turned out.

Want more from Grand Designs? Get your tickets to Grand Designs Live Birmingham for all the inspiration you need for your next project.