Weathered steel-clad self build in Lewes
Building this post-industrial riverside home in East Sussex turned was relatively plain sailing.
This self-build on a post-industrial river just outside of Lewes, which featured on Grand Designs in 2015, turned out to be relatively plain sailing.
As Grand Designs go, this project was without the many dramatic twists and turns that often ensue on the TV programme. Yes, there was a marriage, a birth and a very ambitious nine-month schedule to adhere to, but rather than the typical overrun or overspending, somehow Stephen Yeomans and Anita Findlay practically cruised through their development to construct an exceptional steel-clad home on the edge of Lewes in East Sussex. So what was the secret to their success? Meticulous pre-planning – it was as simple as that.
Starting on the right foot
Working with the right people to produce a high-quality home was at the heart of this project, and it needed to be so: considered locally as something of a gateway to Lewes, it’s set on the edge of the historic town and is practically the first building you’re greeted by as you enter by road. As a result, there was some initial contention in the neighbourhood regarding its progressive design, but with innovative architect Sandy Rendel’s foresight and high standards, coupled with some careful, considerate planning, many of the residents who had concerns about such a prominent new local landmark were won over.
‘I’ve renovated houses before and made the mistake of spending too much time perfecting the design, but not long enough on getting the right tradesmen,’ explains Stephen. ‘For this house I ensured that we had a really good structural engineer and project manager, who in turn recommended the builder and our joiner. It was a very collaborative process, and there seemed to be a real connection and friendship that developed on site.’
Planning makes perfect
This initial planning took six months before work even started on the five-bedroom property in December 2014, but Stephen explains that this was absolutely critical to the success of the project. ‘We had such an amazing builder and he put a really detailed programme together,’ says Stephen. ‘We were originally told the Corten weathered steel would take eight weeks to deliver, but it actually took around 24. Yet instead of overrunning, our builder adapted the schedule to work around this. It was his flexibility and initiative that got us through. Also, getting the right suppliers on board and having a fixed-price contract really paid off.’
The plot area was tight at only 11 metres wide, therefore Rendel had to make clever use of the space available. To begin with, a Modernist-style design that adhered to the vernacular of the community was conceived by Rendel and Stephen; surprisingly, this was rejected by planning officers for not being bold enough. So this meant that Rendel had free reign to create something more inspiring.
‘Sandy wanted to reference the industrial past of the site, which used to be a quarry, so he deliberately chose materials that had this strong, raw finish, but used them in a very refined way,’ Stephen explains. ‘He wasn’t sure we’d like the board-marked concrete and rusty steel exterior, but I’d seen quite a few buildings clad in Corten when I was living in Holland, and I liked the idea.’
Working very closely with the planners and professional bodies in the area, Stephen and Rendel managed to get them all on board, but when the design was presented to the council it was rejected. ‘Luckily we got it through on appeal, but we found the planning process very frustrating. It was time-consuming and expensive, but the build itself was incredibly smooth by comparison.’
There was also the added pressure of a joyful surprise – Anita and Stephen discovered they were expecting their first child just a month into the construction – which meant the tight deadline became even more important. In March last year, the couple decided to fly to the other side of the world to get married in Anita’s native New Zealand. And in the same month, there was a worry that the project would come to a grinding halt due to financial issues. However, after talking to the building society offering their self-build mortgage, Stephen managed to avert disaster by getting the next instalment paid for earlier than planned.
The only real fly in the ointment throughout the project was the delay of the Corten steel, which was purchased from Spain. This alone cost a substantial £60,000, but when it was finally delivered several weeks late, it was in a jumble and on some parts the mesh pattern didn’t line up. However, the faulty panels were swiftly replaced by the manufacturer without any additional cost, and the builder’s resourcefulness ensured that it didn’t have a disastrous impact on the schedule.
‘Although the Corten was a bit of a nightmare and very expensive, it’s certainly the defining feature of the house. If we’d used timber instead, for example, I don’t think the final result would have been anywhere near as interesting,’ admits Stephen. Anita is inclined to agree, saying: ‘When driving into Lewes or walking the dogs on the opposite side of the river, the Corten just looks so fantastic, especially set against the white cliffs and greenery. We’re just so pleased with it.’
Location Lewes, East Sussex
Project started December 2014
Project finished September 2015
Size of house 257 sqm