“The original idea was to build a house to a modest budget of around £45,000 in two to three years,” recalls Simon Grainger, reflecting on a project that, in the end, took ten years and cost £290,000 to complete. Before he met wife Karen, Simon worked as a civil engineer and project manager, and had often dreamed of finding a plot on which to build a home.
Meanwhile Karin, a conveyancing solicitor, owned a plot of land – the large front garden of her previous house – that she just couldn’t get rid of. She’d sold up and downsized to a smaller property outside the area, but the buyers didn’t want the extra land. Any initial hopes Karin had of selling the plot separately for development were quickly quashed: “The planners were adamant that permission would not be given — ‘Not until hell freezes over,’” she recalls being told bluntly. Apparently the owner before her had fallen out with the local planners in a big way. As the plot had no commercial value without planning, it had simply been tagged onto her house as an oversized garden — at an extra cost.
Over the following years in her conveyancing business, Karin noticed an increasing number of infill sites gaining planning permission. During this time, she met Simon, and in 1994 they optimistically approached a local planning consultant, who worked hard to negotiate outline planning permission for a four bedroom house and single garage.
In 1995, Simon was made redundant and became, in his words, “a househusband, with some redundancy money and share options”, and so the two decided on a joint self-build — Karin contributing the land and Simon building the house.
With his background, Simon was confident he could negotiate the best rates and save on builders’ management costs by doing it himself. “We started with a budget more appropriate for a modest four bedroom house in a less salubrious area,” he laughs. Taking control of the whole process himself, Simon developed the design and negotiated subsequent planning amendments.
Work finally started on site in late 1997, diverting mains services and providing a new driveway to access the plot and adjoining property. The first three years were very slow. Simon had started his own building business – with increasing success – which reduced the available time to spend on the house. “The upside was that it took so long, that by the time we came to start on the building, we had more money to spend,” remembers Karin. “We’d also developed the building design and increased the specification and quality. The downside was that although I kept asking Simon for a completion date, he’d never, ever give me one!”
The outline planning permission restricted the size and height of the house, so Simon had to employ creative design skills along with patient negotiation to produce a larger house that was still within the original boundary and height limitations.
A substantial wall around the boundary retains spoil from the foundation excavation. This enabled them to dig deeper within the site, keeping the foundations low enough to create additional living space at first floor level, within the planning height restriction, along with creating an enclosed private garden complete with two level putting greens to indulge their passion for golf. By astute negotiation, they also managed to increase the usable site area by cutting down a tree inside their boundary and planting a new one in the neighbour’s garden — creating extra space for a double garage. By the time they received full planning approval in 1999, the house had increased from an initial 93m² with single garage to the current 323m² with double garage — all within the original site boundary.
The concept for the house also changed considerably during this time. “It became about creating a home for us,” says Simon. “A place with some distinctive and attractive features to make it unique and outstanding in this area. To achieve this we had to be totally involved in the design and building of it.” The price to pay was the time involved. The roof alone took Simon two years to build — “In the process, learning what a Winchester cut was,” he smiles.
“We agreed the house needed interesting features to give it presence, character and interest — but we still can’t agree on who originally came up with the idea of the clock,” says Simon. “It’s so wonderful; it even changes automatically with daylight saving time.”
The pressure to finish the build intensified in 2004, when the couple’s long-term dream of running wine tours in France became possible. On holiday in the Loire Valley in September 2003, they stumbled across the ideal property — and it was for sale. Karin’s house was quickly put on the market, but the owners were keen to complete quickly and would not wait for Karin to sell. They found themselves committed to buying in France before having the funds they needed to complete from their house sale. Fortunately, delays in France gave them additional breathing space during which they found a buyer, and in August 2004 they moved into the Clock House — minus stairs and a kitchen. They lived in the guest bedroom and continued building.
The kitchen was the most pressing priority. “We had quotations ranging from £30-40,000, but we knew we could achieve what we wanted for much less, without sacrificing quality,” says Simon. “It took a long time to design, to get it right and arrange the units in a modular layout, and during this planning stage I heard of a new kitchen business on local radio.” The kitchen business failed halfway through, but Simon still managed to get the cabinetmaker to complete the units in solid maple for £8,000.
The granite worktop – over three-and-a-half square metres in one piece – arrived in a van of its own. “Close behind came another with six stocky men to manoeuvre it in!” laughs Simon.
The staircase was considerably more complex. Installing a dogleg staircase would have been easy; but from the earliest days, Simon had imagined “a large, sweeping staircase with an open fireplace in the entrance hall” — and he was determined to have it.
The stairs were simple, but the complicated curved balustrading deterred the joiners, and finding someone prepared to do both proved impossible. A turner agreed to do the newels, designed by Simon from an example he’d seen in Chinon, France. He bought the oak and passed it over for turning — the straight sections went smoothly but when it came to the curves the turner became difficult to contact. Simon concluded he’d given up, and the couple spent 18 months without balustrading. Eventually they found someone to complete the project — only this time in metal.
With the exception of the brickwork and plastering, this is truly a house designed and built by the owners — from the elegant sweeping stairway to the stylish, functional and individual modular kitchen. “Building a house can be a very quick process, but building a home takes time. This has been a real labour of love,” says Simon.
Not content to sit back and relax, the couple are now turning their attention to renovating their manor house and building their business in France.
- Name: Simon and Karin Grainger
- Build Cost: £290,000 (£898/m²)
- Build Time: 6 Years 8 Months
- Build Route: Self Managed
- Region: Cardiff