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2:58pm Friday 22nd February 2013 in News
Buy this photo » HOME SWEET HOME Robin built the semi-subterranean house on the floor of a now disused sand quarry in the steep slopes of his former back garden. This year he will install trees and landscaping to complete the project. Pictures: STUART HARRISON
BARRY LEIGHTON discovers a spectacular home... built by the man who owns it
BEER in hand, Robin Taylor relaxed on the expansive wood decking at the split-level Oitavos Dunes clubhouse with its immense sliding glass doors and cool, airy ambience and thought: “Wouldn’t it be fantastic to have a house like this”.
A decade later, his dream has become a reality. Inspired by the Portuguese hotel where he stayed during a 2003 golfing break, Robin has created an ultramodern, environmentally-friendly residence that spectacularly compliments the landscape.
He may not be able to watch the sunlight dance on the Atlantic Ocean as he did at Cascais, near Lisbon, ten years ago. But in many ways Robin’s grand design is even better. He has built the house in the one place that he really wants to live, Swindon’s Old Town.
Not that too many Old Town residents are aware of this unique and eye-catching structure in their midst. Created in a former sand quarry that was once his back garden, Robin’s nest is a stunning piece of modern architecture that is as secluded as it is striking. Turning into a modest driveway from one of Old Town’s main residential roads (Robin prefers to keep his hideaway a secret), the unsuspecting first-time visitor is in for a shock. It is almost impossible not to be knocked sideways as this two-storey vision suddenly looms into view.
Bordered by conifer and sycamore trees, the timber-framed building sits semi-subterranean style on the old quarry bed several metres below ground level and totally out of view of nearby traffic and passing pedestrians.
Surveying the spacious living room, dining area and kitchen Robin, 47, who runs a commercial paving company and did most of the building work himself, says: “We’ve built it from nothing. It becomes such a big part of your life. It’s taken five years and has been one long learning curve. I know every single wire, hook and nail.”
He goes on: “I love the ecology of the house. It is energy efficient with natural insulation and under-floor heating. I see it as modern-day living. It’s really open plan. It flows. It’s nice.”
His partner Emma Rubython, a 34-year-old solicitor, says: “I still get a buzz every time I walk into the drive and see it standing there. I love it. What a place to live.”
Robin, who like Emma grew up in Swindon, bought a detached, 1930s three-bedroom house in Old Town in 1999 where five ponds had been created on the steeply sloped half-an-acre garden.
Robin added a bridge and a waterfall but it wasn’t until 2007, when he and a workmate spent a day clearing the garden of clutter “that I realised how big it actually was.”
With a spark of inspiration, he recalled that golfing resort in Portugal four years earlier. “I just remembered what a fantastic building it was, with the decking and the big sliding glass doors – just sitting there with a beer and thinking how wonderful it would be to live in a place like this. It had always been in the back of my mind.”
Robin put his ambitious idea to build a similar-styled house in the back garden to a friend, Swindon-based architectural technologist Bob Nicholls. A combination of Robin’s vision and Bob’s expertise saw the latter draw up a stunning scheme which, over the next five years, dramatically and painstakingly came to fruition.
Gaining planning permission – always a potential thorn in the side of the imaginative developer – was achieved in October, 2008… but not without a spot of bother.
Some Swindon councillors claimed the house would be completely out of character with neighbouring properties, even though their own planning officers admitted that it would be built “substantially lower than the surrounding area”.
On the grounds that the stylish property would not actually be seen by neighbours, commonsense prevailed and the planning committee voted 6-5 in favour of the scheme.
Among numerous and expensive conditions though, was that Robin commission a bio-diversity survey which took up most of 2009 and uncovered the existence on the site of slowworms, a protected species. Emma recalls: “I didn’t realise how big they were. They’re like snakes. We ended up making them their own little habitat to keep them safe during the building work.” Robin began to demolish the garden at the start of 2010 and had to cut down 14 trees – which he will replace this year – as well as smash up the ponds.
“A phenomenal amount of concrete was used to build those ponds in the 1930s,” he says.
However, he warmed to his task behind the controls of a digger, scooping out 700 tonnes of concrete, sand and earth.
“I really enjoyed that – I got quite good with a digger,” he says.
Around 100 cubic metres of concrete – 15 lorry-loads – were used to create the footings and retaining walls of the new house before a towering crane –“you could see it from Wroughton,” remembers Emma – lowered the huge steel-timber frame.
Emma now admits: “It was only when the frame was placed into position that I thought ‘Mmmm… this is really going to happen.’” An alpine-like timber “Sedum” roof – which will sprout grass – was then lowered.
Robin’s carpenter friend Kenny Martin helped him install the wooden wall frames as the learning curve continued. He was assisted by two pals to tentatively carry and then fit three massive glass windows – 2.7 metres high and six metres long, each weighing 140 kilos (around 22 stones!).
Robin put his business on hold for a year to build the house. “It was not a case of coming home and putting in a couple of hours of work in the evening. It became a full time job,” he says.
He also had to sell his house to continue to finance the project – a long and arduous process that took up most of 2011.
The House That Robin Built, with four bedrooms and four bathroom/toilets along with a games-room-cum-gym, is now finished and the couple – who are still living in rented digs – are decorating and installing furniture in preparation to moving in.
One of many impressive assets is the eco-friendly LED lighting system, designed and installed by Swindon-based Binary Electronics. Not a bulb in sight, it is activated by sensors and uses ten per cent of the normally required amount of electricity.
Robin estimates that the house cost him around £300,000 to build. When you throw in loss of earnings for a year and the fact that he did the vast amount of work himself, the figure is nearer £500,000. What is it worth now? “I’ve no idea,” he says.
Robin goes on: “This is pretty much as we envisaged our dream house to be. We are not rich people. You don’t really think you’ll end up living in a place like this. I feel quite fortunate to have been able to build it – and also to have built it in Old Town, which is where I like to live.”
Emma adds: “This is totally unique in Old Town, and maybe even in Swindon. I don’t think there’s anywhere like it around. We hope to stay here for the rest of our lives.”