PIERS & SUE TAYLOR - DWELL
WORDS - DOMINIC BRADBURY
Architect Piers Taylor has always wanted to live off the beaten track. For many years he thought he would end up taking his family away from England to Australia – where he once lived and studied – to find a perfect home in the bush, away from everything. But then he came across Moonshine, a former gamekeeper's cottage tucked away in the woods but still within striking distance of the city of Bath.
With no direct access, the original two up and two down stone house, with a castellated rooftop, is reached via a ten minute walk along a 400 yard path through the forest. Struck by the magical setting and the sweeping views from the hillside house across the green valley spread out below, Piers was immediately smitten.
"I first went to see the place holding our daughter Lily in a shopping basket when she was four days old," says Piers, who now has two children with his wife Sue, along with his first daughter Imogen. "Sue was just recovering from the birth when we saw the cottage in the property pages of the local paper. I got more and more excited as I walked down the path to the house and when I opened the gate and saw the setting and the views, I knew I wanted to live there immediately. I was affected by it like no other place I have ever been to. Within five minutes I had offered near to the asking price and then the estate agent started pointing out all the problems, like the subsidence."
Today the house looks rather different: a striking contrast between the original 1780s cottage and a large new timber framed addition, clad in tin and with large banks of glass creating a semitransparent shed opening up to the landscape. The new section is more than just an extension, more than doubling the size of the original house, and succeeds not just in creating a working home for a family of five, but a compelling combination of the old stone cottage and the contemporary belvedere.
"Basically the new part of the house is a simple shed," says Piers, "and very much a simple, direct way of building that responds to the site, weather patterns, orientation and being able to spill outside. It's also a version of an Antipodean pole house, raised up above the ground, which is quite Australian but here it's clad in the black tin which is a reference to the black barns down in the valley. It is very rooted in this landscape and the site. I wanted to do a building that was really about this place."
With the Taylors now putting the final touches to the house, Moonshine represents a journey of nearly six years since Piers first saw the house. The family had been living in an end of terrace cottage in a nearby village, which they were fast outgrowing. Both wanted a more rural home, but needed to be near to Bath where Taylor has his practice – Mitchell Taylor Workshop – and also teaches. Then Moonshine came along...
"Piers came back from seeing the house and told me he's put in an offer for us which is classic Piers," says Sue. "Piers had the vision to see the potential of the site and I was in that quite interior mode that one goes into after having a child where you are really just focussed on your baby. At the time the path seemed a very long way from the little hamlet where we park our car, but Piers is nothing if not good at persuading people. I said I needed a few weeks to think about it and soon realised it was so definitely the right thing. We moved in during the summer of 2002 and it felt like home very quickly. Up to that point I had never thought of myself as a woods person."
"It was blissful," says Piers. "We had all our friends carrying all our stuff down the path the day we moved in. There is something magical for us about that walk – every day, through thick or thin, we make that walk. It feels utterly right to be down in the woods and for the children, they don't know anything else but Moonshine. They have never questioned the path. That's what we do, we live at the end of a path."
After they arrived at the house, Piers set about the underpinning the cottage and tidying up the place, which had been empty for a year and was in need of some care and new wiring. But soon the pressure began to grow to extend. Imogen, now 16, and Lily – who is now 6 – were sharing one of the two bedrooms and then Sue found out she was pregnant with Archie, who has now turned 3. Piers was spurred into designing the new addition that would double their living space.
"We thought just had to have more bedroom space," says Sue. "We went through lots of different plans and looked at different budgets. We started modestly but then decided that if we were going to build down here then it was going to be challenging in terms of the logistics and access and so really we should build as much as we could all at once."
Piers realised that a light weight raised structure would best suit the site and get around the problems of building on land liable to subsidence. He developed the plans for their large wood and tin coated, two storey structure, overlooking the valley below, with timber decks alongside accessed via sliding glass doors. There would be two more bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs and a large, open plan living room, dining area and kitchen on the ground floor.
The family decided to move out for six months while the work was done. But after being out for a month and with no builders on site, despite lots of chasing, Piers decided to go self build.
"It was actually incredibly liberating to say I will build my own house," says Piers. "It was also a catalyst to resign my old job with a larger firm and set up my own practice, partly to build my own house. I thought it was really important to get involved in the construction, to be hands on, and see that it was done right."
Managing the build himself and getting his hands dirty as much as he could, Piers found a local builder and a specialist in timber framing to work with. But then they had to start thinking about how to build a house where there is no access for lorries and vans, given that even this relatively lightweight structure would still need concrete foundations, heavy timbers and thousands of component parts.
They managed to get a lorry up through a neighbouring field to help lay the foundations, plus a crane to help erect the green oak frame. But everything else had to come along the path by wheelbarrow. "The most stressful thing about the whole experience was actually coaxing people down that path," says Piers. "I wouldn't tell people when we placed any orders that we had no proper access because otherwise they just wouldn't turn up. Getting the oak frame down was the hardest, as some sections weigh nearly a tonne and had to be brought down on a trolley. It was madness but we managed it."
Six months later, the family were back into their radically reinvented home on time and on budget. Inside, materials are purposefully raw – echoing the barn-like simplicity of the extension – with plywood sections for the walls and floors and bare plaster ceilings. The whole space is bathed in light upstairs and down, with no need for curtains or shuttering given the lack of neighbours. The family has room to spread out and the world is spread out before them, literally, in the valley below.
"The house has become part of our daily rhythm," says Sue. "I remember the first night we slept here we did feel in the middle of nowhere but now we have our bearings it's not like that. But it does force you to live according to the daylight hours and the seasons much more than being in a house in the city – we joke that in the winter we hibernate. You are so close to the elements, nature and the changing seasons and we are into watching what the trees are doing, the flowers, the birds. We can stand in the kitchen and see deer, munkjack and woodpeckers and hear the owls at night. Moonshine satisfies all of that."
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