Recipe for success

Cooking-mad ex MasterChef contestant Ashley Byrne and his wife Alison have managed to create an eye-catching contemporary home through close working relationships with their architect, builder and suppliers – so who says too many cooks spoil the broth?


As a former contestant on TV’s MasterChef, Ashley Byrne reckons his self-build has all the right ingredients to be the stylish yet comfortable forever home that he and wife Alison have long dreamed of.

Located on the edge of the Oxfordshire village of Towersey, the aptly named Chiltern View looks out on pleasant rural vistas from both the front and rear of the property.

Its unashamedly contemporary design, with three different-sized rectangle structures that project and cantilever out from each other, and an external finish of white render and black aluminium cladding, cannot fail to turn heads. 

The main two-storey spine of the building runs parallel to the road and is where you’ll find most of the living space. At ground floor level, a cubic shape containing the main entrance extends outwards at the front of the building, while a similarly shaped ‘garden room’ projects into the patio and lawn area at the rear. Upstairs, the master bedroom cantilevers from the first floor at both the front and rear. 

Generous amounts of glazing throughout, including roof skylights, bring the outside in and make the interior light and airy. The layout downstairs is open plan and everywhere the spaces are uncomplicated and functional, yet very cleverly thought out.

Ashley is clearly thrilled with the result and equally positive about the self-build journey he and Alison have been on: “It’s been an amazing experience. It’s been exhilarating, fascinating – exhausting as well – but I would recommend it 100%. We’ve seen our creation come out of the ground and now that we’re actually living in it, it’s ten times better than we’d hoped.”

It might appear like Ashley, having faced the MasterChef challenge albeit a few years ago, found the way to achieve a smooth, no-hassle self-build. In fact, there were quite a few challenges along the way.

When Ashley and Alison found the half-acre plot on which their house now sits, their first and second attempts to buy it fell through. After several months looking elsewhere – a search which Ashley says “drove me nuts” – the plot came back on the market. So, it was third time lucky for the couple when they eventually secured the land – and the 1930s chalet bungalow that came with it – for £395,000 in November 2012. “After all that trauma it did feel like it was meant to be,” says Ashley.

The couple, who run a successful dental laboratory business, sold their mid-terraced home in Aylesbury and moved into the bungalow. Their initial plan was to remodel the bungalow by taking the roof off, putting a second storey on top, squaring the building off and replastering and modernising. “But before we did anything structural,” says Ashley, “we put new windows and insulation in to
stop the drafts. Given what happened next, we were naïve and wasted money, probably about £10,000.”

What happened next was the discovery that the bungalow’s footings weren’t deep enough for a second storey, so the decision was made to switch to demolition and building something new. “Our architects had been advising from day one that demolition and rebuild would be more cost-effective and that we’d get a better property, but we’d disagreed up until this point,” admits Ashley.

Starting again from scratch, the couple were now able to fully explore their design vision. Ashley explains: “We don’t have kids but have a pretty work-hard, play-hard lifestyle – we run our own company and we love a party. I’m also mad on cooking. So, we envisaged a modern, open-plan house with a great kitchen that would enable us to wine and dine but also with doors and windows that open up the house to make it a great space for outdoor events too – like barbecues.”

He continues: “We wanted something stylish but nothing so precious that you’re nervous about putting a cup of coffee down in case you stain something. We’d chosen the architects because we’d seen some of their work, liked their contemporary approach and because they came recommended. They worked with our brief and the mood boards we gave them, and they got it 95% right straight away.”

Their plans received planning permission in 2016 and the chalet bungalow was eventually demolished in 2019, with Ashley and Alison moving into a caravan onsite. Everything looked ready for construction work to begin when there was another unexpected surprise. “The builder we were going to use came back to us with a price that was 96% over budget,” says Ashley. “So, we turned to a nearby (Princes Risborough) builder recommended by our architects, and while their price was still 10% over budget, we decided we could cover that with our contingency money. We finally put a spade in the ground in February 2020 with just 24 hours left on our planning permission!”

Despite some difficulties finding materials because of Covid restrictions, construction work was completed 15 months later in 2021. The building features a steel frame, timber-clad and insulated walls, a concrete subfloor and first floor, and flat roof surfaces that are either covered by sedum or a waterproof Sika membrane.

As Ashley and Alison had hoped, the main downstairs space is open plan and bathed in light, thanks to the room-height windows and glazed doors. All the glazing, here and throughout the rest of the building, is framed in anthracite grey and contrasts with the white-painted walls and ceiling. 

Notable departures from the black/grey and white interior colour scheme are the occasional use of cedar cladding and the rust-like appearance of the impressive front door, made from corten steel. The space immediately behind the door contains the stairs and is two storeys high, but walking on straight ahead, away from the door, you pass a downstairs loo, small gym room and utility room before reaching the garden room, a cosy snug that features bi-fold doors on two sides. 

Back in the main downstairs living space, most visitors will agree the dominant feature is the very impressive, black-coloured kitchen, which stretches across the entire width of one wall. Just as likely is that visitors won’t guess that the ‘wall’ in fact hides a full-length pantry where Ashley says he can “make a right mess, and no one needs to see it.” 

The downstairs flooring comprises porcelain tiles, but Ashley says their first choice was polished concrete. “Our builder said no, as it cracks and it discolours. We spoke to other self-builders, who also had a lot of negative feedback.” 

While the glazing maximises sunlight penetration downstairs, the overhang of the cantilevered master bedroom ensures the space doesn’t overheat. Ashley says: “The cantilevers cleverly cast a shadow over the house as the sun moves around. They perform that function as well as providing us with extra bedroom and bathroom space, so it’s a win-win.”

Upstairs, the glazing again creates an airy and light ambience, while providing lovely views, too. From the top of the oak stairway balcony, you can look down on the hallway or out through a picture frame window across a field to trees beyond.

There are four bedrooms, but the master bedroom is the star of the show, with a hidden walk-in wardrobe, generously sized bathroom and shower spaces, and bi-fold doors leading to a balcony.

Upstairs and downstairs there is creative use of recessed lighting and lights that are motion activated. The house is 100% electric with solar panels and air source heat pumps on the roof and underfloor heating in the ground level subfloor and first floor.

The house may be finished, but Ashley and Alison have now bought more land at the rear of the property. They already keep goats, chickens and ducks, and have plans to establish an orchard and landscape the pond that is fed by rainwater that runs off the house. 

Ashley reckons their overall spend on the property, which includes buying the land and bungalow and then building their new home, is just shy of £1m. The property is currently probably now worth around £1.5m-£1.6m. “That’s good to know,” he says, “but we’re not going anywhere – we love this house, we love the village and we love the people here.”