Is this the most eco-friendly holiday home in Suffolk?
Copywriting for Suffolk Magazine on behalf of a client. Richard Stacy and Rachel Eburne created a charming, eco friendly home from building material literally on their doorstep | Words: Rebecca Scrase, Suffolk Magazine
Sitting on the dark wooden veranda, the dappled, late summer sun still warm underneath the surrounding trees, with nothing bar a small hedge between us and the burnt orange fields stretching endlessly beyond, it's hard to imagine a more fairy-tale setting than the surrounds of Straw Bale Cottage, Haughley Green.
Indeed, so bucolic is the setting that London landscape artist Roy Rogers captured them in an oil painting which now hangs on the cottage walls. But, say owners Richard Stacy and Rachel Eburne, the tranquil environs which provide sanctuary for people lucky enough to stay here are only part of the attraction of this unique property.
While other building materials have been used in the construction of this white, lime-washed cottage - notably seven tonnes of clay to render the interior walls - it's the use of straw bales which makes this two-bedroom cottage not just one of the prettiest properties in the county but one of the most eco-friendly and interesting, too.
Step over the threshold and there's little to give away its origins. You're greeted by ochre-coloured walls lining the open-plan living space. A dining area with a wooden farmhouse table is at one end, a sofa, armchair and wood-pellet burning stove at the other, both separated by the kitchen and kitchen island.
Industrial style lampshades hang from wooden beams and, over the living area, from copper pipes, providing an industrial foil to the otherwise cute and cosy interior. Ingeniously, some of the lampshades are made from poultry lamps but could easily pass for upmarket £100 fittings.
Beyond this central living, kitchen and dining space is the first of two bedrooms. To the right, a wooden door opens into a twin bedroom with a feature wall painted, on-trend, in dark teal, contrasting with white elsewhere. The en suite shower room is contemporary, and the cavernous beamed ceiling under the metal, agricultural-style roof is lit by a huge metal, industrial-style lamp.
In another quirky, unique touch, the spindles on the staircase leading up to a mezzanine floor aren't wooden, as you might expect, but made from copper piping.
It's the same story in the second, double bedroom - an en suite, modern shower room, oak beams with industrial light fittings but an unpainted plywood ceiling, scaffold board wooden flooring and gently curved render around the windows and door frames, a clue to its straw bale construction.
There are other clues, too, some more obvious than others. Above the doorway to the double bedroom is, what Richard describes as a 'truth window', a small rectangular pane of glass through which you can clearly see the straw bale behind it. Did he simply forget to render? Apparently not.
"It's traditional, when constructing straw bale houses, to leave a little reminder of its provenance," he says. Similarly, the walls have an earthy, organic feel. Actually, I swear I can smell a faint, not at all unpleasant, hint of straw, but Richard insists it's the beeswax on the wooden furniture. The whole effect is really pleasing to the eye and gives the house an incredibly cosy atmosphere.
I congratulate Richard on the aesthetic he's created, and I'm surprised to discover that the overall 'look' was partly inspired by council planning regulations. "Because our house, Shrub Farm, is Grade II listed, the local heritage officer was very keen to ensure that our design didn't use traditional vernacular materials, such as clay pantile roofing, or look like a 16th century cottage, but was contemporary and referenced an agricultural building, which was fine by us."
Surprisingly, too, Richard, a public relations-turned-social-media consultant, and Rachel, formerly in marketing and now a district councillor, have no previous building experience. Straw Bale Cottage is their first foray into property conversion.
"Rachel, who is originally from Woolpit, and I were living in Stockwell, London, and the children were getting to an age where we had to either commit to earning significant sums, simply to fund a London lifestyle, or return to Rachel's origins, and live a much simpler existence, where we could actually spend time together as a family, even if it meant earning far less," he says.
So, what made them decide to make a house out of straw? "Whilst ecological and environmental factors were certainly a consideration, when we began to look at building methods, straw bale construction is amongst the easiest and most logical methods. In many ways, it's like building a Lego house. "I picked up a book, Building with Straw Bales, by Barbara Jones of Straw Works, which is the literary equivalent of an Ikea flat-pack set of instructions, taking you literally step-by-step through the process."
Richard makes it sound easy to a layperson, but he's keen to stress that things took much longer than the couple could have possibly imagined - three years, from clearing the site to finish. And when heavy lifting was involved, such as raising the roof beams, they enlisted help from friends and neighbours, as well as family.
"Building with straw was the easiest and fastest bit of the project, taking a little over three months," says Richard. "It was actually rendering the interiors with clay that took the longest and was, after the first few days, the most tedious aspect of the build." Completely finished and welcoming guests, the cottage is snug, warm and watertight, with no need for central heating. Its only heat source is provided by the stove which burns wooden pellets.
"What we love most about the cottage, isn't just that we've created a building using sound ecological principles, or even that it's something we've achieved ourselves, but that we've built a sanctuary where people can truly escape to enjoy the glorious Suffolk landscape."