Gareth and Lisa Maxwell’s project in Essex is one of the first examples of how self-build in the UK might shape up, if the plans for large-scale serviced plots get off the ground.

Everything about the way they have built this house – their first as a young family – is cutting edge, from the plot-buying process to its design to, finally, its method of construction.

“I’d always wanted to build our own home,” says Gareth, a design engineer in the automotive industry, while Lisa, a management consultant, agreeing that “it would be great to do,” happily admits that Gareth was the driving force behind the idea initially. “We looked for plots for three years, on and off,” says Gareth, “and then we got to hear about this.”

Project Notes

  • Name: Gareth and Lisa Maxwell
  • Build cost: £225,000
  • Build time: 11 months
  • Region: Essex

The Plot

The site that Gareth and Lisa chose for their new home was part of the Newhall Projects estate which, thanks to the wishes of the farmer who agreed the sale of the land to the developers in the first instance, is unlike any other housing estate — in fact, those very words don’t really seem to do the place justice. It is the only housing development in the UK to have a strong architectural agenda (the developers invited architects including Richard Murphy to design for it) and, as part of the ethos of the project, a small number of plots were given over to self-builders and advertised on the open market. Which is where Gareth and Lisa found it. “The view is what sold the plot of land to us,” says Lisa. “I work in the City and have a very hectic day but I love coming back here to our roof terrace and sitting outside on a nice summer’s evening.”

“The 400m2 (about 1/10 of an acre) plot cost £145,000 with gas, electricity, water and drainage already put in,” explains Gareth. “There were surprisingly few constraints in terms of how the house was to look, just some guidelines on material usage and the ridge height, as well as it achieving a minimum of Level 3 of the Code for Sustainable Homes. As part of the contract, we would also have to use a RIBA-registered architect.”

A modern exterior

The Plans

Enter Richard Dudzicki, the talented London-based architect whose own home in East Dulwich was featured in Homebuilding & Renovating back in 2009. “We saw the article and thought, this is someone we can work with,” says Gareth. “We wanted something very sustainable, energy and space efficient (given the constraints of the plot) and, importantly, something modern. A light, open plan living space was essential.”

A seating area

Using SIPs

Which brought them on to the use of Kingspan TEK – which Richard has used before – a leading SIPs (structural insulated panels) system. Not only do SIPs walls make it easier to achieve low U-values and high levels of airtightness, but they can do so on relatively thin wall thicknesses, meaning that on tight plots such as Gareth and Lisa’s, where every inch counts, they can help create bigger interior spaces.

The hallway

Eco Elements

This is in many ways a model eco home. It actually achieves Level 4 of the Code for Sustainable Homes, meets the Lifetime Homes Standard (which promotes flexibility of design for future needs) and features solar thermal panels and underfloor heating, as well as a ‘wind catcher’, which is a very effective form of natural ventilation.

Gareth and Lisa’s careful planning and methodical approach to the brief and specification of this house has resulted in a well-designed, liveable, stylish modern home that has impeccable eco credentials and is delightfully efficient in terms of its impact.

It’s also of a scale that can be achieved by many people, and is a perfect example of why, rather than grand spaces or megabuck budgets, it is in fact good design that makes self-build such a satisfying route to getting your own home.

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