The Lake District dome house
How this epic sustainable renovation project was brought back from the brink of disaster
A life without risk might be a life unlived, but watching Robert and Milla Gaukroger struggle with their Grand Designs Lake District project is enough to turn the most foolhardy to a quiet life of tea and biscuits. To fund their home, the couple risked their finances and health – eventually selling off assets to get work done.
‘We didn’t understand at the start how bad the economy was going to get,’ says Robert. The couple bought an ugly duckling house perched above Lake Windermere with plans to make it four times bigger, but they had to rely on savings and money from the sale of a couple of cars and motor homes when the sale of their previous home fell through.
On a huge scale
The size of the house was a mark of the couple’s ambition for the project, which was seen on the show in 2010. Robert, who is an architect, estimates the living area is 560 sqm. Did he consider scaling back?
‘We’d converted other houses, but always outgrew them before they were finished,’ he says. ‘So we decided to build a house that we wouldn’t need to move out of.’ Plus, Robert was keen to do the work in one go, and under one planning application. He also stuck doggedly to his dream of creating a distinctive dome-like roof.
The couple would keep the structure of the original house, extending out the back and to the side. A huge drystone wall bisects the house, with one half for the family, with a playroom for the children, Joseph and Maya, a music room, and a study for Robert. The other half would be for when Milla’s family visit from Malaysia. An open-plan studio upstairs and three bedrooms downstairs complete the layout.
Luckily, the planners were receptive and ready to embrace more contemporary house styles. Robert was in a good position to get the go-ahead for his Grand Designs Lake District design, and the wildflower roof that blends with the green hills behind it.
But after planning permission was granted, luck did a runner. The sale of Robert and Milla’s previous house fell through. Robert had to reduce the size of the dome roof. The worst flooding in memory hit, halting the work. And after months of living on a building site with no hot water, a plasterboard ceiling fell forcing them to flee to a motor home with no running water.
A run of misfortune
Troubles continued after the camera crew left, when the sale of Robert’s last asset – his pod home design – fell through. After ordering materials on the promise of funds, and removing a plastic sheet protecting the building from bad weather, things were once again put on hold. Then rain came, causing around £40,000 of damage to one side of the building.
But while Lady Luck vanished, another lady, who had watched the episode on TV, stepped in and offered the couple an open-ended loan. The amazing turn of events meant they expected to finish on a final spend of around £420,000. The couple also turned the three guest bedrooms into B&B rooms, each with its own bathroom, kitchen, and balcony with lake views.
Advice for the future
What will Robert take from this experience? ‘First, don’t start without the money in place. And second, either do everything yourself, or hire a project manager to look after things. When you start trying to do both, you can get ripped off.’
The couple made a pact to not take such a big risk again. ‘I don’t think taking risks is very good for your health,’ says Robert. ‘It’s OK to do when you’re young, but I think you should do it once, then settle for what you’ve got, which is what we’re going to be doing, hopefully.’
Robert and his family later sold the Grand Designs Lake District house, which has since become a luxury hotel. In 2019, the couple embarked on building a new home in South West France.