Grand Designs Isle of Wight

A cutting-edge dream home on the Isle of Wight

A near-death experience led Bram and Lisa Vis to follow their self-build dream

By Charlotte Luxford |

A life-changing event can dramatically alter a person’s perspective. This is something Bram Vis and his wife Lisa found out the hard way after he was struck with a brain haemorrhage, leaving him temporarily in a coma.

They were just about to exchange on a house that needed a lot of work on the Isle of Wight, where Lisa grew up, when Bram was taken ill. But you could say that Bram’s illness had a silver lining.

Bram came out of his illness with a zest for life, and a determination to spend it in a home that was worthy of such a miraculous recovery. ‘The fact that we didn’t get the original house because of the brain haemorrhage actually turned out to be a good thing,’ he says. They had been to see countless homes on the island before the ordeal, but none of them could quite match up to the couple’s criteria.

Grand Designs isle of wight seven bedroom home from outside with tree overlooking building

There was a tree preservation order on the plot so the house was designed to fit among the existing woodland. Photo: Julian Winslow

Finding the right project

‘We’ve been interested in dealing with property for years and moved to the island in 2010,’ explains Lisa. ‘But with every house we saw we wanted to change something. In the end Bram said, “This is ridiculous, there’s nothing that we like and you keep wanting to knock walls down, so why don’t we just build our own house?” So creating our own home from scratch came out of desire but also need, as we just couldn’t find what we wanted.’

A sea view was on Bram’s wish list, so when the pair found a prime spot overlooking the Solent strait. ‘The land was owned by our current next-door neighbour and we knew that planning consent was difficult to obtain,’ explains Lisa. ‘He’d already put in for permission to build a house next to his, but this was rejected, so it wasn’t in place when we bought the plot. We made a deal to ensure that if we didn’t get approval, all bets were off and we could have our exchange money back.’

Living area of Grand Designs Isle of Wight home overlooking garden space

Being completely open, the living area dissolves the lines between the home’s surroundings and its interior. Photo: Julian Winslowe

Getting approval

Luckily Lisa and Bram’s plans were approved for the Grand Designs Isle of Wight project, with the help of ex-grand designer and local architectural designer Lincoln Miles. He proposed a predominantly one-storey house with a dramatic V-shaped cantilevered frame that would be virtually invisible. It was to be nestled in-between protected trees on the hillside.

‘If you’re on the ferry you can’t see our house,’ explains Lisa. ‘We wanted it to seem as though it belonged there already – not a stark new-build shouting like a pair of bright-white trainers.’ It wasn’t a straightforward process, however. Bram and Lisa took several leaps into the unknown, and at 836 square metres the sheer size of the house presented a unique challenge.

For example, the gargantuan property was going to be clad in Richlite. This is a first-of-its-kind compressed paper and dark-oiled Kebony timber composite that requires each panel to be constructed by hand, and a very high-end pebble-dashing that covers the lower half of the property. 

Taking time

‘It looks absolutely stunning, but at the end of the day it’s a bit of cladding, and it took absolutely ages to do,’ recalls Bram. ‘If we were told before we started how much it would cost, and how long it would take, we would never have done it.’

Using stones from nearby Bembridge beach, it took several craftsmen months to place the pebbles by hand – the task was completed at a painstaking square metre per day. ‘We did build it in a discovery fashion, hence it was more stressful due to the route we took. We made it more difficult for ourselves,’ adds Lisa. 

And what about the size of the property? Would it have worked if it was smaller? ‘Yes, probably,’ admits Lisa. ‘Essentially we live on one floor most of the time. Downstairs is all extra space that we use if and when we need it – it doesn’t feel too big because we can choose not to use a third of it every day.’

Dining room has sliding clear doors that open to elevated wooden decking space and swimming pool

The dining area opens up to an outside courtyard and swimming pool space. Photo: Julian Winslowe

A risky decision

The journey up to the house via a gravel path leads you to a secret glass entrance. This contains a generous light-filled hallway that links to their favourite part of the house: the huge open-plan living area.

‘It was quite a risky decision to have one big main room, and that’s what we spent the money on,’ says Lisa. ‘We decided to invest in the best glazing and lighting systems, while we cut back on other areas. We didn’t want to compromise in this room because it’s where we spend most of our time. It’s the wow of the house and we’re lucky to experience it every day.’

The breakfast bar with navy cupboards and white counter

The kitchen caters for large parties as easily as it does for more intimate family meals, with an additional service kitchen at the back. Photo: Julian Winslowe

Open-plan living

The open-plan room that consists of the kitchen, dining area and living space is the star of the show. Doors open on to the entertaining deck, which includes a sunken pool and floating spa. From here the couple can savour the views across the water, with the surrounding woodland giving the sense of being in the treetops.

‘What’s nice is that we can get to the end of the weekend and say, “Hold on, have we been outside yet?”’ says Lisa. ‘We don’t get cabin fever.’

‘Our open-plan zone works well thanks to the supporting areas,’ says Lisa of the layout. ‘We can all live in this large communal space, but then everyone has separate rooms to put their stuff in. The layout is a culmination of having lived in plenty of different houses and having spent our working lives concerned with properties. So it’s taken a lifetime of planning and understanding to figure out what works.’

Red pool table in games room with tv and bookshelves on wooden floor of Grand Designs Isle of Wight home

The house has everything the couple could ever want, contained within its seven bedrooms. Photo: Julian Winslowe

The Grand Designs Isle of Wight wishlist

When the couple said they were building their dream home, they weren’t kidding. Imagine an endless wish-list of what you’d want in your ideal property and it’s likely Bram and Lisa have it. On the basement level, there’s a gym, dressing room, utility room, laundry store, wine cellar, two equally sized bedrooms, a larger bedroom, all with en suites, and a games room.

Back upstairs on the ground floor, as well as the large open-plan living space there’s a smaller prep kitchen, two children’s bedrooms with en-suite bathrooms, a further guest bedroom, two studies for Lisa and Bram, plus an unusual art deco-style TV snug that’s surrounded by a semi-circle of milky glass.

Finally on the top floor there’s Lisa and Bram’s master suite with a private roof terrace. ‘There is a downside to the house being big – the children are quite far away from us,’ says Lisa. ‘Our daughter was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes around Christmas 2014, and we moved in March 2015. We’re living with it, but had we known when we planned the house, we would have done it very differently.’

Master bedroom with double doors to its own terrace, neutral decor but pops of colour

The master bedroom occupies the first floor and has access to its own terrace. Photo: Julian Winslowe

An indulgent building

And all this scale comes at a price. The vast £3.3million cost didn’t go unnoticed by Kevin McCloud, who during the show called it a ‘hugely indulgent building that’s likely to gobble up materials and money’.

Financially he wasn’t far wrong; Bram ended up taking out 11 loans to cover the cost of the project. ‘If you see light at the end of the tunnel and you want something badly enough, you’ll do it,’ says Bram. ‘You have to have strength and resolve – plenty of other people would have backed away, I’m sure.’

Lisa and Bram have now turned their property-finding skills into a business. They have set up Solent House, a service that helps others move into their dream home on the island. ‘Building your own place isn’t for the faint-hearted,’ says Lisa. ‘If there were any cracks in your relationship they’re bound to get bigger by the end! It’s a real test of willpower, but we got to the other side intact.’

Grand Designs Isle of Wight: the facts

Location Isle of Wight
Bedrooms 7 Bathrooms 6
Project started March 2013
Project finished August 2015
Size 836sqm
Plot cost £935,000
Build cost £2.2 million