The house that Gabrielle built

It arrived as a flatpack. Two years of sawing, drilling and nailing later it had turned into a home, huddled in a community with eight other `self-build' houses.
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The search is on for low-cost self-help housing that keeps down running costs and keeps maximum light and warmth inside. An exhibition of housing projects at the Royal Institute of British Architects shows how the best ideas are still targeted at very small numbers of residents. At one end is the chic little West End block divided up by architect Mark Guard into dinky glass-and-steel apartments only 68 metres square, clearly pitched at well-heeled singles who now account for 26 per cent of households in Britain. At the other is the have-a-go self-build system, such as Diggers at Hollingbury in Brighton, where nine houses were built by a community funded by the local authority and a housing association.

The Brighton houses were designed by Architype, a group of seven south London architects who specialise in ecological housing and working with people on self-build schemes. Inspired by the architect Walter Segal who pioneered a low-cost, low-skill timber-frame construction system in the Sixties - Walker's Way in Lewisham, London, is a benchmark - Architype have updated his boxed-in, flat-roofed, rationalist self-build house design for the Nineties, making it more characterful by allowing more self-expression. And cheap. In Brighton, Architype's down-to-earth arrangement for pack- flat houses reduced the cost per square metre from pounds 500 to more like pounds 300 although they admit a difficult site can push up self-build prices.

Awarding Diggers a Housing Design Award, Hilary Armstrong, Minister of State for Housing and Local Government, praised the scheme as "a microcosm of what could be achieved on other sites all over the country by harnessing the imagination and skills of ordinary people". Do we believe her?

Gabrielle Saunders, aged 30, is a teacher who built her own three-bedroom timber house on the tiny greenfield site in Brighton. It arrived in pinewood planks from the timberyard - "you could say it was pack-flat". She had been evicted from student accommodation when she was a university student because she was pregnant. When the council asked if she fancied building her own house - she hadn't even put up a shelf before - Gabrielle recalled her parents building a wooden bungalow and thought it might be fun. It wasn't.

A ground plan showed her how the parts slot together without any nails, just dry-fix bolts and panelling that slid in between dark-stained uprights. The instructions were clear and simple. Panels from the outside were already cut to size but she sawed the internal plasterboard, used a power-drill screwdriver, hammered in 4in nails and says that not a day passed without her hurting herself. But the worst thing was the boredom. "Once I learnt how to put up a batten, I wanted to finish on time but all the interesting bits , like wiring the house, went to a sub-contractor."

Working at weekends with her neighbours to build the nine houses on site proved too difficult to juggle with her job and child-minding so she gave up teaching. It still took two years to build her own house.

Set on a steeply sloping site on stilts with a steeply angled beach-house stairs to the front door, Gabrielle Saunder's house has a walkway link to grassy banks right on the edge of a golf course. The pitched roof is sown with grassy meadow seed, an insulation idea tried and tested by Scottish crofters. The architects are forthright about putting to the test every single ecological principle they espouse. All the pillars and posts are stained dark with natural, non-toxic tree oils and infilled with wooden panels painted white, the way Liberty was built in the TudorBethan Twenties.

Inside, the air is filled with the scent of beeswax polish, used - instead of highly toxic polyurethane varnish, which turns pine orange - to protect timber floorboards and panelling. Floors in the kitchens and bathrooms are natural linoleum and all houses have a Swiss chalet-style balcony, and a conservatory. More windows means better ventilation and using recycled newspaper granules filling up cavity walls, rather than traditional rock- fibre, improves insulation. The buildings face south which also saves energy and, of course, puts them in line with government thinking on low- cost housing.

"To estimate my bills the Gas Board asked what sort of house I lived in," says Gabrielle. "When I told them it was a detached three-bedroom one they estimated it would cost pounds 60 a quarter but I explained it was an eco-house. `Put me down at pounds 15 for six months and I'll take the risk,' I told them. After a year they put that charge down by pounds 2."

Self-builders rent back their houses from the Housing Co-operative and Brighton Council which made the green-belt site available, employed an on-site contractor, laid the foundations with power and plumbing and delivered the houses in bits. The self-builders also get a "sweat equity" stake in it so that if they leave, they recoup the labour costs they invested in building their house. Or they can have that money when they finish building it to furnish the house. Rents are fixed at pounds 25 to pounds 35 a week, depending on the size of the house.

As for how it works socially, Gabrielle has assured tenancy so she can stay for life though she says if she got married or left Brighton, she might give it up and collect the pounds 3,000 that represents her equity. In a recent tenant satisfaction survey, security of tenure was people's number one priority. "Low rent and security mean you can put your energy back into work," she says.

All is not quite rosy, however. There is bitterness over the housing management. One of the original self-build tenants was evicted for non- payment of rent at the beginning of the year and the house has remained empty. The other eight tenants who must accept the council's nomination for their new neighbour just wish it would make one. With some neat footwork, the residents at Diggers have moved one of their communal self-builders into the evicted tenant's house as he now has a child and needs more space, leaving the single house awaiting the newcomer. They have written to the South London Family Housing Association registering their dismay at seeing one unit in a semi-derelict, unoccupied state. "You can't say it's all wonderful. All of us are very happy in these houses but the housing department is in disarray. Paperwork gets shoved from place to place."

As for the architects, they do appear to have responded to the needs of the inhabitants as well as the elements. "The four families and five singles housed at Diggers were a coherent group when they started," said Jonathan Hines of Architype - which made it easier to build their needs into the ground plan. They wanted a car-free community so cars are parked off-site and the houses are generously fronted. They liked changes in level on the sloping site, and wanted balconies and verandahs overlooking communal gardens with only small amounts of private sub-division within the site. They wanted it to be safe and free and open with lots of sunlight. In fact, they sound like perfect clients and if there are any snagging clauses, well, you can only blame the buildersn

The exhibition, "Home/A Place to Live", is at the Royal Institute of British Architects in London until July 26.