A Grand Designs self build testament to one couple’s commitment to see a problematic project through to completion.
The self-build house faces north and sits on the edge of an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Image: Chris Tubbs
Jon and Gill Flewers had a long-standing dream of building their own home. Having lived in New Zealand for several years, the couple, who have three young sons, planned to move back to the UK. Searching for self build plots online, they zoned in on the Malvern area in Worcestershire.
But trouble was on the horizon. The land they’d set their hearts on was snapped up at the eleventh hour by a property developer. It was a setback, but prompted the couple to reconsider a smaller, less expensive plot they’d previously discounted. ‘By this point we were in love with Malvern,’ said Jon. The clock was also ticking before their eldest son had to start secondary school. A family member scouted out the site and advised the couple to steer clear as it was on the side of a north-facing hill. Nevertheless, Gill and Jon decided to buy the plot without having seen it. ‘We figured that if we didn’t like it once we were back in the UK, we could resell,’ said Jon.
In mid-2013 the family returned to the UK and bought a house close to the site, with the idea that it would be sold once construction of the new home was finished. The design process was under way long before they left New Zealand, and the brief was fairly straightforward: a low-energy home with five bedrooms and an open-plan living space.
Big windows provide glorious views of the countryside. Image: Chris Tubbs
The couple worked with local architect, Nick Carroll, who’d designed other homes in Worcestershire. Nick visited the site and came up with a scheme for a contemporary home, which the couple loved the look of. ‘I’d send him questions before I went to bed and would wake up to the answers and a new set of questions and drawings, which was exciting,’ says Jon, who took on the role of main contractor.
A dose of reality
Once the family arrived in Malvern to begin the project, reality hit. Although the plot’s views overlooked a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and it had flat land at the top for the children to play on, builders were deterred by its hillside location as it would involve major excavation. One contractor brought machinery to the site but turned back once he saw what was involved, telling Jon and Gill there wasn’t enough profit in it. It was a frustrating time for the family. ‘We thought that if you can build houses on hillsides in New Zealand, then you should be able to do so in the UK,’ said Jon.
A blue feature wall will create a focal point in the kitchen. Image: Chris Tubbs
Meanwhile, the first set of drawings had gone through planning with a few minor tweaks. The house would be a modern construction clad with thermally modified poplar, and local stone (subsequently changed to aluminium panels). But, a second design was necessary to reduce the considerable excavation costs.
The architect devised an alternative in which the property moved forward by six metres, reducing the amount of groundworks and excavation needed. ‘We went from a building that was four storeys to one that was three,’ explains Jon. ‘We lost the double garage, but that was something I was willing to accept to get the job done.’ The new design also meant the house would sit very close to the boundary line, but there were no objections to the new scheme.
The living area includes bespoke furniture, charity shop finds and a contemporary wood-burning stove. Image: Chris Tubbs
An upside down house
One of the key challenges was that Jon insisted the house be constructed with insulating concrete formwork (ICF) – a material that almost no local building firms knew how to work with. The benefit of ICF, consisting of polystyrene blocks filled with concrete, is that it’s cost-effective and energy-efficient, which was important since the couple wanted their home to meet Passivhaus standards, and it came very close. Looking for structural engineers and builders familiar with ICF stalled progress considerably, but finally the right team was in place and work began in earnest in March 2016, three years after the family arrived back to the UK. They finally moved into their new home the following summer.
The timber-clad house is upside down, with sleeping quarters on the first floor and living areas on the top floor. Despite all the problems, quitting was never an option for the couple. ‘Once we'd committed and said we could make it work, we had to see it through. But that doesn’t mean there weren’t days when I didn’t think, 'why on earth are we doing this?’ said Jon.
The open-tread timber staircase is a show-stopping element of this home. Image: Chris Tubbs
A sculptural staircase leads up to the first floor, which has a row of four bedrooms including Jon and Gill's en suite bedroom. Up one more level the open-plan dining and living areas connect to the terrace outside. This floor also has the guest room, a utility room and a wall of windows to give the spaces a bright, airy feel. ‘The views are what made it all worthwhile,’ Jon said.