Dominic Bradbury, Journalist & Writer


They are a rarity in the British countryside, so much so that they are in danger of extinction. The modern country house has become a victim of a strained planning system which has stifled the evolution of a new breed of contemporary, architect-designed English rural homes, while allowing developer estates to drown rural villages and towns with off the peg pastiche period designs.

Having just written a new book charting the international development of a new breed of innovative rural homes (New Country House, Laurence King), it was a shock to find how few projects we could include from the UK because so few one off country homes have been built here over the last five years. While architects in other parts of Europe and the States have been busily reinventing the country home for a new century, focussing on key issues like sustainability and sensitivity to the landscape, British architects have had their hands bound up in bureaucratic ribbons.

'The gap between planners and architects is widening,' says Lymington-based architect John Pardey. 'I'm involved in one appeal after another which is ridiculous. All we are trying to do is build something excellent but many local planning authorities find that a problem. Lowest common denominator houses go through no problem but real architecture hits resistance. If I'm Barratt, it's fine, but an architect trying to build a one off house gets all manner of grief.'

So much so that having done much to build a great country house tradition, British rural architecture is now struggling to raise itself out of the mud of mediocrity. But some UK architects and their clients are finding a way through the planning maze and finally getting some exceptional houses built across the country. It's a process which always takes persistence, time and energy but it can and does happen. Here four architects explain how they got planning permission for their new country houses.

With three young children, engineers Will and Libby Duckett were looking to move out of London and adopt a rural family life. But they also wanted a contemporary home and having found a small farmhouse in a picture perfect site on the edge of a New Forest village they turned to architect John Pardey to design a new home to replace the old.

Having fought a series of running battles with New Forest District Council over designs for one off houses in the region, both Pardey and the Ducketts were expecting a rough ride with the planning authority. But fortunately for them the site happened to be in a conservation area and so a conservation officer was appointed to handle the application, rather than the standard planning officers. While it might sound as though being in a conservation might make things even tougher, ironically it was just the reverse.

'I was able to talk to the Council's conservation architect, who supports good design and supported the Duckett House,' says Pardey. 'I listened to her views and adjusted a few things and then the house went to the planning committee, with her support, and got through. So it is a real advantage to be in a conservation area because suddenly it is all about design and the planners will spend time talking to you and look at it on its merits. In more run of the mill areas the regular planners just say it doesn't fit in and run a mile.'

The fact that the Ducketts wanted to replace an existing house, rather than build on a fresh site, was also a major consideration in the planning process. The vast majority of one off rural new builds in the UK are now replacement houses, so that a small army of aficionados will end up competing for a semi-derelict bungalow in a prime countryside spot in the hope of replacing it with their dream home.

Another major factor in getting permission was, naturally, the design of the new house itself. It's a modestly sized house of 190 square metres, which sits well in the landscape and looks out across fields and woodland, built on a budget of 340,000. With a black pitched roof, sitting on a layer of timber cladding and then a level of white rendered wall, in both form and materials it echoes local farmyard architecture although brought fully up to date.

'We have different sections for living, sleeping and for guests based on the idea of vernacular farmyard architecture where you have different sections – like barns and other buildings – all stuck together and that's the fun of it,' says Pardey. 'And drawing on those references helped us get through planning and showing that we understood what materials, colours and textures are all about and that they fit with the site. We try to make buildings that are very crisp and clean and timeless and that's what we've done here.'

John Pardey – 01590 626465

IDEN CROFT Architects Nick Eldridge and Piers Smerin turned to an underused clause in the planning laws to get permission for their striking new eco-house in Staplehurst, Kent. Planning Policy Guidance Note 7 (PPG7) allows for an isolated new house in the countryside 'if it is clearly of the highest quality' and 'truly outstanding in terms of its architecture and landscape design'.

Eldridge Smerin's anonymous client wanted to build a new house for himself and his family on a nine acre rural site which is also home to a working nursery. Having seen The Lawns, an award-winning modern house that the practice built in a Highgate conservation area, he rightly assumed that the practice had experience in getting potentially contentious modern houses through the system and could deliver the kind of outstanding architecture that PPG7 demanded.

'We spent a long time consulting with English Heritage and CABE before we put in for planning under PPG7,' says Nick Eldridge. 'After a couple of months we had letters of support from them and after our first site meeting the planners from Maidstone Borough Council also supported the scheme and welcomed its contemporary design. It went to committee but went straight through because there were no objections and it wasn't viewed as contentious. But the planners don't like making these kinds of decisions without the support of organisations like English Heritage or CABE so the consultation process was very important.'

A master plan for relandscaping the entire nursery and the surroundings of the house also helped convince the planners that the scheme would benefit the area, along with a promise to restore adjoining parkland. Added to that was the fact that the design of the house, a long single storey building recessed into the landscape with a sedum roof, was also highly eco-conscious with an emphasis on energy conservation and recycling

'The fact that it is sustainable and low energy does help in the discussions with planners because they are very topical issues,' says Eldridge. 'We wanted to demonstrate that you can design an ecologically sensitive building without it being furry around the edges and it is certainly a very green building.'

Client and architect are now waiting for the right moment to start building the house and reordering the nursery, as well as carefully looking over the budget, given that a house of this size and high specification could cost in the region of 1.5m to 2m to build.

Eldridge Smerin Architects – 020 7228 2824

WESTLAKE HOUSE As if to prove that not all one off modern country houses have to be big budget dreams, along come John and Terri Westlake and their architects Spacelab UK. The Westlakes bought a small, derelict Victorian house in a stunning location near Peterborough: an isolated site with woodland behind and open fields to the front and half a mile to the nearest village.

Having spent 170,000 on the house and grounds, the Westlakes initially looked at trying to renovate. But realising that building from scratch means that no VAT has to be paid, they decided to try and build the house they really wanted, all for 135,000.

'For a one off house it is remarkably cheap,' says Andrew Budgen of Spacelab UK, 'and the VAT situation made a big difference. But the Westlakes and ourselves didn't really know what to expect from the planning authority, East Northamptonshire District Council. I actually went to see them before I put the application in to make them feel involved and so that it wouldn't be a shock when it came in to the office. But they were very interested in it and seemed to want to encourage modern design, which was really refreshing compared to a lot of other local planning officers.'

Budgen was able to argue that they were replacing an existing house, although sought permission to move off the footprint of the existing building to create a better position for their elegant new timber clad, glass fronted box house. The site was not in a conservation area but was well away from the local village and well out of anyone's way, which helped to get the plans passed.

'The local village consists of stone cottages and anything new is pastiche and so the parish council did decide to object,' says Budgen. 'It went to committee where it goes out of the hands of the planning officers and over to the local councillors for a yes or no. I have been to some committees that are an absolute farce and more about political one upmanship than the project in question. But this time the plans were embraced with no problem.'

The new house is small and relatively cheap, but its design – with a glass frontage leading to terraces and gardens, plus double height spaces – make the house feel much larger and more generous than it is. Certainly the Westlakes were delighted with a striking bespoke home in an idyllic location and without a neighbour in site.

'East Northants were very encouraging and it was good to see,' says Budgen. 'But it doesn't happen very often unfortunately. And we wouldn't have got planning if the original house hadn't been there in the first place. It's a shame when nothing new and innovative will get built in these rural areas unless you are knocking something down to do it.'

Spacelab UK – 020 7684 5392

THE PRIVATE HOUSE – In the beginning, things did not look too promising for architects Fraser Brown McKenna and their clients, who hoped to build a new house on the edge of a Hertfordshire village. Despite being willing to knock down a house in which they had lived for the past 15 years to build a radically contemporary and new home, the would-be house builders met with resistance from Haslemere District Council.

'Initially we went down with a series of drawings and met the planners, who were totally opposed to the new house,' says Angus Brown of Fraser Brown McKenna. 'There just didn't seem any chance. But we decided to persevere and to went down again with a full presentation and a model of the house. To cut a long story short the planners totally changed their view of it.'

Like The Duckett House, the key ingredient was the fact that the site was in a conservation area and that the architects found themselves talking to a conservation officer willing to champion the house with his colleagues. Even though there were certain members of the planning committee hostile to the scheme, the conservation officer was able to push it through without an appeal, arguing in his report that 'the proposed replacement house will be a distinguished and distinctive addition to the architectural heritage of the area, expressing the best of modern design'.

'It was a surprise and reassuring that here were people who did feel the area needed modern architecture and that you can't just endlessly restore the past or create a pastiche of the past,' says Brown.

Brown's clients moved out of their old home, watched it being demolished and rented while their bespoke house was built for them, facing out across the existing gardens and trees with some additional landscaping. A high degree of flexibility was built into the layout of the house, which was also designed around the client's collection of modern art. The spec was high, with much of the fittings and furniture bespoke, adding up to a budget of 1.5m.

'For them it was a totally new way of living,' says Brown. 'They liked the area and knew it was where they wanted to stay but it was still a very big decision. Building a one off house like this is an involved process but we had an enlightened client and in the end the chief planning officer actually wanted to try and list the new house and ended up being one of its greatest supporters.'

Fraser Brown McKenna – 020 7251 0543

New Country House, by Dominic Bradbury, is published by Laurence King, in April, 30.