Self Building A House – Method or Madness?

Do you need to be mad to construct a house from new?

Newhousemain1 Self Building A House   Method or Madness?

It is said that there is nothing more rewarding than building a new house – if you survive it. The challenge requires a combination of creativity, clever management and stamina, and may be the biggest risk you could ever take. The economy may be gloomy, but intrepid house-hunters are still searching for plots, sketching their ideas, and striving to build the best new homes they can.

“When you embark on something like this, you don’t know if you will succeed, or where your life will be when you have finished,” says Deborah Hebel. “You have a dream and a set of hopes. It is quite an endeavour.” She and her husband, John, and sons, Michael, 11, and Sebastian, seven, have created an extraordinary place called Bedlam, near Canterbury in Kent. “The wood beside it is called Bedlam,” Deborah explains. “But life was also rather crazy while we were building it.”

The house, which stands in nine acres, is partially sunken, with a copper roof curved in two ripples. Inside, there is decorative ironwork – branches and tree trunks – handmade by a blacksmith. As well as five bedrooms, there is a cinema room, and an indoor swimming pool that can be seen through the glazed wall of the living room. “In 2008, we came to what we called a shack, because it was a bungalow, with plants in the walls and no foundations,” she says. “But it was a wonderful spot, with owls at night and no light pollution.”

Newhouselivingarea Self Building A House   Method or Madness?

How difficult was it to get planning permission? “It took a year. I went to the National Archives, researched the area, and presented a coherent case. We got permission to build on a different part of the plot, to a bigger footprint, so we could live in the bungalow while we did it,” says Deborah. Did the eco-credentials help? “That was for us personally. We over-insulated and put in a ground-source heat pump. It costs less than the bungalow to run, even though it is four times the size.”

The house is an expression of their family life. “Marble flooring is good because the boys can rollerblade along it,” she says, calmly. “I went to extremes to source materials. For the marble I went deep into Turkey and had dinner with the man who ran the company. I took Sebastian, who was then five, to China to find carpets and curtains. He had a day as a panda keeper and went cormorant fishing, so he enjoyed it.” The result is that they and their architect, Shane Jell, have been shortlisted for a Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) award this year.

Kitchen Self Building A House   Method or Madness?

If they win, it would be some recognition for the agony that accompanies the ecstasy of home building. For this is a second attempt for Deborah, a former City trader.

“The idea first popped into my head in 2002, but we failed first time,” she says. “It took three-and-a-half years to get planning permission then, and my ambition overtook reality. The bill soared and we suddenly had two children. We sold it and started again.”

Life has changed once more and they need to be nearer relatives. Their home is up for sale for £3.25 million with Strutt & Parker (01227 451123) – and you don’t have to be mad to live here.

Getting planning permission is often the biggest struggle, particularly if you want to build in virgin countryside. In 1997, the then Environment Secretary, John Gummer, keen to encourage country house building, which he saw as “one of the great glories of England”, introduced a clause making it possible to build houses that were truly innovative or exceptional. But only 20 to 25 were built, and this planning loophole is being closed.

One of the last projects to get permission in this way was a house bristling with glass turrets and wrapped in wood, designed by retired architect Tony Goddard in the grounds of the Manor House at Newton Harcourt, in Leicestershire. Tony, a founding partner at Goddard Manton, is best known for his work in London Docklands and for notable buildings around Leicester.

“We live in the Manor, which has 10 bedrooms and is too big for us now,” he says. “The idea is to build a smaller house in the grounds, then move into it and sell this.” The planners warned him it would be difficult to get permission. He quickly found himself spending £25,000 on ecology, tree and flood surveys, plus a landscape assessment. “It was a risk; they could have said no.” Luckily, they said yes.

How do the sums work? The site with planning permission may be valued at £350,000-£450,000. Building the shell may cost £500,000, and the end value could be £1.5 million. The formidable eco-credentials include an earth energy bank for long-term energy storage. “I have known the woods here for my entire life, made dens there when I was a boy,” says Tony. “I wanted the house to touch on them as lightly as possible, but also to look into them.” It rises with terraces or balconies to every room. “We will be up with the squirrels.”

Buying agents such as Charlie Wells, at Prime Purchase, have noticed that canny buyers are snapping up unlisted houses in gorgeous settings with an eye to massively extending or knocking them down to rebuild. “With one in three properties, I find myself taking an architect or a planning consultant with me,” he says. “Building work costs the same in a secondary or primary location so it makes it worth doing.”


Beau View, Canterbury, Kent: with four bedrooms, gym, stable and paddock, at £1.35m through Chesterton Humberts (020 7594 4746).

Hill House near Alresford, Hampshire: with five bedrooms and bathrooms, cinema, at £3.25m through Chesterton Humberts (as above).


High Beeches, Swaines Hill, Hampshire: 10-bedroom Fifties house with 11 acres in prime spot at £1.495m through Strutt & Parker (01256 702892). Rebuilt, it could be worth £3.5m. A further 25 acres is priced at £175,000.

Delmont, near Malmesbury, Wiltshire: Fifties-built four-bedrooom house and former forge set in more than three acres with views over adjoining meadows to the River Avon, at £650,000, through Strutt & Parker (01285 653101).

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