Force of nature: inside a sustainable home in the New Forest

The Clay Retreat, as the name suggests, was conceived as a place of refuge – an exhale made of oak, polished concrete and plaster. Situated in the New Forest a few miles outside Lymington, it belongs to Emi and Oscar Peterson, and their two children, Lina, 12, and Tom, 16.

The family fell in love with the area in 2014. “We rented a cottage here for a week in the summer – just the four of us and the dog – and we loved it. When we returned to London, we started to imagine what it would be like to have a place of our own down here.”

Two years later, a local estate agent showed Emi and Oscar around a single-storey cottage. “He described it as quirky,” recalls Emi. What he meant was ramshackle and disjointed. The cottage had been haphazardly extended, with a conservatory that was either too hot or too cold and a single bathroom that was located at the wrong end of the house.

The couple approached local architects, PAD studio, to help them make sense of the L-shaped floorplan. “The New Forest District Council has strict planning restrictions, so we wanted to work with architects who knew the local area,” Emi explains. To their surprise, the planning authority suggested they knock the cottage down and build a new, sustainable and cohesive home on the footprint of the old. “In Japan, where I’m from, building your own home isn’t a big deal,” says Emi. “So, while we weren’t expecting to have to rebuild the whole house, we were keen and happy to take on the challenge.”

Their brief was uncomplicated. “Our children were six and nine at the time, so we wanted a family-friendly home that was easy to maintain,” Emi explains. “And while the garden isn’t massive, it was always full of birds, so we wanted to maintain a connection between the inside and outside space.” In just two weeks, the existing building was razed to the ground. “That was quite shocking,” Emi recalls. “I remember thinking: ‘What have we done? We’ve just bought it and now it doesn’t exist!’”

In the new layout, an open-plan, double-height kitchen, dining and living area occupies one side of the L-shape; two bedrooms, a family bathroom and en suite master bedroom occupy the other. The design quietly references Emi’s Japanese heritage. Sliding pocket doors and a brick floor in the utility room form a modern interpretation of the traditional Japanese genkan – an entryway that demarcates the threshold between the shoes-on and shoes-off spaces.

Beyond the brick threshold, a vast concrete hearth lines one end of the room while doubling up as storage space in the utility room behind the fireplace. Notably, there is no TV. Instead, a concealed projection screen extends over the concrete room divider in the living room. “It’s quite clever,” says Emi. “You can really only see the screen when it gets dark, which limits the amount of TV we watch.” A timber-clad mezzanine makes use of the generous ceiling height above.

Beyond the mezzanine is an unexpectedly bright kitchen. “I worried that that corner of the house would be dark,” says Emi. “In fact, it’s not dark at all, but we went for this coral pink kitchen all the same.”

Natural materials have been used throughout to soften the polished concrete floor and tie the two areas of the home together. A bespoke balustrade is wrapped in handwoven sisal rope and the walls and ceilings are handwashed in natural clay plaster. A glazed hallway lines the entire internal boundary of the L-shape, drawing in natural light and connecting the interiors with the garden beyond.

Outside, a covered, wooden walkway also references Emi’s heritage. “My family home in Japan also has one.” In the garden, a pond has been created next to the house. “When Tom was younger, he would spend hours peering through a low-level window, gazing at the fish in the water.”

For the Petersons, the Clay Retreat has become a place to switch off from city life. “As soon as I come off the motorway, I start to feel relaxed,” says Emi. “We don’t have any plans here – we just come together, we walk in the forest, we cycle or go to the beach. It’s special to have that time together.”