Take a look around this timeless self-build in Hertfordshire
March 20, 2017
A plot of land in her childhood Hertfordshire village was the ideal blank canvas for Merry Albright’s dream project.
The quaint village of Kingsland in Herefordshire has been home to many generations of Merry Albright’s family, and she would never dream of moving away from there. ‘My grandmother and I went to the same primary school, and my parents used to own a pub here many, many years ago. And our family business – building oak-framed houses – has been based in the village for more than 30 years,’ she explains.
Merry and husband Ben had already built two Border Oak cottages of their own nearby, but with a growing family, they knew that it was time for their next project, and the opportunity to build was right on their doorstep. ‘My father owned a small brownfield site here for more than 10 years,’ she explains. ‘It had a ramshackle mix of large sheds on it and he managed to secure planning for a new house, so we decided to buy it from him.’
The plot was tucked away behind characterful village properties, which allowed Merry to buy part of a neighbour’s paddock so they could tweak the design of the house. ‘We wanted a big family space and lots of natural light,’ she says. ‘The layout was important too, as we wanted each room to flow into the next, but without long corridors or wasted areas.’
It took a year for the new plans to be approved, and then Merry began considering the interiors. ‘I discovered it’s very hard choosing final schemes for a home that hasn’t even been built yet – we had to decide on the window and door colours before the foundations had been poured,’ she laughs.
However, it was the design of the build itself that helped pinpoint the looks in the end. ‘The open-plan layout meant that we had to make sure the colours and furniture would appear right from all angles – you can see straight through the house in some places – and the easiest way to do this was to use one main shade throughout,’ she says.
‘We also kept to a limited palette of other materials and textures, and used just one or two main floor coverings so that the spaces don’t feel disjointed.’ Dramatic, dark-coloured feature walls, such as in the study and bathroom, are scattered through the house, but not in areas that dominate the eye or distract from other schemes or spaces. ‘We wanted a very calm feeling,’ Merry adds.
The kitchen-diner benefits from floor-to-ceiling glass on two sides, which was a very important part of the build. ‘We’ve designed the house to maximise passive solar gain, so that it stores and redistributes heat. This means it’s very light throughout the day. Some spaces, such as the dining area, are only made from oak and glass, while many of the rooms have double or even triple aspects, all with lovely views.’
The airy kitchen is complemented by soft, off-white Shaker cabinets, with a painted-wood freestanding island that subtly picks up on the duck egg blue that features in the utility area.
‘We have loads of storage – we planned it all in from the very beginning, which really helps with a young family. The units are designed to evoke Georgian-style cupboards to bring a sense of old-world charm into the new spaces,’ she says.
Merry was also keen to link the house to her beloved village – and not just from the outside. ‘I love the idea of buying locally and from artisans, so I made sure I took a “native” approach wherever I could,’ she says. ‘For example, the glass lights above the kitchen island were made nearby, as was the oven and woodburner. The paints we have chosen are made locally from ecological, natural pigments, and there are lots of timber features made by village craftspeople.’
Secondhand treasures also make an appearance, not only for their look and story, but to keep the budget on track. ‘We have a few good auction houses in nearby Leominster, and Ben used to dread answering his phone to me, as I’d ask him to collect yet another purchase,’ she smiles. ‘The kitchen table was a complete gamble, as we bought it on holiday in Italy without even seeing it in situ. Luckily, it’s perfect.’
Saving money here and there allowed Merry to focus her budget on the main structure and to create a home that would last centuries. ‘We were very strict with ourselves and bought off-the-shelf items, such as the doors, then upgraded them with great paints and quality handles,’ she says. ‘However, from experience we know that scrimping on some items, such as taps and flooring, is a false economy.’
It’s clear that Merry has a great eye for interiors, and she’s not afraid to try new and creative ideas. In the cloakroom, a modern concrete basin sits atop a huge slab of live-edged oak, with walls cloaked in a deep green shade. ‘I also added rough-sawn boards to one wall in the guest bedroom, just to add another texture and give a slightly Scandi look.
It’s in the master bedroom, however, where the oak frame really comes to the fore. ‘Although the exposed wood is a constant through every space, there isn’t too much of it so it becomes overwhelming. The vaulted ceiling in our master bedroom celebrates the house’s structure in its purest form, so we’ve chosen a minimal scheme to complement rather than detract from it.’
The build took eight months, plus a couple more to complete the landscaping, during which time Merry never lost sight of the end goal. ‘Watching a handmade frame come to life over a matter of days is utterly thrilling. And it’s not hard to be motivated when you get to shop for items you both love and need,’ she recalls. ‘It feels less indulgent buying a new kitchen when you actually really need one!’
Coming from a self-building family – let alone one with its own business – it was inevitable that Merry was going to enjoy the process. ‘It has been, without a doubt, the best thing we have ever done,’ she says. ‘This house just makes everything so easy – from working at home and gathering together as a family, to practical things such as storage and maintenance. It’s changed our lives, and I would do it again in a heartbeat.’
Photography: Colin Poole, Words: Natalie Osborn