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5 self-build houses on difficult plots

Difficult plots don't have to stand in the way of incredible self builds

By Sarah Warwick | 5 September 2021

Searching for a plot for your self-build home is no easy task. Not only do you have location, views and infrastructure to consider, but also planning permission and any site restrictions that may be in place. However, difficult plots don’t have to be a barrier to your self-build dream. With a good architect on board, you can still create some great design ideas, like these grand designers did in the face of an awkward plot…

1. Plot hole: flood risks

The edge-of-village land Ben and Merry Albright bought in Herefordshire had a mixed flood classification although it contained only a tiny brook, had never flooded, and is at a distance from and higher than the river. Built on a section of the plot assessed as no risk, the couple still had to prove there were emergency exit routes for a 1:1,000 year flood event, and the house was also designed with a raised slab that is 700mm higher than any recorded flood.

They opted for a design by Border Oak with a handmade frame and structural insulated panels similar to those found in other local barns. Its U-shape reduces its visual impact from the village, too. The project cost around £800,000 including the plot, garage and landscaping.

self build on a low risk flood plain

Photo: Border Oak

2. Plot problem: navigating rail, road and sewer

Olaf Mason, a carpenter specialising in high-end bespoke interiors, decided to turn his hand to construction in the 2021 series of Grand Designs. Olaf and his wife Fritha attempted to fit a clever triangular house into a small plot constricted by a busy main road, a railway line and a sewer near Billingshurst in West Sussex. It was no mean feat, but the couple took this 3D geometrical puzzle in their stride, along with the arrival of their baby daughter during the build. This is the guy you need to call when considering difficult plots!

Read more about the triangle house Grand Designs project here

A triangular self-build house in Billingshurst, West Sussex, from the new series of Grand Designs

Photo: Jefferson Smith

Searching for a plot for your self-build home is no easy task. Not only do you have location, views and infrastructure to consider, but also planning permission and any site restrictions that may be in place. However, difficult plots don’t have to be a barrier to your self-build dream. With a good architect on board, you can still create some great design ideas, like these grand designers did in the face of an awkward plot…

1. Plot hole: flood risks

The edge-of-village land Ben and Merry Albright bought in Herefordshire had a mixed flood classification although it contained only a tiny brook, had never flooded, and is at a distance from and higher than the river. Built on a section of the plot assessed as no risk, the couple still had to prove there were emergency exit routes for a 1:1,000 year flood event, and the house was also designed with a raised slab that is 700mm higher than any recorded flood.

They opted for a design by Border Oak with a handmade frame and structural insulated panels similar to those found in other local barns. Its U-shape reduces its visual impact from the village, too. The project cost around £800,000 including the plot, garage and landscaping.

self build on a low risk flood plain

Photo: Border Oak

2. Plot problem: navigating rail, road and sewer

Olaf Mason, a carpenter specialising in high-end bespoke interiors, decided to turn his hand to construction in the 2021 series of Grand Designs. Olaf and his wife Fritha attempted to fit a clever triangular house into a small plot constricted by a busy main road, a railway line and a sewer near Billingshurst in West Sussex. It was no mean feat, but the couple took this 3D geometrical puzzle in their stride, along with the arrival of their baby daughter during the build. This is the guy you need to call when considering difficult plots!

Read more about the triangle house Grand Designs project here

A triangular self-build house in Billingshurst, West Sussex, from the new series of Grand Designs

Photo: Jefferson Smith

Image: Echo Living 

3. Plot twist: no utilities

There was no mains electricity or water available on the windy site on which Duncan and Ashley MacGregor chose to build a bothy on their working farm, on the side of the Campsie Fells north of Glasgow (pictured above). The property, designed by Echo Living, copes with the conditions year-round with a squat outline, high levels of insulation made from sheep’s wool for walls, floors and roof, a wood-burning stove for heat, and south-west facing double-glazed patio doors that provide heat from solar gain.

As it’s off-grid, solar panels bring power, bottled gas heats the water and fuels the cooking appliances, and water comes from a natural spring in the hills. The house enjoys panoramic views although the elevation to the north is windowless. The cost of a similar building would be around £70,000 installed with fixtures, fittings and finishes.

4. Losing the plot: building on a slope

This timber-framed home was designed for a steeply sloping site on the Cornish coast by Roderick James Architects for a retired couple who wanted a house by the sea. In response to the plot, the house has numerous levels as it steps down the slope, and features both green and low-pitched zinc roofs that help reduce its impact on neighbouring buildings.

The frame is made from Douglas fir that was painted to give it a seaside-style look, and it has an open-plan layout. It was orientated to maximise the sea views with large expanses of glass. The project cost £2,500 per sqm.

a timber house self build on a difficult sloped plot from grand designs

Photo: Roderick James

5. A small plot in London

Architect Charles Betts of Gpad London had an area of just 6×7 metres within which to construct a home that would allow him and wife, Vicki, to break into the London property market. The former garage site had been rejected by others for its tiny proportions, but Charles designed a two-bed, three-floor house that uses brick at ground floor level to complement its Victorian neighbours, and brass cladding on the first floor.

Inside, space is maximised with a minimum of partition walls and circulation space. To boost light and air, the staircase is bounded by oak slats, which let light from the roof window reach ground level. Furthermore, the living room doors open to a central courtyard. Dual-aspect rooms and large windows and doors also help make the small house feel much bigger. The project cost under £250,000.

small self build house built above a garage with steel roof extension in london

Photo: Tim Crocker

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