Dream homes for sale: What is it like to live in a Grand Design?

And why are so many back on the market, asks Chris Beanland?

Monday 24 October 2011 18:15 BST

When you see the amount of dedication some people put into the biggest project of their lives – building their own home – it's surprising to think that they could ever find the will to sell up and move on.

Yet some of the people who sweated so much to self-build their home on Grand Designs have chosen to move out – despite enduring years living in rented houses and having the tantrums and traumas associated with a project like this played out in front of the cameras and millions of TV viewers.

"We sold it because of the market and also because it was crazy to just have one person living there," says Jane Ellis, whose Hillcot Barn in Herefordshire home featured on the Channel 4 series in 2006.

"I'd been approached to do a big job for Armani in London... so I had a flat in London. I was spending only 24 hours in the house. My husband was spending all that time in there by himself with two cats. The other thing, is we could see the overcooking of the property market and we were determined we didn't want a mortgage after a certain age."

Ellis and her husband, Robert, bought the barn on the edge of the Forest of Dean in 2004 and sold it at the tail end of 2007. It's now back on the market with an asking price of £795,000. As with all those classic Grand Designs properties though, wasn't it hard to clean? Expensive to heat?

"No, it was designed to be easy to manage, it was easy to keep clean," Ellis says. "Heating bills were okay." What about the space – how did the family fill it? "Actually, we ended up getting rid of lorry loads of furniture from our previous house," she says. So when the time came to sell, was it a wrench? "There's a tremendous amount of emotional attachment when you've bought every bit and piece yourself and put it where it should be. But you've got to be pragmatic. You can't put emotion into it." Ellis now splits her time with her husband between a house in Herefordshire and one in Greece.

If you want to own your own slice of architectural TV history, it's not too late. Several homes featured on the show are currently on the market. Janne Hoff-Tilley's restored Castello di Brancialino in Tuscany was featured on Grand Designs Abroad and is on for €1.95m (£1.7m) with Knight Frank International.

In 2009, Barry and Julie Surtees built The Curve, a one-off modernist edifice on the crest of a hill in Withdean, Brighton. It cost them £1.8m to construct the house – which boasts a unique overhanging cubist bedroom. The six-bedroom home is for sale with Mishon Mackay in Brighton at £2.95m, shy of the £3.5m it was expected to fetch. But pop fans might have an extra reason to purchase: when the Surtees family moved out they let the house to Peter Andre.

Also on the market is Stilwater, a five-bedroom home on the banks of a Stirlinghshire Loch – the house just out over the water. Viewers saw the Fairfull family build their dream home on Grand Designs in 2006 and the asking price for it is £1.5m with Savills, Glasgow.

Another of the show's famous homes is Cecil House in Bath, which cost Tiffany and Jonny Woods £300,000 in groundworks alone during the 2008 build. The £2.2m modernist home, built with help from German kit-house manufacturers Baufritz, is on with Winkworth after being knocked down from its high of £2.85m. The project ran £1m over budget.

In 2009, things got even more bizarre when, faced with a freefalling market, Tim Bawtree – whose £800,000 "Underground House" in Cheltenham wouldn't shift – took to Twitter to try to raffle off the property, which featured on Grand Designs just two years earlier.

Rupert and Julie Upton's Grand Design is currently on the market. Why are they leaving? "We're looking to downsize because one of our kids is away at uni and the other is away at boarding school, there's two of us here most of the time," Rupert Upton says. "And we're looking to free up capital for other building opportunities. We very easily might do it again." The couple's Berkshire superhome is on with Green & Co for £1.45m. Will the Uptons miss their home? "Of course I'll feel sad to leave," Upton says. "But I'll feel more sad to leave the area. Much as I love the house – and I do – it's the outside environment I really love."

So could anyone go on Grand Designs and self-build? "No, you don't want everyone doing it," Upton says. "You've got to be the right sort of person – flexible, adaptable and ready to embrace change. I don't think a lot of people could have lived in the house we lived in for two years while this was being built – with a leaking roof and horribly damp. I don't think a lot of people could do that. We've seen that happen a lot of times on Grand Designs."

Architect Garry Thomas from RRA worked on Jane Ellis's Hillcot Barn. His advice? "That when a client doesn't want to follow the advice of professionals, to walk away sooner," Thomas says. "My advice was that the project would cost £415k. I had a builder prepared to build the project to the quality and specification that was drawn. But the client thought they could save more money by dispensing with a main contractor and picking and choosing the advice from the builder and the professional team.

"The project ended up costing £425k apparently. It took far too long to complete and ended up employing three different building firms. Of course, the TV cameras make the whole thing more dramatic."

But it's that drama that appeals to viewers. Would Ellis do it again? "On balance it was interesting," she says. "It made sure we got finished on time. If you were doing it and you didn't have the discipline of the camera you'd think, 'oh well, I could just leave that bit'.

"The other thing is it put discipline on the contractors. They all loved being on camera though: they'd get dolled up, put on new T-shirts, they'd get competitive. We laugh at all that even now."

She adds: "[Presenter] Kevin McCloud had a wicked sense of humour. My husband loves furniture so the pair of them would often talk about that together."

"I enjoyed being on the show," Thomas says. "In my opinion, Grand Designs is the best of the best in terms of a TV grogramme that documents the build process from start to finish. It measures the tried and tested build process against the realities of site and the peculiarities of client. Its focus is always about the quality of build, the time taken and the final cost. It also helps the viewer at home recognise the delicate role of the architect pitched against the universal expert knowledge of their client."

"Kevin's a star," Upton says. "He's a really nice guy. Very knowledgeable. He doesn't soft soap you but he's very helpful. But having a crew could be bloody irritating – coming home early to be filmed for one hour." And the final product? "Watching it was a bloody cringe. When we did the revisit – I didn't watch it until five years later," he says.

Magic moments: Best in show

The Channel 4 series has an enduring appeal, with 115 episodes under its belt. Here are some of the best bits:

The Medway Eco-Barge

This one didn't go quite to plan. Chris Miller and wife Sze Liu Lai wanted to do up a former barge in March 2007 but the titanic project hit an iceberg when funding began to run out. The boat had to be mothballed in the Thames Estuary, was vandalised, then broke free of its moorings and washed up on a beach near Southend earlier this year in a sorry state of disrepair.

The House Of Straw

Jeremy Till and Sarah Wigglesworth, above, are architects and their Holloway home featured in the very first series of Grand Designs in 1999. It was eco-friendly with a composting toilet and parts of it were insulated with straw bales – hence the name. The building doubles as Wigglesworth's practice. The striking design will be familiar to regular rail travellers on the East Coast Mainline – when you see it on the right-hand side, you know you're almost at King's Cross.

Brum's self-builders

Away from the middle-class moans that characterised many of Grand Designs' privately educated participants, this 2001 programme was about 11 Brummies who set out to build their own homes.

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