See through the keyhole of this self-build in Leigh

PUBLISHED: 13:00 25 July 2017 | UPDATED: 13:00 25 July 2017

No cushions to plump in the sitting room

No cushions to plump in the sitting room

Manu Palomeque 07977074797

As a builder, James Walker has been making other people’s dreams a reality for more than 35 years. But when it came to building his own dream house, things didn’t quite go according to plan

The spiral staircase rises up from the open, welcoming entrance hallThe spiral staircase rises up from the open, welcoming entrance hall

When James Walker and his wife Susie found the perfect place to build their dream home they were thrilled. Until the planning process started.

Having lived in the Sevenoaks area all his life, James says: “I used to come to Leigh to play with conkers on the green and walk across the fields and I think, subliminally, that was my reason for wanting to live here.”

As the plot was within a conservation area, the couple knew that any new building would have to be sensitive to its surroundings. What they didn’t anticipate was the reaction of their new neighbours.

The plot was sold for development with an old house still in situ. It was a wreck and the whole area was so overgrown it was only when they started tackling the garden that they discovered two green houses and a garage.

The dramatic solid oak spiral staircase and curved glass panelsThe dramatic solid oak spiral staircase and curved glass panels

As the director of a building company with more than 35 years’ experience, none of this fazed James and the couple looked forward to being able to sit on the balcony of their new home and watch cricket being played on the green.

It was that balcony that proved to be one of the couple’s main sticking points during the planning process. James and Susie believe the main reason they had problems gaining planning permission was because once word got out that James was a builder, people automatically assumed they were coming in to build an enormous property to sell on.

Without knowing anyone in the village, however, it was hard for them to explain that what they actually wanted was to build a home for themselves and stay in the village permanently. The external design of the property was heavily influenced by the conservation area’s restrictions, but it was the size of the proposed property that caused the planning department issues.

James says: “I work with proportions all the time when I’m building so I know what looks right. The average Joe though cannot read a set of plans. I’ve been in the game a long time and some drawings are very difficult to read and interpret.”

Everyone gathers round the L-shaped wraparound bar in the sociable kitchenEveryone gathers round the L-shaped wraparound bar in the sociable kitchen

The confusion over the size and placement of the new house resulted in fear of an eyesore being built right on the edge of the green. So, when the second lot of plans were refused, Susie decided to take a personal approach and visit everyone who’d written in with an objection to ask them what they were concerned about and find out how the issue could be resolved.

The subject of the balcony was raised several times and Susie reveals that people didn’t actually realise that although the house directly faces the green, due to the high hedge it couldn’t be seen from the house. She adds: “It just seemed madness to live on the green and not be able to see it, so that was why we made the balcony one of the main design features.”

The redesign of the house also prompted a new name as the couple felt the old one of Green Field Cottage no longer suited. James reveals how it happened: “My nickname is Pod and podium is Latin for balcony so it was a bit of fun really.”

But with hindsight Susie admits: “It was a mistake to change it before we had done the building work because people assumed that if it was going to be called Podium House, it was going to be grander. If we had stuck with the old name people might not have been so concerned about us.”

Up to 24 can sit around the antique dining tableUp to 24 can sit around the antique dining table

Fortunately, Susie’s visits seemed to have done the trick and when the plans were subsequently approved the couple had cause to celebrate. Susie says the whole process was “really dispiriting” but the experience hasn’t affected the way they feel about living here.

James adds: “We’re big enough to move on and everyone who was funny about it, that we know about, has now said it looks fantastic.”

When it came to designing the inside of the house, James says: “I drew on all the best bits I’ve seen in other peoples’ houses. We knew we wanted five bedrooms and an open living space as we have a big family and lots of mates.

“We like having big dinner parties and you can get 24 around this dining table. We also knew we wanted a nice entrance hall and staircase. The big thing was to make it look cottagey from the front and then all modern at the back.”

The smart modern main bathroomThe smart modern main bathroom

The couple also wanted to make the house eco-friendly. James explains: “We spend £30 a week on fuel and that’s all our hot water, heating and electricity. There is an air-source heat pump in the garden, which is exactly right for this type of house as it means you don’t have to have any boilers.”

There’s also a lack of radiators due to the underfloor heating system that’s been installed both up and downstairs – even under the reclaimed wooden floor imported from France.

James was also keen to have some curves and the solid oak spiral staircase in the entrance hall is a real beauty. Its smooth lines are so tactile you can’t help but lean over to touch it and its shape is echoed by the curved glass wall behind it.

The flowing lines continue upstairs where the bowed hallway leads you away from the balcony, with its view of the green and the church, and towards the rear of the property. There are four bedrooms and three bathrooms upstairs and the two rear bedrooms both have balconies overlooking the back garden.

James and Susie's bedroomJames and Susie's bedroom

When asked to describe their style James says: “We don’t have any particular labels, it’s just things we like – without clutter.”

Susie adds: “I would call my style practical. The reason we have these sofas is because they have no cushions to plump and that was the essential feature I was looking for.

“We both like nice clean shapes, actually that’s me more than James, I’m just thinking of that pineapple lamp over there which I hate.” James then points out the antique dining table: “I love it to death but Susie doesn’t.”

So, if they both have such different tastes how did they go about decorating an entire house from scratch? Apparently the answer lies with the help of a fantastic interior design couple.

Susie explains they came across Louise Trindade and Sam Bird when they were looking in a bathroom showroom in Maidstone. “They had these lovely sofas in their shop window and we went in to have a look. We got talking and realised they weren’t actually a furnishing showroom but interior designers and so we went with them for quite a few details.

“It was really useful to have a bit of consultation on colours and worktops and I knew I didn’t want a matching suite but I didn’t know how to have mismatched sofas and make it work.”

Susie adds: “We started with the spaces. Usually you start with an idea of what you want the finished room to look like and then you go from your furniture backwards. But we worked everything out from the spaces.

“Once the external walls were in place we walked around and moved a few things. We messed around quite a lot with the walls in our bathroom to make sure the shower was going to be big enough.

“Then when I realised that I wanted all tall units in the kitchen, it made sense to have a wall so you don’t see the units. I was also going to have an island but we changed it (to an L-shaped wraparound bar) and I’m very glad we did for lots of reasons.

“It slightly demarcates the kitchen so when we’re entertaining there’s a private cooking area. It’s also a lovely social area as people naturally stand and sit there and it’s a great serving space too.”

Now all the major work is finished, apart from the garden, are James and Susie happy with their new home? wSusie smiles: “I think we’ve got everything we want. Life is so much easier if the house is easy to run and life flows through it.”

James adds: “And I’ve got my garage for my motorbikes. We’re chuffed to bits really. We still pinch ourselves every day and say this is fantastic, and that’s after four years.”

Get the look

The builder

The house, and many of the features inside, were designed and built by James Walker and his professional team:

Integrated Building Services Limited, Podium House, The Green, Leigh TN11 8QN, 01732 835333

The interior designers

Louise Trindade and Sam Bird, Trindade & Bird Limited, Unit 5Downs Court, Yalding Hill, Maidstone ME18 6AL, 01622 815 411

Glass wall bricks

The curved glass wall was built using Saint Gobain bricks supplied by Travis Perkins. There are 19 branches in Kent, so use the branch finder at to find the one closest to you.


Howdens Joinery Sevenoaks, Unit A Cramptons Road, Sevenoaks TN14 5EF, 01732 459425,

Sofas and bathroom fittings

The sofas and all the bathroom furnishings in the main bathroom were sourced by Trindade and Bird Limited (see above).

The tiles were supplied by Topps Tiles. Use the handy store finder tool at to locate your local branch.

Bedroom furniture

The dark wooden furniture in James and Susie’s bedroom and the pineapple lamp in the sitting room were sourced from Laura Ashley. Once again, there are several branches in Kent so please check the store locator at to find the nearest branch to you.

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