An ideal habitat
PUBLISHED: 13:01 17 June 2014
This energy-efficient, contemporary home, with its open plan living area and spectacular views, is an impressive award winner
This online retail site sells mostly British native plants, wildflower seeds, native aquatic plants, old varieties of orchard and woodland trees. Nick and Caroline Mann promote a network of growers and nurseries and half the profits from online sales go to conservation charities.
Nick says: “Our large scale projects include persuading solar farm developers to put wildflowers in between the solar panels to enhance biodiversity. It turns out that solar farms are a fantastic resource for wildlife.
“Our key message is that we are all able to do our bit to put back some endangered native habitats.”
Nick Mann describes himself as a refugee from the city who moved down to Somerset with his family 14 years ago.
His job with a bank had taken them to Japan and Switzerland but Nick had become fed up with ‘the big bang thing’ and he set up his own business with partners in London and Tokyo while living in an old rectory just outside Bruton.
Eventually Nick, who was still working long hours and travelling a great deal, decided it was time to consider a lifestyle change. The result was the launch of a new venture called Habitat Aid, selling British native trees, plants and seeds.
It was also the right moment for Nick and Caroline and their three children to find a new home.
“We loved the rectory and spent a lot of time and TLC over it but we couldn’t afford to run it anymore,” explains Nick.
“As our eldest two children were growing up and not around as much we were rattling around in a huge house and we thought that this was wrong ethically as much as economically.
“But we couldn’t afford to buy anywhere that we liked and we were quite particular about where we wanted to be.”
The answer was to create something new on the site of a former cottage in an area of Somerset they knew well. Hookgate Cottage is set in glorious countryside in South East Somerset, and has stunning views across to Alfred’s Tower on the Stourhead estate.
And as an energy efficient, low environmental impact building, their new home also embodies the values promoted in Nick and Caroline’s business.
Hookgate Cottage has even won the architects a Best Self Build award from Build It magazine.
“We had the good fortune to find a really good firm of architects called Orme,” says Nick.
“It is based in Street and specialises in new builds and contemporary design and they administered the main contract with the builders, Qube in Taunton.
“We also used a number of local sub-contractors - stoves and related kit came from Shepton Mallet, glass from Wells and the log lift, external stairs and wood cladding came from Bridgwater.
“The design incorporates some of the material from the old house that was here before, such as tiles and stone.”
The result is a stunning, modern property which Nick and Caroline describe as a very functional house.
“It’s a very contemporary house but it’s not precious,” says Caroline.
“We’re not that tidy so it couldn’t be minimalist!”
Nick adds: “We’ve got two great big dogs and they bring mud in. And it’s a family home. We’re not weekenders, we’re living here, and the architects understood that. The spaces they’ve created for us are very functional.”
The views are incredible from the large windows and the family has become much more in tune with the elements, as Caroline explains.
“You can see the weather coming over and just notice things much more. You also get amazing rainbows all the way over Alfred’s Tower.”
As if on cue, two military helicopters appear, adding additional drama to the Somerset skyline.
Last year, the family enjoyed a first summer at Hookgate Cottage. “It was heaven, just like being on holiday in the Mediterranean,” recalls Caroline.
“But it’s so warm in here in winter that on a cold and frosty morning you have no idea of the temperature outside!”
Hookgate Cottage is heated by a combination of solar gain, a wood pellet boiler and three wood burners – one in the basement, a stove in the lounge area and a wood burning range in the kitchen.
Solar panels generate electricity for a heat recovery system that circulates air around the house, cleverly equalizing the temperature, reducing humidity and bringing fresh air in.
“Essentially what you don’t want to do in a very well insulated house is get hot and open a window,” explains Nick.
“So you need a system to circulate and bring fresh air in without losing your heat and vice versa in the summer; you want a system of bringing fresh air into the house but keeping it relatively cool.”
Now that work has finished on the house, Nick is turning his attention to the garden and landscaping is taking shape. There is even a wildflower garden on the roof!
The house is already starting to blend into its surroundings, says Nick. “The wood will gradually silver and the house has already settled into the landscape if you look at it from Alfred’s Tower. We often walk up there and find it is difficult to see the house now.”