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When wild couple Olaf and Fritha decide to embark on building a family home between a railway and a road, and on top of a sewer, Grand Designs presenter Kevin McCloud can almost smell disaster in the air.
In what is now the 21st series of the much-loved Channel 4 show, invariably packed with architectural stories that oscillate between triumph and tragedy, this episode follows OIaf and Fritha as they take on one of Grand Designs’ most difficult projects. All while going through the IVF process to start a family.
The carpenter and a fabric printer plan to house their future brood in a three-storey, triangular, timber-framed home on a very constrained, half-an-acre site in Billinghurst in West Sussex.
With a mainline railway line on one side and a main road on the other, the major concern is the noise (especially with sleeping babies). However, very soon into the planning process they realise they are about to create their dream, forever home above a sewer.
“It was demoralising”, Olaf says. The couple are not allowed to construct on top of the waste pipe and have to give it a three-metre wide birth, making the plot even tighter and more problematic.
“The prospects of this project are grim, maybe that’s why Olaf and Fritha drive around in an ambulance,” the narrator quips early in the episode.
McCloud describes it as a project “besieged with compromise” especially given looming deadlines. The couple have to complete the build within 12 months, from start-to-finish, as Olaf has to go back to his paid job. To add yet more pressure, the couple happily find out that the IVF had worked and they are expecting a baby. “The whole thing is entirely down to him” says McCloud.
The budget is set at £160,000 but this will be tested given the cost of making this troublesome site buildable. After the initial work laying foundations the couple rack up costs and are forced to go back to the bank to try and extend their mortgage to £240,000. At this pivotal moment, the project could grind to a halt.
The “plucky self-build” is to consist of a triangular shaped home with a sloping, zinc-coated roof, laid with discrete solar panels. On the ground floor will be the hand-crafted kitchen and snug. Through sliding doors the kitchen is designed to spilt out into an outside party area with a large, built-in sunken fire pit.
The first floor is to have a study, bathroom, and two bedrooms with the master-bedroom in the eaves on the third floor – Olaf and Fritha’s “treetop haven”.
The whole building is to be clad in white render, with sleek black brickwork and timber and walls tightly packed with materials to keep the heat in and the noise out. The 17 triple glazed windows will also help eradicate the rumblings of the surrounding transport networks.
The shape of the plot is not the only hurdle, the design of the home is also a mathematical problem. I hate triangular buildings because of the tight and useless “naughty corners” says McCloud. Olaf even makes a full scale wooden model of the house in order to figure out the angles. The model itself takes seven hours to complete.
Unable to build over the sewer and therefore with no room for a workshop Olaf and Fritha spend £2,600 on a 1985 red plastic double decker bus which Fritha describes as a “drunken ebay purchase.” Olaf has to stop traffic on the busy Sussex A road in order to try and drive it onto the tight driveway.
As McCloud says at the start of the show, “Carpenters are the unsung heroes of engineering.”
“It looks like it belongs on a concrete ring road,” says McCloud but, in fact, it adds to the urban-meets-rural haven the couple created.
By the end of the episode the veteran design presenter describes the home as “gorgeous” and “proper considered architecture,” with clever tricks to overcome those “naughty corners” such as putting a toilet in one of those tight, angled spots.
At the start I saw you as children of innocence, festival-goers and free spirits,” says McCloud, “by the end you are parents with a house and a mortgage.”
The new series of Grand Designs is on Channel 4 at 9pm on Wednesdays