Architect Piers Taylor had always wanted to live off the beaten track. For many years he thought he would end up taking his family from England to Australia—where he once lived and studied—to find a perfect home in the bush, away from everything. But when he came across Moonshine, a former gamekeeper’s cottage tucked away in the woods, four miles outside the city of Bath, he knew a continental shift wouldn’t be necessary. With no direct access from the road, the original stone house with a castellated rooftopis reached via a ten-minute walk along a path through the forest and is graced with sweeping views across the green valley spread out below. "I first went to see the place holding our daughter Lily in a shopping basket when she was just days old," says Piers, who now has two children with his wife Sue, along with his first daughter Imogen. "I got more and more excited as I walked down the path to the house, and when I opened the gate and saw the setting and the views, I knew I wanted to live there immediately. I was affected by it like no other place I have ever been to. Within five minutes I had offered near to the asking price."
The family had been living in an end-of-terrace cottage in a nearby village, which they were fast outgrowing. They were thinking about moving to a quieter area, but needed to be near Bath, where Piers has his practice—Mitchell Taylor Workshop—and also teaches. "He came back from seeing the house and told me he’d put in an offer, which is classic Piers," says Sue. "He had the vision to see the potential of the site. At the time, the path seemed a very long way from the little hamlet where we park our car, but Piers is very good at persuading people, and I soon realized it was definitely the right thing. We moved in during the summer of 2002, and it felt like home very quickly."
Today the house looks rather different: a striking contrast between the original 1780s cottage and a large timber-framed addition whose tin cladding and banks of glass give the effect of a semitransparent shed opening up to the landscape. The extension not only succeeds in creating a working home for a family of five, but compellingly combines the old stone cottage with the contemporary belvedere. With the Taylors now putting the final touches on the house, Moonshine represents a journey of six years since Piers first saw the property.
After two years of tidying and fixing up the place, Piers began to feel the pressure to expand: Imogen, now 17, and Lily, now seven, were sharing one of the two bedrooms when Sue found out she was pregnant with Archie, now three. "We thought we just had to have more bedroom space," says Sue. "We went through lots of different plans and looked at different budgets. We started modestly but then decided that if we were going to build down here then it was going to be challenging in terms of the logistics and access, and so really we should build as much as we could all at once."
Piers decided that a lightweight raised structure would best suit the site and get around the problems of building on unsteady land liable to subsidence, and went to work developing plans for a two-story pavilion overlooking the valley below. The extension would include two more bedrooms and two bathrooms upstairs, and a large, open-plan living room, dining area, and kitchen on the ground floor.
The family moved out during construction, and, after a month of dealing with difficult contractors, Piers decided to oversee the construction himself. "It was actually incredibly liberating to say I will build my own house," says Piers. "It was also a catalyst to resign from my old job with a larger firm and set up my own practice, partly to build my own house. I thought it was really important to get involved in the construction, to be hands-on, and to see that it was done right."
Although Piers was able to find a local builder and a timber-framing specialist to do most of the work, the house’s relative inaccessibility proved to be the greatest obstacle, as it made transporting materials very difficult. Even his relatively minimal, lightweight design would still require concrete foundations, heavy timbers, and thousands of component parts. The team managed to get a truck up through a neighboring field to lay the foundations and used a crane to help erect the green oak frame, but everything else had to come along the path by wheel-barrow. "The most stressful thing about the whole experience was actually coaxing people down that path," says Piers. "I wouldn’t tell people when we placed orders that we had no proper access because otherwise they just wouldn’t turn up. Getting the oak frame down was the hardest; some sections weigh nearly a ton and had to be brought down on a trolley. It was madness but we managed it."
After six months in exile, the family moved back into their radically reinvented home on time and on budget. Inside, materials are purposefully raw—echoing the barnlike simplicity of the extension—with plywood sections for the walls and floors and bare plaster ceilings. The whole space is bathed in light upstairs and down, with no need for curtains or shutters given the house’s relative isolation. The family has plenty of space and the world is spread out before them, literally, in the valley below.
"It’s very much a simple, direct way of building that responds to the site, weather patterns, orientation, and the desire to spill outside easily," says Piers. "It’s also a version of an antipodean pole house, raised up above the ground, which is quite Australian, but here it’s clad in black tin, which is a reference to the black barns down in the valley. It is very rooted in this landscape and the site. I wanted to do a building that was really about this place."
"The house has become part of our daily rhythm," says Sue. "It does force you to live according to the daylight hours and the seasons much more than being in a house in the city. You are so close to the elements and nature. We can stand in the kitchen and see deer, munkjack, and woodpeckers and hear the owls at night."
Even the path has become a positive element of the Taylors’ day-to-day ritual. "There is something magical for us about that walk—every day, through thick or thin, we make that walk," Piers says. "It feels utterly right to be down in the woods, and [the children] don’t know anything else but Moonshine." Seamlessly blending the vintage with the modern, Moonshine manages to make the unlikely union seem as natural as its surroundings and—to Piers and his family—nearly as impressive.
Whilst traipsing through the woods in search of Piers Taylor's 18th-century gamekeeper's cottage, writer and frequent Dwell contributor Dominic Bradbury found himself wishing that he had packed breadcrumbs in addition to the de rigueur tools of reportage. "I remember being very struck by the journey, and wondering whether I was taking the right path. It's all rather Hansel and Gretel, but suddenly, through the trees, you're rewarded with this rather brave, new, and contemporary house."