Grand Designs couple’s dream of escaping rent trap by building London’s smallest two-bedroom house turns into a nightmare
A young couple’s dream of escaping ever rising rents in London by building their own home for just £160,000 turns into both a nightmare and an obsession on tonight’s episode of Grand Designs.
Design engineer Joe Stuart, 26, and his Swedish girlfriend, service designer Lina Nilsson, were paying £20,000 a year in rent on a west London flat when they decided they wanted their own home.
Not just any home, but officially the smallest new-build two-bedroom in London allowed under latest regulations.
Joe says: “I’ve always been fascinated by making things, making things work.”
Lena is enamoured of the chance to create their own home in London while just in their twenties: “You don’t have to pay rent to someone else. You can make a place that’s good quality and it’s yours.”
Grand Designs: East London
SHOEBOX DESIGN ON A SHOESTRING BUDGET
At just 83 square metres – 893 square feet – they also plan to squeeze in two bathrooms, study, a vast top floor kitchen-living area and a workshop.
A full-width slanting window at the top of the house would give way to a roof terrace to provide them with a sliver of outside space from which to enjoy the city skyline.
Joe paid £73,000 for a tiny plot of land in east London, three miles from Canary Wharf, on the site of a former coffin workshop.
Along with £50,000 in savings, his parents gave him a further £110,000 after remortgaging their home in the Midlands.
Revealing that Joe plans to do much of the work himself, while also being the architect and project manager, McCloud says: “It’s a shoebox design on shoestring budget.”
BIG PLANS FOR A TINY BASEMENT
At just 9.5 metres long and 4 metres wide, the heart of the plan was to dig 3.5 metres down to create a basement area to make enough space to meet regulations.
The slim plot also means that Joe has to be able to use every available inch of it.
This means that instead of creating a frame to support the dry earth walls as they are excavated, he is forced to leave it to chance that they will not collapse.
In a bit of an understatement, basement contractor Phil Sacre says: “It’s a bit of challenge to dig a basement the size of a postage stamp on a bit of land the size of a postage stamp.”
After digging fairly easily all the way down, he discovers the site is actually sitting on silt and clay that is slowly filling up with water as the winter rains come: “We’ve effectively dug a pond.”
Joe knows he faces a race against time to install the waterproof concrete walls, but, two weeks into their construction, the earth begins to fall in on the hole and the exposed walls begin to weaken, leaving vast gaps and dangerously bowed walls.
Joe and Phil part company after spending two months and £30,000 on this disastrous phase and it is three agonising months before he finds a new contractor in the form of Cormac Rooney, who says: “This is his baby and he wants it to be right.”
ALL OR NOTHING
The house itself is to be made of five tons and £27,000 of structurally insulated panels cut by computer in a factory in Scotland and where Joe sees the finished structure in the warehouse before, of course, learning how to assemble it himself back in London with the help of a handful of willing friends in just one week.
But, after spending £80,000 starting the basement and putting it right again, Joe begins to become obsessed about the rest of the house.
He suddenly becomes single-minded about making it super, super-insulated and not only triples the thickness of the walls but decides the triple-glazed skylight is not eco-friendly enough and insists on a quadruple glazed unit weighing in at 200kg.
The strain between Joe and Lena is clear as he quits his job to spend 15-hour days on the project and she agrees to inject £25,000 into it as costs soar.
The couple’s dream of moving in by Christmas is also dashed, but a very patient and understanding Lena says: “He’s very passionate. I love him and it’s really painful for him to compromise on certain things.”
Even McCloud believes he keeps making new hurdles for himself, including installing a state-of-the-art sprinkler system and an ultra-low energy heating and hot water system.
Joe says: “I can see what it will all become,” but McCloud asks: “Will Joe’s vision ever become reality?”
However, when he returns to see the finished product last month, he is bowled over by the confection of sleek cedar and Victorian bricks that is the couple’s new home.
“It’s young, trendy sustainable housing. Box fresh, if you like. It’s a tiny house with a view to infinity.”
When McCloud asks Joe if the nightmare that was the basement had ever deterred him from completing the house, he replies: “It was horrible at the time. You can dwell on it, or build the rest of the house. Every time I think about if it was worth it or not, it’s a resounding yes.”
Touring the finished house, McCloud says: “It’s elegant, simple and generous – almost as if it could have been slotted together with a rubber mallet and an Allen key in just a few days!”
Admitting that the final cost of the house was £250,000 – £90,000 over budget – Joe says: “With this house we’ve managed to create a dream together.”
Lena adds: “It’s Joe’s house, but our home.”
Marvelling at the “powerful little space capsule” the couple have created, McCloud concludes: “This place is poised to change Joe and Lena’s lives forever and proves that powerful, big idea can come in small packages.”
Grand Designs is on Channel 4 at 9pm