I was recently asked about my self-build history and, having been quizzed on this so many times, I trotted out the usual response: In 1970 my wife, Linda, and I self-built our first marital home — from that point onwards, we’ve gone on to self-build a total of 12 times. Cue gasps of amazement that turn to incredulity when I elaborate that within our 40 years of marriage, and encompassing those 12 self-builds, we’ve moved a total of 32 times.
It hasn’t all been in the same area. We’ve lived as far north as Yorkshire, as far south as Hampshire, as east as Kent and as west as Gloucestershire. So is there such a thing as nomadic or self-build genes?
I’ve always thought that the nomadic traits were inherited. My parents were both RAF officers and in their time clocked up 89 postal addresses. Even after my father’s death, my mother added another three to her tally. Linda’s parents were in the army and only achieved 59 moves during their marriage. Since then my mother-in-law has made just the one. Lifestyles such as this lead to a constant sense of impermanence. It even leads to a situation where, after a few years – I’ve narrowed it down to four – you get bored and literally crave new surroundings.
But what about the self-build gene? Was that also inherited? Well, in that same conversation I also admitted that the first time we built our own home I didn’t consider us as ‘self-builders’. It was, perhaps, only five years later when we built again that I began to recognise what we’d been that first time around. How many others who create an individual home don’t actually think of themselves as self-builders?
Well, there is an answer to the question of the self-build gene, in my family anyway. It suddenly dawned on me that both my parents and Linda’s were self-builders. Although, once again, they would never have recognised themselves as such — but nor was such a term as prevalent then as it is today.
Linda’s parents bought a plot of land in Hitchen and commissioned a timber frame bungalow to be built upon it. The structure arrived fully assembled and fitted out, and was craned onto the site in sections before having its brick outer skin applied and the roof tiles laid. “We didn’t self-build. It was all done for us,” my mother-in-law protests.
But they did self-build — they found and bought their own plot and they instigated the development of a home to live in.
My parents owned a large garden in a wooded area of Bishops Stortford and one day decided to try for planning permission for a five bedroom house with access from the road at the rear. They got it and I helped my father manage the build using subcontractors. So they truly were self-builders long before they or I had ever heard that description applied to people who conceive and commission their own home. Indeed, our parents’ generation self-built without knowing it.
And then it’s interesting to consider their criteria. My parents-in-law wanted speed above all. So they went for the turnkey option with a kit supplier and moved in within a few months of buying the land. My parents wanted huge rooms, and plenty of them, for entertaining. But it’s the little things that I’m beginning to remember. Nobody was that fussed about thermal insulation and my father opted for single glazing. Yet, there was something he did want to protect the house against. It was the time of the miners’ strikes (1972-4), with three-day weeks introduced to save electricity and long power outages. My father wanted to make the house as immune as possible — so he included a generator, within a garage cupboard, with the potential to take over the essential electrical circuits in the house. This would keep the central heating and a few lights and sockets running in the event of a blackout.
Now I’m beginning to worry about just the same thing. This time around, however, it’s not labour relations that I fear will be the cause, but the lack of foresight that our glorious leaders have shown when it comes to thinking ahead about power supplies. So, just like my father’s self-build, my next project will include a cupboard for a back-up energy supply. But now I’ll have something he never could have envisaged: the ability to install photovoltaic (PV) panels on the roof to produce electricity of our own and maybe, with the new Feed-in Tariffs (FiTs), provide a little payback for exporting it. Like him I won’t be looking to such technology to provide all our needs. Just enough for the home to function, when all others are shivering, and bathe us in a warm rosy glow of self-satisfaction.