A design and development team embarking on its first new build aimed for an affordably high standard of residential design and build, with an aesthetic that beds the scheme into its historic context. Jack Wooler reports
Somerbrook is a collection of 28 private and 10 affordable homes in Great Somerford, Wiltshire, developed by Stonewood Partnerships, a company within the Stonewood Group, which also includes contracting and architectural arms within its set-up.
“As Somerbrook was our first new build development, it was important to set a high standard of both design and build,” begins Sam Smart, managing director of Stonewood Partnerships.
Smart tells me that “incorporating the creative flair of Stonewood Design’s team,” alongside the practical experience of its construction arm, was essential to its success on this project.
Set in a quiet corner of Wiltshire, Great Somerford has been described as the most picturesque village in England. The new development, on a prime site near the River Avon, comprises two to five-bedroom homes with a mix of terraced, link-detached, or detached.
The design employs a traditional style to blend with the adjacent village and the neighbouring Brook Farm – despite the latter, which was established in the 1500s and includes listed buildings, causing a number of challenges throughout the project.
Regardless of house size, across the development the homes have generous circulation spaces, higher than average ceiling heights, and a focus on natural light throughout, as well as high spec finishes.
“It is important to us that the core product is at a standard that’s higher than other housebuilders,” says Gavin Calthrop, director of operations at Stonewood Partnerships.
“That is why,” he says, “we have very few sales extras available, as we include these in the home as standard, for example, underfloor heating and oak floor finishing.”
It is in part because of this high attention to detail that the development won the Federation of Master Builders (FMB) South West House Builder Award, with the trade association hailing the project as “setting the bar high for future projects,” and reinforcing Stonewood’s credentials as “a top-tier house builder.”
The right location
“Working as part of Stonewood Group, we were first introduced to the prospect of working in new-build development through a former client, Richard Cherry, who is ex Countryside Properties,” says Calthrop.
According to the director, the company is always keen to diversify, and so, through him “opening their eyes to the prospect,” the developer realised there was potential to create a “niche, high-quality, community-led scheme” that was in keeping with its core brand values.
“We wanted to find the right location that would enable us to create a quality product that stays true to the Stonewood brand, so we focused on rural locations that would be resilient to market fluctuations,” he continues.
As such, when the opportunity arose to build Stonewood’s first new scheme in Great Somerford, Calthrop tells me it felt like the “natural choice.”
“Working with funding partners Housing Growth Partnership and Close Bros, we feel that we have a finished product we can all be truly proud of,” he adds.
Site acquisition & planning
When it came to acquiring the land, Gavin highlights Stonewood’s positive existing relationship with the landowners, which ensured a “smooth conditional purchase” (facilitated by Savills). There was existing, but somewhat outdated planning consent, so the team spent time improving it, to ensure the development was more in keeping with the vernacular of the village.
According to Calthrop, there were some access challenges to overcome with the site access extending through the old farm, but other than that, he reports that it was a “straightforward” site, needing little remediation.
In terms of planning, he tells me the biggest challenge was landscaping and boundary treatments, as the team had to balance requirements around security and local policy, while trying to retain the unique character of the rural setting.
With access to the site being a potential issue – especially as part of the access required an entrance through the old farm which would require the refurbishment of listed buildings – “early engagement and research” was needed to ensure a smooth process here. “Our good relationship with the farm meant that we were able to work with them to facilitate the phasing plan and accommodate site storage,” explains Calthrop.
Because the contracting arm of the Stonewood Group specialises in the restoration and refurbishment of listed properties, they were able to seek advice and expertise from colleagues, and “navigate this accordingly.”
From a design point of view, the farm provided the bulk of the context for the design of the scheme, and this reportedly became a key selling point for potential buyers.
“We wanted to focus on a simple but elegant architectural form, whilst adding character to the homes with premium quality materials and architectural points of interest, for example datum lines with a different course of brick highlighting these points of reference, generous window openings, natural slate roof finishes, natural stone,” explains Calthrop.
According to Smart, the team worked closely with ‘partner architects’ Stonewood Design to achieve this: “We are both part of the group, but work independently from each other until the opportunity and project are right, then we pull together and harness each other’s expertise to raise the bar.”
He continues: “We have been working alongside each other for many years, constantly refining ways of delivering projects efficiently with quality at the heart of every decision we make. We have effective methods of problem-solving and communication, allowing a smooth working relationship that has resulted in a beautiful project.”
“Most importantly,” says Calthrop, “we all understood how the scheme would need to work as a great place to live – this meant plenty of green space, generous gardens and public open space that would add great connections to the existing village.”
The team looked to the village, beyond the farm, to create an architectural palette that would sit well within the local vernacular. The exteriors offer the same finishes of stone, red brick and premium quality roughcast render as houses seen throughout Great Somerford, combining to provide “a sympathetic street scene that makes the development feel part of the village,” says Smart.
One particular inspiration that Smart cites is the village’s former pub, The Masons Arms – now a private home – which opened in 1841. He says: “Echoes of its stone frontage and late Georgian/early Victorian style are seen throughout the development,” which may provide some nostalgic overtones for residents.
Another key driver for ensuring the development “blended seamlessly” with the village was that it would in effect be a “new entrance” to the north of the village. This was also a further reason why it was key for the homes to blend with the neighbouring farm, including “making a feature of the listed farm buildings,” Smart adds.
Light & space
This being the builder’s first development in the area, the team went with a traditional construction method, with a range of brick, stone and roughcast render, focusing on high-quality craftsmanship. Calthrop adds that Stonewood paid close attention to detail on the quality of finish.
According to Smart, the key driver in this process was to have a “simple build,” that used high-quality materials and design, with a focus on light and space.
He says it was an “essential” element to have a view from the front of the houses through to the rear living/dining space and onto the garden “so that you could see right into the heart of the house,” he says. “This is a design aspect that is essential to all the homes – the corridor of light through their centre is something that welcomes you as you enter.”
To maximise daylighting, the team incorporated skylights where possible, and additional full-height windows at the entrances – with natural light increased by the combination of higher than standard new build ceilings (2.7 metres compared to 2.4 metres on the ground floor and 2.6 rather than 2.4 upstairs), and larger than average windows.
In the larger homes, the rooflights overlook spacious landings that are big enough to be workspaces. The design team calls this ‘stolen space,’ creating an extra room without compromising the size of any other rooms around it.
The rest of the layout focuses on the kitchen being the homes’ “heart” – a shared kitchen/living area “perfect for flexible family living.” Calthrop adds: “The combination of space along with the amount of green space in the development make these homes a fantastic choice for families.”
This attention to detail continued through the development’s approach to ecology and sustainability, though Calthrop says that – given the nature of working within the existing planning consent – the team were “somewhat constrained” in terms of adding value on sustainability-focused aspects of the scheme.
However, he says that realising this development has already given them a platform to develop a sustainability-led, timber-framed housing scheme, ‘Orchard Field’ near Cirencester, which is reportedly already achieving exceptional levels of energy efficiency. In future, Calthrop adds that Stonewood is committed to exceeding the Future Home Standard across all its upcoming schemes.
“We aim to be the most sustainable SME developers in the industry,” he asserts, “so we are increasingly looking at how we can achieve these same results but with more modern and sustainable methods.”
There were several examples of how the developers contributed to wider community benefit as part of the scheme for residents and locals, even presenting all its buyers with vouchers to the village pub, thereby helping to support a local business post-pandemic. They also arranged for an all-weather surface to be installed at the primary school so outdoor play equipment could be used all year round, and also worked with the school on a buried time capsule, encouraging pupils to write messages and draw pictures.
Calthrop tells me that as well as driving community engagement throughout all stages of the development, they are celebrating and promoting existing local businesses, advertising them across their social media channels, and in the development’s show home. “We really feel like we have left a positive mark on the community that will last for generations,” he asserts.
According to Calthrop, much of the wider successes of the scheme are down to both this strong community engagement, but also the sense of placemaking introduced by the development’s public spaces.
Smart believes that one of the firm’s most important principles is its commitment to larger than average gardens, and plenty of communal green spaces, as they encourage socialising, play, walking and relaxing, thereby “offering opportunities for new communities to form.”
“Every development, regardless of size, should be a meaningful place, centred around interesting public spaces,” he says.
Calthrop adds that canvassing the views of the community, and engaging with it, is another key tenet for the firm, exemplified by this project: “We recognised that by building within a community, we are becoming part of it.”
According to Calthrop, this is why the team made the extra effort to support local schools and businesses wherever they can, and to bring local people on board with what they were trying to achieve from an early stage. He says this ties in strongly to the firm’s ethos: “That’s what construction should be about – leaving behind something solid and enduring.”