A clifftop mansion in Malaga
Hilary and Gil Briffa’s Spanish retreat was the first house to be shown on Grand Designs Abroad
Hilary and Gil Briffa’s retreat in Spain was the first house to be shown on the TV series of Grand Designs Abroad, back in 2004: ‘I remember feeling very nervous before the show was broadcast,’ says Hilary. ‘However, we needn’t have worried. We received an overwhelming amount of positive feedback from family, friends and acquaintances, as well as strangers from as far away as Denmark and Australia.
‘We only considered building overseas after a connecting flight was cancelled. It meant we had to stay an extra night in Malaga and we immediately fell in love with the old city. We had already begun searching for a suitable retirement plot in the UK, but land was expensive and gaining planning permission for what we wanted to build would have been problematic.
‘We found the Spanish plot through a local agent in 2000. It’s a 45-minute drive from Malaga and cost us £45,000, which was an absolute bargain at the time. It consisted of roughly nine above and left Hilary has two favourite parts of the house – the elevated bedroom overlooking the pool and the outside courtyard which has enviable views of the Malagan landscape.
‘It had acres of terraced hillside with an old farmhouse already on the lower level. There are more houses here compared to when we finished our house back in 2004, but not a huge number. The economic crisis is largely responsible, but also the Junta de Andalucia (the local planners) have imposed strict laws to prevent building in rural areas.
‘Initially, we only had consent to erect a structure on the lower part of the site, but we also wanted to build on the upper level to take advantage of the stunning vista. So we employed Paco, a local builder and politician, to help us gain planning permission and to project manage.
‘It was daunting for Gil to put all his trust into someone he barely knew. However, because the project was sufficiently prestigious and something that had never been attempted in the area before, it meant Paco was driven to make it a success. They both ended up having a considerable amount of respect for one another.
‘I don’t remember having any reservations during the project; it was all very exciting. Fitting our visits in with our office workload went smoothly because Matt, our son and architect, was able to take over Gil’s responsibilities as and when the need arose. The most difficult part was communication because we didn’t speak or understand Spanish.
‘This caused minor problems with the contractor. My advice to anyone thinking of building over here is to learn the language. Spaniards respect foreigners who try to speak Spanish. It also helps if you can read legal documentation to ensure the land you want to buy has an official building licence. We’ve seen so many foreigners purchase land here with planning licences that aren’t legal.
‘When the house was completed, the general reaction from local people was one of astonishment. They found the house strange and some didn’t like it at all. Everyone’s grown accustomed to it now and most of my neighbours tell me they like it – the view from it anyway.
‘During filming, the local mayor threatened us towards the end of the project with no electricity or building sign-off until we painted the exterior in traditional white. We didn’t back down and eventually we received the official paperwork. I have kept the home’s exterior exactly as it was – a distinct blue, terracotta and white. But I’ve repainted the mint green section, which I never liked, in white.
‘I think it is interesting to know, once a house is built, if it has met the self-builder’s expectations. During the first TV show, I referred to the project as an experiment because I was unsure whether living abroad would work. I was worried we would miss our grandchildren. At first, the scheme was a resounding success.
‘However, Gil died six years ago and I had to decide whether or not to go back to the UK. Spain is a beautiful country to live in, so I enrolled at the official language school in Malaga, joined a variety of local associations and discovered how kind and supportive all my neighbours are. I now have 14 grandchildren back in the UK and I think I probably see them almost as much as if I lived in England.
‘My favourite memory of the project was the first time we saw the house every time we visited from the UK. As we weren’t on site for weeks at a time, the building changed dramatically every time we saw it.
‘I have two favourite sections of the house, the front elevation of the study with the bedroom overlooking the pool, and the other is the courtyard. I have always loved the outdoor space and the elevation has grown on me over the years.’