“I have spent 20 years of my life on planning committees, yet I still wasn’t quite prepared for the pitfalls of building my own home,” reflects Graham Mayhew, a county magistrate and Mediaeval buildings expert from Sussex. Graham is, however, currently sitting comfortably with his partner, Penny Brown, in the spacious, modern oak kitchen of their beautiful new home in a rural town set just a few miles back from the Sussex coast. Golden light from the sunny summer’s afternoon spills through the house from the well glazed elevations, and it becomes apparent that Graham is now fully prepared to be ruefully philosophical about what he has darkly referred to as the ‘pitfalls’ of undertaking a self build project.
“If you don’t start with a well-developed sense of humour and irony, you’ll almost certainly finish up with them,” he chuckles. “For example, because Penny had lived in the house next door to us here since 1985, we already owned the piece of land that this place sits on, so we never thought that one of the biggest costs we would incur with the project would be anything to do with the land.” But unfortunately it was, with the total cost of the groundworks on their quarter-of-an-acre plot coming in at around £150,000. “We’re on a steep gradient here, which meant that the whole plot had to be stepped out, and we underestimated the sheer volume of spoil that had to be moved from the site,” explains Graham. “But some other pretty crazy things happened to up the costs further. For example, we sit on a vast tract of chalk bedrock in this part of the country; it’s naturally porous and yet we still found ourselves, due to planning regulations, digging out great quantities of it only to be backfilled again with gravel to make the soakaways,” he says, shaking his head.
There also can’t be many self build projects that actually begin with having to demolish and rebuild one third of property you’re currently living in. “I’m afraid all of these things are inextricably linked,” says Graham. “Our main initial reason for wanting to build a new home was to downsize by building a fairly modest house at the bottom of this plot by the road and selling the top half – which we are now sitting on – off with our original house next door.
“Unfortunately, our proposal was rejected by the planning office, who decided that it would make a kind of stagger in the row by being further forward than the adjoining property. What it said at the time, though, was that if we were to put the house up here in line at the top of the hill, then planning permission would be granted without any objection — however, that meant that we would have to knock down the side of the house that would be sticking out into our plot, and rebuild it at the back!”
Accepting this as the only option, Graham and Penny agreed and surely enough their second application for a house at the top of the plot was granted. “A friend of ours, who is a retired architect, came and drew our initial plans,” Penny says. “Suddenly we were faced with a blank canvas and the opportunity to have exactly what we wanted. Graham and I went through our wish list of things we’d like to have — a large kitchen with ample dining space was top of my list of requirements, as I’d always put up with galley kitchens until then. Derek wanted a decent study and a wine cellar.”
“When we looked at the first set of plans with all of these elements incorporated, we realised that our ideas about downsizing had gone totally out the window, as we ended up with a bigger house!” Graham laughs. “On the other hand, we had the chance to create our perfect home, so we just went with it.” Design-wise, the couple were torn between taking an entirely contemporary route and opting for some form of timber frame structure. “Finally we went with a fairly modern take on an oak frame building because pragmatically it would probably be less objected to by neighbours, and because I realised that after several decades of teaching about Mediaeval building construction, I had an opportunity to apply it and build something of real quality,” explains Graham.
Work began on the couple’s new home in March 2003, with the clearance and excavation of the land, including the digging out of a cellar, which then needed block-walling and waterproofing, and channelling for services. “We needed all this to be done with the plinth the timber frame would sit on laid down and ready by 5th May — which was when the frame was actually arriving to be erected, so that day was written in stone,” says Graham. “We only just made it. I was amazed because I thought that two months for that work was plenty of time. It was all rather stressful trying to instil a sense of urgency into the labour force.
“On the other hand, we dug a much larger cellar than we originally intended, and it’s proved a godsend. You see, we wanted a house with a low roof height to shield us from the main road at the end of the back garden, so our house looks something like a bungalow from the exterior, but inside we have a first floor with Velux windows below the pitch of the roof. This has worked out really well but it did create one snag — absolutely no loft space for storage. Fortunately we realised while digging the cellar that once the excavation machinery is hired and on site it costs very little extra to dig a space three times larger, so that’s exactly what we did.”
The oak frame arrived on time and erection was completed nine days later. “We were on our way; there was suddenly the skeleton of something definitely house-shaped sitting next door,” Penny recalls. “The oak frame supplier, Oakwrights, was excellent,” says Graham. “The company also supplied us with the insulated exterior wall panels, and whole quote came in at half the price of many other companies. I think a lot of that was due to the fact that it sources French oak rather than English — which comes at a premium.”
The couple also made some other shrewd savings by finding materials themselves online (including slate roof tiles sourced form South Africa), which was just as well, as they began to realise that the project was slipping over budget quite alarmingly. In hindsight, Graham now realises that there were two major reasons for this: one being the unforeseen amount of groundwork, “and the other was, quite simply, employing a general workforce to construct our house, who we paid on a daily basis,” he says. “It soon became obvious that the few tradesmen who came here to work for a fixed price completed their tasks in half the time. It was a mistake which cost us tens of thousands,” Graham says bluntly. Yet despite all this, the couple were able to move into their new home just over a year later in April — although the kitchen, built-in cupboards and furniture were still being fitted.
The landscaping and the drive were finished in summer, and by September the couple could sit back and breathe a sigh of relief in their completed home. “It’s amazing how your memory of it all mellows,” reflects Graham. “I suppose what really helps is that in terms of style and space we’ve got exactly what we always wanted.”