Difficult plots: success stories
off grid bothy self-build in Scotland

6 self-build houses on tricky plots

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

By Sarah Warwick |

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. Flood risks in Herefordshire

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. Navigating rail, road and sewer in West Sussex

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.

Olaf and Fritha knew that a mains sewer ran across the site of the triangle house in Billingshurst, but because there was outline planning permission for a house to be built, they assumed it wouldn’t be a problem. It was only after buying the land that they realised the sewer would have to be moved, at vast expense, if they went ahead as planned.

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 but Olaf was in his element project-managing the build, hiring a team of trades he’d worked with before.

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

Photo: Jefferson Smith

3. No utilities in Scotland

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.

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.


Photo: Echo Living

4. Building on a slope in Cornwall

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 tiny 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 difficult plots

Photo: Gpad London

6. The rare grotto in Sydenham

Corinne had ambitious ideas to turn the vacant corner plot next to her end-of-terrace house in Sydenham Hill into a modern Grand Designs home.

Corinne had her share of obstacles to overcome to get her project started. Firstly, her plot sits next to an area of protected woodland and a rare Pulhamite Grotto. To get planning permission she had to meet a number of conditions set by The Dulwich Estate, an independent charity that works to safeguard the area and its history.

As well as gathering arboricultural reports, she had to guarantee that no building work would encroach on the Estate’s woodland, not even in mid-air when lifting large steel beams into place.

When started, the soil survey didn’t detect sandier soil about four metres down, which caused the holes to collapse in on themselves when the pilers began to bore down. This was resolved by the contractors pouring concrete into the hole while drilling.

The Grand Designs house in Sydenham Hill was eventually completed on schedule, but it came in around £73,000 over budget.

difficult plots. Red brick home exterioe end of terrace wooden garage door surrounding woodland

Photo: Channel 4/Fremantle