Grand Designs Shiplake house on the Thames

The controversial boathouse build in Oxfordshire

Grand designers Nigel and Lysette’s Thameside build presented a number of challenges

By Laura Snoad | 12 January 2017

Ambitious self-builds often have their fair share of challenges, but few can match the drama of Lysette and Nigel Offley’s Grand Designs Thames boathouse.

Their Oxfordshire home, located in Shiplake on the banks of the river Thames, racked up militantly opposed neighbours, a plot so tight they had only half a metre for scaffolding, and a change of architect halfway through the project. The struggle to insure the finished house proved the final test.

Despite all this adversity, the 370sqm, four-bedroom boathouse home that Lysette, a teacher, trainer and therapist, and Nigel, who owns a data centre, built is exactly the open-plan, light space they hoped for.

Lysette and Nigel Offley’s Grand Designs Thames boathouse in Oxfordshire has spectacular views over the river

Nigel enjoys the fruits of his labour. Photo: Jefferson Smith

Clever design

‘We’ve got a long, thin house,’ says Lysette, ‘but it doesn’t feel like that because of the building’s curves. We can bring light into the house at the middle and both ends – it’s a very clever design.’

Nigel and Lysette decided to build their own home after they married 10 years ago. ‘Our own properties were distinctly different,’ says Nigel. ‘Mine was a 300-year-old cottage while Lysette’s was modern and open plan. We wanted a property that was “ours”, but the inevitability was that we were never going to find something that we both liked, unless we built it ourselves.’

After selling their houses and moving into rented accommodation so they were ready to pounce when the right site came up, Nigel and Lysette spotted the perfect plot with an unattractive house they would have no qualms about pulling down. They then took the unconventional step of hiring Lysette’s former husband, architect Chris Tapp, to design their new, uncompromisingly modern home.

Lysette and Nigel Offley’s Grand Designs Thames boathouse in Oxfordshire looks very different to its neighbours

The location is idyllic, but the project was tumultuous. Photo: Jefferson Smith

A difficult plot

‘Part of the reason why I thought building my own house was achievable was because it had been commonplace when I was married to an architect,’ says Lysette. ‘Chris knew us very well, so it was the obvious thing to do.’

Tapp’s solution to the awkward riverside plot was a double-height circular centre flanked by two rectangular wings. On the ground floor, the narrow open-plan space was divided into two living zones, one cantilevered over the Thames boathouse, and the other a cosier space complete with wood burner and views of the garden.

‘The problem with long, thin houses is that you normally arrive at the end of a long corridor and have to walk through the entire space,’ says Tapp. ‘So I was keen to make the entrance at the middle of the house, in the centre of the circular two-storey void.’

The entrance is in the middle of the house under a circular atrium to let in light

The entrance is in the middle of the house under a circular atrium to let in light. Photo: Jefferson Smith