Malvern hill house - Grand Designs Magazine
Malvern timber clad house from Grand Designs

A timber-clad hillside self-build in Malvern

This home is testament to one couple’s commitment to see a tricky build through to completion

By Elizabeth Choppin |

Buying land and constructing a new home takes courage, especially if you’re new to the experience. Beginning the process from the other side of the globe, however, can be categorised as a total leap of faith, which is what expats Jon and Gill Flewers undertook when taking on the Grand Designs Malvern hill house.

The couple – a retired RAF pilot and a doctor – were living in New Zealand with their three sons, but after some soul-searching decided to return to the UK in 2013. With a long-standing dream of building their own home, the couple began shopping online for plots of land up and down the country, from the Scottish Borders to Cornwall, eventually homing in on the area around Malvern, Worcestershire.

Malvern Hills house from Grand Designs 2017

Photo: Channel 4

‘In love with Malvern’

‘The local schools are good and it’s close to Cheltenham,’ Jon explains. ‘We had a good feeling about the area and focused our search there.’ Unfortunately, the land they’d set their hearts on was snapped up at the eleventh hour by a property developer. It was a setback, but prompted the couple to reconsider a smaller, less expensive plot they’d previously discounted.

‘By this point we were in love with Malvern,’ says Jon, and the clock was also ticking before their eldest son had to start secondary school. A family member scouted out the site, but advised the couple to steer clear as it was on the side of a north-facing hill. But, disregarding this advice, Gill and Jon decided to buy the plot without having seen it. ‘We figured that if we didn’t like it once we were back in the UK, we could resell,’ says Jon.

In mid-2013 the family returned to the UK and bought a house close to the site, with the idea that it would be sold once construction of the new home was  finished. Fortunately, the design process was under way long before they left New Zealand, and the brief was fairly straightforward: a low-energy home with five bedrooms and an open-plan living space.

The couple worked with local architect, Nick Carroll, who’d designed other homes in Worcestershire. Carroll visited the site and came up with initial designs for a contemporary home that the couple loved the look of. ‘I’d send him questions before I went to bed and would wake up to the answers and a new set of questions and drawings, which was exciting,’ says Jon, who also took on the role of main contractor.

Malvern timber clad self build home as featured on grand designs tv show on Channel 4 and hosted by Kevin McCloud

Photo: Chris Tubbs

A tricky hillside plot

This excitement was met with a dose of reality once the family arrived to begin the project. Although the Malvern hill house plot’s views overlooked a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and it had flat land at the top for the children to play on, builders were deterred by its hillside location as it would involve major excavation. One contractor brought machinery to the site but turned back once he saw what was involved, telling Jon and Gill there wasn’t enough profit in it. It was a frustrating time for the family.

‘We thought that if you can build houses on hillsides in New Zealand, then you should be able to do so in the UK,’ says Jon.

Meanwhile, the first set of designs had gone through planning with a few minor tweaks. The property would be a modern construction clad with thermally modified poplar, and local stone that was subsequently changed to aluminium panels. However, a second design was necessary to reduce the considerable excavation costs. The architect devised an alternative in which the property moved forward by six metres, reducing the amount of groundworks and excavation needed.

‘We went from a building that was four storeys to one that was three,’ explains Jon. ‘We lost the double garage, but that was something I was willing to accept to get the job done.’ The new design also meant the house would sit very close to the boundary line, but there were no objections.

Malvern Hills house from Grand Designs 2017

Photo: Channel 4

Building the Malvern hill house

Due to the hillside location, it made sense for the house to be upside down, with sleeping quarters on the first floor and communal living areas on the top floor. From the lowest level, a glazed entrance leads to utility rooms and a bathroom. A sculptural staircase leads up to the first floor, which has a row of four bedrooms including the master suite. Up one more level are the open-plan dining and living areas, which connect out to the back of the property and onto a terrace. This floor also has the guest room, a utility room and a wall of windows to give the spaces a bright, airy feel.

‘The views are what make it all worthwhile,’ Jon says.

Looking back, one of the key challenges was that Jon insisted the house be constructed with insulating concrete formwork (ICF) – a material that almost no local building firms knew how to work with. The benefit of ICF, consisting of polystyrene blocks filled with concrete, is that it’s cost-effective and energy-efficient, which was important since the couple wanted their home to meet Passivhaus standards and it came very close. Looking for structural engineers and builders familiar with ICF stalled progress considerably, but finally the right team was in place and work began in earnest in March 2016, three years after the family arrived back to the UK. They finally moved into their new home the following summer.

Timber Clad TV House Grand Designs 2

Photo: Chris Tubbs

Unexpected costs

The Malvern hill house build budget had been set at £420,000 and the couple were prepared to spend more if necessary, but there were quite a few unexpected costs that brought the overall spend nearer to £600,000 – a stark difference. One big surprise was discovering that drainage and water services stopped 65m short of the property, and more than £40,000 was required to get it connected up.

‘Maybe that’s why the plot was inexpensive,’ muses Jon. He seems slightly shell-shocked after taking on such a difficult project, but quitting was never an option. ‘Once you’ve committed and said you can make it work, you have to see it through. But that doesn’t mean there weren’t days when I didn’t think, why on earth are we doing this?’ he says.

The timber-clad house is upside down, with sleeping quarters on the first floor and communal living areas on the top floor. It’s constructed with cost-effective and energy-efficient Insulating Concrete Formwork (ICF) and finding structural engineers and builders familiar with ICF further held up the progress of the build. Despite all the problems, quitting was never an option for the couple. ‘Once you’ve committed and said you can make it work, you have to see it through. But that doesn’t mean there weren’t days when I didn’t think, why on earth are we doing this?’ says Jon.