Grand Designs: The Street followed a group of pioneers trying to get better value for money in the biggest self-build neighbourhood in Britain.
The participants included would-be first-time buyers who had decided to do things their own way, and some existing property owners who wanted to design their own forever home.
The Grand Designs: The Street location is actually not miles from where I ended up as a first-time buyer. I dallied with the idea of self-building at Graven Hill too. I got to the party too late, so the plots had gone up to a price where I would have been able to afford the land, but nothing else. (I suppose there would have been a show waiting to follow me as I built my house from mud and smarties in desperation).
Where is the Grand Designs: The Street’s location?
The estate is called Graven Hill in Oxfordshire, so the surroundings are quite pricey for property. The experiment was inspired by an estate in the Netherlands called Almere that has thousands of self-build houses. Presenter Kevin McCloud coincidentally had wanted to film around Almere because of its innovation.
If projects like this were widely available nationwide, then I think it would provide more choice to wannabe first-time buyers. I wouldn’t normally watch Grand Designs as the houses featured tend towards very expensive and ambitious projects. Self-building is daunting as it is, but we also don’t make it very easy in the UK for renters to learn about self-building. Unless you’re willing to do a mansion’s worth of independent research yourself.
This particular series showcased how even someone who has never owned property before might navigate the rollercoaster though. Self-building might be the difference for some between renting forever and owning the ideal home for their lifestyle.
I’ve recapped How to Live Mortgage Free with Sarah Beeny if you’re unsure whether you’ll join the property ladder. Self-building is not for everyone. The information below should give an idea of whether you would ever want to do the same.
Another post Help To Buy Vs Shared Ownership Vs A Fleetwood Mac Song covers the various traditional buying options out in the world.
Here’s what I’ve covered below
The 10 case studies below include:
- How they funded their build
- Their experience
- The build methods
- Property sizes
- Problems encountered
- What savings they made
- The final costs
The benefits of self-building
The 10 self-builders paid around £100k each for their plots. (Plots were priced at £200k when I discovered them and they were larger plots than I really needed). There is finance available for self-builders. Like any mortgage the lender ties this to your income and likelihood of paying it back. It does mean however that money can be released as the build progresses.
£100k might sound phenomenal and that’s before they funded the work inside. The important thing to remember though is that when you build, you also get to decide the schedule. To an extent you can go at a pace that suits your finances. I would always speak to a broker to find out what finance is available for your circumstances.
The difference in what you can achieve when you self-build is monumental also. The finished house is very likely to be much bigger than one built by a developer. You can 100% customise (without the premium price of a turnkey property). Ironically, it’s cheaper to achieve such personalisation than it is to buy your ideal home ready made. (Where “cheaper” doesn’t necessarily mean “cheap”).
The Case Studies
Here’s what each case study revolves around:
- Can we build alone?
James found himself unexpectedly building all by his onesie.
- Is it better to build with a partner?
Jack and Hannah show what can be done with two hands and building experience.
- Are eco-builds cheaper?
Paul and Blanka’s priority was living environmentally friendly on a budget.
- What’s the cheapest structure?
Chris and Roxie built their house from plywood, but is it cheaper?
- Are prefab houses easier to build?
Three couples voted for SIPS panels to construct their house: Peter and Anita, Garrie and Sue, and Sean and Diana.
- Should we build with friends?
Terry and Olwen were neighbours with Lynn before self-building next door to each other.
- What if we can’t get a mortgage?
Paulina and Godfrey had to overcome a mortgage rejection.
Can We Build Alone?
James (and partner Shannon at first)
Funded by: James and Shannon had £275k from a house sale
The build method: SIPS panels, and a steel portal frame clad in oak and slate
Property size: 3 bedrooms 2 bathrooms
Timescale: James started in October 2016 and didn’t finish before filming ended
Problems: James ended up building alone after he and Shannon parted ways
Savings: James chose a steel roof because he could build it himself.
The plots come with utilities pre-installed and then foundation costs depend on the build.
Check delivery times and check again. James hired a crane for £700 per day, so time and organisation is of the essence to avoid going overbudget. The crane had to go due to a delayed delivery of steels, so James assembled the steels by hand.
James salvaged a kitchen, oven, fridge and toilet for free. He also slept in the shell of the house to be on site. He did spend £10k on a polished concrete floor, but any other floor would have had concrete underneath anyway. Also durable flooring is a worthy investment.
The final cost: Estimated as he didn’t finish; he was projected to spend £330k versus £200-250k. However, he calculated that his labour was worth around £137k if he’d paid someone else to do the work.
James spent £270k by the end of filming and still needed to put in stairs, hot water, and a bathroom. He predicted spending another £55k to finish everything therefore. He was in no rush though.
Design tip: James’ steel frame allows an open plan that needs no supporting walls inside.
Is It Better To Build With A Partner?
Jack and Hannah
Funded by: Self-build mortgage of £275k including the plot
Experience: Jack had built a hot tub before. More relevant, he’s a quantity surveyor who spends a lot of time on building sites. He had personal connections with tradesmen like bricklayers.
The build method: Jack and Hannah used blockwork clad with boards and cedar
Property size: 3 bedrooms 3 bathrooms
Timescale: Jack and Hannah took from July 2016 – December 2017
Savings: Jack and Hannah paid for their kitchen but got a £10k discount because it was ex-display. They had to disassemble it in the showrooms themselves, collect it and reassemble.
Their reclaimed steel beams were free though. They were a teeny bit wonky, but perfection is priced accordingly. They scavenged all their furniture for free also except in the lounge.
The final cost: Jack and Hannah ultimately spent £281k. This is still less than buying an existing three bed locally. To go only £6k or so overbudget is conservative for a self-build.
Notice anything missing? Jack and Hannah did seem to have less problems than James. This may have been down to experience and connections rather than building as a team though. Going it alone certainly made James extremely resourceful.
Are Eco-builds Cheaper?
Paul and Blanka
Funded by: The sale of Blanka’s flat. Paul and Blanka wanted to build the house itself for £50-60k.
Experience: Paul’s dad is an architect.
The build method: A timber frame with ecofriendly Hempcrete on top. Hempcrete mixes sustainable hemp with lime. Use it to hand-fill walls for insulation. The render was lime also.
Property size: 4 bedrooms 3 bathrooms
Timescale: July 2016 – August 2018
Problems: Paul and his builder didn’t always see eye to eye because Paul needed a lot of coaching. Paul was able to hire a labourer friend later on though after a blessed payday.
They struggled to get the water tank into the loft because the winch wasn’t really big enough for the task. They had insurance for any injuries on site, but best to never to have to make a claim…
Paul and Blanka rented a barn near the site before the build began. This meant they could start assembling the timber frame in sections and label the panels. Once they were allowed on site, all they had to do was deliver the panels and start connecting them.
The ecofriendly hempcrete cost them £15k, which is a fraction of building the equivalent with bricks. They also had a hempcrete party to meet their self-building neighbours. The other builders helped hand-fill some of the walls.
The other self-builders also lent the winch and a hand with the aforementioned water tank.
They also harvested some of their own cork in Portugal to provide eco-friendly insulation. The bales have to be made for you after though (and you have to go to Portugal).
Paul ended up camping on site for four months and Blanka moved in with Paul’s dad.
Here’s what should make the bills cost-efficient:
- Solar panels
- A heat exchange
- Clay on the interior walls
- Wastewater collection in the loft for the toilets and washing machine
The final costs: £300k, but they vastly underestimated their build at £160k including the land. The only existing property Paul and Blanka found within their budget before the self-build was burned out…Knowing what they spent eventually doesn’t change their original options that much. Renting for another two years wouldn’t have increased their budget for a traditional house from £160k to £300k.
Design tip: Their landing at the top of the stairs was made from slats of timber with glass in between. This refracts the light from the upper floor downwards through the landing.
What’s The Cheapest Structure?
Chris and Roxie
Funded by: Roxie had been saving for a deposit with her job at Waitrose since she was 18; Chris worked full time also. A self-build mortgage made their budget £220k including the plot.
Experience: Chris is a consultant who advises clients on building materials.
The build method: Plywood boxes bolted together and clad with cedar. The plywood also forms the interior.This method was untested on this scale before, so Chris and Roxie were guinea pigs for their architects.
Property size: 2 bedrooms 2 bathrooms
Timescale: Chris and Roxie’s build lasted from June – December 2017
Problems: Chris and Roxie’s project slowed massively when the students left, especially as the architects project managed up to that point. Their parents helped, but everyone was only available on weekends. They had to borrow an extra £25k because going slowly can be more expensive in some ways.
Chris and Roxie’s architects Studio Bark used the project to teach architecture students about building, so there was lots of extra (mostly unskilled) labour available. The students camped outside for eight weeks. It would have taken Chris and Roxie a year to achieve the same amount of work without help.
Friends and relatives also helped, and Chris and Roxie used their paid holidays to pitch in too.
They also had a novel heating system with no radiators. The hot water pipes alone provide the heat needed because of well-insulated walls.
The architect’s design included solar panels for future energy efficiency too.
Kevin pointed out Chris and Roxie could have bought a little flat locally for their budget. They got far more space this way and Chris also said that would have been boring.
The final costs: £300k. An existing detached house with as many of the same rooms would have cost double. Plywood can be a cheap material to use structurally and for your interior furniture. However, a lot of square footage still swallows a lot of cash even if it’s better value than buying existing square footage.
Design tip: The plywood acts like James’ steel frame in episode two. It allows for a completely open plan with no pillars needed between walls. It also functions the same way as flat pack building like the prefab homes in the next few examples. So Chris and Roxie could extend (their huge house!) by adding plywood modules.
Are Prefab Houses Easier To Build?
Peter and Anita
Funded by: Peter and Anita remortgaged their existing house for a £280k budget and planned to be mortgage free after selling the old house
Experience: Peter had built a shed before
The build method: SIPS panels skimmed
Property size: 4 bedrooms 3 bathrooms
Timescale: Peter and Anita began in June 2017 without a certain end date
Problems: I couldn’t see any! This might be a consequence of choosing a prefab house.
Savings: Peter chose a steel roof so he could do it himself
Final costs: £300k like Chris and Roxie. Again, it would have cost at least double to buy a house of the same size ready built.
Design tip: Peter and Anita’s stairs in their open plan had no risers. This means you could see through the steps in all directions giving the best sense of space.
The accessible house: Garrie and Sue
Funded by: Garrie’s job in financial services seemed responsible for the £435k budget, the highest of all the self-builders.
Experience: None. Sue has a disability, so Garrie and Sue visited an accessible home in Kent for ideas.
The build method: SIPS panels again. All of the prefab houses on the show had quite different budgets, so this suggests that overall size and other customisation adds cost.
Property size: 4 bedrooms 3 bathrooms for Garrie and Sue
Timescale: Garrie and Sue began in September 2017 with no end date in mind
Problems: These were intensely personal rather than build problems per se, such as Sue landing in hospital
Savings: This didn’t seem like a priority for Garrie and Sue. He took overspend out of his pension, but planned to be mortgage free.
I expect to use the word compromise a lot on the blog and Garrie wanted to self-build because he felt existing houses require too much compromise. Although they spent a lot on their build, first-timers could build on a smaller budget and still compromise less than if they were to try and buy an existing house.
The final costs: £100k overbudget at £535k
Design tip: The accessible house has no changes in level obviously, but also uses lots of pocket doors for easy travel from room to room.
I also wrote about the potential pocket doors give in the Your Home Made Perfect recap.
Prefab house #3: Sean and Diana
Funded by: I was a bit fuzzy on whether Sean and Diana owned the flat they lived in when the project began. Their budget was £300k.
Experience: Sean and Diana are engineers, so regularly invent solutions at work for problems that have no off-the-shelf solution
The build method: Another SIPS panel house. Sean and Diana wanted a timber frame and cinderblock walls with exposed brickwork on the first floor and steel cladding. However, the quotes were too high, so a flat pack house was more affordable.
Property size: 3 bedrooms 2 bathrooms
Timescale: Sean and Diana began in November 2018, with no end date decided when filming stopped
Problems: Like Garrie and Sue, the problems stemmed from a personal nature. Diana took a job in Russia during the build, so like James in the first example, Sean flew solo at times.
Savings: Apart from changing their build method, there weren’t many on display. Remember that Sean and Diana work as engineers used to creating products with a very high spec. The change in plans meant they were still working on the exterior when filming ended.
Final costs: Sean and Diana’s final costs remained to be seen
So…these prefab houses weren’t the smoothest of builds except for Peter and Anita’s. This wasn’t the fault of the build method though. Prefab houses should be much quicker to erect than traditional building. This usually saves a lot of hassle and building costs as it skips most the labour and common materials. We can prefab all shapes and sizes though, so there is still potential to blow the budget if you keep adding on modules or design a very large property first off.
Should We Build With Friends?
Terry and Olwen/Lynn
Funded by: These neighbours both sold existing properties
Experience: Terry and Olwen had self-built someone elses’ design before. This time they wanted to design the house themselves also. Their next door neighbour Lynn hired a builder for her project, but also did anything herself that she could be easily shown.
Property size: 3 bedrooms 2 bathrooms for Terry and Olwen; 2 bedrooms 2 bathrooms for Lynn.
Timescale: Both began in April 2017, with Lynn finishing later in November 2018 versus Terry and Olwen wrapping up in September. This trio were actually in Grand Designs: The Street episode one, but I bumped James to the top because of what he achieved mostly alone for less.
Problems: Lynn had no prior knowledge of building. Her reliance on Terry and Olwen strained their friendship to breaking point. No one would claim that self-building can’t be stressful, so it is tough if you don’t have anyone to pick you up when things go wrong.
When we offer help, it’s important to establish boundaries.
Lynn’s concrete floor had to be redone because the underfloor heating pipes froze and burst during delays.
Terry overordered exterior tiles, so they used them up in the kitchen.
Both houses used the same build method: hollow eco blocks filled with concrete. This meant they could have the concrete pour done on the same day.
If you save money by doing certain things yourself, then this is tough on the body long term. You might have to slow down or hire help to cope physically.
Both sets of builders called on friends to help with labour also.
The final costs: Terry and Olwen spent £335, so over their £280k budget. Lynn spent £400k instead of £275-300k.
Design tip: Lynn has a roundel on the outside of the house with her bathroom inside. This adds interest, but also alludes visually to oast houses, connecting the architecture to the surrounding countryside.
What If We Can’t Get A Mortgage?
Paulina and Godfrey
Funded by: Paulina and Godfrey sold an existing house, intending a budget of £220k. They weren’t able to secure a mortgage for the rest of the budget as planned at first though.
The build method: A modular off-site turnkey provider, so another prefab house. This provider builds the rooms from steel frames, wires them, and even decorates them in the factory. They then deliver the rooms to site for them for labourers to join them up. The whole process can take less than two months. (Again, like James’ steel frame, these prefab houses can be open plan without extra support therefore).
When they finally gave the green light for their order, it took nine weeks from start to finish. I’ve seen on other shows these kinds of turnkeys (i.e. all you have to do at the end is turn the key…). You can also usually just pay for the prefab and then customise the inside yourself if you decide that’s even cheaper. Source fittings yourself for free or secondhand, or from marketplaces like eBay.
Property size: 2 bedrooms 2 bathrooms
Timescale: August 2017 – September 2018
Problems: Modular building in a factory avoids the mess and bad weather that can assault an on-site build.
The mortgage rejections meant they ended up renting unexpectedly for a year. They did eventually secure a 15 year mortgage, and because they had always disagreed with the banks about what they could afford, they expected to pay it off well before the 15 years was up.
They also had to find another factory to provide their home because their first order expired.
Paulina and Godfrey swapped private renting for property guardianship on a housing estate waiting for demolition.
I wrote about property guardians in my epic recap of Cherry Healey’s Property Virgins. That post also covers the advantages of smaller mortgages such as avoiding negative equity. In Paulina and Godfrey’s case it meant becoming mortgage free sooner rather than later, despite having to rent for longer first (!)
Turnkey solutions can be cost efficient, especially because they save time and labour.
The final costs: £280k versus an estimated £220k.
It bears repeating that Paulina and Godfrey disagreed with the bank about what they could afford. I had the same issue borrowing on a low salary even though I was saving 50% of my wages. The hidden upside is it forces you to save a bigger deposit (which is doable if you’re already saving more than average for your salary).
A bigger deposit nets a better interest rate for you. Since you spend less than the bank thinks someone on your salary should, you’re also in an ideal position to overpay the mortgage. This costs you even less interest over the lifetime of the mortgage. So while Paulina and Godfrey’s rejection was disappointing, they were at an advantage in the end. The solution was to bide their time and rent as cheaply as possible.
Grand Designs: The Street
Nightmare on Elm Street or trip to Stars Hollow?
Here were the pros of self-building at Graven Hill:
- Creative freedom
- Building at the same time as other self-builders (good for morale and shared labour)
- A fast track to receiving planning permission
- Made owning a luxury home better value
- They get to live on a street with diverse architecture
- The designs suited each owner’s lifestyle practically
- Your house can be as ecofriendly as possible
And the dreaded cons:
- Self-building can be very stressful whatever the circumstances
- The costs are still too high for some
- Routinely going overbudget, but this is usually down to a lack of contingency planning or magpie syndrome
- It requires a lot of commitment
- There isn’t enough education available to first-timers
- Finding land outside projects like this requires patience
Want to research your own build?
If Graven Hill is nowhere near where you’d like to live, then I just used property sites to look for land when I was househunting. I would start my search there again if I was looking farther afield.
If the prices you see at first are scary, check if the listing includes planning permission as this can easily triple the price of the land. Councils also keep registers of brownfield sites for sale. These patches of land are sometimes too big for a single self-builder to develop, but if you don’t look, you’ll never know. I learned to rule nothing out when I was saving for my first house.
If you’re intrigued and want to research any of the suppliers used on the show, they are all featured on the Grand Designs site. Here’s the list for Grand Designs: The Street episode one to start.
I think prefab houses are definitely worth investigating. Once upon a time there was a programme called My Flat Pack Home. As you can guess it was purely about self-builders using prefabs. In one episode a dude fitted his own kitchen; he found it easy because the dry linings of flat pack homes mean the walls and floors are perfectly level and square. In UK housebuilding we use hard plaster which is never perfect, so prefabs have an advantage even if we just buy the shell.
Their super energy efficiency and insulation means you save on bills. The SIPS have all the benefits of normal walls, but are usually thinner so you get far more space. The only issue I saw on that show was repeated visits from a council inspector who hadn’t seen flat pack extensions before, so he kept visiting.
What could you do differently?
My favourite build was definitely the nine week build in episode six, not including the sad times beforehand trying to secure a mortgage. I’m happy with the fixer upper I ended up buying, and the refurb only took a few months. It still feels longer while you’re working hard though, so all of the timescales on the show were a big ask except for Paulina and Godfrey’s. Nine weeks from start to finish sounds like bliss.
I think if I ever did self-build, I’d go for a prefab because it should be easier in theory than building brick by brick. My family left their elbow grease all over my refurb so I had help in that respect. They would have been less enthusiastic if I had insisted on trying to self-build. If you’re buying alone, then you will need the support of your family at least to attempt a self-build. A prefab though means far less moving parts for anyone involved to stress over.
You can read more about prefab houses in my recap of episode two of How to Live Mortgage Free with Sarah Beeny.
I’d like to highlight also that while the pioneers gave themselves far more spacious houses than a developer would, none of them had an excessive number of bedrooms or bathrooms. Self-building doesn’t have to be about building a mansion that would sleep all the Kardashians. The number of rooms should still suit the owner’s needs.
Making self-builds more affordable
A lot of owners did go for a luxurious finish though. This was a way for them to own “grand designs” while choosing what they pay, whereas buying an existing luxury home would have cost them far more. I’ve been writing a lot lately though about achieving a luxe look for less.
They still got a lot of value from their spends because of the quality of the outside space that came from building from scratch too. They also have priceless views from their properties if no one builds in their sight line. (There’s no right to a view in UK law though).
They’re in a prime location too with both rural countryside on their doorstep, and the amenities of a market town down the road (and Bicester Village designer outlet if that’s a plus).
If this sounds like more than your pockets can handle, then join the other Bear Savers and Earners on the mailing list. I’m emailing weekly tips on how to save for a deposit and boost your income for the timebeing. I’m going to post a lot more about how to fund a deposit whatever type of home you aim for. Definitely subscribe if you don’t want to miss what’s new on the blog.
Grand Designs: The Street 2019 seems to be the only series the makers planned, probably because it took five years to film. The estate will have far more self-builds going forward, so I wonder if there will ever be another series. Would you self-build? Let me know in the comments if any of this has helped you decide what to do next.