John and Jill Price’s new self-built home is a charming barn-style design that perfectly meets their lifestyle requirements. It has a fantastic light, farmhouse-style kitchen with a vaulted ceiling and folding sliding doors that open onto the private, sunny patio. At 226m², plus a large separate three-car garage, it is much bigger than its developer-built equivalents. It is, put simply, a brilliant self build home packed with design touches of the sort you just don’t get with a new home bought off the market.
But that, truth be told, is only a fraction of the story. For John and Jill’s new home cost them just £126,400 to build (plus the plot) and comes out at an astonishing £458/m² — remarkable for a highspecification house. To give you some context, H&R’s Build Cost Calculator puts the highest probable build cost at around £1,600/m² and the lowest at around £590/m², which assumes you build a tiny, developer-spec house in Scotland. The Calculator doesn’t account for the likes of John and Jill Price, however.
“We were living in a nice enough house that we’d renovated and extended to within an inch of its life,” begins John, “and wanted to move to a slightly smaller, more manageable home — but our one prerequisite was that it had to be in the same village that we had been living in for the last 33 years. A 1960s timber frame Colt bungalow came up on a two-thirds-of-an-acre site in the heart of the Conservation Area — and it seemed like a perfect opportunity. We were keen to create a new four bedroom home but to really try and maximise the amount of equity we had in any finished project.”
Soon enough the Prices found themselves working with family friend – and Manser Medal award-winning house designer – Meredith Bowles to create a sympathetic barn-style design that would be in keeping with the rural surroundings, complete with full-height barn door windows front and back (the other windows to be small and asymmetrical) and a timber-clad exterior. A key aspect of the design was to make allowances for possible future needs, including easy-going stairs (that could take a stair lift) and a large ground floor wetroom that would take a wheelchair. Planning permission granted – back in 2004 – work could finally begin, although it was held up quite significantly by the protracted resolution of a VAT problem (SEE BELOW) relating to the intended phased demolition of the existing buildings (more of which later).
This is where John and Jill’s course deviates somewhat from the self build norm. For a start, they had purposefully left off any detailed internal design and specification from Meredith’s drawings. All works were to be carried out around the general layout they had initially agreed but, as John and Jill intended to be working on the house full-time, they saw that there would be a benefit in letting ideas evolve as the project progressed. “Much better than trying to envision what a house might look like on paper. It enabled us to optimize our needs as we went along,” says John.
Secondly, rather than submitting full building drawings for Building Regulations approval, all work would instead be carried out on ‘Notice’ — meaning that each stage would be rigorously inspected as it was completed. This is a much riskier path than going down the approved plans route – mainly because it means that it’s physical work that will need to be redone rather than a drawing – but it also worked for John and Jill because they could be relatively flexible about the whole thing as it progressed.
Lastly, the viability of the project rather depended on them being able to live on site while building took place — which was a little tricky, considering that the new house was to cover the footprint of the old bungalow. So the project was undertaken in three phases: the first, to build a three-car garage for storage space; the second, to dismantle the front 40% of the bungalow and build the two storey house (not touching the remainder of the bungalow) — and then move into the main house when completed. The third and final phase would be to dismantle the rear/mini bungalow and build the kitchen/dining room.
“The whole object was to self build, in the truest sense of the word, at least 95% of the house — I’ll confess, partly as a retirement project but also as an enhanced property asset,” explains John. “I have a background in engineering and have limited experience with houses, but I was fairly comfortable giving it a go. I certainly had time on my hands, and plenty of determination to get stuck in.”
With winter on the way, John and Jill started dismantling the bungalow in September 2005. John did part of the work himself and then brought in a team of ground workers to sort out the foundations. He then stepped back in and laid the beam and block floors, built the external walls using lightweight aircrete Celcon Solar insulation 215mm blocks (“I tried using the old-fashioned dense blocks, but they are actually pretty heavy”) which were then clad with Celotex, a breathable membrane, battened and boarded. John got a contractor to erect the scaffolding — the lazy thing.
Then, with just a brief pause to draw breath, on to the roofing — the trusses were pulled into position by John and his tireless friend Michael. This was followed by laying all the slates and guttering; building the fireplace, chimney and fitting the woodburner; fitting the windows and doors; doing the ceilings and stud work, using taper-edge plasterboards and jointing to minimise the requirement for plasterers; carpentry work, including making the oak stairs himself and then fitting them, and fitting the trusses (which he and Michael made) in the new kitchen/dining area.
Didn’t he ever get tired? “In truth, yes I did — but once I got into a pattern of working, it was enjoyable,” says John. “The fact of the matter is that with some practical ability, some building experience, and a lot of time and patience, it is possible to achieve quite a lot. I had some help with the heavy work, too, which helped immensely.” Jill confides that she did occasionally worry about the amount of physical effort John was putting into his very long days – living on site it proved difficult to get away from it all at times – but also recognises that John immensely enjoyed the experience.
And then on to the finishing: John did all the plumbing, including fitting the underfloor heating and sanitaryware, and all the electrics — the key parts of both supervised and tested by the appropriate registered persons. Finally, all the flooring (some 70m² of travertine), wall tiles, kitchen and utility room were fitted out, and the patio laid.
The project took a bit longer than John had hoped — it was completed in July 2009, clocking in at a little over four years (although there was a gap while John and Jill recovered after building the main house). “He didn’t tell me it would take quite this long,” says Jill with a smile, happy to have seen John accomplish something so impressive (she was responsible for much of the interior specification).
Despite the remarkably low build cost, this doesn’t feel like a typical budget house. The ground floor in particular is remarkably successful, with an oak frame with glass infills (built, need you ask, by John) and the undoubted highlight, an immaculate kitchen (from The Derek Neil Collection), dining and informal sitting room that opens out onto the patio. The garden and surroundings are perfect, and you can’t help but wonder quite how they had the audacity to pull it off.
It’s an impressive achievement, and, it has to be said, this kind of DIY project is an increasingly rare element of ‘self build’ these days. For that, and for building such an attractive house at such a ridiculously low cost, people like John and Jill need to be applauded. John – ever self-critical, however – looks back at the house and declares: “Well, I have got one disappointment. [Pause for comic timing.] I’d hoped to build it for under £100,000.”
VAT Reclaims and Partial Demolitions
John and Jill had immense difficulty with the rules for reclaiming VAT on self build, owing to the nature of the project. They hoped to utilise the bungalow that was existing on the site while work commenced on the new build. “VAT Notice 719, defining the requirements for reclaiming VAT [it has now been replaced by form VAT431NB] on self building, requires all existing buildings to be demolished before new building starts — to avoid the conflict of extensions which do not qualify for zero VAT,” explains John. “Because we needed to live in the bungalow during most of the project, we could not meet this requirement, and on seeking clarification from the VAT offices we were told that we would be ineligible for a VAT refund.”
The couple appealed and fortunately the decision was overturned mainly because:
- They had planning permission for an entire project that included both demolition and new build in three phases — therefore extensions were not involved at all;
- At no time during the project would the new building be joined to or touch the bungalow; nor would the bungalow and new building be occupied simultaneously.