City workers Matt and Davi came up against reticent locals, grumpy neighbours, and gale force winds in their bid to create a multi-tiered, multi-cultural black flint box in a quiet suburb in Hertfordshire.
In last night’s episode of Grand Designs the couple, born in Australia and Zimbabwe respectively, demolished an £800,000 bungalow in the Chess Valley to erect a home three times the size to house visiting relatives.
Kevin McCloud, presenter of the long-running Channel 4 show, described the self-build as “eye-popping” and a “rude awakening” to the leafy street. Plans revealed a tiered house on two levels to deal with the plot’s steep slope. A prefabricated network of timber frames were built in a factory to be laid on top of low concrete walls with the final structure clad in black flint in homage to Zimbabwe (which means stone house) and charred timber with green roofs on top.
“We bought the bungalow three years ago but it made more sense economically to clear it [than to extend it],” Davi explains in the fourth episode of the series. It ruffled features with locals when the planning application went up because it was so different, she continues, but the planners loved it.
Their vision was to create three box-like structures that cascade down the valley with a bridge that leads to the corten steel front door. The light-filled hallway heads into the kitchen at the back with glazing onto countryside views. When finished wooden internal walls will be covered in indigenous art work and there will also be a study and guest bedroom on the ground floor. Bedrooms for guests, the two children and the master suite all reside on the first floor.
Meticulously organised, digital product designer Matt and financial strategist Davi set a budget for £550,000 with a nine-month timeline. Although contractors and architects have quoted them double that to achieve the build, the ambitious pair decided to project manage it themselves so they could also manage their money.
They hit upon the first stumbling block as the old foundations were being bulldozed and the new ones laid. The digger could not get onto the site and therefore the deepest concrete was removed by hand.
Two weeks of gales then blew away Davi’s strict schedule and blew over the neighbour’s fence which was being supported by the bungalow.
The Moldovan ground crew finally lay the concrete network of low walls and pillars for the SIPs panels to slot into, but the frame manufacturer accused them of getting the heights wrong.
A battle between the two parties ensued: were the concrete plinths too high or the pieces of steel frame too long? And who will take responsibility and swallow the cost?
As the first half of the programme (episode 4) drew to a close Matt and Davi were behind schedule and £26,000 over budget with another potential disaster waiting to happen.
To speed up the project they, unusually, pre-ordered the windows to specific measurements before the frame arrived. In normal practice the space for the panes would be measured after the frame has been installed to reduce the risk of error.
When McCloud next visited the windows were in, but at what cost, he asks. “No window was left unmolested,” says Davi, looking at the frames which had been chiselled out to accommodate the glass.
The extra work had lost them time and money putting them six weeks behind schedule, knocking them £35,000 off course and taking them to the end of their cash funding.
“It’s all the little things that have cost us, it’s like death by a thousand cuts,” says Matt. “But it will be fine.”
As they head into the summer of 2021 the price of materials soars and work stops as they tried to source cheaper goods with longer lead times and delays amount to another three weeks. But there was still one expensive feature that Davi was desperate to have to tie the project to Zimbabwe – and that’s was the flint cladding.
With flint masters quoting £100,000 for the job the couple turned to one of the Moldovan crew, John, who has worked with flint before. He doesn’t speak any English and while Matt insisted on the use of lime mortar John quietly ignored him and used concrete. Even though the Chess Valley is rich in flint, the neighbourhood is not, with no other houses sporting the material.
One local dog walker commented: “It’s on my dog walking route and it just doesn’t fit. It looks ugly,” he moaned. McCloud retorted: “it’s a reflection of them and not the Hertfordshire streets.”
The family of four moved onto the building site in November 2021 and saved money by painting the upstairs themselves, with the children, but by its completion the project had taken 17 months (not nine) and cost them £710,000 not £550,000. In the end, it was family money from their relatives, for whom this house was built, that saved the day.
Rather than a hedge and a wall, there’s a bridge over a moat that leads to the half African, half Australian rebel fortress and the flint cladding looks like giraffe skin. The ebony and chalk theme continues inside in the materials and pallette with green roofs which within six months look like private wildflower meadows – and act as a preamble out of the bedroom windows onto the views beyond.
“Everything on these suburban streets is polite and even the architecture is well-mannered. Matt and Davi’s house does not conform, and it was a gruelling mission to get to completion, but it does embody them,” McCloud concludes.
Grand Designs is on Channel 4 at 9pm on Wednesdays.