A radical new look has transformed this house, but the changes have been just as effective – and far-reaching – on the inside
First appearances can be deceiving. In the case of Blakeburn Cottage, the new home of writer and psychologist Anna Karczewska-Slowikowska, in a secluded woodland glade in the Borders, you could easily imagine you’d stumbled upon an unashamedly contemporary new-build. This, however, is a renovation and extension project, with the bones of an unremarkable 1970s bungalow inside. Two concrete chimneystacks poking out through the smooth slate roof are the only hint of its more prosaic origins.
Anna, who has lived in the Borders area for the past 20 years, most recently in a five-bedroom 18th-century house – was looking to downsize to a smaller property, where she could enjoy her retirement. A series of fortunate events eventually led to the creation of Blakeburn cottage. “I was walking around the local village one day when I spotted a new-build house that I loved,” Anna recalls. “So I contacted the owner, and asked who the architect was.” This led her directly to Matthew Johnson of Edinburgh-based practice A449 Architects.
“At the same time, a local farmer was selling an old bungalow and its surrounding plot. When I saw the ‘For Sale’ sign, I got in touch with him right away – and that was it,” she goes on. “I had to sell my own house quickly in order to fund the purchase, and as luck would have it a buyer was found.”
The bungalow was tired and a bit worse for wear, but its setting made it ideal for Anna’s purposes. She moved in temporarily, basically camping out for a month before her rental flat was ready. “I had a camp bed and a little fire,” she says. “I just really wanted to get a feel for what it was like to live here before the building work began.”
The design for Blakeburn had begun months before, at Anna’s first meeting with Matthew Johnson. “I could tell from the way that Matthew was looking at the vista, and talking about the house capturing views of the lane and the beech hedge at the top of the hill, that this was what I was looking for,” she says. “He came to my house and saw how I lived and asked if I could sum up what I wanted the new house to be in one word. I said ‘elegant’. I also mentioned my love of wood, and Matthew came up with this wonderful idea.”
One obvious way to create the new home that Anna desired would have been to rip up the old building and start again. Johnson, however, had a different view. “Demo-lition and then constructing a new-build may have proved to be a stumbling block with the planners – they will always look more favourably on retention of existing built fabric,” he says. “The planners didn’t insist on it, but our view was that an extension was less contentious.” Maintaining the shell had other benefits too, as he points out: it let construction progress more quickly, and the cost of rebuilding was cost-neutral relative to any potential VAT saving through complete demolition.
“Our approach to a project like this is to endeavour to use as much of the existing building fabric as possible,” Johnson continues. “This has to be reasonably practical but our preference when involved with extensions and refurbishments is to allow the story of a building to continue. The two chimneystacks, still visible here, give a nod to the scale of the original building. There is also something quite nice about the gable form being totally driven by the original form of the house.”
In the event, the final design extends the footprint to the east and west of the original bungalow, with the entire building then clad in larch, which was blowtorched on site. “Scorching the timber helps to protect and increase its longevity,” explains Johnson. “I also love the way the scorched larch blends in with the woods, especially when the sun casts shadows of the surrounding trees onto the west gable.”
“In ten years’ time we might want to varnish it but that’s all the maintenance we’re expecting,” adds Anna.
A full internal strip-out has created a flexible layout. The accommodation is all on one level, with a double-height space to the roof pitch in every room. This is used to spectacular effect in the cathedral-like bathroom. Rooflights are also a feature of most rooms, but in the bath-room, two sit directly above the bath, creating a unique opportunity for cloud-watching and stargazing.
“I was keen to have a slate roof – that’s part of the ‘elegant’ idea of the house,” says the architect. “We put in extra skylights, larger than originally planned, as I’d wanted to keep it simple with clean lines. But now I’m very glad we’ve done it this way as they bring in so much light. There are still the clean lines with the concealed downpipes or guttering. That’s part of the elegance of it.”
A corridor running the length of the north elevation links all the rooms. To the east is Anna’s studio space, where she writes and paints, and where multiple picture windows frame different views of the morning light filtering through the woods. This space is also accessible directly from the master bedroom that sits between the studio and the living room. To the west, the kitchen and dining area captures afternoon and evening sun. As in all the principal rooms this has large windows to allow views to the surrounding countryside, together with direct access to the south-facing terrace and orchard beyond.
The new cottage is highly insulated, with underfloor heating and hot water provided by an air-source heat pump, ensuring long-term running costs are minimised.
Construction, which took around nine months, was fairly straightforward, the biggest challenge being some of the ground works. “There is a considerable slope on the site, so careful consideration had to be given to regrading it and working with the landscape,” says Johnson. A determination to work with Ainslie Contracting Ltd – the building firm that had constructed A449’s previous Borders house – also meant a slight delay until they were available.
“The builders were fantastic,” says Anna, who was away visiting her daughter in Australia when the project started. “The detailing, such as the internal larch screen to the kitchen and the way the house seamlessly meets the ground, is what really sets it apart.”
An integral part of the overall design, and one that cleverly links the new house and garage, is the landscape architecture. “Planning did state that we couldn’t touch the surrounding trees, so we had to be very careful,” says Anna. “The decking was inspired by a concrete patio I’d seen at Born in the Borders, a local restaurant, and Matthew then put me in touch with a landscape architect, Rachel Smith, who suggested the zigzag shape of the path inspired by Gaudi’s Parc Güell in Barcelona. I thought what a fantastic idea. I wouldn’t have thought of it myself.”
Anna was also busy with the interior decoration, sourcing a white Corian kitchen from local company Qube. “I didn’t cut corners on the materials for the bathroom and kitchen,” she says. “I had a difficult decision to make about my Aga – I’d been using one for many years. But I took the plunge and went for something other than a country kitchen.”
Many pieces of furniture and Anna’s art collection did survive the move from her previous home. “I got rid of a lot but I brought in key pieces such as my dining table that came from a French antiques shop; the Chesterfields and the antique Chinese dresser in the kitchen. And I like my chaise longue in the studio – it has echoes of the Pre-Raphaelites or the Bloomsbury Set.”
As well as providing a perfect backdrop for Anna’s accumulated art and antiques – with the corridor acting as a gallery space – the new owner also believes that Blakeburn has been very good value. “It’s really economical,” says Anna of the project that cost a total of £207,000, which includes a new garage and storage building. “The air-source heat pump added to the cost. We were originally going to have a ground-source heat pump but that proved to be too expensive – it would have taken too long to recoup the costs. But I was keen on sustainability and having an eco-friendly house, and it is performing so well. It’s very cosy. The rooflights and windows bring in so much light. And sliding open the glass doors in the summer brings the weather all the way into and through the house.”
An element of future-proofing has been built into the design – the studio space could effectively become two bedrooms, and extra accommodation could be added to the east-facing façade.
In the meantime, the simple two-bedroom arrangement suits Anna’s needs perfectly. “When you retire life slows down – not in a sad way, in a happy way – and this is such an unstressful house. I find it so tranquil.”