Family Branches and Garden Roots
Typically it’s a fierce attachment to a family house which leads to building a home in the grounds for grandparents, but not so for Tom Howard, co-director and founder of Stroud based architect Millar + Howard Workshop (MHW) and his wider family. It was a shared, deep love for the garden which galvanised the generations and propagated the building of a place for his parents; Philip and Judy Howard.
Navigating the issues of downsizing, moving into the family home whilst considering other siblings, let alone embarking on designing a home for your parents isn’t easy, but the Howards seemed to navigate it all incredibly well. Carefully considering each other and communicating often and openly seemed to be the key to making this move so successful. Their situation isn’t unusual; the younger family would benefit from the space of the house and garden but the outside space could provide a separate home for the grandparents — and these circumstances are seemingly gaining momentum as house prices and life spans increase.
In 1984 when Tom was 7, his parents bought the “main” house; a big renovation project nestled at the head of a Cotswold valley. Over the decades it was lovingly restored — having housed tenants for over half a century, and Tom’s father, a garden designer, made an exceptional garden (open annually for the National Garden Scheme). The whole site is an idyllic, peaceful setting on the edge of a pretty Cotswold village, looking out across fields and woods. It’s no wonder his parents were reluctant to leave, and Tom and his wife Emma wanted to explore how it may be possible to bring up their own family there.
Five years ago the family candidly discussed options to share the house and not sever Philip from the garden. It was important to them to think long term and realise the proximity to each other as well as the permanency of the adaptations and the boundaries which would need to be created. It’s one thing, Judy astutely discerned, building an infrequently used guest house in the garden. It’s quite another building a perennial home for parents (and in-laws!) to reside in for many years.
Judy decided to walk up the valley opposite to gain perspective on the site as well as their altering lives. She felt strongly that it was socially, culturally and ethically wrong for them to be in the big house still when there was a young family that could gain so much from it, just as her children had. It was an issue of justice for her. She looked at the spot where they ultimately built their new house and for the first time imagined a pretty cottage there. It was hidden from the family home but still took in the views of the valley and the garden. She could see her new life immediately and Philip was able to give a practical perspective on the gradient of the land and access, happily concluding it could work.
Tom then developed designs which respected the hopes and dreams of each constituent part of the house and garden and all those involved in it from the youngest child to visiting guests. Judy and Philip wanted their new home to be full of life and family and friends so the layout was planned with hospitality very much in mind. The garden truly acts as an extra room, with brollies and blankets at hand if there’s rain or wind! The spaces inside are versatile too, for example, there’s a large mezzanine landing with a sofa. It’s normally occupied by grandchildren giggling and tickling and sharing silly jokes while the grown-ups are downstairs being somewhat more sedate and less rowdy. It’s often occupied by rows of kids in sleeping bags but it can also be a quiet space, bathed in afternoon sun, perfect for reading, contemplation or even a nap.
The inclusion of the garden within the design and connecting the house to the outside space, to the wild and natural world was very important to the whole family. Many hours have been dedicated to and within the garden and continue to be. Projects are undertaken outside to occupy creative skills and are found by all members of the Howard clan to be restorative and regenerative. It’s a place where they can share, and be, and talk intergenerationally whether it’s watching a cricket match between the grandchildren or the boys observing and learning from Philip installing a (significant) set of steps in the garden, or naming plants, or observing the habits of the chickens, or harvesting vegetables…. It allows them all to be independent as individuals or as households while sharing the garden and will hopefully allow them all, in the future to continue that vision — of sharing and the generations passing on the land and homes.
Changing the uses of the spaces with different activities or uses during the Covid 19 lockdown added structure to an otherwise undefined day. Judy muses that the house has been kind to them during this time, giving them permission to manage this strange era. She was pleased they had taken the time to carefully consider the spaces during the early stages because although she found the design process fun, it was also stressful and times and could be overwhelming. Every single item needs to be decided and nobody can do that except the clients. There are options for everything, even for Cotswold stone, there are colours and quarries to choose from and then windows, door handles, plug locations and skirting boards: wood or painted, then what type of wood or paint finish then what colour….it’s endless and takes its toll. It’s hard work but it’s a cyclical element of learning and reaping rewards made it all worthwhile. It was overwhelming at times but has ultimately been a success for them all.
Tom was able to provide practical advice and insight into how deeply affecting building a home can be for clients. Judy found the most helpful suggestion from Tom was recommending a walk around the current house asking themselves how the spaces function for them and if these uses will need to feature in their new life and home. Then to ask themselves about all the objects they wanted to keep in the new house and why. Clearing the old house was, of course, emotional at times but Judy allowed herself to let go of the memories by lamenting and releasing old layers of the life they once lived. They managed to bring with them only the most truly meaningful and practical elements.
When the clients and the architect are all so familiar with the site; the sun’s path and the planting; the undulations and the wildlife cycles; the deeply rooted soul of the site and its occupants, the result is an extraordinary collaboration of visionary input at a spiritual level. Judy remembered how on Pentecost Sunday this year the family from all three generations gathered together in the garden and planted an oak sapling. They all shared facts about oak trees and pondered together how they are reflective of their own living arrangements as oaks provide a safe habitat for various creatures spanning many years. The Howard generations together represent the past, the present and the future and the new sapling a symbol of hope. That tree now stands as a metaphor of the situation they find themselves in: building new and retaining old. The connection to each other and nature, Judy feels, is hugely life-giving. Together they are able to share and enjoy a garden of Eden in the Cotswolds.