House ancient and modern

THE MATERIAL WORLD : Few of them actually put on hard hats and reveal their Dagenham cleavage, they just become clients of a growing army of very experienced tradesmen
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The English house is deceptive. This most familiar and unchallenging edifice is, in fact, one of the most subtle and complex systems ever devised for the maintenance of personal comfort and the demonstration of personal prestige. As a consequence, it has developed an iconography of great power: architecturally speaking, the vocabulary of domesticity is English.

Whether the rich man's castle or the A1/B1's villa, the private house is this country's most profound contribution to the history of art. Certainly, its catalogue of styles represents a unique architectural form. To some historians, the basis of English personality can be traced to our national obsession with property. The English middle-classes tend to have houses rather than flats because, since political stability was established earlier in this country than on the Continent, we had less reason to dwell in cramped, fortified towns.

Moral crusade

For the Englishman, the idea of building your own house - short of an amateur space shot, the most ambitious form of DIY imaginable - is a perfect reconciliation of passions, a monument to the triumph of personal conviction. Significantly, in these times of moral decline and political uncertainty, the self-build house movement is expanding rapidly, acquiring some of the ethical warmth of a crusade: last year, fully one-third of detached houses built here were self-build and that figure is rising by six per cent annually. A nation of shopkeepers has become a nation of project managers.

Self-builders are not tree-huggers or squatters with bank accounts. Self- builders are zealous missionaries. Few of them actually put on hard hats, listen to Radio 1 and reveal their Dagenham cleavage, they just become clients of a growing army of very experienced tradesmen and manufacturers who won't let you do it yourself, as they are in business to do it for you.

A very English liberation

Self-build has been a dream of Utopian architects and planners throughout the century, the ones with the Scandiwegian belief in liberation through modernism, but while the enterprise and ambition of the self-build movement is remarkable, the aesthetics are conservative. Prim "Rectory" and dire "Shire bungalow" are among the products of Potton, the market leader, which has opened the country's first self-build centre at St Neot's, deep in John Major territory. These are houses designed for the generation, like the Prime Minister, discovering Jane Austen through television.

Self-build is not an artistic movement, nor even a rebellion against conformity, but a rearrangement of the building process. Instead of being a passive consumer of domestic architectural speculations by Wimpey or Barratt, the self-builder empowers himself, up to a point. When you have your plot of land, Potton can supply you with a timber frame - "Caxton", with a plan of 1,410 sq ft, will cost pounds 21,500 and they charge pounds 2,400 to erect the kit. Potton can recommend willing builders who will fill in the gaps with masonry, bricks and tiles, or wattle and daub, or what you will. Completion will cost a further pounds 40,000.

The future is medieval

True believers subscribe to the journal Build It. They enjoy articles which begin "Faux Bois Manor was built only last year..." They want brooks to babble, they want glass to be stained and, for the ambitious, the apogee of achievement is to recreate a medieval manor house (with twin BT fax and telephone points in each room, underfloor heating and a three-car garage).

Buckminster Fuller had a wild-eyed vision that in future we would all live in elegant constructions which he called Dymaxion domes, like Fylingdale's early warning station. Everyman, with his taste for soft toys, reconditioned Agas and DIY, shot that one down