Building our own home? How hard could it be?
- Credit: Amir Shah
Interior designer Kunal Trehan and his partner Thomas Hope are building a luxury residence in Sandbach. In the first of a series of exclusive articles with Cheshire Life, they share their experience so far
If you are one of the more than three million Brits who watch Channel Four’s long-running show, Grand Designs, you have probably fantasised about building your own home too; despite the pain that many of the families go through, it’s always a happy ending.
A happy ending is precisely what Kunal and Thomas are aiming for too – their wedding, now planned to take place in the grounds of their new home in summer 2022.
Kunal, 37, is the founder and creative force behind Touched Interiors, the high-end, super-glamorous interior design firm based in Manchester, but with international reach. Thomas, 32, is a ‘celebrity choice’ hair stylist with his own salon in Staffordshire and founder of on-demand mobile hair and beauty service, Artisté. This glamorous couple, who count as friends members of every Cheshire ‘set’ from TV celebrity to landed gentry, seem at first glance to be far more urban cool than countryside comfortable, yet have chosen to settle themselves in a rural idyll in Cheshire East. Both have unarguable creative flair and Kunal, of course has worked on many ground-up projects during his career. Building their own home? How hard could it be? If you’re not picturing Kevin McCloud’s face right now, pursed lips and eyebrows raised in disbelief, you’ve clearly never watched the show.
Kunal operates at the very highest end of the interior design market. His interiors are luxuriously lush; velvet and leather, burnished metallics, crystal and statement pieces. His speciality is bespoke furnishings – from made-to-order dining sets to hand-built sofas – that give his clients the perfect balance of luxe and comfort. A visit to his showroom in Manchester is an exercise in self-restraint, as everything demands to be stroked, gazed longingly upon and generally sighed over. So why an out-of-town self-build over a city-centre penthouse?
“Ever since I was a child I have wanted to build my own house,” Kunal says. “It proved impossible to find an existing property I was happy with – none are designed and built with the interior in mind – so self-build was the best solution. This way, I can ensure that the house is designed for us to live in the way to we want to live, that we don’t have to compromise on comfort or décor or any aspect of life at home. Also, we wanted somewhere to escape to. We both lead immensely busy lives and need to have a home where we can lock ourselves away and re-energise. We currently have a city-centre apartment and a house in Staffordshire, but want to settle in one place permanently. With Thomas’s businesses in Staffordshire and Manchester, and my showroom being in Manchester but my work requiring a lot of travel, we wanted to live somewhere semi-rural, but good for commuting. We looked for opportunities around Knutsford and Sandbach, as our two favourite towns that ticked all the boxes.”
In 2016 they came across an advert for a cottage near Sandbach. Long left to its own devices, nature had set about reclaiming the space.
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“We fell in love with it immediately,” Thomas says. “The plot was all totally overgrown – it was like discovering secret garden after secret garden. It backs on to a canal and to a nature reserve. We had a real vision for all the possibilities. We knew exactly what kind of house we wanted and could see that it would be possible, so we decided to go for it.”
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What Thomas and Kunal hadn’t anticipated was even buying the property would be easier said than done. Firstly, they had to go through a tender process, not having been the only ones to see its potential. Next, it had been in the same family for so long, over 400 years, it wasn’t recorded on the Land Registry. It took six months to complete the sale, and then they discovered that the land was prone to considerable flooding. The fix was the responsibility of the Canal and Waterways Trust, who stepped up and started a lengthy renovation process on drainage culverts, holding development plans up by two long years. More mud and muck and time wasted for this elegant, busy couple.
“We knew what we wanted to do, however,” Thomas says, “and so were able to have an on-site survey and have the plans for the house drawn up. We chose a local architect and submitted our design for a 6,000 square feet Georgian-style property in February 2018. It was a point-blank refusal, both on the size and the design.”
Their dream of a Georgian-style home dashed, with the planning officer advising that only a farmhouse-style building would be permitted, Kunal and Thomas headed back to the drawing board, literally.
“One key reason we wanted a Georgian-style house was the amount of light we could get into every room. So when we had to re-think, this was a driver in every conversation,” Thomas says. “What we have ended with is a sustainable, modern farmhouse. We don’t feel like we’ve lost anything. It’s smaller, but every challenge we have encountered has simply refined the end result and we’re very happy with it.”
Planning permission was finally granted in December 2018, and Kunal and Thomas commenced the build in September 2019, after meeting with 23 conditions applied by the planners, including bat surveys, nesting surveys, tree protection orders and more. Sadly, their battles weren’t over. Kunal’s father was diagnosed with cancer and started his treatment that same month, so Kunal and Thomas left the build in the hands of the local firm they had chosen to use, only calling for updates on progress. Five weeks in, with a moment to examine the site in detail, they realised that things weren’t as they should be and decided to part with their builder.
“It’s a lesson learned,” Kunal says. “At the end of the day, you are responsible for your build and need to stay right on top of everything that’s happening. We found another local firm and they have been absolutely brilliant.”
Kunal and Thomas – and their builder – had hoped to have the house fully watertight by this month, but in March, of course, it all ground to a halt. Their wedding, which had been pencilled in for summer was already looking unlikely, as a result of previous delays, and the pandemic-driven lockdown was the final cherry on the cake.
“The site had to shut down,” says Kunal. “We have delayed our wedding to 2022. The thought of planning the kind of wedding we want while all this is going on is too much, even for us. Instead, Thomas and I have been here planting trees. We want a garden wedding, and if we want a green backdrop, we have to do it ourselves. We have now seeded the lawns and started planting. So far Thomas and I have planted 50m of hedging and 18 three-meter-tall trees, each one needing to be carried across two acres. I have worked very intensively on many properties, but manual labour is a new experience.”
Thomas laughs: “It isn’t something we had ever anticipated doing ourselves, that’s for sure, but it’s been a good thing, actually. It’s helped us really connect with the land, our land. We feel so much closer to it all than had we just stepped back and watched it happen. I am so proud of what we have accomplished so far – and can’t wait for it to all start up again”
Join Kunal and Thomas again in our September issue, where we shall learn more about their decision to build a sustainable home.
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