Property: Self builders like progress in disguise

Click to follow
It has taken Stuart Bexom nearly three years to sell Mole Manor, his underground self- built house in Gloucestershire which some readers may remember as one of the more challenging Daydream Homes featured on this page. Undeterred, Mr Bexom is developing a business producing 'underground molecules for residential use'. This time, however, he will be doing it to order.

Mole Manor is a circular dwelling built into a hill, with rooms off a central atrium. It bore the stamp of the eco-warriors who pioneered self-build as a way of creating cheap, environmentally friendly homes.

Most self-builders still hold to the same principles, but they prefer them in a more conventional package. The homes shown in the latest issue of Build It magazine would not look out of place on a Bovis or Berkeley housing development.

As if to underline the mainstream potential of self-build, the show house at this year's National Self-Build Homes Show will be a Victorian-style family home, the 'Alexandra Rose House', which has been designed to echo the architecture of Alexandra Palace in north London, where the show is on from 15-18 September.

The house is detached and double fronted, providing horizontal living space of a kind rarely found behind one of London's Victorian or Edwardian facades. The shell, of timber, is built to the architects' design by a Cornish firm. The heating and ventilation systems are as environmentally progressive as you would expect.

These features come clad in familiar red brick, with Victorian sash windows and working chimneys. All the better to please the planners, say the designers; all the better to sell to a cautious general public as well.

The energetic marketing wing of the self-build movement is determined to present self- build as totally appropriate for conventional family living. It is a crucial message if they are to continue the yearly increases in the numbers of people choosing to build their own homes.

Last year, according to VAT returns, 12,000 people completed their own home. The exhibition organisers estimate a further 15,000 homes were under way. If that figure is accurate, self-build would constitute about one-fifth of all new housebuilding in Britain.

One aspect of self-building not represented at the exhibition is the difficulty of finding a plot. The architects' group ASBA (Associated Self-Build Architects) publishes a list of tips, which includes approaching planning departments, landowners and local papers for information about sites.

The cost of the plot is the biggest unknown. In the South- east - particularly within the M25 - sites are increasingly hard to find at any price, with the large housebuilders fighting over even the smallest.

Elsewhere, you may get the land, but it may be over your prospective neighbours' dead bodies. A plot which to you looks ideal may be a precious green space to them.

The two angriest letters I have received since writing on property were about a new self- built home. I praised its style and inconspicuousness. The neighbours described it as an eyesore and suggested I must have visited the wrong house.

Presumably the new owners had to walk a long way to borrow a cup of sugar.