Santa brought me a delightful and unexpected present at Christmas — a copy of Stuart Martin’s Build your Own House. Not heard of it? Nor the author? Me neither. That may be because the book was written in the 1960s. For anyone interested in how we build our homes, it makes a fascinating read — as much for what isn’t in it, as anything that is. The essential process hasn’t changed one jot, but the complexity we have brought to the party in the past 50 years is mind-boggling.

Martin makes the process of building a house look very simple. He bases his book around the construction of a brick-built three bedroom detached house of just under 1,000ft² (92m²), because “a house of 1,000ft² or under no longer requires a building licence.” That referred to a piece of post-war rationing which no longer applies, but almost everything else he describes is far more straightforward than today. For example, he runs through the options for drawing up plans:

1. Architect — “but you will have to pay for this service”
2. Builder — “expect to pay around £25”
3. Draughtsmen — “many of them do this as a spare-time occupation”
4. DIY — “this may sound rather frightening at first, but with a little care and patience it can be done”

It’s pretty obvious that Martin favours DIY throughout, and when he gets onto foundations his advice is clear: “The first job is setting out. This may or may not be done by the reader, but if you have successfully completed your plans there is no reason why you shouldn’t do this job as well.”

And what about the missing bits? Insulation for starters. There is no mention of it anywhere in the book. The walls are two skins of brickwork, separated by an empty cavity. The roof is a traditional cut roof with rafters, ridge beam and purlins, but not so much as a hint of glass wool or polystyrene anywhere to be seen. The glass is clear sheet glass — none of that fancy double glazing. No mention of any concepts like U-values or thermal mass here. Building your own home was far less complex in the 1960s.

Another glaring difference is the absence of central heating: Martin specifies a solid-fuel boiler, but only to heat up the domestic hot water. Space heating is provided by two coal fires — one in the living room and the other in the dining room. Upstairs there is no heating at all. God, we were tough back then.

To be fair, Martin touches on central heating as an option: “It is now possible to obtain a range of boilers which are oil fired. A boiler of this type would be capable of providing heat for two or three radiators.” In fact, radiators were around long before 1960, but were still regarded as a luxury.

Electrics is another area where the changes have rung out. The ’60s house was wired but it had just 13 lights and ten sockets. Only the lounge and the dining room had more than one outlet. Flash forward to 2010 — we would probably specify three times as many lights and sockets for a house this size.

But perhaps the biggest difference overall is in the finishes. OK, this is intended to be a pretty basic house, but basic barely begins to describe the options available. Floor choices for a screeded floor are: parquet wood block, thermoplastic tiles (some are even designed to look like parquet), linoleum or cork (“a pleasing neutral colour”). By comparison, today’s plethora of materials, finishes and costs can overwhelm the specifier.

Martin’s book is unusual in that it goes into costings in some detail. The total cost, including land, is stated as £2,350. In today’s money – the Retail Price Index suggests we multiply this by 17 – that’s just under £40,000 for an admittedly small (92m²) house. Most of this money is swallowed up by the build costs which, translated for 2010, work out at around £400/m² — this is probably about a half to a third of what the average self-builder is spending today. On the other hand, this was a much simpler house to build, with far fewer amenities. Not to mention a complete absence of insulation, double glazing and central heating, to name but a few.

Yet what really stands out is the land cost, which Martin suggests should be no more than £300 for a small building plot. Inflation adjusted, this is still only £5,000. Nowhere in the UK would you find a plot of building land at such a low cost today. Therein lies another story…

 

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