Architects Patrick and Claire Michell used their expert knowledge to design the perfect holiday retreat by a secluded lagoon in the Norfolk Broads
When they decided to build a home for long weekends and summer holidays, Patrick and Claire Michell were looking for a selfbuild plot or renovation opportunity located within a couple of hours of London. Finally, they chose Norfolk. ‘Location played an important part in finding the right spot. We needed to be able to rent it as a holiday home to help fund the build project.’
It was July 2012 when Patrick and Claire, who have two children Rae, 4, and Margo, 2, first viewed the plot by a secluded lagoon in the Norfolk Broads. The couple, both architects, decided to visit the site after it failed to sell at auction and the owners dropped the asking price. ‘As soon as we arrived we were struck at how unusual and amazing the natural setting was,’ explains Patrick, a partner at Platform 5 Architects. ‘We envisioned how much fun we would have messing around on boats and canoes, exploring the area.’
The unattractive 1950s timber-frame bungalow was under water in the winter months and in very poor condition. The timber piles were rotten and the house was sinking into the ground. ‘It had been added to and butchered over the years,’ says Patrick. ‘I don’t think anyone nearby, and certainly not the planners, were too concerned about us knocking it down.’
Patrick drew up a design for a replacement three-bed house that was in keeping with traditional boat sheds and vernacular forms of the Norfolk Broads. He looked to local contemporary examples for inspiration, such as Hunsett Mill by Acme Architects, winner of the RIBA Manser Medal in 2010 for the best new house in the UK. As the property is in a flood zone, there were building restraints. ‘We weren’t allowed to increase the footprint because adding volume to the site would take up the flood plain water storage,’ explains Patrick. ‘We also had to maintain the original property’s height at 1.5 storeys, in keeping with the predominant property height within the conservation area.’
The solution was to raise the property off the ground and allow flood water to flow underneath it, by building pile foundations 10 metres deep and then forming a steel sub-frame on top, with the timber-frame house above. Access to the plot is narrow and vehicles were limited to carrying a maximum of 3.5 tonnes, which meant Patrick couldn’t consider a prefab timber frame. ‘We couldn’t bring a crane on site, so the frame had to be hand-built,’ he says.
The house design was an arrangement of three low-rise bays, with pitched roofs that echo the working boat sheds typically found on the Broads. Thankfully, due to Patrick’s well-considered design, the planning application was approved within eight weeks under delegated powers in July 2013. ‘It was one of the most straightforward applications I’ve ever had,’ says Patrick. ‘We had to produce lots of additional drawings to satisfy the planners, but that’s how I like to approach design at Platform 5 Architects.’
When asked if he experienced any problems during the build, Patrick replies that the main concerns were ‘watery’. A few setting-out issues at the beginning delayed the project by about three months. ‘The machinery that was used to knock down the bungalow actually compressed the peat soil, resulting in a site completely covered in water,’ says Patrick. ‘We didn’t have any clear reference points that we could use to set out the new house from. The contractors had to use GPS, which wasn’t accurate enough. So it was a case of piling and measuring repeatedly, until we got the foundations just right,’ says Patrick. ‘My motherin-law kept walking past my computer asking why I was looking at a screen of circles.’
Eventually, after a number of attempts, everything was in place and from there on the project was straightforward, with the house watertight by August 2015. The dwelling is finished in a mix of Western Red shingles and Western Red cedar tongue-and-groove cladding, and the roof is covered in black-stained Western Red cedar shingles. In line with Patrick and Claire’s desire for an eco-friendly home, the timberstud frame is filled with insulation, with an added layer installed on the walls inside the house, helping to exceed Building Regulations requirements by about 25 per cent.
All the joints are taped and sealed to get the house airtight, which works well with the Mechanical Ventilation with Heat Recovery (MVHR) system. Triple glazing was added to the east, west and north sides of the house, and double glazing to the south, where the property benefits from solar gain. Solar panels and a wood-burning stove provide power and heat, and underfloor heating has been installed throughout and can be controlled via Wi-Fi. ‘It’s handy when we’re coming back and forth to the holiday let, or if we need to put it on for guests,’ says Patrick.
The house is essentially made up of three boat shed forms, positioned alongside each other. Inside, a simple broken-plan arrangement allows for flexible living. The central bay contains a large kitchen and dining area, with masses of double glazing providing a cinematic widescreen view of the water.
This space flows into the adjacent double-height living and relaxation zone, which echoes a boat shed in its volume. On the other side of the property is the residential wing, with two bedrooms and a bathroom on the ground floor, and a beautifully crafted spiral staircase leading up to a third bedroom and en suite, as well as a study. This wing can be closed off via oversized sliding doors. ‘It means we can shut off the space once the children have gone to bed, and have a raucous meal without disturbing them,’ says Patrick.
In May 2016, the house was ready for the family to start using as a home away from home. ‘We really enjoy the outdoor covered veranda off the kitchen/dining area. It’s where we spend most of the day. In the winter it’s cosy, and in the summer we throw open all the doors. It’s got a really nice holiday feel about it,’ says Patrick. ‘My favourite aspect of the house is its wonderful setting,’ he adds. ‘All year round there is always something going on in the lagoon; you’re surrounded by wildlife, so it can sometimes feel like a nature show. It feels secluded and it’s very relaxing,’ says Patrick. ‘You can while away the hours here.’
Backwater house is available for short holiday lets. Visit backwaternorfolk.co.uk for more details
Words: Sophie Vening, Photography: Alan Williams