For many, it’s the ultimate property dream: finding a piece of land and building your own home from scratch. Recent research by the mortgage lender Together revealed that 34 per cent of UK homeowners would like to undertake a self-build project, but as any fan of Grand Designs will know, it’s a process that rarely goes smoothly. Such was the case for husband and wife Steve Ackhurst, a screenwriter, and Bronwen Malcolm, an artist, when they embarked on their own self-build project eight years ago.
The property they found, after over a year of searching, was a small bungalow on two acres of land in the countryside near Hastings. ‘It’s such a magical, beautiful area,’ says Bronwen. ‘The views are magnificent. We walked on to the property and fell in love with it then and there.’ Their vision was to knock down the bungalow and build a simple, timber-clad barn-like structure, with open-plan interior spaces and plenty of natural light, as well as an indoor swimming pool in the basement.
Yet despite the unfussy nature of their design, complications came into play right from the start. ‘We had to dig down quite a lot in order to create the basement,’ says Bronwen, ‘but when we broke ground, it turned into one of the wettest winters in history, so it became quite a process.’ They also encountered thick seams of sandstone 23 feet below ground, which delayed the dig further.
The bombshell, however, was the discovery that the cost of removing the soil (£70,000) had not been included in their budget, which meant their entire contingency fund was immediately used up. ‘It just didn’t occur to us that the spoil wouldn’t have been budgeted for; it was a really horrible shock,’ says Bronwen. ‘We had to sell our family home in London, which we were living in at the time, and move somewhere smaller in order to raise more funds.’ With their daughter finishing her university exams and their son at home studying for his A levels, the timing was far from perfect. But they were too far into the project to turn back.
That experience highlighted the fact that they needed to be more involved than they had imagined. ‘Although our architect was project-managing the build, Steve ended up having to closely scrutinise the project, visiting the site regularly,’ says Bronwen. ‘But he’s not a builder. We were searching in the dark; we had absolutely no idea what we were supposed to be checking for. We had trusted people who we thought would give us the right advice, but that doesn’t always happen.’
Alongside the stress of the project, the couple both had family issues at the time. Bronwen’s father had recently passed away, and Steve’s father, an architect, became ill and also sadly died. ‘He had visited the site, and was keen to offer his insight. We thought he’d be around; it was heartbreaking,’ says Bronwen. ‘You never know what life is going to throw at you, and what you might have to cope with on top of the build, which is already a really stressful situation.’
They did have friends who had recently built their own home, and were on hand to offer their guidance, which turned out to be invaluable. They also commissioned an old friend to undertake all the carpentry inside the house, who was able to help them with other things too, such as general kitchen design and internal cabinet layouts. ‘It’s really not easy building your own home,’ says Bronwen, ‘so knowing people like that really helps to smooth the journey.’
Even the parts of the build that they thought would be straightforward became complex. For example, they had assumed the poured concrete floors would be relatively simple to execute, until the concrete cracked in several places, requiring sympathetic repairs. ‘We don’t know why it cracked,’ says Bronwen, ‘but the company that installed it refused to come back to fix it, so we had to get a specialist in.’
In the end, however, after two and a half years – a full year longer than they had anticipated the build would take – the house was completed.
The rustic style of the iroko cladding on the exterior is matched on the inside by walls clad with Norwegian pine and an iroko staircase. ‘It’s not an ostentatious house,’ says Bronwen. ‘There’s a simplicity of style that we really wanted, because it’s in the country and we’ve got a dog, so it had to be somewhere you can walk in with muddy boots. When we were doing our initial research we looked at some architects who create the most beautiful buildings, but we would have felt uncomfortable living in something too perfect.’
It was also important to them both to ensure the house was as eco-friendly as possible, which had the added benefit of making it easier to get their plans approved at the start of the project. It has been fitted with solar panels, a solar thermal system, a rainwater-harvesting system and a ground-source heat pump: ‘We have an electric car, which we charge off the solar panels,’ says Bronwen.
Five and a half years after they moved in, there are still issues to be dealt with. They are in the process of replacing the drainage system, at a cost of around £28,000 (they only discovered it had collapsed when the washing machine started backing up), and fixing the roof, which, they found, had been fitted using inappropriate materials, and was starting to rot. ‘Just because a building is signed off by building control, it doesn’t mean it has been properly inspected,’ Bronwen notes.
As to the question of whether it was all worth it: ‘We’re getting there,’ she says. Despite the difficulties of the process, they did not have to compromise on their original vision, and now have a home built to their specifications. They had been spending around 80 per cent of their time there, and the rest at their house in London, but since the first lockdown they have been living in the country almost full-time, and plan to continue doing so.
‘When I drive down from London, I can feel myself shifting gear and getting into the groove,’ says Bronwen. ‘Our children [now 29 and 26] love it, too, which is great. It’s a bit of a magnet for them, so we see more of them than we might otherwise. The house just feels really comfortable. I love the finishes, and the feeling of space. Any time of year I can be in there and feel very content, happy and calm.’
What to consider before you start a self-build project
Get as much advice as you can from different professionals, so you’re not getting all your information from one person, and talk to people who have completed a self-build. If you don’t know anyone, research online forums such as BuildHub
Before you engage an architect and builders, talk to previous clients independently and ask them about how their build went, and how snagging was managed afterwards.
Have a clear idea of what you want before you start, and stick to it. It helps to have visuals and a mood board to take into meetings with architects, so you don’t end up being persuaded into making changes that you don’t want.
It’s best to employ a separate project manager, who can keep an eye on the build and budget, and manage communications between the client, architect and builders. Search local listings and forums for someone with good local contacts.
Pay close attention to the fixtures and fittings at the planning stage. Sometimes, architects can specify expensive fixtures and costs can quickly spiral.
As a general rule, a contingency of 10-20 per cent is advised, but it can be hard to budget without knowing what problems you might hit during the build. ‘Come up with a figure, then double it,’ advises Bronwen.
The house can be rented as a location for photographic shoots, via Beach Studios and Light Locations