The Japanese-inspired eco-home in Wales
Nigel and Tamayo Hussey transformed a forester’s lodge into a modern home influenced by Tamayo’s homeland
Back in 1998 Nigel Hussey met Tamayo Kubota in Japan; they fell in love, married and relocated to the UK. Moving to a new part of your home country can be a challenging time, but relocating to the other side of the world, immersing yourself in a completely different culture and leaving behind family and friends can be even harder, which is why Nigel and Tamayo decided to build a Grand Designs home for themselves in Wales that could remind Tamayo of her Japanese childhood.
After eight years living in Bristol, where Nigel works as a professor of experimental physics at the University of Bristol, the couple decided to look for a property across the Severn in the Welsh county of Monmouthshire. They lived in a rented home first to ensure the area was right for them and then in August 2008 they bought an old forester’s lodge in the Wye Valley.
‘We loved the location,’ says Nigel. ‘The house sits in the middle of two forests with a stream running alongside it.’ However, after their first winter they realised it wasn’t fit for its purpose. ‘It was cold and damp,’ says Tamayo. ‘The internal circulation was terrible, too’ adds Nigel.
‘I remember growing up in my family home playing with my Matchbox cars on the floors and my dad chasing me around downstairs. You just couldn’t do that here because all the rooms were separated and didn’t join into one another.’ The downstairs living space was split into boxy rooms, with a poorly made conservatory at the back used merely as a storage room.
In May 2009 Nigel and Tamayo got in touch with some local architects to discuss plans to rebuild and remodel their house. ‘We wanted an open-plan living space to improve the flow. We also wanted to feel more connected to the forest by allowing more light into the house through double-height windows, a veranda and roof terrace.
Most importantly, we wanted the new house to incorporate some Japanese elements,’ says Nigel. The couple instructed a practice that showed a keen enthusiasm for Japanese architecture to draw up plans for what the house could look like.
They wanted a timber-framed property made from Japanese larch and clad in the same material – partly for its appropriate name and partly because they had read a feature about how the material was strong and suitable for house construction but wasn’t getting the recognition it deserved.
They also wanted an open-plan ground floor with a separate Japanese room that could be used as a second living space; an area where Tamayo could practice and teach traditional tea ceremonies and ikebana and also a guest room for when her relatives come to stay.
On the first floor would be all the bedrooms and family bathroom and on the second floor an office space and a traditional Japanese wet room with a door leading out to a roof terrace and hot tub.
Once the plans were submitted, Nigel and Tamayo endured a two-and-a-half-year waiting game. The initial pre-planning application was rejected on the grounds that the house had too much visual impact at the front. The revised drawings with the third storey visible only from the back of the property were accepted on the understanding that there would be provision for bats.
‘The survey showed a presence of bats in the house,’ says Nigel. ‘We’re not sure if it was ever a nesting site, but the local planners put a prevention of construction on it unless proof of public interest was shown’. Eventually the Welsh council determined that the public interest was the young growing family in need of a larger home.
The drama continued, however, when the couple was hit with another setback after planning permission was granted. ‘We instructed a surveyor to create a costing sheet which came to nearly £100,000 over our budget.
There was no way we could afford it and sadly we had to part ways with our architect,’ says Nigel. ‘We were at a crossroads as to whether to carry on and build ourselves or give up entirely.’
Bravely, they decided to carry on alone with only the initial planning application drawings, which had no details or measurements, to guide them. Nigel and Tamayo set to work employing people to demolish the house and a contractor – Brett – to hire all the trades and manage the build at a price that they could afford.
‘Kevin McCloud asked if we were crazy, but we didn’t have a choice. We didn’t have any money to get the plans drawn up properly, so we had to go ahead with what we had and work out everything ourselves, organically as it were,’ says Nigel. Their restrictive budget also meant they were unable to use Japanese larch for all the structural elements of the house.
The frame is made from a mixture of larch and a cheaper spruce sourced from Norway. ‘In the end, we decided to use as much Japanese larch as was needed to demonstrate its effectiveness as a structural timber, but we couldn’t justify using it for the entire build,’ says Nigel.
The building work itself wasn’t plain sailing either. ‘Firstly, the structural part of the existing house that we wanted to keep wasn’t stable and we had to rebuild sections of it. We also had problems with inaccurate measurements for the double-height window because old drawings were used and not checked for accuracy.
We had to instruct the timber frame company to alter the size at the last minute,’ says Nigel. ‘It was at this point that we realised no one was project managing, so we took on the role,’ says Tamayo. ‘It was difficult at times, but I think it worked well in the end.’ Thankfully there weren’t too many delays and the build was completed in September 2013 just in time for the TV crew and at only 10 per cent over budget, coming in at £200,000.
Now, the Japanese house peeks out from the trees as you drive past and, with its Japanese larch cladding, the dwelling suits its wooded surroundings perfectly. The interior offers no hint that it was once a jumbled space with no natural flow from one room to the next. You enter the hallway and are greeted by a Japanese wood carving above the coat and shoe cupboard – the first hint of an Eastern theme.
As you walk left you’re met with the kitchen – a mix of bespoke ex-display cabinetry. ‘It only cost us £3,000. We were looking on The Used Kitchen Company’s website for months before we found the right one,’ says Tamayo. Beyond the culinary space is the open-plan living/dining area with the striking double-height window and mezzanine level above.
‘It’s my favourite feature in the house. I love to sit down and be able to see out towards the stream and up to the sky,’ says Nigel. Next to this is the pièce de résistance – the Japanese room. ‘It has traditional tatami straw mats we sourced from the same man who makes all my parents’ matting and we commissioned shoji paper screens from a Japanese furniture maker in the UK and kumiko sliding doors,’ says Tamayo.
‘I wanted the room to remind me of the things I used to have as a child.’ You then walk full circle back into the hallway. Upstairs on the first-floor galleried landing you can take full advantage of the landscape and as you follow the second staircase to the wet room and roof terrace you’re met with breath taking views down the valley. ‘It surprised me how wonderful the views are up here,’ says Nigel.
Five years after they set the ball rolling, Nigel and Tamayo have a home they can call their own. ‘We still have some things we need to finish – carpentry and landscaping – but we’re taking it slowly,’ says Nigel. ‘We also want to wait until we’ve been in the house for all four seasons before we decide what colour to paint the walls so we can see how the light interacts with the different spaces,’ says Nigel.
‘The old forester’s lodge was completely detached from its setting. It could have been anywhere in the UK. It’s completely different now. We watch deer grazing in the garden and in the summer we’ll be able to open up the patio doors on to the garden,’ says Nigel.