The house that Geoff built

With his wife, Karen, and a workforce of 35, Geoff Kaye built his own ideal home. Like two other couples Lesley Gillilan meets, they are part of a growing band.
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DREAM HOMES, I am told, often start as doodles scribbled on the back of envelopes. From these scrawled outlines, ideas germinate and flower. Translated by architects and builders, they emerge as cubes of glass and steel, timber-framed Tudorbethan repros, psuedo castles, mock cottages or eco-friendly earth houses with daisy-sprinkled turf roofs. The most amateur of artist's impressions, the haziest of visions, can be turned into bricks and mortar. All you need is a plot of land, planning permission, a sympathetic lender and the cour-age of your own convictions. And this is not a marginal activity: thousands of pioneering Brits are setting out with sheafs of drawings and writing their signatures on the built environment.

The recognised term for this house-shaped form of personal development is "self-build", which is a pity because it gives a false impression. There is a sort of knit-your-own-home ring about the term, suggesting the housing equivalent of flat-pack furniture kits. Indeed, anyone involved with spreading the word on self-build will admit that it has an image problem.

Murray Armor, author of 13 editions of Building Your Own Home, says it's a "horrible term" and prefers the American "owner-build". Customs and Excise VAT offices (who process the VAT claims allowed to self-builders since 1976: see panel) call it "DIY home-building". Built It magazine, meanwhile, flies the flag for self-build and the editor, Rosalind Ren- shawe has the definition off pat: "Self-build is simply about individuals organising the design and construction of their own homes. It is the creation of one-off housing, and has nothing to do with social groups or homes by mail order."

She says the big attraction for wannabuilds is the "dream factor": the chance to deliberate over every aspect of construction from the choice of building materials to the light switches; a reaction, perhaps, against the magnolia-painted, identikit boxes in the new homes market. "Volume housebuilders are getting it wrong and people are turning their backs on spec-built products and doing their own thing."

Self-build - or owner-build - is the norm in America, and in most other European countries, and it's not entirely new here. Self-builders, I suggest to Renshawe, proliferated in the Thirties and again in the Sixties. And surely architects have always produced one-offs for individual clients? Yes, she says, but self-build has now been adopted as a generic term to describe a multitude of approaches to tailor-made housing projects. And despite the woolly terminology and misconceptions, it represents a thriving industry worth about pounds 2 billion a year in supplies and services. Last year, around 18,000 Brits built their own homes; at least 10,000 of them rolled up their sleeves and took hands-on control of an aspect of construction.

Geoff and Karen Kaye, were among them, and although their strikingly contemporary, money-no-object seaside house in Poole, Dorset, stands out among a crowd of period repros, the forces that led to its construction are fairly typical among self-builders.

Ten years earlier, the Kayes had built their own home in Lee-on-Solent. It was, says Karen, "a modern bunaglow with excellent coastal views", and when they decided to move to Dorset, they wanted something even better. "Ideally, we wanted a superbly modern house with lots of glass, natural light and airy open spaces. We looked at a lot of waterfront properties, but nothing came up to scratch." Geoff, a former cathedral sculptor, is a commercial property developer, but neither of them wanted to embark on another build-your-own scheme.

A change of heart was prompted by the sale of an unremarkable bungalow on a narrow sliver of land by Poole harbour. The location was perfect; the bungalow wasn't. "If we'd spent pounds 100,000 on that house, it still wouldn't have been right," says Karen. "But we thought if we demolished the building we could start again."

Beatles fans thought otherwise. John Lennon had built the house for his Aunt Mimi, and dealing with a barrage of pleading Beatlemaniacs was one of the many irritant factors that frittered away two years without a brick being laid.

In that time, the Kayes purchased the land at auction without first agreeing planning permission (thereby breaking of the first rules of self-build), they sold their Lee-on-Solent house and were left homeless, they forked out the cost of evicting squatters from Aunt Mimi's bungalow, met open hostility from neighbours and had their first planning application thrown out.

The Kayes had instructed three architects to come up with ideas. The favoured solution was the work of Gordon Robbins, whose glass and concrete split-level house not only suited the site but also met the couple's specificiations: an indoor swimming pool and a detached garage block with a flat and office above. His design, inspired by a passing Channel ferry, capitalised on the harbour views with floor-to-ceiling picture windows. A laminated timber frame was extended on the first floor to create a roofed balcony with nautical railings. A stainless steel spiral staircase rises from the ground floor to an internal gallery beneath a domed roof light.

"From the outside, it looks like the bow of a ship," says Karen. And looking out from inside the upper deck creates the illusion that the craft is about to launch into the port's main shipping channel and sail out to sea.

Poole's planners made no objections to the basic concept, but by the time a second application had been accepted the Kayes were forced to dispense with the garage-office block and scale down the proportions of the house. "Nothing's ever perfect," sighs Karen. But planning headaches are a thorn in the side of most self-builders, and the Kayes have at least succeeded where others have failed by building 4,000 feet of glass geometry on a sensitive site between two older houses.

Described by Geoff "as a feat of structural engineering", the house took eight months to build. He managed the site and a workforce of 35 himself, which helped reduced overheads. And although the Kayes won't divulge the project's total cost, they are reasonably confident that the house - finished last year - is worth more than their investment. "We didn't build to make a profit," says Karen. "We intend to stay here for the rest of our lives."

Chris and Marie Gransbury have also done their own thing for love, not money, but their project is the antithesis of the Kayes'. Standing on a third of an acre in a semi-rural conservation area in Hertfordshire, their home is a reproduction of a 17th-century, timber-pegged, post-and- beam cottage. Based on the Grans-burys' own sketches, the skeleton of the house was tailor-made by Border Oak, a timber-frame package specialist (which has made a small fortune building mock-Tudor villages in Japan) and delivered in kit form. The first they saw of their future home was 26 tons of oak stacked on the back of a lorry. According to Marie, the framework went up like Meccano in a couple of weeks. Seven months later the house was ready.

The Gransburys had previously been living in a 300-year-old cottage. "We wanted an old house with a lot of character," says Marie. "But we found the real thing wasn't designed for today's living. The windows were too small, the ceilings were too low and the bathroom had been tacked on and was in the wrong place." The idea behind the build was to replicate the real thing but to take a contemporary approach to the arrangement of space, and to use modern infill panels instead of wattle and daub. Neigh-bours have dubbed it "the new old house".

The couple spent pounds 50,000 on a derelict plot of land with outline planning permission for a single dwelling. Then it took them two years to sell their cottage before they moved into a caravan on site and survived a harsh winter without running water or electricity.

Chris is a concierge at a London hotel; Marie runs her own company, marketing foil helium balloons; neither had any experience of building, nor did they have much time to spare. Border Oak undertook most of the construction work, but the Gransburys managed the project. They also found time to oil and stain the timber frame, install some of the plumbing, research and purchase all the materials and do all the interior finishing.

They went for a very "high spec" finish on their three-bedroom house, meaning that the cost - roughly pounds 120,000 - was higher than the average Border Oak package (starting around pounds 30,000 for a supplied and erected timber skeleton or pounds 60,000 for a complete, 960 square foot cottage). They used hand-made roof tiles, leaded lights, flagstone floors and 30 per cent more timber than usual in order to achieve the vernacular look of Hertfordshire's timber-framed buildings. Altogether it cost around pounds 170,000. "We'd have gone for something much cheaper if we'd planned to sell," says Marie.

It is possible to build your own house on a much tighter budget - but unless you go for a low-cost package that usually means the term self- build takes on a more literal meaning.

Ged and Maddie Lavell got their hands dirty when they opted to build their own home in mid-Wales. They wanted a house in the country but couldn't afford a period cottage, and they wanted to live in an environmentally friendly structure. So they chose a modular grid system based on the Segal method: a loose adaptation of a traditional timber-framed house pioneered by the late Walter Segal in the Sixties.

The Walter Segal Self Build Trust is regarded as the lunatic fringe of self-build; responsible, perhaps, for the industry's image problem. But the registered charity needs funds to support its self-help programme for the homeless and is now promoting "middle market" housing for individuals. The trust's message is that anyone can build their own house, "regardless of age, sex and ability", as long he or she can bang a nail in straight and cut timber. Energy efficiency is a strong selling point - of 40 buildings identified by the Building Research Establishment's technical support unit as the most energy-efficient in Britain, four were Segal constructions.

The Lavells paid pounds 15,000 for their third-of-an acre village plot. The two-bedroom house, which features a wood-burning Raeburn, a glazed conservatory and warm-cell insulation (made of recycled newsprint) cost around pounds 35,000, and apart from the services of an architect and a contractor with a mechancial digger they did every inch of the work themselves, including the basic design. "We were complete novices," says Maddy. "The only thing we'd tackled before was putting up the odd shelf."

Maddy, a chef by trade, now describes bolting the wooden frame together as "really satisfying" and refers to welding plumping pipes with a blow torch as "good fun". Living on a caravan for 18 months in windswept Wales was not so great, but it was worth it. "It's great to stand back and say we built this," says Maddie. "The house is exactly what we wanted, we love the space, and there is something empowering about knowing exactly where every wire is and how everything works." !


Individual self-builders now produce a third of all new detached homes. One of the advantages is a saving on the normal profit margins levied by volume housebuilders. And tax legislation means that self-builders can claim back the VAT on all materials and services, providing they manage the build themselves.

Finding a plot of land is often the biggest headache. London and the Home Counties are the most expensive; remote areas of Wales and Scotland are the cheapest. The National Land Finding Agency (01371 876875) and Landbank Services (01734 618002) provide a list of available plots on subscription.

The majority of Britain's self-build schemes are traditional brick and block constructions; the rest (about 40 per cent) are timber framed. Both are available as custom-built packages from specialists including: Border Oak (01568 708752); Design & Materials (01909 730333); Medina Grimson (01732 770992); Potton (01767 260348).

Broadly speaking, lenders are unreasonably sceptical about self-build, but mortgages are available. Yorkshire and Bradford & Bingley will lend up to 75 per cent; the TSB offers up to 95 per cent; the Ecology Building Society will lend up to 80 per cent subject to a highly energy-efficient build. All loans are subject to detailed planning consent and Building Regulations approval.

To fund a project, self-builders must consult an architect, an NHBC contractor or a Zurich Municipal surveyor in order to certificate each stage. For advice on design and planning, contact ASBA (Association of Self Build Architects). Ring Julian Owen on 0115 9229831.

The Walter Segal Self Build Trust is at 57 Chalton Street, London NW1 1HU (0171-388 9582).

Murray Armor's Building Your Own Home, published by Ryton Books, is available from bookshops or by mail order on 01909 591652.

Most of the above specialists will be at next week's National Self Build Homes Show (14-17 September) at Alexandra Palace, London N22. Tickets cost pounds 7 (children free). Independent on Sunday readers can take advantage of a half-price offer by ringing 0181-286 4000.