Property: This is the house that Jeff built: In the first of a series on the way people choose to live, Arabella Warner talks to a couple who built one family home, and are planning another

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The Independent Online
THERE is nothing as frivolous as a novel on the bookshelves in Helen and Jeff Hall's home. But there are plenty of other books: titles such as The Reader's Digest Repair Manual, Carpentry, Projects in Wood and The Conveyancing Fraud. 'What I'd really like is The David and Charles Concrete Book,' says Helen Hall, without a trace of irony. Knowledge of concrete is important to the couple. They have built their present house, nestling in a hillside near Box, Wiltshire, and intend to build another.

It is hard to imagine the pair working with concrete. But according to Jeff, 42, they have a philosophy that carries them through. 'We live by the Kiss principle,' he says, standing in his sparsely furnished living-room. It stands for 'Keep It Simple, Sailor', a phrase coined after the Halls sailed (using a manual) from Los Angeles to the Bahamas. 'If you are on board a boat, things have to be well planned. We have transferred this way of living to dry land. Everything has been designed so it is visually clean and needs the minimum of maintenance.'

It was not always like that. Once they lived in the same haphazard way as the rest of us. Their home was a Georgian flat in the centre of Bath, the kind of place most of us would like to say we lived in. Helen and Jeff Hall were less enamoured. Back from a spell working in the Dominican Republic, they reviewed the way they wanted to live. Somehow, an old, leaky flat no longer seemed the best solution.

'People used to say, 'You live in a listed building, how lovely',' Helen says. 'But it was like living in a museum. There were so many rules. You weren't allowed to change anything. You weren't even allowed to hang the washing out. Anyway, we wanted to start a family and run a business of our own without any outside interference.'

'At first we thought we'd buy an old cottage and do it up,' adds Jeff. 'But with old cottages you never know what's behind the plaster. They can be a bottomless pit for your money. But if we built our own place, we could work out exactly how much it was going to cost.'

Jeff is not a trained builder, but he did his own conveyancing and prepared the groundwork. Having decided on a timber-frame construction, they hawked the idea round several merchants before deciding on a kit from Medina Gimson in Kent. It was quick and easy to put up, complete with windows and doors, and they discovered that the insulation was better than other self-build homes.

'The frame was just like a big Lego kit, so it's easy to erect,' Jeff says. 'Which is just as well, as it arrived without any instructions. I did use bricklayers and plumbers, because they are both trades you can't really learn quickly from a book. But everything else I did myself, asking for advice when I needed it.'

Six months after work began, the couple moved in. With only a kitchen table, a bed, a gas camping stove and a plastic tube with a tap on the end to carry water, the living was primitive.

From the outside their home looks like many other medium-sized modern houses. It is built out of warm cream-coloured Bath stone, its front door overlooking the gravel drive on one side, and a small 'easy to keep' flagstoned patio on the other. 'We'd looked at various building plots,' said Helen. 'But when we drove up the drive I knew this was it. There were squirrels and birds and even owls hooting in the trees. It was beautiful.' They named the house Silkwood.

Showing visitors around, they point out the bargains and snips - the bathroom curtains (only 65p a metre) and the dining-room chairs bought at auction for less than pounds 10 each. Helen says she inherited frugality from her mother. Jeff reckons it is just good sense. 'I find it very difficult to buy anything,' he says. 'I look at it and think, 'I can make that better at a quarter of the price'.'

Indeed, Jeff made most of the furniture himself - sturdy, individualistic pieces such as a made-to-measure sofa for his wife and a glass showcase for the huge white shells they collected from the Dominican Republic. He framed the pictures and made the maple parquet floor in the kitchen. 'It is the lightest, hardest and, of course, cheapest wood - the whole floor only cost me pounds 50,' he says.

'If we can do without something, we do,' says Helen. 'The more possessions you have, the more you have to look after them.' They are not 'Good Lifers', however. They do not grow their own vegetables, keep pigs, or spin their own wool.

Instead, they live to a strict budget which they follow with almost fanatical zeal. Both could chase full-time jobs: Helen is a trained art teacher, Jeff an experienced cabinet-maker; but they choose not to. Helen makes some money by designing and styling her own knitwear, which her husband helps sell. They seem to enjoy life on a shoestring, disregarding many of the things most of us take for granted. They never go to the cinema, and rarely entertain or are entertained, unless it is family.

Their house looks neat and unnervingly uncluttered for a couple with two children. Apart from a dough model on a sideboard, a tiny pair of wellington boots and coats in the utility room, the downstairs shows no sign of the youngsters' existence. There is no television. Only the children's bedroom betrays the more common signs of infant infestation: home-made mobiles hanging from the ceiling, animal friezes on the walls (painted by Helen) and bits of Lego on the floor - a present from their grandparents.

Five years ago, the plot cost pounds 32,000 and the house pounds 31,000 to build. Now it is on the market for pounds 129,000. 'Only with the sitting-room did we bow to social pressure,' says Helen. 'We were quite happy to leave it as Jeff's workshop. But every time the relatives came over they made a fuss about not having anywhere to sit. So we moved the tools out to the garage.'

Jeff says he 'used to like a pint' but he has been to the pub only twice in the five years they have lived in Box. Helen's idea of a treat was to go to Hull to buy clothes for the children, because the bargains were better there.

'We have evolved a lifestyle that works,' she says. 'It has been a challenge and we've stuck at it. I find that immensely satisfying.' Now the couple say it is time for a change, however. They want to sell up and build another house. 'We don't feel any closer to the house because we have done it all ourselves,' says Jeff. 'All we ever wanted was to design it, make it and live in it. Then we always planned to sell it.'

'Besides,' adds Helen, 'what we really want to do is build a boat that we can live on, and we haven't got the room to do that here. We've never built a boat before. But I'm sure we'll be able to find a book on it.'

(Photograph omitted)

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