Our Scandi self-build: how one couple built a house from scratch in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic

·5-min read
Scandi self-build:  Neil and Tina’s new home is four times as big as their old Bexleyheath flat  (Handout)
Scandi self-build: Neil and Tina’s new home is four times as big as their old Bexleyheath flat (Handout)

Moving house is one of life’s great stresses. Adding into the mix a couple of property sales, relocating to the countryside and designing that house from scratch — in the middle of a pandemic — could understandingly ratchet up the tension.

But for Neil Bartle and Tina Larsen, the process has been surprisingly plain sailing. “We could never have gone on Grand Designs because we had no drama!” jokes Larsen. “It was an incredibly positive experience for us.”

Building a Scandinavian-style home has been a life-long dream for Larsen, who is originally from Denmark, and the couple had been searching for a suitable design for some time before happening upon Scandia-Hus, a company specialising in timber-framed kit houses.

“We sat down with the managing director, Derek Dawson, and he got us instantly. Within 10 minutes of talking to him we thought, ‘This is it,’” says Larsen. “We gelled with him, he knew what we were after,” adds Bartle.

Next came the ideal site in a small wooded development outside the village of Crawley Down in West Sussex — a change of scenery from their former home in Bexleyheath.

Scandia-Hus worked with the couple to draw up designs for the exterior and interior, oversaw changes to the pre-existing planning application for the site and project managed the build. “They were excellent at making suggestions,” says Larsen. “It was really important to have that communication.”

The pandemic forced work to grind to a halt and for Bartle, a graphic designer for theatre productions, and Larsen, the director of revenue for a hotel chain, it was a challenging time.

“The pandemic was a real worry for us. We broke ground in November 2019, the frame went up February 2020, and then obviously lockdown happened in March so everything stopped for three months,” says Bartle. With the easing of restrictions the carpenters, a father-and-son team, were soon able to return to complete the build.

The Holt’s timber frame went up just a month before the first national lockdown (Matt Writtle)
The Holt’s timber frame went up just a month before the first national lockdown (Matt Writtle)

The house, named The Holt after its wooded setting and in a nod to an architect that inspired the design, is painted almost entirely black. Sections of wooden cladding hint at the timber frame, while a dramatic glazed gable outlined by exposed metalwork adds an industrial edge.

Inside, the couple chose a “broken-plan” layout with pocket doors that allow the sitting room, dining area and kitchen to flow into the striking double-height hallway or be subdivided. “We use the doors every day when we sit and watch TV and it’s nice and cosy,” says Larsen. “Putting those in was a stroke of genius from Neil.”

The sliding doors also provide a degree of separation from home and work for Bartle, whose office is tucked just off the entrance hall, while Larsen commutes to London. It’s a short drive from the property to Three Bridges station, where trains to London Bridge take 40 minutes and St Pancras 55 minutes.

The interior of Neil Bartle and Tina Larsen’s Scandinavian home (Matt Writtle)
The interior of Neil Bartle and Tina Larsen’s Scandinavian home (Matt Writtle)

“My commute is probably shorter now than when we lived in Bexleyheath,” she says. “I feel quite enriched that I’ve got the best of both worlds. As soon as I come back from London and go up the driveway I exhale.”

After spending most of their lives in the city, the pair are especially enjoying their new-found connection to nature, and their wooded garden attracting deer, badgers, foxes and squirrels.

“We couldn’t quite believe it when we saw badgers here first of all. We can honestly sit for hours at the weekend and just look at the birds, squirrels and foxes outside,” says Larsen. “It’s incredible, and we’re still so close to London.”

The main living spaces, bedrooms and bathrooms face directly on to the garden. In the master bedroom, a patterned wallpaper extends the tree line inside.

The main living spaces, bedrooms and bathrooms face directly on to the garden (Matt Writtle)
The main living spaces, bedrooms and bathrooms face directly on to the garden (Matt Writtle)

“We purposefully don’t have any curtains in the house. Waking up and looking at that — I wouldn’t want it any other way,” says Larsen.

Moving from a 50-square-metre flat to house with quadruple the amount of space has been an adjustment, but one that has afforded the couple extra spaces such as a walk-in wardrobe, pantry and gym, as well as a guest suite for Larsen’s parents to come to stay.

“The first week we didn’t really go upstairs because we couldn’t get over how much space we had! It was a real shock actually,” she says. “Having lived here for a year now, I have to say that the spaces just work beautifully. We now have the luxury of space.”

The details

  • Plot: £300,000

  • Build and design: £500,000

  • Design: Derek Dawson, Scandia-Hus

  • Project manager: Aron Turney, Scandi-Hus

The house is furnished with pieces brought from the couple’s previous homes — including chairs from Charles and Ray Eames, Verner Panton and Mies van der Rohe gifted for birthdays and Christmases over the years — with new lighting additions by Flos and Tom Dixon, and a couple of sinks bought from eBay.

Accents of colour are brought to the black-and-white scheme by a pair of bright Marvel Comics artworks, green tiles and paintwork, and touches of tan leather and oak.

The couple’s new property has quadruple the amount of space they had in London (Matt Writtle)
The couple’s new property has quadruple the amount of space they had in London (Matt Writtle)

Knowing when to spend and when to be thrifty meant they came in largely on budget, with a little excess spent to install a large soakaway to disperse surface water in the garden. In all, they spent just over £800,000, with £500,000 on the build and design, and £300,000 for the plot.

“Part of the success of it is planning and sticking to budget, and not getting carried away,” says Bartle. “You can get it to look how you want without having to get the best of everything. There are a few things you need to spend money on but there are a lot of things you can cut back on,” adds Larsen.

While Bartle and Larsen plan to live in the house for the foreseeable, they know it won’t be their last self-build.

“We would definitely do it again,” says Larsen. “I think a lot more people should build. Where I’m from in Denmark, its quite a regular thing. It was always something I wanted to do, but I never thought it would be possible in this country. It’s good for people to know that actually, it can go right, it doesn’t have to be a horrific experience.”

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