John and Julia's house on Grand Designs: The Streets

A modernist triumph on Graven Hill

John and Julia put everything on the line to realise their 30-year self-build dream

By Victoria Purcell | 28 April 2022

Architect John, together with his wife Julia, an office administrator, had been trying to build their own home for 30 years, but were plagued by bad luck.

The 1991 recession resulted in John losing his job days before exchanging on a plot of land. Later, an unknown bidder gazumped them on a plot. Finally, six-years ago, they secured a plot at Graven Hill, but with a global pandemic lurking, their final roll of the self-build dice almost slipped from their grasp.

John designed a beautiful modernist wedge for the couple to enjoy in their retirement. It was, in part, inspired by architect Peter Aldington’s beautiful garden home, Turn End in Buckinghamshire, which John visits when he needs to decompress. They paid £305,000 for the plot and budgeted £200,000 for the construction.

‘They could do with a bit of luck’

‘John and Julia’s house is going to be stand out at Graven Hill, and that’s because of its architectural merit,’ said Kevin McCloud during filming. ‘But they could do with a bit of luck really. They’ve been trying to build for 30 years, and now the start of their project is perfectly timed with the start of the global pandemic.’

On the day John and Julia completed on the plot, the country went into the first Covid-19 lockdown and the Graven Hill site was shut down.

The couple had to delay the start of their build and live in their expensive rental home for longer than planned, meaning their budget was impacted before they even got on site. Adding to the pressure was John’s health. Following a few scares with his heart, he had been told to take it easy, but with limited funds, he had no other option than to project manage the complex build himself.

Grand Designs: The Streets - John and Julia

John and Julia’s large open-plan living space. Photo: Claire Williams

Downsizing

As feared, the stress of the project took its toll on the couple’s health. When they finally commenced the build, the delays, labour shortages and budget issues caused by lockdown meant that John had to take on a lot of the manual labour himself. It proved too much, and he ended up in hospital following a concerning dizzy spell.

Later, Julia also required medical attention after experiencing chest pains: ‘I feel like we’ve taken it in turns to have some sort of breakdown,’ said Julia. ‘I wish we hadn’t started it, to be honest.’

Fortunately, all was well, and the couple ploughed on with the project. John had drawn up over six different plans for the plots they have tried to buy and build on. His plan for the Graven Hill plot was different because, this time, the couple weren’t trying to build a four-bedroom family home with space for their two daughters. Instead, they were downsizing to a three-bedroom with a large master suite and two smaller guest rooms, ready for retirement.

Grand Designs: The Streets - John and Julia

The kitchen is compact and discreet, as Julia didn’t want to see it from the living room. Photo: Claire Williams

Architect John, together with his wife Julia, an office administrator, had been trying to build their own home for 30 years, but were plagued by bad luck.

The 1991 recession resulted in John losing his job days before exchanging on a plot of land. Later, an unknown bidder gazumped them on a plot. Finally, six-years ago, they secured a plot at Graven Hill, but with a global pandemic lurking, their final roll of the self-build dice almost slipped from their grasp.

John designed a beautiful modernist wedge for the couple to enjoy in their retirement. It was, in part, inspired by architect Peter Aldington’s beautiful garden home, Turn End in Buckinghamshire, which John visits when he needs to decompress. They paid £305,000 for the plot and budgeted £200,000 for the construction.

‘They could do with a bit of luck’

‘John and Julia’s house is going to be stand out at Graven Hill, and that’s because of its architectural merit,’ said Kevin McCloud during filming. ‘But they could do with a bit of luck really. They’ve been trying to build for 30 years, and now the start of their project is perfectly timed with the start of the global pandemic.’

On the day John and Julia completed on the plot, the country went into the first Covid-19 lockdown and the Graven Hill site was shut down.

The couple had to delay the start of their build and live in their expensive rental home for longer than planned, meaning their budget was impacted before they even got on site. Adding to the pressure was John’s health. Following a few scares with his heart, he had been told to take it easy, but with limited funds, he had no other option than to project manage the complex build himself.

Grand Designs: The Streets - John and Julia

John and Julia’s large open-plan living space. Photo: Claire Williams

Downsizing

As feared, the stress of the project took its toll on the couple’s health. When they finally commenced the build, the delays, labour shortages and budget issues caused by lockdown meant that John had to take on a lot of the manual labour himself. It proved too much, and he ended up in hospital following a concerning dizzy spell.

Later, Julia also required medical attention after experiencing chest pains: ‘I feel like we’ve taken it in turns to have some sort of breakdown,’ said Julia. ‘I wish we hadn’t started it, to be honest.’

Fortunately, all was well, and the couple ploughed on with the project. John had drawn up over six different plans for the plots they have tried to buy and build on. His plan for the Graven Hill plot was different because, this time, the couple weren’t trying to build a four-bedroom family home with space for their two daughters. Instead, they were downsizing to a three-bedroom with a large master suite and two smaller guest rooms, ready for retirement.

Grand Designs: The Streets - John and Julia

The kitchen is compact and discreet, as Julia didn’t want to see it from the living room. Photo: Claire Williams

Structural insulated panels

The shell of their home was constructed from structural insulated panels (SIPs), which are essentially giant sheets of foam sandwiched between sterling board. They are designed and cut to exact specifications offsite, and then slot together to form airtight walls.

SIPs are ideal for creating the sharp lines that John and Julia wanted for their contemporary three-bedroom home, a two-story build with sharp, clean lines, white-rendered walls, mono-pitched roof and a large open-plan kitchen, diner and living space with huge floor-to-ceiling windows. Upstairs, leading off the master bedroom suite, would be a private roof terrace.

It’s a fast build system, but lockdown meant that John and Julia had to wait two months before the factory in Yorkshire could reopen to cut them to spec. Eventually, the SIPs arrived on site and an expert team slotted them together, spraying the joints with expanding foam. The ground floor was constructed in a day, with the whole house expected to complete in three weeks, including the roof.

John and Julia's house on Grand Designs: The Streets

The upstairs master suite has a large, secluded terrace. Photo: Claire Williams

Against all odds

‘I want this thing weathertight as soon as possible because it’s basically wood,’ said John during the build, concerned that exposure to moisture could cause the wood to rot. It did rain, but the couple finally caught a break and there was no damage to the panels.

There were other factors at work adding to John’s stress levels, though. Once lockdown lifted for trades, costs spiralled as demand for their services skyrocketed. They were quoted £1,800 just to paint the house.

With a limited budget, John has no choice but to take on a lot of the work himself, enlisting his daughter to help and racing against the clock to stay on schedule. And they did, but the concrete delivery they were expecting failed to turn up because the truck broke down. There was a similar rush to get the floor insulated before the screed arrived to be poured – fortunately, that did all go to schedule.

The project was also hit by a timber shortage. Fortunately, the bespoke storage staircase that John had designed – a masterpiece of ‘furnitecture’ that also functions as a room divider – was unaffected, but John couldn’t get hold of the skirting boards he wanted. His carpenter also let him down, so he had to make do with the timber he had to fashion some skirting boards, and then fit them himself.

Grand Designs: The Streets - John and Julia's bespoke staircase

Kevin McCloud called the bespoke storage staircase an ‘extraordinary piece of carpentry’. Photo: Claire Williams

Running out of money

Eventually, the worst happened – John and Julia ran out of money. They battled on to get the project over the line and finally moved into their dream home, but the garden and perimeter wall remain unfinished.

Labour shortages, skyrocketing prices and ill health made this a difficult project. John retired during the build, but is considering taking on a few more jobs to boost the pension pot, which they had to dip into during the build. Julia, who had also planned to retire, is still working. Was it all worth it?

‘It’s a difficult one,’ said John. ‘I’m still not sure yet. I may regret this. There are still some sums of money going out to complete it.’

But Kevin is impressed with the ‘chiselled white modernist wedge’, calling it ‘magnificent’.

‘The main living room is impressive’, he said. ‘This is really nice, simple big clean space. It’s lovely. Effortlessly elegant. You can tell it’s really considered architecture. Big openings. Grabbing the views. Massive window. Pointy end.

‘This is what happens when you’ve spent a life designing buildings,’ continues Kevin. ‘It really is lovely.’

John and Julia's modernist self-build on Graven Hill

John and Julia’s modernist self-build. Photo: Channel 4

[Sassy_Social_Share]

SCROLL FOR MORE LIKE THIS