Going underground

When Kevin Morris wanted to build a traditional house in an ancient village, his planning department refused. So he applied instead to build an ultra-modern home out of sight, below ground. They said yes. Graham Norwood reports
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The Independent Online

Dry-stone walls line the lanes, the 16th-century St Mary's Church dominates the horizon and the local yellow-pink Ham stone is seen at its best on the 200-year-old Lord Nelson pub. This is rural life at its liveliest; signs promote an imminent ploughing contest and weather-worn posters publicise a recent flower show.

Dry-stone walls line the lanes, the 16th-century St Mary's Church dominates the horizon and the local yellow-pink Ham stone is seen at its best on the 200-year-old Lord Nelson pub. This is rural life at its liveliest; signs promote an imminent ploughing contest and weather-worn posters publicise a recent flower show.

Despite the history, if you open the gates of the centuries-old herb garden in the middle of the village you are in for a startling - and much more contemporary - surprise. Because here lies a vast, 3,000-sq ft ultra-modern house made of glass, brick and steel. It is built on two levels but because the ground has been lowered by eight feet, neither the walls nor the dramatic metal roof are visible from the road.

Once inside, you are presented with a 21st-century interior of the kind seen more usually in swish central-London apartments. Hardwood floors, glass walls, granite surfaces, sunken baths and under-floor heating are the order of the day, despite Norton sub Hamdon being a Somerset village where lathe and plaster still rule the roost.

Now this house is being feted as a model of its kind. It is about to feature in a TV documentary on building design, and has been short-listed for an award by an architectural journal. But the property, constructed by and for local builder Kevin Morris, is not so much his brainchild as the unexpected offspring of a stormy one-year relationship he got into with his local planning department.

"Most of the village is a conservation area with dozens of listed buildings. So when I bought the land I naturally wanted to build a traditionally designed house made out of Ham stone. But the planners just didn't want it,'' says Morris, whose construction firm specialises in traditional properties.

The planners' worries were typical of those that exist in many villages these days. They were concerned that a modern home would be too tall to fit in with the skyline established by older properties; that its density would be too great compared with a nearby old manor house; and that it would look out of place with the listed and beautiful herb garden walls that surround it.

"I was left with a choice.'' says Morris. "I could have taken a storey off my plans, but then the house would have been too small for my family and wouldn't have been worth the expense. Or I could rethink the project, create a big modern home, and build it into the ground so that it wasn't visible from beyond the garden wall.''

So having been turned down when he sought planning permission for a classic house with mullioned windows and local stone, he then won agreement for a steel-framed property featuring 16,000 modern bricks, a zinc roof and a ring of windows running around the upper floor of the building.

"The planners were happy with all of this, just so long as it wasn't visible from the road. That was their obsession,'' Morris claims.

So he excavated an estimated 1,000 tons of soil from the half-acre site as he laid foundations down to three-and-a-half metres below the ground. Bad weather forced him to work knee-deep in water during the early stages - perhaps unwisely he started building in the winter of 2002 - and a series of delays meant the house took 12 months to build.

The finishing touch was a series of hand-cut Ham coping stones reclaimed from a local architectural salvage yard and identical to the material he would have used if his original plan had been approved. "I wanted to get it in somewhere,'' he says.

Morris, his wife and two young children have been living in the completed property for a year. The house - they have called it The Herb Garden - has five bedrooms, a double garage, a futuristic sprinkler system, a jacuzzi and above all, a real sense of space. The ground-floor reception rooms sweep together to provide 41 feet of living space, while outside there are lawns and a large partly covered patio area. The first floor is flooded with natural light and there is a huge flat roof on top of the building that would be ideal as a terrace, although Morris cannot pluck up the courage to formalise the arrangement in case the planners say that it could be seen from the road.

All Morris wants is a buyer. Of course, the price is a fraction of what a home like this would cost in its more customary habitat of London. But even without the current slowing market to complicate matters, it may take time to find the right person who wants to purchase a futuristic urban dwelling in a charming rural environment.

Morris wants to sell to fund another new home he plans to build nearby for his family. It will replicate the size of the current house but will sit in larger grounds and be of a much more traditional design. His drawings are almost complete and the land is already in his ownership. There's just one hitch - so far, he has not applied for planning permission.

The Herb Garden is on sale for £695,000 through Bradford & Bingley on 01460 241880.

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