There’s a reason few weekenders build in this corner of the UK’s Cotswolds. In contrast to the flat, manicured landscape around Banbury, the undulating forested countryside is – says architect Richard Found – ‘not for the faint-hearted’.
Not that he needed to prove himself: Found is a 20-year veteran of minimalist architecture of the highest order, with clients across London’s Bond Street, Knightsbridge and Notting Hill. But two years of planning negotiations and a further two of building works could break even Richard Rogers.
It was still 2004 when Found and his wife, the art consultant and collector Jane Suitor, circled this 16.5-acre plot at the back of a local paper, its derelict cottage barely visible. They fell in love both with the idea of total isolation and the close proximity to art-world friends like Detmar Blow and Damien Hirst. Slapping down a deposit, the couple resolved to demolish the cottage and build an entirely contemporary structure away from the encroaching woodland.
Almost immediately the cottage was spot-listed. Local planning officials announced a strict set of rules that would put the cottage at the heart of any design and preserve the sightlines to its front and rear facades.
It seemed the ultimate curse. ‘When I got the call from the planners my back froze,’ says Found. ‘My friend had to slip me a Nurofen.’
But necessity is the mother of invention. Found went back to the planners with a sympathetic, barely perceptible extension in a local mix of concrete that matched the original Cotswold stone. Above all, it managed expectations. ‘I proposed a 26m living room, knowing they’d knock it back to 23m – which is what I wanted anyway.’
The curse would turn out to be a blessing, ultimately. But only after the ‘nightmare’ build.
During the six-month cottage refurbishment, the floors were replaced with underfloor-heated pavers and the black-painted beams sandblasted to their original state. Building into the hillside required a four-month excavation and the cement mixers were beset by problems. ‘We had a terrible winter,’ says Found. ‘You can’t pour concrete at temperatures below 5C, yet it was -10.’
But the structural engineer loved the challenge: the ‘massive’ concrete keel underground and the 23m cantilever designed to support 200 people standing on the terrace. Found eschewed cost-cutting columns to ensure that nothing obstructed the views. ‘I was obsessed with feeling like I was in the middle of a forest.’
In the end, he adds, ‘We even made the conservation officer proud.’
Today the cottage, a de facto guest house, exits into a stark staging area, where the couple plan to place a Paul McCarthy sculpture. Lengthy corridors lead to the bedrooms, in one direction, and the living spaces in the other. All open onto a garden by Lady Mary Keen, who ‘refused to plant anything not already in the forest’.
Any modern distractions are restricted to a ‘media room’ adjacent to the cottage. That includes art. ‘Jane is desperate to put up a painting over the fireplace,’ says Found. For now, however, the ‘art’ is the incomparable view.