A handcrafted brick house
To reduce the risk of costly over-ordering, the architect made a 3D model to show where each one would go
While house-hunting in a village nine miles from Chester, Liz and James Williams spotted a ‘for sale’ sign peeping over a hedge and realised an infill plot was being sold for development.
A former orchard, with a garage and two derelict greenhouses, it looked so promising that they finalised their offer in just 12 hours. ‘It was a real impulse buy,’ says Liz.
The plot came with outline planning consent for a traditional four-bedroom house. ‘While we had to be sympathetic to the surrounding area, we also wanted our home to look contemporary,’ says James.
First-time self-builders Liz, 44, who designs interiors for retail stores, and James, 48, a local authority business manager, were taking a gamble as they were unsure whether a more modern house would be approved by the planners, and they had limited funds. ‘This wasn’t a vanity project,’ says James. ‘We couldn’t afford to be extravagant.’
The couple asked Liz’s dad Graham Court, who is a retired architect, to help them with the building’s orientation, scale, and size. ‘We didn’t want to approach an architect with a blank piece of paper,’ says Liz. ‘Dad gave us confidence that our proposal and budget were realistic.’
Subsequently, Liverpool-based practice Smith Young drew up plans for a three-bedroom brick house with a cantilevered, timber-clad first floor. As the back of the site is 1.5m lower than the front, the ground-floor rooms step down towards a double-height living space that leads to the garden.
‘The planners didn’t favour the timber façade,’ says lead architect Michael Young. ‘Fighting this decision would delay the project so much that the outline planning permission would have expired, so we compromised with brick detailing in place of timber cladding to break up the uniformity of the exterior.’ The amended scheme gained consent in August 2019.
The design includes a section of recessed brick at first-floor level and raked out horizontal mortar joints below the cantilever creating long shadow lines. Steel lintels clad in brick slips give generous brick-lined window reveals.
The same cladding technique disguises the soffits on the underside of the cantilever, so the masonry appears unsupported. And to keep the walls fascia-free, a low-profile aluminium junction, where the walls meet the roof, enables the brick to stack right up to the tiles.
Michael recommended using traditionally crafted brick. ‘Seeing them pressed into moulds and loaded into the kiln at the factory, we knew they would be a worthwhile investment,’ says Liz.
Liz, James, and Michael assessed sample boards of various bricks in different lights alongside a selection of mortars, and chose an unusually long, narrow block with a slim profile and pale grey pointing.
Michael made a 3D model of the house to show where each brick would go. ‘You wouldn’t do this with standard-size materials, but it helped us ascertain the best way to set out the building,’ he says. ‘It also controlled costs as we knew precisely how many we would need. At £1.50 per brick, we didn’t want to over order.’
Liz and James cleared the site and the main contractor started on the foundations in September 2019. To save money, the couple split the contract so that once the shell was watertight, they would project manage the interior fitout.
‘The crossover was tricky,’ says James. ‘It would have been easier for the main contractor to deliver a turnkey project, but that would have taken us massively over budget or we’d have to compromise on the design, which we didn’t want to do.’
Despite a six-week delay due to Covid, the shell was finished by the end of 2020, at which point the couple took control. ‘We made sure all the trades were delivering what we wanted, all while negotiating prices and making savings,’ says James.
Rooms are designed around their collection of mid-century furniture, which Michael listed on a spreadsheet. ‘We have pieces by designers Charles and Ray Eames, Harry Bertoia, and Tom Dixon lighting,’ says Liz. ‘We knew exactly where each one would go.’
An air-source heat pump provides hot water and feeds the underfloor heating on both storeys, mainly because radiators would spoil the look of the rooms. And a centralised mechanical ventilation system (MEV) extracts moist air through the roof space, thereby avoiding unsightly air bricks or trickle vents on the windows.
‘Under normal circumstances we’d be too busy to concentrate on every detail while working fulltime, but we had time on our hands during lockdown,’ says Liz. ‘At weekends and in the evenings, we went to the site and put all our energy into the build.’
‘It’s lovely to sit back and appreciate all the choices we made,’ says James. ‘Getting a quality finish within our budget is something that makes us incredibly proud.’