This impressive hilltop self-build teetered on the brink of disaster but was pulled back from the edge by its determined owners.

outside glazing 

 Image: Jefferson Smith

The modern mansion built by Barry and Julie Surtees perches on a hilltop overlooking the seaside resort of Brighton in East Sussex. An undeniably ambitious project, the build tested the couple’s ability to overcome several major obstacles thrown in their path on their journey to realise a long-held dream.

'I'd always wanted to build a home from scratch, but economic security was the rationale behind it. I made the house big enough and to a high enough spec to make sure we'd get our money back if we did eventually sell,’ Barry explained.

A plan takes shape

The couple started by buying the house next to their home. 'It was a shabby 1930s building on a steeply sloping plot, but we love this road and the views across Brighton are just fantastic,' Julie said. They also bought an adjoining property with a plan to rebuild and sell it, as well as their home, to finance the predicted cost of the ambitious project.

Having discussed Julie’s wish list for an open plan kitchen, gym and spa with a hot tub, indoor pool, steam and sauna room, Barry drew up plans for the house with the help of architect. 'Since the age of 16 I've loved Bauhaus-style architecture. I wanted to build something contemporary with real presence,' he said.

kitchen 

Barry and Julie got a 40 per cent discount on the ex-showroom Minotti Cuisine kitchen. Image: Jefferson Smith 

A change of fortune

The final design – a colossal 771 sqm, four-storey, six-bedroom, steel, glass and concrete house with curved front and rear walls and an eighteen-foot-long bedroom pod above the main structure, survived planning virtually unscathed.

Excavation work to create the basement started in June 2007 and the concrete slab was laid within the month. Keeping a close eye on the weekly schedule and costs Barry revelled in how well the project progressed when in July the steel frame slotted precisely into shape. Even a double hip replacement failed to dampen his spirits as he hobbled around the site on crutches. Within another month the pre-cast concrete floor slabs were in place.

But Barry and Julie's luck began to change. Sourcing the 110 linear metres of curved glass, which was a key design feature, proved almost impossible. ‘For absolutely no apparent reason the original estimate of £150,000 leaped to £370,000,’ explained Barry.

By March 2008 the glass still hadn't arrived and the cost had begun to escalate. Then things got even more bleak and terrifying. Barry had a heart attack followed by a quintuple bypass operation. Although heart problems run in the family and Barry is unsure of whether the attack was related to the stress of the build, both the physical and mental impact was immense. 'When you're staring into the abyss you realise what is really important is your health, your friends and your family,’ he said.

 bedroom views

 The main bedroom pod perches on top of the house and has panoramic views. Image: Jefferson Smith

Watch the episode: Brighton, 2009

Crisis after crisis

Having approached ten different companies, Barry threw the towel in with the glazing and opted for double-glazed, argon filled faceted panes of glass, which were hoisted into place by crane. Meanwhile, another crisis was looming as in December the bank took 33 per cent off of the combined value of the couple's three houses due to the economic downturn and stopped the loans they needed to finish the job. To top it all off, their garage caught fire, preventing them from moving out and clawing back some rental income.

 outside glazing

Plans for curved glazing became prohibitively expensive, so the couple opted for double-glazed units from Schüco. Image: Jefferson Smith 

All in the timing

Thankfully, by February 2009 money from the bank once again started trickling through and work on the house was virtually complete. While from the street it is striking but surprisingly unobtrusive, the interiors are generous and sculptural – especially the bedroom pod, which has incredible, uninterrupted views. But Barry and Julie were left physically, emotionally and financially battered. Barry's passion for developing had been on the wane but ended up being killed off completely and the house, which was supposed to be their nest egg, saddled them with large debts and left them feeling insecure and out of control with regards to their future.

Read more: How to set a budget for building your own house

Ultimately, they were incredibly unlucky with the timing. 'The moral of the story, if there is one, is don't ever build a house if there's a threat of a recession,’ said Barry at the time. And, there can be no doubt that he has achieved at least one of his initial aims. ‘Whether they love it or hate it, people always remember and talk about this building. It has become a landmark.’

 hallway

 The ground-floor hallway runs around the centre of the house. Image: Jefferson Smith

In late 2020 the Brighton Curve as it is now known, went on sale for the second time since the series aired for an incredible £3,450,000.

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