‘Our best option was to pull it down and start again’
After moving into an old bungalow, Ella Blackwell and her husband Paul didn’t expect they would have to knock it down and start again. Here’s the full story of their Tunbridge Wells self-build…
Building their own home is a dream for many people, but for Ella Blackwell, a fashion designer, and her husband Paul Blackwell Leach, owner of architectural glazing company Fablight, it all came about by accident.
It was in 2009 that the couple moved from London to leafy Tunbridge Wells in Kent. The couple bought a Victorian terrace house, which they renovated from top to bottom, but after three years, and now pregnant with their second child, they’d outgrown the space, and wanted a bigger garden.
Close by was an old run-down bungalow, which Ella says had something magical about it… So one day, on the off chance, she posted a letter through the door, politely asking the owners to contact the couple if they should ever decide to sell. And, six months later, they found themselves the new owners of the old property.
‘It desperately needed renovating’
The four-bedroom bungalow had fallen into disrepair, however. A former tennis pavilion that had been turned into a house in the 1950s, its garden was once a tennis court. ‘It had been a much-loved family home, but it desperately needed renovating, and there was a major damp problem,’ recalls Ella.
‘We had always planned to renovate the property,’ explains Ella. ‘But it turned out our best option was to pull it down and start again. The floor joists were so rotten that our feet went through the floorboards in two of the rooms, we had mice and slugs, and it was so cold in winter you could see your breath indoors.’
Building is in the family – with Paul’s stepfather a builder and Ella’s dad a carpenter – so they had experts on hand to advise during their Tunbridge Wells self-build… Nevertheless, ‘it was a daunting project to undertake with two young children, but we decided it was the only way to get our dream family home,’ says Ella.
‘We also knew that by doing a lot of the work ourselves, we could build it to a high standard, knowing every brick and tile has been selected with care.’
Difficulties getting planning permission
As the property is in a conservation area, the couple faced objections from residents who were not keen on their ideas for a contemporary four-bed house to replace the old bungalow. Following the rule book to the letter, ticking every box and tweaking their design bit by bit, Ella and Paul finally got planning permission – a process that took three years.
Needing somewhere to live while the Tunbridge Wells self-build was in progress, the couple began by erecting a two-bed cabin in the garden, with a kitchen space and living area, which they moved into in June 2017 before turning their attention to demolishing the bungalow.
They found a building contractor specialising in self-build projects, who helped them raze the building to the ground. ‘We had tractors full of waste carted to the local tip before we dug down, following the existing footprint of the old property to build the foundations for our new home,’ Ella explains.
‘Modern, solid and sturdy’
After years of living in period houses, the couple wanted to live in a home that was modern, solid and sturdy, so in their design they included a light, open-plan living space on the ground floor with four bedrooms upstairs.
‘We could have created more rooms, but we would have had to compromise on space, so instead chose to have fewer bedrooms but made each one very spacious.’ The couple also installed a staircase running up the centre of the house, with a double-height glazed entrance at the front. The loft was then designed as a studio for Ella, with large pitched windows to give views over the valley.
Paul’s stepdad helped at the beginning of the Tunbridge Wells self-build project, providing a sounding board for ideas and problem-solving solutions. ‘He was a huge support,’ says Ella. ‘And my parents stepped in with babysitting when we needed it.’
An intense experience
The project quickly became Paul’s full-time job, and after three years and three months of hard graft, the family finally moved in. ‘We had a few hiccups along the way, with a change of build team halfway through, and delays with getting materials,’ Ella recalls. ‘The builders also had to down tools to adhere to Covid restrictions, which put us behind schedule. But our architect Ben, from Kent Design Studio, was amazing.’
Looking back, the couple admit they found their self-build experience intense, especially as they were living less than 30 metres from the build. ‘I’m not going to lie; it was tough at times!’ Ella says. ‘We’d be in bed in the evenings with me googling fixtures and fittings, and Paul researching MVHR ventilation systems, concrete slabs, and windows,’ she says.
‘We visited more than 10 different brick yards to find the right materials, and I must have gone to every tile shop in the South East to find exactly what we wanted.’
Starting an Instagram renovation account
As a creative outlet, Ella started an Instagram account – @numberseventy_1 – charting the build’s progress and using the app to discuss her ideas for the interiors. ‘My followers even helped me choose the coral colour for the doors in our guest bedroom,’ she says.
Now the house is finished, Ella and Paul are proud of what they’ve achieved. ‘I can’t believe that we managed to pull it off,’ says Ella. ‘It’s been a huge journey for our family, but we know this house inside out and really feel at home in here.’
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