September 2009

Street News

Sheds Reinvented

shed.jpgAn Englishman's home is no longer his castle. It is, in fact, his shed. The humble garden shed, now often upgraded to a "garden room", has been quietly undergoing a rather spectacular makeover in recent years. Annual awards are now given out for the best shed and there are websites dedicated to "sheddies" and their fabulous creations.

After all, who doesn't secretly want a shed. It's about so much more than a place to stash the lawnmower. Paul Barton of says: "It's a place to escape, and what's great about it is that a bigger shed is not necessarily a better one, so for once there's no pressure. It has a lot to do with nostalgia – it brings memories of carefree, happy times, playing hide-and-seek, having a crafty fag, maybe a first kiss.

"But the changing economy has also made a difference. People are losing their jobs and re-evaluating the way they work and play. For some, it's about pursuing a long-held dream to start their own business, for others, it's about splitting their job between home and office working."

Barton, whose creations have included a floating office shed for someone who had a river at the bottom of his garden, adds that the joy of designing a shed is that it doesn't have to fit with the style of the house, so you can really let your imagination rip. "Remember – this year's teenage hang-out could be next year's hobby room or office. Be imaginative and remember that if you want to use it all year round, you need something that is fully insulated."

Which means, in a nutshell, that you will have to pay for it. Alex Johnson of and author of the forthcoming Shedworking: The Alternative Workplace Revolution says that for about £5,000, you should be able to get a very good home office. "If someone starts working from home and saving several thousand pounds a year in commuting, then a shed can start paying for itself very quickly," he says.

Now, you do need to be aware that there are rules about the size of the shed you can install before you need to seek planning permission. Under the new laws that came into force last October, sheds are considered to be permitted development, which means they don't need planning permission, as long as you stick to a few guidelines (full details can be found at Philip Goldstone of The Garden Room Company says that such outbuildings – his are so much more than a simple shed – are gaining in popularity all the time, but offers the following rule of thumb.

"The main one is that a shed should be two metres away from the boundary of your property, and then you don't need planning permission. If your land isn't big enough for that, you can ask for permission to put it only one metre away, and as long as you get on with the neighbours and keep them informed, it shouldn't be a problem.

"With more people working from home and perhaps using the spare room as their office, building a garden room allows them to reclaim that bedroom and work in the garden," he said.

"They are great for music rooms or lessons, or as a gym as well as an office. Our products come fully finished with plasterboarded walls, electric power, sockets, lighting, laminated floors, double glazing and insurance-rated locks."

Ah, yes. It is ultimately a shed that you are planning to fill with expensive computers, hi-fis and the like. You need to make sure that the locks are good and the windows are strong, and then you need to ring your insurance company and have its contents added to your policy.

Once you have decided on what you want to use your shed for, it's about how much you want to spend. Obviously it's a lot cheaper than an extension and, as most of them can be assembled in a week, it's a lot less dusty and disruptive. It's also worth pointing out that a good shed will create some prospective buyer lust for those of you who plan on selling up leaving your shed one day.

As with most things in life (especially when it comes to homes), it's about what you can afford and what you are prepared to spend. B&Q have a basic shed from £699, although that is a basic garden storage model. Roostuk have some fabulous creations that are just short of £20,000. So it's up to you and your bank manager to decide what you can have. Let's not forget that George Bernard Shaw worked from a shed at the bottom of his garden – albeit a revolving one that moved to catch the sun – so buy yourself a shed, a best-selling publication may follow and you could recoup your money.

Reality-check of Self-Builds

grand design.jpgThe ambition to design and build a dream home — poured concrete floors, sweeping staircase, huge master bedroom with an en-suite and fabulous views through the floor-to-ceiling glass — has taken a firm hold on the British imagination. It is a fantasy turned reality for an increasing number of couples, egged on by glossy magazines and television programmes such as Grand Designs: so much so that there is scarcely a barn unconverted or a plot unconsidered. As with all fantasies, however, you should be careful what you wish for.

For if you thought moving house was one of the most stressful things you could do, then try building one. The effort — from jumping through planning hoops and deciding where every light switch goes to living in a caravan on site and ending up financially impoverished — is as nothing compared to the strain it can put on a relationship.

“If your marriage isn’t strong to start with, don’t even think about building, as the stresses will blow you apart,” advises Michael Holmes, a television presenter and building and renovation expert, who is tackling a self-build himself. “Building a home is a real challenge.” That said, he concedes that it can bring some couples closer together.

No doubt many owners who have invested so much time and money, put up with the bare walls and exposed wires and lived on microwave meals for a year are still enjoying their “grand design”, but a surprising number of such properties come onto the market within months of being finished.

Living out their fantasy certainly hasn’t ended happily for one couple, whose house, the Stables — a 2,089 sq ft, timber-built home near Tunbridge Wells — appeared on Grand Designs. It has a vast full-height living area with a vaulted ceiling, and a large veranda with views over the Kent countryside.

John Cadney, Marnie Moon and their three teenage children initially lived on site in a mobile home, while John, 53, a craftsman and joiner, regularly put in 10 to 12-hour days, seven days a week, to get the house built. Sadly, although the work has finally been signed off in the past few months, the couple are separating after 20 years. They have put the four-bedroom house up for sale for £875,000 (01892 512020,

“I actually enjoyed building this house,” Cadney says. “I’ve made things all my life, and watched other people build houses. It was something I really wanted to do. But there are always delays and problems. The stresses involved and the long hours I put in probably did not help the situation between me and my other half.”

During the build, Moon, 44, was running her livery yard next to the site. “I had 16 horses to look after, three children, and I was helping out with the build by driving backwards and forwards picking up materials, as well as providing food for the build team,” she says. “There were exciting moments, such as when the walls went up, and you can keep going on adrenaline, but it was incredibly stressful.” Despite everything, Moon admits that “in the right circumstances”, she would do it again.

After renovating a four-storey Regency townhouse in Cheltenham, a job that is enough for most couples with young children to cope with, Tim and Zoe Bawtree didn’t stop for breath before tackling a complete new-build: the design and construction of a high-spec, part-underground eco-house in their Gloucestershire garden.

The build was also featured on Grand Designs, which captured the full drama of the project; the house was flooded by the torrential rain of summer 2007, and the builders went bust halfway through the project, leaving the Bawtrees to pick up the pieces.

“It brought us to the brink of divorce at least twice,” says Tim, 38, an IT telecommunications consultant. “When things went wrong during the build, as they do, I would probably have murdered someone if we hadn’t had a good quantity surveyor to run things. Building brings huge stress, and there were times when we just wanted to give up, but of course we couldn’t.”

It didn’t help that Zoe, 36, hadn’t wanted to take on the project in the first place. “We’d only just finished renovating our Regency home, and the truth is, I wanted to sell off some of our 200ft garden to pay off the mortgage,” she says. “It was Tim’s idea to build the underground house.” The plan was to move into the eco home, which is much cheaper to run, and sell the other one.

The family — the couple have two boys, Fraser, 9, and Hugo, 3 — are now living in the new place and renting out the five-bedroom Regency one. The properties are for sale for £745,000 (for the eco home) and £650,000 (Regency) through Peter Ball and Co (01242 222442,

“We have to pay off the loan that we took out for the build,” Zoe says. “So whichever one sells, we’ll live in the other.” Though both agree they went through hell and back, they’re still thrilled by what they have achieved. “It’s amazing to live in a house you’ve actually built. When you finally move in, all the anxiety that went before disappears,” Tim says.

That’s the theory, anyway — and after investing so much time and money, you could be forgiven for thinking that owners like the Bawtrees might want to live with their grand designs a little longer. Yet the speed with which “For sale” boards go up outside them suggests this isn’t always the case. The marriage may still work, but the love affair with the new home doesn’t.

Heather House is a good example. The owners commissioned a fabulous white-rendered five-bedroom home in Penryn, Cornwall, designed by an award-winning London architect. It was completed two years ago, was briefly on the market last year, and is now for sale again, for £1.25m through Savills (01872 243200, Despite the limestone floors, the glass atrium that floods the house with light, the beautiful black walnut staircase and the bespoke kitchen, the family now want somewhere with more land, as they are keen on horses.

“Some people get the bug — they’re successful with their first project and think, ‘We could do better,’” says Simon Neville-Jones, associate director at Savills in Wimborne, Dorset. “The satisfaction they get from completing a property makes them want to carry on. We sold a house recently where that was the case; the vendors put it up for sale almost as soon as it was finished.”

The building bug has definitely bitten Tina Polak, who, with her husband, Jamie, has recently completed a mammoth project, turning a derelict farm and outbuildings into a large country house. Horsepool Farm, set in 20 acres just outside Nottingham, has five bedrooms, an indoor swimming pool, a curved-glass stairway and an office annexe.

The Polaks, both 43, who have seven children between them — their own four, now aged 4 to 13, and three from Jamie’s first marriage — bought the property for £890,000 four years ago. They have since spent £700,000 on restoring and rebuilding. Horsepool Farm is now on the market at £2m through Chesterton Humberts (01780 762849,

“We have a buy-to-let portfolio — so have gutted flats before — but we’d never taken on anything as big as this,” Tina says. “We lived here during the build. It was horrific at first, as we had no heating and no kitchen. We had to cook on a makeshift barbecue. We couldn’t open the stable doors because of the amount of dung, and we had to run our buy-to-let business from a steel crate in the yard. It was like being in jail.”

The couple worked and lived together 24 hours a day, and there were some serious differences of opinion. “We argued over lots of things,” Tina says. “With small children, there’s no way I wanted a glass staircase. I never wanted the swimming pool either, nor the dark shiny kitchen — I’m forever wiping off small fingerprints — but we survived.”

Why are they selling? “I’ve seen a wonderful property right on a river, with mooring rights,” Tina says. “It needs a lot of work, and I can’t wait to get my hands on it.”

Keep it together

Plan, plan, plan: read, go to shows, watch television programmes and make lists of what and whom to ask.

Stress usually relates to either time or money. If you’re neither hands-on nor super-organised, consider employing a project manager. This will save you time and money — and could keep your relationship intact.

Understand how things work and the decisions you’ll have to make, whether it’s about planning or underfloor heating. Avoid one of you having to make a snap decision on site.

Be honest and open from the start. Discuss what’s going to happen each week and give daily updates, especially if one half is on site more than the other.

Don’t secretly allocate the contingency fund to carpeting or landscaping: it’s there for unforeseen circumstances, and you’ll need it.

Be prepared for the time commitment: one of you needs to be on site at least once a day, despite the school run and work.

If you can, rent near your build rather than living on site. Wintering in a caravan can put a big strain on a relationship.

Fab Prefab

prefab.jpgThink prefab and the image that probably springs to mind is a grotty post-war hut with tiny windows, flimsy walls and mushrooms blossoming up the outside. If so, it may be time to think again. These days, prefab doesn’t have to mean cheap and tacky. Instead, it could be the answer to the headaches posed by building an extension — namely architects’ fees, planning nightmares and months of having builders trashing your house and garden.

If you want extra space in your home in a modern design — and want it quickly, thank you, with a minimum of fuss and mess — there’s a new type of extension on the market. It can be bought ready-made, at a fixed price, delivered in kit form and assembled at the back of your house in days or weeks, rather than months. Putting the fab into prefab, these new designs are made of high-quality materials and tick all the eco-friendly boxes.

Fancy a clean glass dining room at the back of your kitchen? Then how about a prefab extension from Glassbox? They take only a few weeks to put up and start at £21,500 (plus Vat). If you’d rather go for something more bespoke, GlasSpace offers glazed structures that are designed specifically for your home, but are quick and easy to assemble. Prices start at about £20,000 for a full glass box; a brick and glass extension will be cheaper.

How about something more traditional — a new playroom or office that will match the existing look of your property, without taking months to design and build? The Croydon-based firm Buildings for the Future clads its prefab Rapyd Room extensions in a thin layer of brick, stone or wood — whatever is needed to blend seamlessly with what is already there. This could be handy if you live in a conservation area, or anywhere planners get sniffy about contemporary additions to older properties. Prices start at £18,000 for an extension measuring 3 metres by 3 metres.

If you’d rather build up than out, First Penthouse will add an upper layer to your home in less than a day (if you can get planning permission). Although most of its work has been to create large three-bedroom flats on rooftops in the smarter districts of London, it has also done small-scale rooftop extensions. One was for Carol Thatcher, who added a bespoke studio and bathroom with a built-in stereo, bathroom fittings and a Bill Amberg leather floor — all of which had been made in advance in a factory in Sweden — to her flat on London’s South Bank in less than 24 hours.

When it comes to prefab, the world really is your oyster, whether you want to add a utility room, extend your kitchen or start working from home. And they are suitable for almost any kind of home, however modest.

“There have been enormous changes in structural technology, so you can have lightweight panels that can be carried through a house,” says Sarah Herbert, editor of Build It magazine, who has investigated the technical side of the various prefabricated kits on offer. “That makes them good for terraced properties, where access is an issue. In a way, they’re a progression from the ‘garden rooms’ that have become popular. The main plus is speed and less disruption, and they are made from modern materials, with insulation that complies with the latest building regulations.”

In addition, because everything comes from one company and there are no separate trades to hold each other up, adding a prefab structure can sometimes be cheaper than building a regular extension, and without any of the hassle.

Last November, Eoin and Linda McQuone paid £38,000 for a 4.5 metre by 3.6 metre Glassbox extension to their single-storey, three-bedroom 1920s home in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, where they live with their daughter, Rhiannon, 7.

“We needed more space and wanted something modern with glass, but not a conservatory,” says Eoin, 39, a marketing manager, who believes the cost of the extension was comparable to a traditional build. “I searched the net and liked the look of the Glassbox design for our house, which is white rendered, so we knew it would match.

“Compared to friends who have had extensions built, we’ve had minimal disruption. We didn’t have to move out, even though we were having a new kitchen/diner in the extension.” The whole project took a few weeks, starting with digging the foundation trench and filling it with concrete before breaking through the wall. The box itself went up quickly, then the floor had to be screeded and tiled. “Now we can fold back one of the glass walls and move the table and chairs out onto the decking,” he says. “Our little girl spends much more time in the garden, where we can see her through the glass. It’s made a big difference to our lives.”

Zig Chowdry, the founder of Glassbox, has added his prefab extensions to about 20 homes, with another 20 on the go. The design has two sides in glass, with one solid white wall (the fourth side links to the house); a similar setup can be used as a standalone unit. Chowdry cut his teeth on conservatories, but soon spotted a developing trend: “People want things straightaway, they don’t want lengthy procedures.”

He says clean, contemporary designs are the most popular, as they suit modern living. “Even with period homes, the emphasis is traditional at the front, but modern at the back, which is where families spend their time now,” he says. Chowdry will manage the process from start to finish, even dealing with any planning issues that might arise.

As long as you’re thinking small, planning shouldn’t be an issue when it comes to prefabricated extensions. The new permitted development rights that came into force last October allow extensions with a depth of up to three metres (four for a detached house) at the rear of a property, so the smallest of these prefabs, enough for a dining area added to a kitchen, shouldn’t need consent. Check up on this first, though, as rules regarding specific house types can be ambiguous (visit for more information).

So, is prefab the future of home improvements? Darren Rose, managing director of Buildings for the Future, certainly thinks so. When the firm launched its Rapyd Rooms prefab idea at the Grand Designs show in London in April, Rose says that it received about 200 inquiries, of which about a dozen are so far expected to become firm orders. “There is a huge gap in the residential market,” he says. “and this is the way forward. People should be able to walk into Homebase and buy an extension from a range on display. There’s no reason why that can’t happen.”

Glassbox; 01733 233000,; GlasSpace; 01268 782307,; Rapyd Rooms; 020 8655 0800,; First Penthouse; 01628 777988,

Is ready-made right for you?

If you are keen on adding a ready-made extension, here are a few points to consider:

Check permitted development rights and planning regulations before committing to anything.

New companies and new techniques can suffer from teething troubles. Do your research carefully and ask to see work that has already been completed.

A prefab design, by definition, won’t suit all house types. Make sure it will add value to your property, rather than detracting from it. Wacky-looking additions won't help sell a house.

Ask questions about maintenance and the lifespan of construction materials.

Remember that some form of foundation has to be created, although this may be simpler and less deep than that required for a traditional build.

Consider timing: foundations may need to be dug separately, with the actual build completed days or weeks later. Total construction time can vary from 10 days to several weeks, or longer if there are delays, but this is still generally a whole lot quicker than a traditional build.

Check costs: is the price quoted an all-in figure, or are foundations, wiring, delivery and so on extra?

Green Your Home

LED lighting

What is it?

Light-emitting diodes are set to become the next big energy-saving move. Forget the low-energy lightbulbs that have caused so much controversy – LED lights (now the norm for bicycle lights) can slash household energy bills because they use a fraction of the electricity consumed by standard lights. It's possible to replace 35W halogen bulbs – common in kitchens, spotlights and so on – with an LED one using 4W. Note they only replace directional lights, not the standard 60w bulb. Some have spurned LED in rooms that need bright lights, but new versions are on the market that satisfy even the most demanding users.

How much does it cost?

The latest and best GU10 bulbs can now be had in LED-form for around £10 (, significantly more than the £1 or so they cost in standard 35W halogen format. They come in "daylight" or "warmlight," and offer a wide-beam angle (120 degrees).

Is it worth it?

It is definitely worth switching from halogens in areas of low lighting such as basements, and there's now a good case for the kitchen. The savings are pretty enticing: an LED GU10 will cost £10 but save £7 a year, and as much as £121 over its lifetime. sells LED bulbs and if you don't think they are suitable, use its seven-day no-quibble returns policy to get your money back.

Meanwhile, if you are looking to replace the old-style bayonet bulbs that provide 360-degree light, you're better-off with the ubiquitous low-energy, compact fluorescent bulbs which offer considerable savings in their own right over the old-style filament bulbs.

Thermostatic radiator valves

What are they?

These valves sense the air temperature around them and regulate the flow of hot water entering a room's radiators to keep a set temperature. They enable you to set different temperatures in different rooms. The idea is you shouldn't be paying to heat rooms that you rarely enter, or where you don't require so much warmth. Note, they should not be covered by curtains or blocked by furniture. Nearby sources of heat such as lamps could also stop them from working properly.

How much do they cost?

At between £12 and £20 each, plus the cost of the plumber's visit, you've got to be pretty dedicated to start thinking about these. Most households won't see much change out of £300, at best.

Are they worth it?

Probably not. The Energy Savings Trust says a full set will save around £10 a year, or some 45kg of CO2, giving most households a pretty long payback period. An easier option to save the same amount of electricity consumption would be to simply turn off all the electrical goods that you have on standby. Or you could turn down the central thermostat a bit more often, and put on a jumper to achieve the same effect.

Think again

Double glazing

Double glazing good, double-glazing salesmen bad. Does that statement stand up to scrutiny? Depending on the style of your home, some 20% of heating energy can be wasted through single-glazed windows. Double glazing offers a twin layer of glass panels, the gap between them usually filled with argon gas for a second buffer against the cold.

Double glazing also cuts down external noise and can reduce condensation. Windows should come with a thermal efficiency rating – A is best, G not worthwhile. An A-C label wins Energy Savings Trust approval.

As a purely financial calculation, ignoring added comfort and lower emissions, the payback period is long. The best time to fit double glazing is if the windows are on their last legs – other than some listed buildings, there are scant arguments for refitting single glazing.

To maintain the value of your home, look for windows in the same style as the originals. Hardwood is more expensive than Upvc but can be more sympathetic. You might have to ask several suppliers before you find one that will offer what you want, rather than what the firm wants to push. Anyone who has thought of upgrading their windows has their favourite salesman story – the one that stayed until 2am or the one who wept about how his mother's medical bill would go unpaid if he failed to sell. And there is the "drop close" – the pressure to sign up now because the "special offer" will end at midnight. It doesn't.

One way to avoid these horrors is to use a windows broker. They will circulate your requirements to a number of fitters, show you the resulting quotes and suggest the best deal. Because it's the brokers asking, not you, firms know they cannot get away with rip-off prices. Brokers include and

 Streetwise - Story of the Month

The general public never fail to amaze in their ability to do absolutely outrageously things and think they can get away with it…

The quiet village of Highworth near Swindon is up in arms over the actions of a group of villagers who decided that their gardens weren’t big enough and annexed, in a blitzkrieg style, an area of adjoining public space.

The seven homeowners on Barra Close then, unbelievably, applied for retrospective planning permission to change the land use form opeswindon.jpgn space to domestic gardens.

Understandably, residents living on the other side of the green, Windrush, started a campaign to have their illegal fences removed and the area returned to communal use.

Common sense appears to have prevailed though and at a planning meeting last night, Swindon Borough Council voted to refuse the retrospective permission and take enforcement action against the homeowners.


Sheds Reinvented

An Englishman's home is no longer his castle. It is, in fact, his shed.


Reality-check of Self Builds

The ambition to design and build a dream home...


Fab Prefab

Think prefab and the image that probably springs to mind is a grotty post-war hut with tiny windows, flimsy walls and mushrooms blossoming up the outside.


Green Your Home

Light-emitting diodes are set to become the next big energy-saving move.



The general public never fail to amaze in their ability to do absolutely outrageously things and think they can get away with it…

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