Flatpack and fabulous: Could a do-it-yourself kit hold the answer to a chic designer home at a reduced rate?

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The Independent Online

The popular vision of a self-built home is one oozing with flamboyant design and unique eccentricities, à la Grand Designs - and with a price tag as high as its vaulted ceiling. But now, there are homes with striking architectural flair available to those with more limited means thanks to the arrival of the self-build kit home.

There is of course a "kit" element to even the most extraordinary self-built home. We often see Kevin McCloud taking delivery of pre-fabricated wall panels or factory-built timber frames which then form the structure of completely one-off homes, often costing £500,000 or more. But these components are tailor-made to a specification laid down by the self-builder's own architect, at a premium price, as part of the bespoke design of the property. The more bespoke the design, the more expensive, too.

Genuine kit homes instead, now more popular than ever with green and cost-conscious self-builders, offer off-the-shelf designs, from £30,000 to £150,000 including construction but without the cost of the plot – and crucially, without compromising on style.

Scandia Hus, for example, now has 3,000 of its homes in Britain, mostly in standard kit form. Designs range from conventional bungalows and chalets, family houses and self-built barn-style houses, and contemporary styles with cubist and New England influences. All show their green Scandinavian heritage – windows are triple-glazed, the homes have near-Arctic levels of insulation and air-tight construction which means heating costs are sharply less than many conventional homes.

While Potton, perhaps the best known British self-build kit home manufacturer, has Classic and Contemporary design ranges. The former has models evoking Queen Anne-style rectory architecture and traditional market town family houses. The Contemporary range includes another modern barn-style house and small eco-friendly properties, such as the wooden lighthouse, designed to meet the highest level of the Code for Sustainable Homes, the standard to which all British flats and houses must be designed and built to, by 2016.

Hebridean Contemporary Homes is a smaller kit builder specialising in Scottish vernacular single-storey longhouses and more conventional two-storey houses.

"The spirit of the age is not to have homes as just investments or pensions. These days people build homes for themselves and their families to use and love. Self-build allows that and kits permit more people to create their own homes and have a stake in what they've got around them," says designer Kevin McCloud.

Kit prices look as good as the designs. Aside from the plot, the price of which varies greatly according to size and particularly location, the three major cost elements of a self-build project are design, materials and labour. Kits score well on all three.

"There are endless variations on cost as bricks and roof tiles can cost 20p to 50p each and some windows can be three times the price of others. But a standard kit can cost [without the price of the plot] as little as £80 per square foot for a completed house, compared with £150 per square foot for a highly-specified bespoke house," explains Tim Doherty of the National Self Build & Renovation Centre.

Most kit homes are economical because their standard designs mean buyers avoid an architect's fee – easily £20,000 for a home designed from scratch. Kits are made from materials that can most effectively be factory built in pre-fabricated or, occasionally, modular form; therefore most come as structural insulated panels with timber frames, with prices reflecting bulk purchase by the manufacturer. Labour costs are cut through a kit, too, because most standard designs are uncomplicated, requiring fewer skilled craftspeople. That's the theory.

Last year David Taylor and Hazel Buckingham – accountants who had not previously rolled built anything – bought a design from the Rectory range of homes manufactured by Potton. They had a plot of land at Wokingham, Berkshire, having purchased and demolished a derelict bungalow.

Erecting the kit's timber frame took only just over a fortnight. David sourced the interior materials and craftsmen, and acted as project manager – a big saving on bespoke designs, which require a professional to keep things moving along. Even so, it was difficult.

"We underestimated what we were taking on and we had problems sticking to our budget. We had to manage this while working full-time so it took up most of our spare time. As accountants, a building site was unfamiliar territory and we had to learn terminology and get to grips with the building trade quickly," explains David.

The couple came across a problem hitting many self-builders these days – a lack of finance from mortgage lenders. The problem is more acute for those using kits because of the high "front-loaded" outlay at the start of the project.

"Kit manufacturers often require 25 per cent deposits up front, at the same time as the self-builder has to pay for the plot. Then the kit maker needs another 55 per cent on delivery and the final 20 per cent when it's erected," explains Jaclyn Thorburn of Buildstore, a self-build consultancy that offers funding for this housing sector.

"This up-front payment is why many kit buyers sell their old homes and stay in caravans on their sites during building work. Who wants that?" asks Thorburn. Her firm offers staged mortgage loans allowing self-builders to keep their old homes while building their new properties. Yet while self-build and kit homes continue to be popular – even at the lowest ebb of the recession, around 10,000 a year built there own homes – not all self-builder favour kits.

"Around 50 per cent of self-build projects are design-led," says Tim Doherty, meaning that they favour architect-designed one-offs. Sometimes that decision is influenced by the self-build manufacturers themselves, because some of the most famous names in the business refuse to make standard kits.

While perhaps the best known self-build manufacturer, Huf Haus from Germany – often seen on Grand Designs – does not create standard designs. Its signature "post and beam" timber frame architecture allows for spectacular open-plan rooms with few internal supports, loved by wealthier self-builders but expensive to design and hard to erect.

Therefore the firm works with architects commissioned by self-builders to create customised Huf Haus homes which are then erected on site by the firm's own approved builders. Likewise Oakwrights, a British firm specialising in oak-framed homes with exposed beams, also chooses only to create bespoke homes to meet individual self-builders' needs. But while architect-designed properties remain popular for those who can afford them, the kit is introducing the self-build concept to a new audience that previously may have been unable or unwilling to create their own home.

David Taylor has now moved in to the kit house that he and Hazel Buckingham built, and is a convert. "It was a challenge and we've learned so much from it. We may even do it again. For so long we had a "project" but now we have a home – and one we can truly call our own."

Useful contacts

Buildstore (Buildstore.co.uk, 0845 223 4888)
Potton (Potton.co.uk; 01767 676400)
Scandia Hus (Scandia-hus.co.uk; 01342 327977)
Weberhaus (Weberhaus.co.uk, 01582 794192)
Hebridean Homes (Hebrideanhomes.com; 01471 820410)

Huf Haus (huf-haus.com; 01932 586 550; London@huf-haus.com)

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