The master craftsman

Hester Lacey meets a builder in Dorset whose commitment to traditional architectural techniques is enhancing the countryside
Click to follow

The first inkling that Michael Parker Homes is a company with its foundations firmly in the countryside comes when the founder himself bounces cheerfully into the office laden with eggs from his own hens and ducks, which he proceeds to distribute liberally to the staff.

The first inkling that Michael Parker Homes is a company with its foundations firmly in the countryside comes when the founder himself bounces cheerfully into the office laden with eggs from his own hens and ducks, which he proceeds to distribute liberally to the staff.

Driving across the beautiful Dorset countryside to visit some of the houses he has built is a stop-start business. His enthusiasm is such that he frequently has to pull into the side of the road to explain, using his hands, just how the frame fits under a thatched roof or how a brick chimney can pull away from the walls of an ancient cob cottage. And he will halt at a second's notice to point out an especially good example of brick-and-flint work.

Michael Parker's expertise in Dorset's traditional techniques stems from his 40-odd years in the building trade, particularly from the days when he used to renovate old cottages for a living. Now, however, he builds new houses, using traditional materials: reclaimed bricks and tiles, stone, flint, beams and thatch. The resulting homes blend perfectly into the local landscape.

Parker reckons his success is at least in part due to the fact that he is an artist manqué. He loved art at school and now has his own home studio and there is no reason, he says, why new-build homes cannot be as beautiful as traditional ones - though most builders, he says, can't see his point. "I used to work for other people, but they had no feel for aesthetic values, they'd just build houses," he says.

His own approach is very different. "Look, that's pure Dorset design," he says proudly of his development at Foster's Meadow, just behind his own offices in the pretty village of Winterborne Whitechurch near Blandford Forum. Here he has used a typical basic mixture of brick-and-flint, stone and render to create a quintessential piece of village style. But it's for the careful details that his eye is sharpest. The roofs are finished with reclaimed decorative tiles, with yellow lichen already in place. Although the development, which includes a proportion of attractive social housing, is only 18 months old, it has none of the raw look of most new builds.

This doesn't mean, however, that Parker is backward-looking; indeed, he is a great technical innovator. One of the problems he faced was achieving the higher interior ceilings demanded by modern buyers, without sacrificing the roof depth that makes thatching look so attractive from outside. He developed a whole new way of structuring his roofs to get round this one.

He proudly points out that he has been made an honorary member of the Master Thatchers' Association. He was also instrumental in developing the Dorset Model, a safety standard that involves inserting a fire-resistant board between a thatched roof and the interior of the house, to reduce the damage risk if the worst should happen.

Parker first started out in the building trade as a labourer. "Then I became a bricklayer, then a ganger with 40 trowels working for me," he recalls. "But the people I worked for just had no idea. I'd come home moaning every day. So I started working for myself; I'd buy old cottages, do them up and improve them, so I know everything there is to know about old properties. Then about 15 years ago I thought: 'What about building new ones? Take the designs from the past and take them into the future!' and we took off from there."

Since then, he says, he has never completed a house that hasn't been sold in advance (prices range from around £200,000 up to £700,000). The company today is very much a family affair. Michael Parker works with his wife, son, daughter, brother and brother-in-law. He now employs 21 people, and more than 100 regular sub-contractors, and Michael Parker Homes runs its own joinery too. "We make all our own doors and kitchens," he says, "and when it comes to our sub-contractors, we like to work with people that we know."

Where possible, he still tries to combine old buildings with new, as he is doing at his current development at Slape Mill near Bridport. The conversion here is a former flax mill, and the old turbine and mill leat are still in place, beneath the entry to one of the six substantial terraced homes in the former mill building. The entire end of the mill had to be taken down and rebuilt, using the original bricks, but the "new" wall is still a sturdy two-feet thick, as it has been for centuries. Inside, the houses are fitted out with wood-burning stoves, slate and wood floors, oak kitchens and roll-top baths. The "new-old" look might not suit those looking for a truly antique feel, but, says Michael Parker, he is not aiming for a fake "olde-worlde" effect. "These are new homes built to a very high standard that have the look of the past. I like to call it looking forward to the past."

The mill cottage has also been sympathetically extended and converted into a comfortable dwelling, and on the four new-build homes, again it's the details that tell: keystones above the windows here, a dental course of decorative bricks there, interior walls that are rounded, not sharply squared off. Michael Parker is currently expanding his business to the west, out as far as Exeter and maybe beyond. His main difficulty is always finding enough suitable land, he says. "I'd love to build a whole village if I could. That would be wonderful."

Michael Parker Homes Limited 01258 881555, www.thatchcottages.com

Comments