An adjusted dream
Numerous setbacks didn't deter one family from building a home on a cherished plot of land
Every self-builder needs determination, but there can be few greater examples of this than Steph and Alex Wilson and their Grand Designs in Leominster. Four years ago, they set out to build a house on land that had once belonged to Steph’s beloved grandfather, who was a dairy farmer.
But they could not have imagined that the journey would take so long, or that they would end up with a completely different house to the one they’d envisaged.
The original plan was to build into the lie of the land with an earth shelter-inspired building nestled into the landscape. But with potential costs escalating towards £500,000, the couple had to face the harsh reality that they simply could not afford it.
And just as they set about financing a revised version that had been approved by planning, Alex was made redundant. To have any chance of securing a mortgage, Steph returned to work full-time as a chiropractor, while Alex looked after their two children, Olly, nine, and six-year-old Lydia, in the caravan they bought to live in on the site.
Steph also had to sell some of the precious 27 acres of land that she and Alex had managed to buy back when the farm changed hands following the death of her grandfather, more than 20 years ago.
Steph grew up riding ponies and making dens in the surrounding fields and woods. ‘Emotionally, I’m tied to the land and to the memories it holds for me, and I wanted to create an idyllic childhood for my children, too,’ she explains.
It was an agonising time. ‘When Alex was made redundant and became self-employed, we needed three years’ worth of accounts before mortgage companies would consider a joint application,’ explains Steph. ‘We didn’t want to wait that long. So we sold half the land, reduced the size of the mortgage we’d asked for and increased my hours to make an application based on my wages which, thankfully, was successful.’
Once the land had been sold, the groundworks began, and the timber frame went up. ‘But the bank wanted me to prove that I could increase my wages over a six-month period, and we kept our fingers crossed that they’d agree to the rest of the mortgage once this time was up. If they hadn’t, we’d have been left with a timber frame and no money to continue. Fortunately, they agreed, and we could finish the build.’
The work eventually started in October 2017 and the family finally moved into their new home in August 2018. The speed of the build, despite the fact that progress was brought to a halt by the harshest winter in 30 years, makes their achievement impressive enough. But the fact that a two-storey, three-bedroom family home was built on a modest budget of just £270,000 marks it out as exceptional.
Steph says that none of this would have been achieved without the help of her childhood friend, architect Jessica Barker, who stepped in and created a new design that maximised the family’s living space on the tightest of budgets, and also acted as project manager and interior designer.
‘The main living space was our priority,’ says Steph. ‘Ironically, one of the lovely things about the caravan was that we were very close as a family and all in the same living space together all of the time.’
This sense of family and connection kept Steph going forward even when a roof over her family’s head could not be taken for granted.
Alex has been stalwart in his support, although he took some persuading to warm to the corrugated black agricultural style steel cladding that is the exterior face of the insulated and plaster-boarded walls. ‘I don’t have the same emotional attachment to the land as Steph does,’ he says. ‘But it is a great place to build a house and raise a family, so I was happy to support Steph in building the dream.’
Working with their architect, Steph and Alex devised ways to keep costs down while creating a house that maximised the views and provided all the space they needed.
One particularly successful idea was to cut in the balcony area by installing the windows at an angle. This kept the building to the most economical modular shape but created a contemporary and individual feature.
‘We wanted the house to complement the land that was so dear to Stephanie’s heart,’ says Barker. ‘From inside, every window is like a painting – portrait, landscape, panorama, small vignette – all carefully designed to frame views of the sky, rolling fields, wildflowers, or rock.
At night, looking in from outside, the house is a composition of windows to different worlds; the kitchen counter, entrance hall, lofty bathroom, soaring climbing wall and spacious master bedroom.’
Steph and Alex made a virtue of the financial constraints. ‘We chose a high level of insulation – the cheapest way to make the house energy efficient on our tight budget,’ says Steph.
‘We decided on a wood burner, as wood is available to us from the farm. We have oil as a back-up and for hot water, plus solar panels on the shed for electricity. We’d love to have gone more eco, for instance with ground source heat, but we simply didn’t have the funds. In the future, perhaps.’
On the day she finally moved out of the cramped caravan into her light and spacious new home with her husband and children, Steph broke down and sobbed.
‘Four years of hopes and frustrations were finally realised,’ she recalls. ‘The relief was immense. I had dragged my family through a lot with this vision, and now it had paid off.’