How to downsize and modernize

Ruth Bloomfield meets Julia and Peter Acornley – the empty nesters who swapped period for contemporary when they downsized their home.


When Judy and Peter Acornley’s children left home they realised, like generations of empty nesters before them, that a five-bedroom Edwardian family home was too roomy. Their solution to the problem was to build a contemporary house in the same town where they had brought up their two boys.

In the process they divested themselves of almost all their possessions, saw their timetable spiral, and had to cope when their builders went bust mid-project. And even though their award-winning new house is much smaller than their old, it actually turned out to be significantly more expensive.

They have no regrets. “It is absolutely brilliant,” says Peter, seated in the immaculate white kitchen he helped install himself. “It is a wonderful place to live, and by building this house I realised a lifetime’s ambition.”

Although the 66 year-olds – Peter was a typographic designer and Judy a paediatric nurse – had long nurtured a pipe-dream of building a bespoke house, their road to realising their ambition began with a fluke.

The couple live in Bushey, Hertfordshire, and wanted to stay in the area where their two sons and three grandchildren also live. Judy is a keen supporter of the Bushey Museum, and at the end of 2005 she heard of a plan to dismantle a listed artists’ studio and rebuild it in the grounds of the museum. Cogs began to whirr.

“I realised that if they moved the studio then the land would be vacant,” she says. And luckily, it was owned by someone they knew. A gentleman’s agreement was reached, and the Acornleys began a hunt for an architect, eventually settling on a practice, Duggan Morris Architects (

“I don’t think they could believe that a couple of old sods like us wanted a really contemporary house,” says Peter.

The design process was eased by the fact that they had spent years discussing their perfect home. “It was to be modern, light and airy,” says Judy. “We knew the size we wanted – three bedrooms – and we wanted the downstairs to be open plan. We wanted something innovative, that was for the two of us but with room for guests to come and stay.”

They were also keen for the house to be made of red brick, despite the fact that pristine white render and acres of glass might seem a more obvious palette for a modern home.

“I just like it as a material,” says Peter. “And it would fit with the context around here. It is also very low maintenance, you don’t have to keep on painting it.”

Joe Morris, a director of Duggan Morris, has noticed that old-fashioned brick is enjoying a resurgence as a modern building material.

“It is incredibly sustainable, it has a relationship to the vernacular of most areas and yet it can be highly contemporary,” he says. “It is a material that I am seeing being used more and more. It is thermally efficient, easy to recycle and, if you buy local brick, travel miles are low.”

Another benefit of brick is that it is unlikely to frighten the planners off, and indeed the Acornleys’ scheme was approved without fuss by Hertsmere Borough Council in the summer of 2006. The couple, having secured their plot for £150,000, put their Edwardian house on the market in August 2006.

They sold rapidly and for just over £600,000. With money in the bank the couple gave away almost all their furniture, feeling that it was going to be too traditional for a modern house. “Friends would come round and say: ‘Oooh, I like that sofa’, and I would just say: ‘Take it!’ ” says Judy.

The couple rented a flat nearby and the build began in the summer of 2007. They had hopes of moving in autumn 2008. In the event they did not turn the key to the door until July 2009.

“These things just always take longer than you think,” says Peter. “The ground around here is not great, all clay, so they had to insert 18 piles into the foundations, and then things just come up all the time. I hate to be flippant but when you are doing something like this and all you are doing is writing cheques, then, if something needs an extra £5,000 or £10,000, you just do it.”

The biggest hit the project took was when the building firm went bust, forcing Peter to take over as project manager, hiring the workmen already being used on the site on day rates and running the show himself.

The results are worth the sleepless nights. The property is set in a wraparound courtyard. The downstairs is open plan, but has been laid out on two different levels. The floor in the living room has been dropped – partly to increase ceiling height and partly to avoid any overlooking into the next-door property. Steps then lead up to the kitchen and the back of the house, where two sets of giant French windows lead onto the rear courtyard.

The interiors are a combination of white walls with neutral floors – brick-coloured tiles in the kitchen, wood in the living room, and beige carpeting upstairs. This understated colour scheme means that the couple’s new collection of angular modern furniture, a few old pieces, their gaily coloured kitchen chairs and artwork provides a pop of colour.

But the show-stopper is the atrium that has been cut through from the living room and master bedroom and up to a skylight, pouring light into the heart of the house.

The most obvious feature of this brick house is that from the inside it appears to be made of origami: every room is oddly shaped, with high and partly pitched roofs.

“Some new houses can be very square,” says Judy. “We liked the way these rooms are all different.” The couple had never hoped to hang on to any of the equity they had built up in their original house, which was lucky as their £600,000 budget (including the cost of the land) ended up being more like £650,000.

But the Acornleys love living there, and their dream house notched up a string of awards and commendations in 2010: it was named best house in the Brick Awards, shortlisted for the Riba EAST awards and was a finalist in the newbuild category of the Grand Design Awards.

“The building part really is a drag,” says Judy, “but all worth it in the end.”

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