A fortysomething man with bright blonde, en brosse hair, dressed in jeans and baggy shirt, emerges from the chopper. Meet Jeremy Paxton, developer, is here with his finance director and auditor, whom he treats to a high-speed tour of the site in a golf buggy. Afterwards, there's just about time for a quick chat with Building before he leaps back into his shiny helicopter and returns to the sky.
Disturbing the tranquility of the Cotswolds could be something of a habit for Paxton, the driving force behind a project to develop 545 holiday homes on 100 acres of a 500-acre, environmentally sensitive site at Somerford Keynes in Gloucestershire. Not surprisingly, the development has been contentious with the locals and it became the subject of a three-year planning battle, during which Paxton argued that the site should be considered brownfield as it had previously been used for gravel extraction – never mind its rich population of wildlife.
Having won his case, Paxton's own building contractor, Conservation Builders, is in the second stage of constructing the Lower Mill Estate, which is expected to be a 10-year project. But what they are building could have the dowagers in those Cotswold tea shops spitting their Earl Grey over the linen doilies.
Although the 82-unit first stage, named Mill Village, comprised Cotswold cottages, the second, Clearwater, is going modern. Ninety-nine units with flat and variable-pitch roofs, render exteriors and open-plan living spaces feature in the designs by architect Richard Reid and Associates, which draw some inspiration from the work of US architect Rudolf Schindler. And if this isn't enough to ring the changes, there are also plans for hot young UK designers and US signature architect Richard Meier to create homes for the estate.
Paxton sees nothing wrong with the juxtaposition of contemporary design with the chocolate box traditional of the Cotswolds. "We don't dance to anybody's tune. We just want it to be bloody well done," he says. "I wanted to make this something architecturally stimulating, a broad canvas, an eclectic mix of architectural styles. I think you can put a modern glass building next to a Queen Anne House." Luckily, the planners agreed; Paxton describes Cotswold district council as "sweet as a nut".
Richard Reid, a director at Richard Reid and Associates, commissioned by Paxton to design the second-stage houses, says the planners were keen on a more contemporary look. "We're creating a series of defined groups of buildings."
Many of Reid's designs for Clearwater use traditional Cotswold materials – although the stone is cleanly saw-cut rather than the traditional rough rubble finish – but they also have large expanses of glazing to make the most of the estate's best feature, its lakes. Some homes are more starkly modernist, notably plot 15, a waterside villa, which is partially sitting in the lake and with a rooftop glazed study and terrace.
Even more audacious designs could be in prospect, as Reid is talking to Meier about designing a one-off house there and is assembling a list of young practices that will be invited to design others. "It was always our intention to have one or two landmark buildings," explains Reid. "We didn't want the same hand throughout the site. We want a richness. There's the opportunity for one or two one-offs to exploit the landscape." Among them will be Reid's design for the estate's swimming pool and spa, a grassed-over, gently curving hill-like building.
As Reid says, Lower Mill Estate takes its approach from US estates rather than the UK's log-cabin style holiday villages, its homes selling at an upmarket £325,000 to £1m. But the estate won't quite be the UK's answer to the Houses at Sagaponac, the embryonic US retreat in the Hamptons that will showcase the work of the world's top architects. "The next phase of development after Clearwater will be very traditional. We all like roses round the door," decrees Jeremy Paxton.
Shock of the new: Adopting to modern materials and techniquesThe name is a clue to where its strength lies. This is a firm that is not used to using steel and insitu concrete, Bullivant precast concrete piles and ground beams, Omnidec permanent formwork floor decking and Sto render.
“We’re having to reinvent the wheel. It does involve a learning curve for us,” says Chris Hutchinson, managing director of Conservation. “We’ve had to take a step back and look at what we are trying to achieve. In a cottage you can have little quirks, but the Clearwater houses are open-plan and the detailing needs to be right.”
The contractor is sticking with its existing tradespeople for Clearwater. “Our renderer hadn’t used Sto render before, so we sent him off to do a course,” says Hutchinson. “We’re not going out to market. We’d sooner work with the guys we trust.”
The two stages of housing provide a good opportunity to compare the build times and costs of the two methods of construction. “It might be a bit quicker,” says Hutchinson. “We reckon on about 11 months for the traditional cottages, but ideally we would like to build in 9-10 months. Some items have similar costs, like Sto render and lime render, so we are finding that the two sets of homes work out about the same on build cost.”
Build times may appear long, but Conservation builds to order, with buyers making stage payments, as they would in a self-build project, and plots being sold separately by landowner Lower Mill Estate, a company chaired by Paxton.
Project teamMill Village design Charles Mador Architects, Access Architects
Clearwater design Richard Reid and Associates
Contractor Conservation Builders
Infrastructure, M&E and structural engineering Scott Wilson
Landscape architect Roger Griffiths Associates