Design, Build and Installations
Designer and builder
MST Photo Essays

Angels’ House 2007-08
Design and build by Michael Simon Toon

Rodbaston College, (Angels’ House before redevelopment)

In 2003, I met Amy Quayle, member of a proud family of Quayles, including Sir Anthony Quayle CBE (co-star of Lawrence of Arabia) and Quinton Quayle, formerly the British ambassador to Lithuania, Thailand and Laos. Amy, who was extremely hard-working, had a regular full-time job at a temp agency. She showed me the site of the former location for Rodbaston College, in Weeford, Lichfield. Amy explained to me that her immediate family was in the property development business, and that they intended to purchase this particular property for redevelopment. Their existing business plan was to construct four separate apartments for resale; this same business model of converting old buildings to multi-dwellings, had already been successful for the company several times in the past. Amy said to me, while we were looking at this abandoned school building, “I think it would make one very nice, big house.” “I think you’re right,” I replied. “I can already see the house. I would like to design it. I would like to write the business plan, and I would like to build it. I would also like you to leave your job so you can work with me.” “Okay.” she said.

Cladding construction, Angels’ House

The development company was directed by Amy’s father and her brother. They were unsurprisingly unenthusiastic when they were approached and told that they were wrong about their decision to build four flats instead of one large house. The entire company’s future depended on the success of this one project, which was to extend the company’s credit to beyond its limit. Failure would have meant bankruptcy and forfeiture of the all of the company’s assets including several properties. I wrote a detailed business plan, with drawings, market research, cost and profit projections, as well as a breakdown of existing assets belonging to the company that could be used as security against a business loan. I gave the plan to the company directors and asked them to have it formally appraised, which they did. The plan was formally appraised by three different real estate agents that universally agreed that the plan that I had written would make at least four times the profit, and it would cost less to build than the existing business proposal. They would also only need to make one sale, instead of four.

Geothermal channels being dug by my oldest friend, Wayne

I negotiated a business deal with the development company, and I agreed to be a consultant. I directed the entire project along with Amy, and I assembled a construction team that consisted of all my childhood friends, many of whom were builders; others just hard-working and competent. The building site was close to my home town, and so I was able to use all of them as a resource. The development company also provided some of the labour and the sub-contractors, but it’s worth noting that my men were the only ones remaining at the end of the job. It’s also worth noting that the only real setbacks of the whole project in the end, were created by all the tie-wearing ‘so-called’ experts, which included the architects, engineers, bankers and lawyers. It’s enough to give any reasonable person a deep-seated prejudice of all tie-wearing people. It did allow me to say to my mother, who was always a little disappointed that I was never an architect, “Still want me to be an architect? I’ve just fired three of them in the last year.”

Membrane roof installation, Angels’ House

One of these architects suggested that we make the top half of the outside of the house white (for no particular reason) and became aggravated when I suggested that it was a bad idea. I eventually found an architect myself that would do exactly what we wanted. I found them at one of my favorite places to spend time as a youth, The Custard Factory in Digbeth, Birmingham, which had exhibited my photography ten years previously. It was home to artists of all kinds, including architects. I asked the receptionist, “Who’s the nicest architect?” and she sent me straight up to their office. I had designs, and specifications for everything from the landscaping to the lighting, and even a scale model for the building, but I required an architect to produce drawings for the builders, and to certify the quality of the construction at each stage so that the house would be mortgage-able upon completion. We intended to take as few chances as possible to ensure its success. Everything would be surveyed, appraised, and insured. I learned a bank term for the first time: “Belt and braces.”

Winter construction, Angels’ House

Together, we produced working drawings for what would become Angels’ House. I named it Angels’ House for a few reasons, one being that Angel was the name of my dog. Mid-construction, what would become my own dog, Angel, was born on the building site, littered by an American Bulldog called Buffy that had been brought to us due to us having two acres at our disposal, albeit temporarily. We became the local unofficial dog rescue center; since the official pound would have meant death for the dogs, people would bring stray animals to us instead. This was just one of many unexpected responsibilities that were a part of occupying a piece of land that is a visible local landmark, and in this case, almost half the inhabited area of an entire village. Although I had not asked to be a local animal shelter, I brought at least a dozen animals back to health and found homes for them all, including all of Angel’s siblings.

Living room, Angels’ House

The value of the project needed to be appraised multiple times by independent valuers for the various lenders that were required to fund the project up until its sale in 2008. Many of them did not go as well as the initial appraisals. One of real estate agents came to value the property, and before even walking through, or around, the building, proceeded to tell us that we had wildly overestimated the potential resale value of the property once we had finished. When I asked him if he would at least visually inspect the building before presenting his conclusion, he started to tell me that there was no reason to, but after hearing that much, I made sure he left the building site before he could finish his next sentence. It was this, and several experiences like it, that taught me that I was more accurate at valuing property and real estate than most real estate agents. It also confirmed the theory I was beginning to develop about tie-wearing. Beware the tie-wearer.

Angels’ House after completion, Google Earth image

We did find a real estate agent, Knight Frank, that agreed with our own appraisal of the situation. When the high street bank that had originally agreed to fund the entire project, suddenly, and for no given reason, stopped making down-payments mid-construction, it was Knight Frank that appraised the building project at an amount which meant that we could then qualify for funding from a private finance company, and complete the build to a point that we could put the house on the market for sale just before completion. In 2008, we advertised the house in Dream Homes Magazine solely with 3D renders, and the house sold two weeks after placing the advertisement. The architect saw the images and asked me, rather disturbingly, “Did you know it [the house] was going to look like that?” to which I replied, “Yes. (I had produced the images.) Did you not?” The real estate agent selling the house said that he’d “never seen anything like it.” - We had two viewings every day for two weeks (which included some premier league footballers) before it was bought with cash.

Angels’ House at night

The neighbors thanked me for raising their property values, just by virtue of being in the same village as Angels’ House. We had set a county record for the highest ever sales price for a single-family residence in Staffordshire, 2M/$3.5M (far more than it was ever appraised for). The buyers already owned a home just a few miles away, but they wanted this one too. The buyers also owned the companies that manufactured many of the products, including all the soakaways, and the insulation, which we used to build not only the house, but also some well insulated, cedar-clad dog kennels. In 2012, four years later, Angels’ House was named in a list of four “modernist marvels for sale” in a (national press) Telegraph article titled, “The rise of the Modernist, eco-friendly home.” Before they bought the house, the buyers asked me, “Would you mind if we made some changes to the decoration?” to which I replied, “If you buy the house, you can paint it pink if you want to.” And that is, to some extent, what they did.

Michael Simon Toon