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Sunday Times Home Supplement - 31/07/16

How to get into Oxford

If you want a home in the UK’s most unaffordable city, you’ll have to be creative. Cherry Maslen tells how this family did it.

Back in the mid-2000s, Oxford was as alluring to aspirational property buyers as it’s always been to academics. Its combination of dreaming-spires charm, affordable period property, good schools and proximity to London was nirvana to the squeezed middle. But then everyone had the same idea, and now the city is officially the most unaffordable in Britain: the average property price there is now almost 11 times the typical salary. There’s fierce competition for good family housing, a scarcity of land to build on and poor prospects of expansion, as it’s surrounded by green belt.

“So you could build a house like this for about £320,000, excluding professional fees and land costs,” Waind continues. As he has a working relationship with Thompson, “mates rates” applied, but anyone considering a similar brownfield site would have to pay architects’ fees as well as the initial cost of the land, plus possible decontamination costs.

“I must have cried on every Oxford estate agent’s shoulder,” says Kate Binnie, who moved from London to the city in 2007, with her husband, Angus Thompson, her children, Bella, now 17, and Tom, 15, and the couple’s son, Django, 9. They intended to rent for a short period until they found their dream house, but property for sale suddenly dried up during the 2008 downturn. “We just couldn’t find anywhere big enough for our family of five on our budget. We ended up renting for years.”

The couple contemplated leaving Oxford, but with the children settled in good schools with friends, nobody wanted that. Building their own house had never been on their agenda when they left London, but they were open to any possibility that would keep them in Oxford. In 2010, they spotted an affordable three-bedroom Victorian semi for sale for about £375,000 in the northwest of the city. It was too small for them, but it came with a vacant lot beside it.

They reckoned they could do up the house and sell it for a profit, then use the money to build a bigger house on the adjoining land. “I wasn’t that nervous of self-build because I’m used to working with architects,” says Thompson, a Chelsea gold-medal winning landscape and garden designer.

Even so, the vacant lot was a challenge. It was long but narrow — 18ft wide, sandwiched between the semi and another Victorian house — so in order to gain enough space, the couple would have to get permission to build a three-storey house. The lot had once been a timber yard: a previous owner of the semi had built a workshop there and run his business from it. This meant it was contaminated with creosote, a coal tar that was used to treat wood, but which has long been banned by the EU for non- industrial usage because of its potentially harmful properties. What’s more, the house, close to Oxford’s protected Port Meadow, was in a flood-risk zone, so the couple would not be able to build a lower- ground floor. How were they going to cram a house big enough for a family of five onto such a site?

On top of that, the house was in a flood-risk zone near the protected Port Meadow, so the couple could not build a lower ground floor. How were they going to cram a house big enough for a family of five onto such a site?

Enter a knight in shining armour, or at least an architect with a solution. Thompson knew Phil Waind, the founding director of London architects Waind Gohil + Potter, who are members of the Housing Forum, an industry network that’s trying to solve the housing crisis. “We had worked together and I trusted him,” says Thompson. “We both know that good design doesn’t have to be expensive.”

Waind suggested using a prefabricated timber kit house that’s built off-site and craned in, but one that he could design the layout for to meet the family’s needs. Their brief to him? A four-bedroom house over three floors with a modest 2,475 sq ft of living space, where every inch would go to work. “An important part of keeping costs down was establishing the construction process early before planning, so the design was developed with a prefab timber frame specialist,” Waind says. “The form took that of a traditional gable-fronted house, a modern reinterpretation of local housing.” As a precaution, the design was agreed through a pre-application consultation with the planners.

While all of this was going on, Thompson and Binnie did up the Victorian house, lopped off the end of its garden to give their new house a larger L-shaped garden, and sold the semi later in 2010 for an undisclosed sum, while continuing to rent locally.

But it was a risky move: preparing the vacant land for decontamination was a lengthy and arduous process that involved removing huge amounts of earth. And, despite the pre-application consultation, the subsequent back and forth with the planning department took ages. They had to get the locals on side —for years they had relied on the vacant lot to turn their cars around.

The design was a back-to-basics aesthetic. The exterior materials included rough-sawn oak, plus, unusually, untreated cement particleboard on the side walls. The latter, with its unfinished brutalist look, is more common in commercial buildings, but it was deemed acceptable because the narrow plot meant the side walls could hardly be seen.

Instead of fancy design inside, Thompson and Binnie agreed to keep it simple and stick to the standard components of a timber-frame prefab house. “The house’s spans and ceiling heights met the requirements of the timber frame system to avoid the need for expensive steelwork,” adds Waind. “The interior materials and detailing were kept restrained for economy and durability."

The kitchen units were low-cost with open shelving rather than overhead cupboards. “We spent more money on a few key things, such as the oak-and-glass staircase and the bathroom, and compromised on the rest,” Binnie says.

This no - frills approach seems to have paid off.“The build cost came out at £124 per sq ft, which is lower than that of comparable mass housing,” says Waind. (The latter would cost about £153 to £171 per sq ft, according to Paul Beadman, managing partner of construction firm Beadmans). “So you could build a house like this for about £320,000, excluding professional fees and land costs,” Waind continues.

As he has a working relationship with Thompson, “mates rates” applied, but anyone considering a similar brownfield site would have to pay architects’ fees as well as the initial cost of the land, plus possible decontamination costs.

The family didn’t move in until 2014, four years after they bought the site, but it was worth the wait. They have everything they wanted, including all-important live-work space. The top floor was built into the eaves of a traditional gable roof, even if this means they have no storage attic. It contains the master bedroom and bathroom, and even though the ceilings are sloped, it doesn’t feel cramped, thanks to the extensive roof glazing. The three children’s bedrooms are on the first floor.

It may be a modest house, but its design ideas are grand, such as the wavy wall between the boys’ bedrooms at the rear. Made of curved timber, and covered in plasterboard, its undulating shape creates a fun desk nook and sense of spaciousness. 

The ground floor is mostly open-plan, but it has a separate sitting room at the front. A glass-and-oak staircase in the centre of the house sits alongside the utility room and cloakroom. That leaves the back of the house as the main family space, with the kitchen along one wall next to the dining table (instead of the ubiquitous island, which saved them money). An enormous roof light brings brightness deep into the interior, while opaque film on side windows allows privacy between the houses while obscuring their closeness. The full-width glazed back wall leads onto a good-sized, sunny walled garden. A patch of wildflower meadow contrasts with a lawn, plus shady trees, cottage-garden perennials, tall wavy grasses and a herb garden at the bottom, where Thompson’s studio is concealed beyond hedging. “It’s ideal,” he says, “I can run my garden design business from here and try out plant combinations in the garden. As soon as I walk through the tall grasses by my studio, I’m in work mode.”

The house has eco credentials: full house heat exchange, which circulates warm air to where it’s needed; the green wildflower roof above the rear extension matches a smaller version topping Thompson’s studio. It looks extraordinary, whether viewed from the garden or the bedroom windows. “It changes all the time,” says Binnie, a music therapist and yoga teacher. “It attracts masses of wildlife; birds, bees, even grass snakes.”

Despite the long haul, Thompson and Binnie have no regrets. As Binnie says: “Out of necessity, we turned a negative into a positive.” And they achieved the impossible — finding their dream home in Oxford, at a price they could afford.