Take a peek at this Japanese-inspired St Albans home
PUBLISHED: 13:22 05 September 2018 | UPDATED: 14:27 20 August 2020
Ten years in the making, this remarkable home in the former orchard of St Albans Cathedral is as bespoke as a property can be. It had Grand Designs’ Kevin McCloud reeling
Buy a secondhand house or a new one from a developer, doesn’t matter which – you can see exactly what you’re getting.
It was a leap of faith for golf coach Chris Meadows and his Japanese wife Kayo when they gave their esteemed architect friend carte blanche to design them a house and build it on virgin land next to St Albans Cathedral.
It was a tall order for Rogan Gale-Brown, one he relished. And the decision to hand over the reins to the designer and let him get on with it wasn’t as rash as it sounds. Chris is a businessman as well as a sportsman. Client and architect had worked together for 15 years building golfing academies, ranges and other facilities for budding champions.
The 2.7 acres the Meadows wanted to develop was within the curtilage of a Scheduled Ancient Monument. ‘I’d always promised him when I found a site worthy of his talents I’d give him a free hand to create the perfect home for my family,’ Chris says. ‘He knows our tastes, he knew our family. He has passion, enthusiasm and vision. I knew I could hand over the project and leave him to it.’
Rogan said it was the opportunity he’d been waiting for all his career.
Anyone less determined would have fallen by the wayside. Countless planning applications had been refused over the previous 34 years for what had once been the orchard to the neighbouring abbey.
It’s a toss up whether locals refer to the city’s famous church as ‘the abbey’ or ‘the cathedral’. The church was renamed a cathedral in 1877 for the new diocese of St Albans. It hasn’t been an abbey since the Dissolution, but this is St Albans, the 16th century seems almost like yesterday here.
At the time of their land purchase, the Meadows’ home was next door to the former abbey orchard. By then it was no more than a strip of wasteland.
Chris and Kayo hoped to garner support for their scheme, not least because it would put an end to the anti-social behaviour of youths who congregated there in the evenings. ‘While we were living next door, we had to call the police 50 to 60 times to sort them out. I’d always said the only way to get over the problem was to build on the land.’
At the end of last year the story of the 6,000 sq ft five-bedroom, six-bathroom property, which eventually won the approval of city planners, English Heritage and other watchdogs protecting historically and environmentally sensitive sites from injudicious development, was shown on Kevin McCloud’s Channel 4 programme Grand Designs.
The project, from concept to completion, took over 10 years. It was a Herculean effort on the part of the triumvirate.
The architect and clients’ tigerish determination never to throw in the towel has resulted in a home that is a true one-off.
It was seven years before the eventual design was approved and a further three-and-a-half to build the house to the perfectionist standard demanded and to create the expanse of bespoke furniture, fixtures and fittings to achieve the homogenous feel all three were after.
Throughout the inside of this brick and timber-framed structure is a cladding of maple wood. There is maple everywhere – ceilings, floors, walls, wardrobes, kitchen units, tables, chairs, even the lampshades are handmade in maple. Everything is bespoke. Each custom-made light switch is labelled to tell you what it’s for.
Whether you’re looking in or out, walls of glass on all sides provide an uninterrupted view (except when vast translucent white blinds – like the paper walls of traditional Japanese architecture – are drawn down over panes). The house is surrounded by 150 trees – it’s a private haven.
Kevin admitted there were times when he wasn’t sure whose home it was going to be. The level of commitment from the architect was unparalleled. It could have been his own house he was creating.
Fans of Grand Designs know there always comes a point before an ad break when the presenter turns to the camera with wrinkled brow and tutts ‘What worries me…’ before rolling off a list of shortcomings. Kevin wove his way along the zig-zag path following the direction of the newly laid concrete foundations and told viewers ‘the footprint is bizarre, it’s like crazy golf – this design is really not to my taste.’ Fortunately he softened the blow by adding that the quality of the craftsmanship and attention to detail was up there with the gods.
Fast forward to his final visit and he’s bowled over. He loves it. With its sedum roof, twists and turns and many levels – a couple of steps up here, a couple down there – this extraordinary single storey building had merged into the landscape.
‘Wow!’ said Kevin as he made his way across the garden to the front (maple) door. ‘What a house.’
Inside, he was quite overwhelmed (his words). ‘This is remarkable,’ he said. ‘It is breathtaking. The light is so soft you can almost touch it. Every surface glows and is pristine.
‘It’s a really unusual project,’ Kevin told the audience. ‘A fantastic house, beautifully crafted in a tradition that goes back to the middle of the 20th century to Frank Lloyd Wright.’
One wing of the building (and it does look like a wing – a butterfly wing almost) contains the living area – kitchen, dining room, snug, cinema room and the large utility room where Kayo stores her specialist equipment for whichever country is the source of that day’s gourmet recipe. She can’t be doing with clutter. Every surface in her streamlined kitchen is a clean sweep from end to end. Not a toaster or a bowl of fruit to be seen. Everything is stored in cupboards. Kevin nearly gets his fingers rapped for trying to open one.
The bedrooms, each with their own private terrace planted with jasmine and wisteria, are in the opposite wing, which is connected by a timber and glass corridoor, with it’s own evergreen-planted indoor border. Large overhangs from the roof transform into pergolas to protect the south- facing home from the glare of the sun. There are bare brick chimney stacks with in-set woodburners rising through glass atriums decked with tumbling foliage.
The story of the owners who commissioned what has been described as one of the most individual and outstanding architectural houses in England this century would make a programme in itself. The couple come from very different backgrounds.
Chris grew up in his parent’s council flat in Islington until the family moved out to a village near Shenley in Hertfordshire when he was about 11. This was when the seed was sown for his future career as a professional golf coach of the top order.
To earn pocket money he became a caddy at a nearby golf club, which is how he came to meet golf coach Ian Connelly. ‘I asked him if he’d give me lessons. He said “Pick up the balls from the golf range and I will.’”
It was the start of a journey which led to Chris becoming a coach and a very successful one (you can read about that on his website, rpgts.co.uk).
He and Kayo met when she signed up for lessons at the golf academy he owns in London. She grew up in Tokyo, New York and London. She was a champion figure skater before turning professional and represented her country.
They were married with
three children by the time they asked their architect to build them a house on the former orchard.
Chris dodged the question when Kevin asked how much the whole project had cost. The veteran of 18 series of Grand Designs guessed they wouldn’t have much change out of £3m.
‘Is it your forever home?’ I ask Chris. ‘It’s never possible to say a place is going to be your forever home,’ he replies. ‘No-one knows what’s going to happen in the future.’
I then throw in: ‘How much did the house cost by the time it was finished?’ ‘Ten years of my life. That’s how I measure the cost. And it’s a lot,’ says the owner who always plays to win.