Going, going, gone: This is why one of Harpenden's most expensive homes ever has been demolished
PUBLISHED: 11:02 24 May 2018 | UPDATED: 11:50 24 May 2018
The disappearance of Hertfordshire's most expensive home of 2016 surprised many locals. Richard Burton took a look behind the iron gates
But shortly after the nine-bedroom, seven-reception room period pile that is Highlands changed hands - a demolition team moved in and flattened it.
And for the past few months work has been under way at what has become Harpenden’s most intriguing building site.
So what’s going on behind the hoardings and hedgerows on Annables Lane, above which towers a bright yellow and high-tech robot crane?
First of all, this doesn’t appear to be a routine tear-down, to coin a phrase used widely in planning circles; where developers buy-up plots, raze tired, old properties and replace them with multiple, often taller and deeper ones, to maximise their return.
This was clearly something of a jewel in the crown of the local property market and the four-acre plot on which it sat, enjoyed arguably one of the best positions for miles, set among similarly exclusive homes just outside the most sought-after of towns on a country lane within a blackberry-picking stroll of Junction 9 of the M1.
In fact, I understand that the buyer, Jonathan Hufford, founder and CEO of the sports spread betting company Spreadex, initially considered refurbishment, calling in one of the area’s leading luxury property developers shortly before contracts were exchanged.
That was Stewart Cutmore, who runs Harpenden-based Gable Construction, a firm behind 18 of the million-pound plus homes on West Common and someone recently honoured in the NHBC’s coveted Pride in the Job awards.
He recalls his first impressions: “It was a beautiful, substantial house. The owners had extended it by something like 40 to 50 per cent. You opened the door and were faced with a beautiful staircase and large 1930s open fireplaces.”
I wrote on these pages at the time of the sale that the accommodation, arranged as it was over three floors, with three staircases “had been designed for flexible, modern living”.
But, he explains, the layout had created effectively two distinct living styles, something his client was keen to change.
“From that point of view, it was disjointed,” he said. “There was a visual difference between the original building and what had been bolted on.
“To the right, it was very modern with huge rooms as opposed to many different ones on the other side. The house didn’t seem to flow. There was a corridor effect to get from room to room.
“For what Jonathan was trying to achieve, it was difficult to see how we could make it work so the sensible thing was to knock it down and start again.”
Mr Cutmore consulted architect Michael Hardiman of Aspley Guise and, six months later, a planning application went in for a “grand” seven-bedroom house, complete with traditional high ceilings and roughly remaining within the original footprint – around 10,000 square feet of it, incidentally – so as not to encroach further into the Green Belt.
But the interesting detail lay in the technology, a key factor in many tear-down projects which make full use of the chance to start again, free from the restrictions of merely upgrading. And, in particular in this case, the ‘green’ elements that are being integrated.
One such is the ground-source heat pump which uses the constantly warm subsoil temperatures to drive the underfloor heating via buried pipes. Renewable heat, in other words.
Then there’s a heat recovery system which will replace stale air with fresh and a modern solar thermal system, the sort that doesn’t rely totally on direct sunlight, which will provide much of the hot water.
Even the soon-to-be-laid gardens will benefit. They’ll be watered via a 12,000-litre tank which will collect rainfall from the roof.
Mr Hufford was keen to re-use as much of the old house as possible, retaining such things as fireplaces and light fittings. Even the original door knocker has been kept for possible re-use.
As much of a shock as it may have been to see such a property demolished, care does seem to have been taken to remove and protect, as the process took almost five months - a far cry from a typical family detached that came down a few streets away in Wood End last month. I watched that disappear from sight in little more than a day.
A look at the plans reveals that all rooms have been designed to accommodate the sort of high ceilings you’d expect in a traditional home of this kind. And externally, certain features are being included to maintain the look.
They included deep vertical sash windows with display arches, an imposing stone portico at the front entrance, statement quoins punctuating the brickwork and period-style ‘blind’ windows to the side.
There’s a single storey ‘wrap around’ extension to the far side, and what is not visible from the image here, is another single-storey addition to the rear with end-to-end roof lanterns.
During the planning process, St Albans District Council considered a report by arboriculture experts which showed that nine trees and one short section of hedge would need to be removed but it concluded: “they were mainly [in] poor condition anyway”.
It also considered another report, by the local authority-funded advisory service, Hertfordshire Ecology, which revealed the presence of roosting bats in the roof, so a mitigation strategy had to be devised to look after them.
I met Mr Hufford briefly on site recently and he pointed out a series of bat boxes placed around the site to accommodate every one of them.
He also showed me the two original outbuildings – a garage block and another which houses the swimming pool – which are being retained although externally, every brick and tile will be replaced to match the style of the new house.
So what is there to see now? To date, most of the construction work has so far been at, or below, surface level, expanding the small basement to incorporate a wine cellar and plant room and establishing the ground floor layout, in Mr Cutmore’s words, “up to DPC [Damp Proof Course] level”.
The next few months will see the work visibly gain momentum with, for example, nine bricklayers on site until at least July and working towards a target completion date of next spring.
That will no doubt be of interest to the many passers-by in an area popular with joggers, hikers and dog walkers. What isn’t entirely clear are the long-terms plans for it, but given the current economic uncertainty, that’s hardly surprising.
What is possible, though, is that this secluded property, visible only fleetingly from a side entrance cut between high hedges on the corner of Annables and Kinsbourne Green Lanes, may well make more of an impact.
Mr Hufford has bought an adjoining three-quarter acre piece of grassland facing the common which, longer term, gives him the option of creating a grand driveway.
Either way, it’s a space worth watching . . .