American inspired, fresh family home in Knebworth
PUBLISHED: 12:41 15 January 2019 | UPDATED: 13:29 15 January 2019
Inspired by the architecture of New England, a couple took on an ordinary family home in Knebworth and made it their own
A house that reminds you of New England brings a welcome touch of colonial sunshine to a country lane in the Hertfordshire village of Knebworth. But 10 years ago it looked very different.
When the property was bought by Dan and Claire Sage in early 2009 it was a solidly built and well-loved between-the-wars home. ‘The previous owners had lived in it for 50 years,’ Claire says. ‘As soon as we walked in we could sense it had been a much-loved family home – straightaway I knew it was right for us.’
The size of the property was a big draw but it needed modernising. ‘But we wanted to make changes anyway and what was so beautiful for us was that it was just six doors from the primary school where our children went.’
The couple also had skills to draw on – Dan is a landscape designer who launched his business, Perennial Gardens, in 1993. Having lived all his life in the Knebworth area, 90 per cent of his business comes through personal recommendations.
Claire, who grew up in Rochdale, is a TV presenter. Having trained as a dancer, her showbiz career has included stints with many headline acts. For instance, she was Bruce Forsyth’s sidekick in the BBC1 gameshow Takeover Bid.
She and Dan met in 1995 when he was in the stands during the filming of the hit ITV series Gladiators and she was performing in front an audience of 8,000. He caught her eye, she caught his. It turned out Dan was a friend of her brother’s. They married four years later.
The first house they renovated together was a cottage that belonged to Dan’s family in the high street of Old Welwyn. ‘The next one was our first home as a married couple,’ Claire says of their second period cottage. ‘We decided we wouldn’t move in until after the wedding and when we did, Dan carried me over the threshold.’
One of the attractions of buying the Knebworth house was that it presented a different challenge. ‘A more modern house opened up all sorts of possibilities.’
They moved in as soon as the sale was finalised. While they waited for planning permission to make the major changes they envisioned, they lived in the house as it was for nine months. Not easy with three children aged seven, six and four.
‘The upstairs bathroom was so small I had to kneel on the landing when I was bathing the kids. There wasn’t room for me too.’
The style they wanted was clear from the outset – the gable and clapboard look of a New England home.
‘Dan’s very good at everything to do with outside – designing the garden and the architectural style of the house. I concentrate on inside. We have similar tastes so it works. Dan sent me on a tour of the area to look at rooflines and porches and windows that fitted the colonial look so I could see how it would all come together.’
Right from the start they’d agreed to pour every last penny they had into getting the bones of their future home right. ‘To do it properly without compromising on quality. The windows have hardwood frames. The cladding is proper wood, not fake. We knew once we had the main structure – the permanent part like plumbing and windows – we could move back in and gradually add the fixtures and fittings and furnish the house when we had saved up to buy exactly what we wanted, regardless of cost. We knew we were going to live here if not forever for a significant period of our lives.’
For the first two years the family had a ‘big old table’ in the kitchen and stored all their kitchen things in cardboard boxes until they could afford the kitchen they wanted. Dan designed and built it with the help of a carpenter friend.
Claire has a sparkling approach to what many of us would have been a tough situation. She says living with just the bare essentials during the early years in the house ‘was like being on holiday.’
For ideas for the interior, she has always been a great one for keeping a scrapbook full of magazine and newspaper cuttings of items likely to be just the thing. When it came to commissioning an architect to draw up plans, she created mood boards to illustrate how they wanted the eventual rooms to look.
Their architect Natasha Jowett arrived for a consultation the day after they moved in. ‘She was great, she was on our wavelength. She went away with my mood boards and came back with a few ideas of her own. We got on famously. We had no trouble getting planning permission and that was thanks partly to Natasha and to the help we received from the council.’
A council planners came to view the house before the pair submitted the plans and told them what features could cause a problem.
‘We knew we wanted a large open-plan living area opening on to the garden at the back – a social space encompassing the kitchen, family room and dining area. I also wanted a separate lounge.’
The original lounge at the front of the house is now Dan’s study and the original kitchen on the opposite side of the hall became the children’s playroom when they were young because it’s off the kitchen. Now they’re teenagers it’s a music room and where they do homework.
‘The hall is pretty well the same as it was. We’ve rehung the original oak front door. It’s lovely anyway but it was important to us to recognise the origins of the house out of respect for its previous identity.’
Remodelling the upper floors involved taking the roof off. ‘Climbing up there on a ladder and finding it open to the sky was scary,’ Claire admits.
‘When the children were young I wanted us all to sleep on the same floor so there are five bedrooms on the first floor and three bathrooms. The second floor has all the wiring and plumbing in the superstructure to create a further en suite bedroom should it be needed in the future.’
Despite holding off on big purchases until they could afford what they wanted, every so often Claire spotted a treasure she just had to buy. It was like that with a showpiece French chandelier she found in an antique shop in Tunbridge Wells which was left in her mother’s safekeeping until they had remodelled the house. It now hangs above the dining table in the open-plan living area and catches the light reflected from mirrors in the upstands of the roof lantern in the adjoining garden room.
The chandelier will now go with them wherever they move to, like the pair of old pine glazed doors leading into the conservatory. They were discovered in an architectural salvage yard and were bought with a bequest to Claire from Dan’s grandmother. ‘They’ve been in all three of our houses, and so have the curtains in the living area. I love them. They were made for me. Each time we’ve moved within the village we’ve marched the curtains along the road behind the removal van. All these things, including my stair rods with crystal finials, will come with us wherever we go.’
There is one more thing they will never part with – a gypsy caravan Dan bought Claire for a birthday. ‘It’s in a part of the south-facing garden he specially set aside for me so I could grow flowers to cut for the house.’
It could well be that all these much-loved pieces will get their marching orders again at some point this new year. Dan and Claire have their eyes on another house which they feel is right for the next stage of their lives and, anyway, they quite fancy getting stuck into a fresh project.
The house that’s been the hub of their family life for the past 10 years is for sale through Putterills with a guide price of £1.3m.