U-build house - a Grand Designs first

Inside UK’s first U-Build house

Look inside the UK's first U Build box house to be featured on Channel 4's Grand Designs: The Street

By Jo Messenger |

The UK’s first U-Build house is strikingly contemporary, cost-effective and part of a pioneering community of self-builders in rural Oxfordshire and featured on Grand Designs: The Street.

Four years ago, Chris Haines was sitting on the London tube reading Grand Designs Magazine when he spotted an advertisement calling for entries from people who wanted to design their own home and live at Graven Hill in Oxfordshire, the largest self-build development in the UK.

Landscape architecture graduate Chris, who works in central London for a property consultancy, began planning a concept in collaboration with London architecture practice Studio Bark and submitted his plan as quickly as possible. He was delighted to find the entry shortlisted.

Chris impressed the interview panel – which was led by Karen Curtin, the MD of Graven Hill – with his ideas and agreed to be filmed for a new Channel 4 TV programme about a pioneering street of self-builders.

Featured on episode 4 of Grand Designs: The Street, it was a chance for Chris and his partner Roxanne Ford to create a home, financing the project with a joint self-build mortgage from the Ecology Building Society.

The bright kitchen diner of the u-build box house featured on Channel 4's My Grand Design, designed by studio bark

Photo: Lenny Codd

The Details

  • Names: Chris Haines and Roxanne Ford
  • Ages: Both 27
  • Location: Graven Hill, Bicester
  • Property: Detached house
  • Bedrooms: 2
  • Bathrooms: 2
  • Project started: 2015
  • Project finished: 2017
  • Size of house: 90sqm
  • Plot cost: £97,000
  • Build cost: £201,000
The back exterior of u build box house featured on Channel 4's My Grand Design, designed by Studio Bark

Photo: Lenny Codd

The idea

‘My original idea was to use shipping containers,’ Chris says. ‘but when we began work with Studio Bark, it became clear that this would be too costly.’ In response to Chris’s brief, the architects proposed a cost effective CNC modular plywood system called U-Build.

What is U build?

CNC, or computer numerical control, is when a computer converts a design produced by computer-aided design software into numbers. These numbers form co-ordinates that guide the automated tools cutting the plywood into shape. The forms are made off-site, delivered flat-packed and then assembled on site.

‘Most modular structures arrive fully finished, so there is little opportunity for the client to get hands on with the build,’ says Studio Bark architect Nick Newman. ‘Our solution was to create human-scale modular boxes. It’s affordable and enables selfbuilders to get more involved. Chris and Roxanne’s house was the UK’s first large-scale example of this U-Build method.’

The majority of the structure was custom-made for the space, including the staircase, gallery and kitchen. Chris, who project managed the construction, admits that at first he was nervous about the outcome of the strength and engineering tests. But Studio Bark was on hand with support and back-up.

a pale grey sofa in the living room of u build box house featured on Channel 4's My Grand Design, designed by Studio Bark

Photo: Lenny Codd

The eco friendly features

A green roof harvests rainwater and is fitted with photovoltaic solar panels. Chris and Roxanne would have liked to include more energy saving features.

‘Eco-friendly isn’t always cost friendly,’ says Chris. ‘But the timber cladding is made with wood from local woodlands and we insulated the walls with sheep’s wool. We avoided using large cranes or machinery for the build: everything was assembled and bolted by hand.’

The Interior

The property’s interior relies heavily on exposed plywood. ‘I’d describe the vision as Scandinavian ski lodge meets modern Japanese mid-century,’ says Chris.

‘We wanted something modest yet striking that would sit well in rural Oxfordshire.’ Rooms feel impressively spacious. The dining area is a full height void, bringing to mind a medieval hall.

And the staircase leads up to a landing that provides views down into the living space and out towards the sky. ‘I love how the extra height makes a modest two-bedroom house seem more extensive,’ says Chris.

A four poster bed in the bedroom of u- build box house featured on my grand design on Channel 4 by studio bark

Photo: Lenny Codd

The Graven Hill community

Just 15 minutes by train to Oxford and 45 minutes to London Marylebone, Graven Hill is being created on a disused Ministry of Defence base south of the market town of Bicester. Eventually it will have 1,900 homes, and the intention is to incorporate a variety of custom-build, self-build and affordable homes including retirement properties.

Chris is keen to point out the potential benefits that Graven Hill can offer to other self-builders: ‘I hope that in five years’ time, it has become a thriving, happy community which provides inspiration for generations to come.’

The exterior u-build box house in the graven hill community featured on Channel 4's My Grand Design, designed by Studio Bark

Photo: Lenny Codd