Looking for an out of the ordinary design to appease planners, these self-builders opted for this awe-inspiring home inspired by Kent's iconic hop-drying towers. 

exterior of modern oast house in kent - grand designs

Image: Jim Stephenson 

As the site was a field attached to their Victorian house in a village in Kent, Sarah and Paul Newton’s brief to architecture practice Acme was for a home that was pretty special. ‘Anything too ordinary probably wouldn’t have made it through planning,’ she explains.

From the various options presented by architect Friedrich Ludewig, project manager Lucy Moroney and the team at Acme, the would-be self-builders chose an oast-house concept to pursue further – they'd actually hoped to purchase an oast house a few years earlier, but the sale had stalled at the survey. 

However, as oast houses are designed for drying hops in the dark rather than for families who enjoy natural daylight, the Acme team had the challenge of adapting the building type without compromising its essential form. ‘We had to consider how to domesticise an agricultural industrial structure,’ says Friedrich. ‘For example, how do you get windows into it without it just looking embarrassing?’

inteiror of modern oast house with round walls - self build - grand designs

Image: Jim Stephenson 

The solution was to cluster four towers, or roundels, around a fifth central circular space, leaving a gap between each tower for doorways and larger areas of glazing, while punching smaller, less-obtrusive windows into the walls. Interconnected open-plan living spaces occupy the ground floor, while on the first floor, Paul and Sarah and the children have their own bedroom turrets, each with an en-suite bathroom and spiral staircase leading up to a sleeping platform.

roof of modern oast house - self build - grand designs

Image: Jim Stephenson 

The towers are timber-framed, with a steel ring beam around the base of the roof, and remain faithful to typical oast-house dimensions – 6 metres diameter, with the larger central space six and a half metres. However, the traditional brick walls and tiled roofs have been subverted by cladding the whole exterior in clay tiles to achieve a more streamlined single skin. This striking effect is softened by a seemingly random pattern of eight different Kentish colours that gradually change from darker earthy tones at the bottom to blueish greys at the top.

Obtaining planning permission in a rural area is rarely straightforward, but the process was eased by Paul’s professional knowledge. He ensured that he and Sarah went to the parish council meetings to explain the project, spoke to councillors and kept the neighbours informed.

Although there were already old stables on the one-acre site, meaning it was not technically a green-field build, the planning officer they were assigned remained opposed. ‘He thought that nothing should be built on the site and recommended our scheme for refusal,’ says Freidrich. ‘But the planning committee took a look and liked it, so they voted it through eleven to none – much to his annoyance!’

Read more - Country plots: 5 ways to beat buying issues

first floor curved walls in  kent modern oast house - self build - grand designs

Image: Jim Stephenson 

In another part of the country, it might have been difficult finding builders and tradespeople experienced in negotiating the geometries of a curved structure, but Kent contractors are called to work on oast house conversions so often that they brought skills to the job that allowed both architect and Paul and Sarah to raise their expectations.

‘I didn’t think I could afford a kitchen with curved doors because, by that stage, the budget was dwindling,’ recalls Sarah. ‘So I asked the joiner to build one with faceted doors, like a 50p coin – but he refused. He wanted it to be perfect. He ended up doing the curved built-in desk in the study and utility room units too.’

inner roof shingles in modern oast house  - self build - grand designs

Friedrich’s suggestion of using birchply shingles instead of plasterboard to clad the interior of the bedroom turrets was harder won, but he and Lucy convinced the contractors by pointing out it would mean that overlapping was part of the look, rather than trying to achieve perfect joins. Sarah and Paul also felt reassured when they realised they would never have to repaint them. In the end the turrets became one of the couple’s favourite features. ‘They’re so beautiful,’ says Sarah. ‘You feel cocooned. We can lie in bed and look up at them, and they still have that smell of wood.'

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birdseye view of oast house in kent - self build - grand designs

Where the oast house form comes into its own is when it takes advantage of its traditional use as a chimney: at the top of each roundel a mechanically operated skylight lets out the warm air, disguised on the interior side so that from below they appear round. Sarah and Paul have also employed a mechanical ventilation with heat recovery (MVHR) system, used in conjunction with highperformance wall insulation and glazing, underf loor heating and a ground source heat pump, all of which keep a comfortable ambient temperature.

It’s been just over a year since the family moved in their new home. So what’s living in a round house like? ‘Surprisingly cosy,’ says Sarah. ‘From the outside, it looks very big because it’s tall. But inside it’s homely. You can see everything, you can hear everybody. And it’s really light. Open-plan, but cosy.’


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