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The UK’s first U-Build house is strikingly contemporary, cost-effective and part of a pioneering community of self-builders in rural Oxfordshire and set to be featured on My Grand Design this spring

The bright kitchen diner of the u-build box house featured on Channel 4's My Grand Design, designed by studio bark

Image: Lenny Codd

Four years ago, Chris Haines was sitting on the London tube reading Grand Designs magazine when he spotted an advertisement calling for entries from people who wanted to design their own home and live at Graven Hill in Oxfordshire, the largest self-build development in the UK.

Landscape architecture graduate Chris, who works in central London for a property consultancy, began planning a concept in collaboration with London architecture practice Studio Bark and submitted his plan as quickly as possible. He was delighted to find the entry shortlisted.

Chris impressed the interview panel – which was led by Karen Curtin, the MD of Graven Hill – with his ideas and agreed to be filmed for a new Channel 4 TV programme about a pioneering street of self-builders. It was a chance for Chris and his partner Roxanne Ford to create a home, financing the project with a joint self-build mortgage from the Ecology Building Society. 

Here we take a peek inside Britain's first U-build house set to feature on Channel 4's My Grand Design in Spring 2019.

The Details

The dark exterior of u build box house in Graven Hill featured on My Grand Design on Channel 4, designed by studio bark

Image: Lenny Codd

  • Names: Chris Haines and Roxanne Ford
  • Ages: Both 27
  • Location: Graven Hill, Bicester
  • Property: Detached house
  • Bedrooms: 2
  • Bathrooms: 2
  • Project started: 2015
  • Project finished: 2017
  • Size of house: 90sqm
  • Plot cost: £97,000
  • Build cost: £201,000

The back exterior of u build box house featured on Channel 4's My Grand Design, designed by Studio Bark

Image: Lenny Codd

The idea

ubuild stamp on the wall of the U Build box house featured on Channel 4's My Grand Design, designed by Studio Bark

Image: Lenny Codd 

‘My original idea was to use shipping containers,’ Chris says. ‘but when we began work with Studio Bark, it became clear that this would be too costly.’ In response to Chris’s brief, the architects proposed a cost effective CNC modular plywood system called U-Build.

What is U build? 

a pale grey sofa in the living room of u build box house featured on Channel 4's My Grand Design, designed by Studio Bark

Image: Lenny Codd

CNC, or computer numerical control, is when a computer converts a design produced by computer-aided design software into numbers. These numbers form co-ordinates that guide the automated tools cutting the plywood into shape. The forms are made off-site, delivered flat-packed and then assembled on site.

‘Most modular structures arrive fully finished, so there is little opportunity for the client to get hands on with the build,’ says Studio Bark architect Nick Newman. ‘Our solution was to create human-scale modular boxes. It’s affordable and enables selfbuilders to get more involved. Chris and Roxanne’s house was the UK’s first large-scale example of this U-Build method.’

The majority of the structure was custom-made for the space, including the staircase, gallery and kitchen. Chris, who project managed the construction, admits that at first he was nervous about the outcome of the strength and engineering tests. But Studio Bark was on hand with support and back-up.

The eco friendly features

The bright kitchen diner of the u-build box house featured on Channel 4's My Grand Design, designed by studio bark

Image: Lenny Codd

A green roof harvests rainwater and is fitted with photovoltaic solar panels. Chris and Roxanne would have liked to include more energy saving features.

‘Eco-friendly isn’t always cost friendly,’ says Chris. ‘But the timber cladding is made with wood from local woodlands and we insulated the walls with sheep’s wool. We avoided using large cranes or machinery for the build: everything was assembled and bolted by hand.’

The Interior

A four poster bed in the bedroom of u- build box house featured on my grand design on Channel 4 by studio bark 

Image: Lenny Codd

The property’s interior relies heavily on exposed plywood. ‘I’d describe the vision as Scandinavian ski lodge meets modern Japanese mid-century,’ says Chris.

‘We wanted something modest yet striking that would sit well in rural Oxfordshire.’ Rooms feel impressively spacious. The dining area is a fullheight void, bringing to mind a medieval hall.

dining room table in u build box house featured on Channel 4's My Grand Design, designed by Studio Bark

Image: Lenny Codd

And the staircase leads up to a landing that provides views down into the living space and out towards the sky. ‘I love how the extra height makes a modest two-bedroom house seem more extensive,’ says Chris.

The Graven Hill community 

The exterior u-build box house in the graven hill community featured on Channel 4's My Grand Design, designed by Studio Bark

Image: Lenny Codd

Just 15 minutes by train to Oxford and 45 minutes to London Marylebone, Graven Hill is being created on a disused Ministry of Defence base south of the market town of Bicester. Eventually it will have 1,900 homes, and the intention is to incorporate a variety of custom-build, self-build and affordable homes including retirement properties. Discover more about the development at Grand Designs Live on 4th - 12th May 2019.

Chris is keen to point out the potential benefits that Graven Hill can offer to other self-builders: ‘I hope that in five years’ time, it has become a thriving, happy community which provides inspiration for generations to come.’

Would you consider building using the U-build method? Tweet us @granddesignsmag or post a comment on our Facebook page.

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