“It was really all about the location,” starts Darren Barlow. “I’d grown up in Worsley and always wanted to end up back there, in a really nice house.” Worsley – a charming, small village just seven miles west of Manchester city centre – is well regarded in these parts as one of the hottest of a handful of villages and towns in what might be best described as the ‘Footballer Belt’. It’s on the other side of town from Alderley Edge, Wilmslow and the like, but it’s home to, amongst others, Manchester United legend Ryan Giggs, who upset locals in 2005 with his own self-build project.
So Darren and his wife, Kathy, jumped at the chance when, at the back end of 2006, a 1970s detached home became available in one of the village’s premier streets. It certainly wouldn’t have been many people’s idea of a dream home — ’60s and ’70s housing still suffers from being deeply unfashionable. “We felt that despite its look, it had many things going for it — not least that houses of this era are exceptionally well built, full of light, with south-facing gardens, and perfect in terms of size; built on large plots with large footprints, too,” says Darren. “When we bought it, a lot of people said that they couldn’t see what we were going to do to it, but we had a vision.”
And boy, some vision. It really does take some spark to see what we can all see today in the angular, unflattering (if interestingly shaped and large) house that Darren bought. This is safe suburbia, a bit of a relic to experimental architectural days, and most of us in the late noughties with any interest in architectural design wouldn’t think twice about looking again at a property like this. However, H&R has noticed the growing shoots of a movement of renovators who see something else in this era of housing, and Darren and Kathy’s project is a real torchbearer for them.
Darren had worked in the lucrative shop-fitting industry for a couple of decades – later turning his hand to property developing – and one of his first jobs as a trainee joiner back in the day was to help fit out the new office of an aspiring architect called Roger Stephenson. Darren and Roger continued to work together for many years and as Roger went on to head up one of the UK’s leading architectural practices, Stephenson Bell, Darren knew exactly who he should call when he wanted someone to share his enthusiasm for his new home.
“Roger got it straight away,” says Darren. “I’d visited several other Stephenson Bell projects in the area and had been impressed with what I’d seen. At this stage I’d developed a deep passion for contemporary house design and knew what I wanted — something that would be of exceptional design standards, very contemporary in nature and, most importantly of all, act as a perfect place for a family to live. That was so important to us — we didn’t want to compromise liveability just for the sake of a glossy, modern look.”
Roger and Darren went back and forth a few times, ironing out some details and, with an exciting, contemporary design in hand – one that points to the future but, it should be noted, follows many of the design leads given by its 30-year-old neighbours – put it into planning.
“It’s in a Conservation Area,” explains Darren, “and Worsley is pretty keen to maintain the status quo when it comes to housing (see former reference to Ryan Giggs’ house). There’s a lot of reaction against contemporary design and we got seven objections to the application initially.” This meant a hair-raising meeting with the planning committee, on which the project’s future depended. “Roger produced a scale model of the home and it really helped to bring the concept to life for the committee members,” explains Darren. “We produced a strong, compelling argument, and out of the 16 members, we had precisely zero votes for refusal.”
So with Darren and Kathy living around the corner, work could begin. Darren, being well versed in developing property, took on the role of project manager, dealing directly with a site foreman who kept the site running, while Kathy sourced all the materials. “We took most of the existing house apart,” explains Darren, “but worked on the footprint of what was there already, with an additional ‘extended’ area. As a result we only ended up keeping one wall – the right-hand wall as you look at it from the street – and part of the roof structure. We also rebuilt off the existing footings, apart from the new area at the rear. We considered carefully knocking it down and starting again (because of the VAT implications) but I’ve been in the property game long enough to know when it made sense and when it didn’t, and in this case, there was just enough to save to make it worthwhile.”
Darren brought many of the best things of his years of experience in the commercial development sector to the house — not least of all in the insistence on quality finishes. “We used quality tradesmen: people I’d known and worked with for years,” he says, “but if things weren’t right, as sometimes would be the case, then I simply made them do it all over again. So many contemporary homes aim so high in design terms but fall down when it comes to the detailing and the finished build quality — but it was a priority on this one. We didn’t just super-insulate the new walls, but we added cavity wall insulation to the existing one. We had an M&E (mechanical and electrical) consultant to ensure everything worked together to the highest standard, from the Lutron lighting to the multi-room media system.”
The house is constructed of conventional blockwork with steel added where appropriate, such as at the rear ‘extension’ which rapidly became the heart of the house. Covered in Sto render (it’s flexible, so it doesn’t crack, and it’s self-coloured, which means it doesn’t need repainting) and kiln-dried Douglas fir cladding, the house has all new windows from Fineline Aluminium and Eckersley Joinery, which are obviously new openings but somehow seem to mimic those of the neighbouring houses. Inside, three large bedrooms were all that Darren and Kathy needed, despite protestations to maximise the value of the house by creating five, which it could have taken very easily. Underfloor heating downstairs, radiators upstairs; a beautiful woodburning stove from Antonio Citterio. A £58,000 kitchen from Varenna; £150 door handles from John Pawson.
There is no scrimping in quality, and the house repays the investment. It’s wonderfully light, and you can’t help but agree with the building inspector’s comment on signing the house off: “In all the years in this business, this is the best finished building I’ve ever seen.” It’s also the perfect family home — and really a masterclass in bringing in ambitious contemporary projects on time, on budget and, most importantly of all, perfectly honed for family life.
There remains, however, a rather sad postscript to this otherwise happy tale of a successfully created individual home. Darren and Kathy enjoyed just four months in their dream home, because Darren’s developing business was a victim of the recession and, despite juggling finances, they ended up having to put the house on the market to support the business. Even more tragically, it didn’t find a buyer, so this beautiful, inspiring contemporary classic is now in the hands of the bank, and Darren and Kathy have decided to start again in Italy — very proud of their achievement, quite rightly, but keen to look to the future.