The self-building revolution at Graven Hill

Innovation is the ethos of Graven Hill Village in Bicester, the UK’s biggest self-build and custom-build site which offers serviced plots for people wanting to build their own home.

It aims to disrupt the traditional housing market and discover new ways to build homes as the site develops into the future.

Graven Hill is the first development of its kind, providing the opportunity to build a house from scratch, customise elements of a home to suit individual tastes or move into a ready-made new property.

Let’s take a closer look at the background to the scheme and examine two self-building projects there.

Background to Graven Hill Village

This 188-hectare site lies on the southern edge of Bicester, 14 miles northeast of Oxford, and an hour from London by train. Cherwell District Council bought the land, a former military distribution site, from the Ministry of Defence and instead of selling it to a developer, decided to create a space where aspiring self-builders can create their dream homes. To make this possible, pre-approved outline planning permission was put in place and plots were made available to the public for around £100,000 each. The aim was to enable people to self-build a home for less than they could buy one for in that area of the UK.

Work started in early 2016 to transform the site, which includes mature woodland and open space. In 2017 a Plot Shop opened in Bicester town for prospective homeowners to find out more, and the first homes were built. During 2019-20, progress was made on self and custom-build homes – where a house buyer works with an architect or developer who is building the house, to achieve a bespoke home. Construction of the site’s first apartment block started in 2018. Houses have been built from brick, block, timber, insulated concrete formwork blocks and using modular construction methods.

Eventually, Graven Hill will include a mix of affordable, custom-build, self-build, new build homes and apartments: there are 26% self-build plots; 30% custom-build, and 26% apartments. When it’s fully built out, the site will provide up to 30% affordable housing.

There’s also a commercial area: 1m sq. ft of land designated for businesses and jobs, along with a village centre where there will be shops, a pub, and a pre-school nursery. Retail space has now been completed, businesses are moving in, and a new primary school is currently under construction and will welcome its first pupils in September 2023.

The Crescent.

The scheme today

510 house completions were due to have taken place by the end of June 2023, with around 480 people in occupation. The site is expected to be fully completed in 2033.

In the early stages, Graven Hill Village Development Company which manages the site attempted to deliver smaller self-build plots, however, these failed to attract buyers which slowed down completion of Phase 1 of the project. Some people initially interested in self-build opted to buy new custom-build homes on the site, often assisted by the Help to Buy scheme. Flexibility is key at the site, to enable development over the long term that is responsive to market demand, offering homebuyers more choices of housing types.

Self-build plots will continue to be offered at the site, along with custom-build homes and other house types, and the development company is keen to explore alternative construction methods to meet market demand.

One outcome of the scheme has been the community element that’s developed among the self-builders: many got to know their neighbours before building work began, and friendships have grown alongside the construction process.

The self-build costings

The average budget for each self-build house was £250,000, and builders can choose the design and construction methods. Age is clearly no barrier to self-building as the initiative attracted people aged from 24-72, and budgets have ranged from £160,000 to in excess of £500,000.

Sustainability is a priority at Graven Hill

  • To boost wildlife, 22ha of grassland and 1.9km of hedgerows have been added.
  • The development has recycled over 1701 tonnes of waste – 90% of all waste created on-site.
  • Newt fencing has been built around the boundary to keep great crested newts out of the construction area.
  • The site is surrounded by open spaces including woodland and allotments.
  • A network of cycle paths and footpaths connect the village to the town centre.
  • There are good local transport links.

Grand Designs

The Channel 4 television show `Grand Designs: The Street’, followed the fortunes of the first 10 self-builders. The programme explained the self-build options available on the site and filmed the featured builders as they built their individual homes to form a unique street. A host of trials and tribulations were encountered along the way, including mental, physical, and financial exhaustion, but the results revealed some amazing homes. Grand Designs presenter Kevin McCloud praised the initiative and said the model could be replicated by more local authorities. Interest in the concept led to a second series of `The Street’ in April 2022, which followed a new group of self-builders, and the site is being featured on the current Grand Designs series, which started in May 2023.

Award-winning designs

Three homes at Graven Hill were shortlisted for five awards in the Build It Awards 2022, one of which won the award for Best Off-Site Manufactured Home. This went to a prefabricated timber-framed house made by off-site manufacturing company Dan-Wood, which supplied a house that had been built off-site within 10 days of finalising the design. The finished turn-key structure was erected at Graven Hill in under a week, with just the kitchen to be completed.

A `plain sailing’ self-build bucks the trend

Bart Wilczynski outside his home.

Graven Hill’s individuality and architecture first attracted Bart Wilczynski and his wife Klaudia to the site.

Bart explained:

Being Polish, it really reminded me of home. Each house was unique and reflected the individuality of its occupants. I’m quite used to self-build, which is very popular in Poland, and it made me realise how much I wanted the freedom to design my own legacy.

In September 2020, Bart moved his bespoke joinery business, End Grain Ltd, from London to Haddenham in Oxfordshire. Rather than commute from the capital, he started to look at places to live closer to work. After considering many different developments, they stumbled upon Graven Hill and loved it. They snapped up Plot 250, a 327 sq. m serviced self-build plot with a garden and parking, which came with outline planning permission already in place. The original intention was to continue living in London, only an hour away from Graven Hill, but that plan changed when Bart spotted a custom-built home for sale, on Plot 100.

This opportunity led to Bart and Klaudia swiftly selling their London home to move to site, rather than undertaking their self-build from afar. He said that working with the Graven Hill Development Company has been easy: getting approval for his design took between 3-5 weeks, and once his mortgage had been approved it was plain sailing.

Striking design

The Wilczynski’s timber framed self-build is a dramatic design using a charred timber façade known as Shou Sugi Ban, which protects the wood against the elements using fire. The cantilevers, rooftop terrace, and balcony also provide additional striking features. The three-bedroom, three-storey house with a gym at the top and a south-facing terrace on the flat roof, is high-tech, containing 3-4km of cabling. It’s been redesigned numerous times since the build began as Bart’s ideas shifted – for example growing from two storeys to three, but as he said: “That’s what is special.”

Bart added:

We love the custom-build model; the homes are energy efficient and can be tailored to suit your needs. Once we moved in, I also decided to make further changes and add a gym to the garden. Living on site has also made it easier to manage our self-build project, although we had a new baby a year ago which has meant we are a lot busier.

We started the foundations in May last year and the shell is now complete and weather tight, hopefully we should complete it next year (2024). I decided not to appoint an architect and do everything myself, from design to delivery. As a joiner and business owner, I had trade accounts, understand the costs of building materials from foundations upwards and have lots of experience in sourcing products. I took a training course in Computer Aided Design (CAD) in order to evolve my design. I had so many ideas and have tried to pare back and simplify my focus.

I’ve created a warm and uncluttered space, with lots of natural finishes including timber, stone, and polished plaster. I have learnt so much through the process. I do have a builder assisting me as I still have my own company to run as well. This project has also given me the chance to diversify my business using my knowledge of timber façade and cladding which I now offer my own clients. Who knows, maybe one day we will also offer design and delivery of other self-build homes.

Great community and location

Moving to Graven Hill has been one of the best decisions we have made. It is a fantastic place to bring up a family, we are really part of a wonderful community. It really does feel safe and secluded, yet close to facilities. It also has so much personality, from the individuality of the architecture, the landscape setting and the culture.

It’s because of this that my business partner and I have also decided to invest in some of the Palmer House apartments here as buy-to-let opportunities. We considered lots of locations but settled on Graven Hill as it will attract tenants who value the lifestyle on offer, just like we do. I work in the industry, having built houses in London for 20 years, which puts me in a different position to others without this experience, and we are now below budget 12 months into the project.

I calculated build costs at £480,000 at the start, a figure which rose to £560,000 due to the increased cost of materials since Covid-19, the war in Ukraine and inflation, but I can source materials at trade cost which is an advantage and it’s now at around £543,000. I’ve also done most of the work myself and it will take another 12 months to finish it as I am working in my own business during the week, so only have time at weekends to spend on the house.

The rear view of the house with its striking charred timber façade.

Be realistic

As self-confessed perfectionist, Bart said that the design process has been challenging, but added:

I would recommend self-build if you are realistic and not a dreamer. It’s a great experience: I have never lived in a house this big before.

Gemma Davis, customer experience director at Graven Hill Village Development Company, added:

Bart and Klaudia have achieved so much, and I wouldn’t be surprised if their self-build home wins many accolades. We are delighted Bart and his family love Graven Hill.

A modular self-build home built to high sustainability standards

Two brothers took on the challenge of a self-build project at Graven Hill to create a three-bedroom home for their parents. 

Harry and Charlie Lovell have been successfully designing and building homes in London through their consultancy Youngman Lovell for a number of years, but delivering a home for their parents was a unique experience.

The brothers wanted to use the latest modular innovations and techniques to deliver a carbon-neutral home. With space being at a premium in the capital, they had to look further afield for the perfect plot that offered a semi-rural location, coupled with community and amenities within easy reach.

Bespoke design

The completed house, called The Barn House on Cherry Walk, occupies a 280 sq. m plot with parking for two cars, and is built to be carbon-neutral. Working so closely with a sibling may have been challenging for some, but fortunately, both Harry and Charlie were happy with their collaborative approach as Harry, 32, explained:

We’re lucky, we get on quite well and have similar tastes, but Charlie is the guy who can do the drawings and has the vision, I am more the project manager. We wanted to build something sustainable and affordable which also looked fantastic. We couldn’t find an `off the shelf’ product that ticked all the boxes, so we thought why not design our own for them.

Younger brother Charlie, 30, is the designer and was primarily responsible for the eventual look and feel of The Barn House. As well as being their parents’ new home, it has now become the blueprint for a new range of Youngman Lovell modular Barn Houses. Harry added:

There are some design constraints with modular, as the shape is usually long and narrow, but in this instance, it worked really well. As we started looking further afield, exploring Berkshire, Oxfordshire and Hertfordshire, Graven Hill stood out because of its semi-rural setting, and the fact it has a railway station nearby for easy commutes to Oxford and onto London.

One huge advantage was that the outline planning permission was already there and, as long as our build could fit within the plot passport, we were guaranteed planning approval. That was a huge draw to the site and pretty unique compared to other developments. As planning is so challenging, with no guarantees, the security of buying at Graven Hill for my parents was very attractive. In the end the process was very straightforward, and we got planning within 25 days.

As with most modular homes, progress from foundations to finished structure was swift with the framework craned into position in around two days. The Barn House arrived on site in just two modules – ground and first floor – all made in the UK. It took the brothers around three months to come up with the design as they wanted to produce something that was beautiful, modern and uncomplicated. The final design takes a minimal approach, with hardwood oak floors and neutral colours.

Situated on a corner plot towards the top of the hill on Cherry Walk, the master bedroom balcony enjoys great views, with a small park and play area nearby. From the front door, you can see most of the ground floor: there’s an open plan living kitchen with bi-fold doors leading onto the garden, along with space to work from home. Upstairs, there’s a vaulted ceiling feature, three bedrooms, one bathroom, an ensuite and a downstairs WC.

Green credentials

When it comes to The Barn House’s unique selling points, Harry commented:

For me it’s the sustainability credentials. It runs off the solar panels that are integrated into the roof and to be energy self-sufficient with the cost-of-living crisis is pretty amazing. The home operates from its own air source heat pump and Mechanical Ventilation Heating Recovery (MVHR) system. For maximum energy efficiency the home has to be airtight and incredibly thermally efficient with triple glazed windows and thick insulation within the walls and roof. The timber framed structure, which embodies carbon, is so much more sustainable than the traditional steel and brick alternatives. We love how the house has come together and is everything we envisaged it would be.

For the interior, they used Graphenston paint which also has great environmental credentials. The manufacturer ships it with less water, so it’s not as heavy, with the water added afterward. It’s also non-toxic and absorbs carbon. A Tesla power wall stores energy in a battery pack. It’s about the size of a small fridge and can easily be fitted inside a home, offering a capacity of 12kw hours.

As well as building the perfect home for their parents, Harry and Charlie now have a prototype to use as the basis for a full range of Barn Houses; from one-bed right through to a five-bed version. Harry concluded:

The beauty of modular building is that a similar design theme can be adapted to whatever the customer needs – from single storey versions or larger properties with additional modules on the side. As the designers we are very happy with The Barn House’s overall look, feel and how it all flows – I will definitely be offering to house sit when my parents go on holiday!



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