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Hertfordshire eco-home: Thrift Cottage in Burnham Green

PUBLISHED: 12:24 03 July 2018

Aptly-named Thrift Cottage - constructed where possible from reclaimed materials (photo: Danny Loo)

Aptly-named Thrift Cottage - constructed where possible from reclaimed materials (photo: Danny Loo)

©2018 Danny Loo Photography - all rights reserved

In an idyllic little world of its own, inspirational eco-home Thrift Cottage in Burnham Green shows that living with nature can come, well, naturally

An old wheelbarrow found in a hedge is doing a sterling job as the cooker hood above the Rayburn in Robert and Lydia Somerville’s eco-home. It’s just one example of how the couple who won the environment category in last year’s Hertfordshire CPRE Rural Living Awards revel in making use of what’s on the doorstep of their three-acre smallholding in the hamlet of Burnham Green near Welwyn GC.

Whether it’s a tree from the private woodland used for the timber frame of a new building or a piece of furniture no-one will give house room to, there’s almost nothing that in the hands of this creative couple cannot be given a fresh lease of life and become something of lasting value. This sums up the ethos of these two evangelists for the protection of rural England. It’s demonstrated both in their working and family life at the aptly-named Thrift Cottage, the home they built, and the smallholding that surrounds it.

Vintage caravan was Lydia's home during the first stage of the build (photo: Danny Loo)Vintage caravan was Lydia's home during the first stage of the build (photo: Danny Loo)

Robert is both an architect and a builder. After graduating from Cambridge with a degree in architecture in 1984, he spent the next decade working with craftsmen to learn the traditional skills of construction using lime, cob and heavy timber framing.

His company, Building Projects, specialises in the sensitive restoration of period homes and listed buildings as well as the construction of new eco-homes using materials rooted in the local landscape. His firm was originally Devonshire-based but from this summer it will also operate from his Hertfordshire home, where he and Lydia also run courses in heritage building methods.

Robert and Lydia Somerville on the porch from the living room (photo: Danny Loo)Robert and Lydia Somerville on the porch from the living room (photo: Danny Loo)

The judges of the 2017 Rural Living Awards said of Robert and Lydia’s home: ‘What the Somervilles have achieved is truly inspiring.’ And it is. The judges went on to say that they have turned a three acre site into a haven for wildlife, incorporating a wildflower meadow, orchard, ponds and a productive kitchen garden.

‘The house has been designed to minimise its carbon emissions by using sustainably-sourced firewood for cooking, heating and hot water. A local managed wood provides them with an endless supply of firewood and there is a solar system for hot water.

View down to the distinctively-shaped living room, offering views in three directions (photo: Danny Loo)View down to the distinctively-shaped living room, offering views in three directions (photo: Danny Loo)

‘The wall insulation is thick, using wool, wood and recycled newspapers, and the paints used are eco-friendly. Special e-glass has been fitted to the windows to reduce heat loss. Twenty five per cent of the house is of reclaimed wood with bricks and floor tiles rescued from skips.

‘The attention to detail is astonishing. Stairs are made from British larch, based on a design from a 19th century cottage.

Hand-crafted wood panelling in the master bedroom which opens via French doors to a balcony overlooking the gardens (photo: Danny Loo)Hand-crafted wood panelling in the master bedroom which opens via French doors to a balcony overlooking the gardens (photo: Danny Loo)

‘The turf roof is sown with wildflower seeds, which blend with the environment and provides a habitat for plants and insects. There is a composting toilet and a rainwater collector, and waste water from these is fed to a pond where it soaks away and naturally breaks down in the soil.

‘A beautiful elm barn has been made from local timber in the Hertfordshire tradition. The owners now run courses inspiring all their helpers with the traditional rural skills of timber framing. They aim to build up their links with local woodland managers to find markets for these woodland products.’

The summer house overlooking the pond (photo: Danny Loo)The summer house overlooking the pond (photo: Danny Loo)

With his 57th birthday looming, Robert is keen to pass on his knowledge of these ancient skills and do his bit to keep the tradition alive. It’s for this reason that the traditional Hertfordshire timber-framed barn his company is building in the neighbouring village of Tewin has become a learning platform for a group of volunteers. The frame is mainly

locally-sourced elm constructed using mortice and tenon joints and oak pegs.

Range cooker in the kitchen runs on locally-sourced and managed wood (photo: Danny Loo)Range cooker in the kitchen runs on locally-sourced and managed wood (photo: Danny Loo)

‘It’s good to work on a site where power tools are the exception rather than the rule,’ says Kris Vill, a fellow timber framer who helped build the structure.

Robert and Lydia met at Big Green Gathering, a week-long music festival in Somerset, where those with a passion for green issues come together in mind and spirit.

Traditional woodworking courses are run by the owners in the elm barn built by Robert (photo: Danny Loo)Traditional woodworking courses are run by the owners in the elm barn built by Robert (photo: Danny Loo)

‘I met Lydia again a couple of months later at another gig,’ Robert remembers. ‘We spoke more this time, which was when she mentioned the eco-house she was building. I offered to help her plant the orchard.’

Not long afterwards Robert turned up at Thrift Cottage, which was by then up to roof level, with a bramley apple tree. The tree flourished and so did the relationship.

The turf roof of the house is sown with wildflowers (photo: Danny Loo)The turf roof of the house is sown with wildflowers (photo: Danny Loo)

‘It was a neighbour and dear friend of the family who first noticed the site in Burnham Green Road,’ Lydia recalls. ‘It was for sale with planning permission for a single-storey two-room cottage of just 32 square metres. “Perfect for you,” mum said.

‘A little old lady lived here at one time but there was nothing on the site when I bought it, except the wheelbarrow in the hedge.

Who could fail to relax in the tub in this bathroom? (Photo: Danny Loo)Who could fail to relax in the tub in this bathroom? (Photo: Danny Loo)

‘I was born and grew up in a house 500 yards from where Robert and I and our daughter Scarlett live now. Scarlett is the fifth generation of my family to live within this square mile.’

After leaving school and while trying to figure out what direction she wanted her life to take, Lydia travelled the world with occasional pit stops back home to recharge her batteries. Her itinerant lifestyle lasted until she was in her early 30s.

Craftmanship is everywhere you look, even here in the composting toilet (photo: Danny Loo)Craftmanship is everywhere you look, even here in the composting toilet (photo: Danny Loo)

To fund her travels she traded teaching families English in return for food and lodging. It enabled her to pick up the intricacies of different cultures in a way which bypasses ordinary tourists.

Two countries had a profound affect on her – stoking a crusading zeal for doing whatever she can to take care of the natural environment. During an eight-month spell in Japan towards the end of the 1980s she became increasingly dismayed by the expendability of everyday items. Her lasting impression was of a society with a throwaway culture resulting in ‘mountains of rubbish’. Ten years later she found the reverse in New Zealand.

‘The New Zealanders I stayed with didn’t waste anything,’ she explains. ‘Anything of use was recycled. I went as a willing worker on organic farms. It’s known as WWOOFing. I went to New Zealand specifically to learn about this way of life and came away deeply inspired, particularly by a single mum who had built her own house and lived in exactly the way I wanted to do.’

After buying the site for her eco-vision back in Hertfordshire, Lydia, now a qualified teacher, spent a year living on her land in a friend’s gypsy caravan. She admits that this life suited her down to the ground: ‘I would have been perfectly happy if I hadn’t built anything.’

She persevered, however, and had ‘just got the windows in when Robert came along. He was an architect and a builder – perfect!’

It was another five years before the cottage was finished. By then Scarlett had arrived and so the house originally designed for one had become a home for two and then for three.

‘Essentially it’s still two spaces,’ Lydia explains. ‘We don’t really have rooms. It’s all open plan. We have a door into the toilet, a door into the pantry and a door into Scarlett’s room, so you could call it four rooms, but it’s not really like that.’

The smallholding includes three geese, three hens and three sheep of a Scottish rare breed. As well as providing wool, Henry, Harry and Herbie keep the grass down by obligingly eating the rough stuff but not the lush new growth. It all fits beautifully with a way of life that mixes the medieval with the modern.

The next open session at Thrift Cottage, when all-comers are welcome to visit, is on August 4 from 2pm-5pm.

Thrift Cottage, 52a Burnham Green Road AL6 ONJ.

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