Grand Designs UK: Couple take on astounding triangle house on impossible plot –

Review: Grand Designs UK at first glance appears to have gone from one extreme to the other.
Last week we had the young rich bloke building a very expensive sculpture to inhabit down in Devon, and this week we get two “rebellious spirits that embrace the unorthodox”.
Rather than pay someone else a lot of money to do stuff, Olaf and Fritha want to do it themselves. Also, this is not an elevated greenfields site with expansive views. It’s a triangle of land squeezed between a busy A-road and a mainline railway in West Sussex – with a 9-inch main sewer line that can’t be moved.
“We really want to live a different kind of life,” says Fritha. We don’t want to follow the path of others.”
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This is commendable, but here in New Zealand you would certainly been made aware of the presence of that sewer line on the property title – Olaf and Fritha discover this after the fact. They can build foundations only to within 3m of the sewer, and you sure as hell wouldn’t want to dig through it.
Firtha runs an ethical business importing handstitched fabrics from India, and Olaf is a carpenter, joiner and crafter of high-end interiors. So he’s going to build the house himself, and it’s going to be triangular to best fit the shape of the site.
Presenter Kevin McCloud rightly asks: “What can you do with the sharp corner of the triangle? It is surely wasted space. Or maybe it’s good for standing in – the naughty corner.” Well, this “alternative” couple has an answer to that, and it makes for a very cool design.
This is a house that’s going to need plenty of sound insulation – the noise from the traffic and trains on either side is huge, and one of the two reasons no-one else had bought the plot (the other being the sewer of course, which the locals all seem to know about).
And low and behold, they even dig into a defunct septic tank while prepping the quarter-acre site, which cost them a mere £160,000 (NZ$320,000).
They are not fazed. “We only met three years ago,” says Fritha. “This is our dream. We can build what ever we want here.” Well, no they can’t actually, as McCloud points out.
But on they go. Olaf first builds a huge boundary wall of old railway sleepers – it’s pretty chunky, which is fitting for the site.
The plan is for an ambitious, three-level, timber-framed triangular house with concrete floors at each level, triple-glazed windows and a stunning zinc roof that swoops right down to the ground. The main living area will be on the middle level, and the “tree-top” main suite on the top floor beneath the raked ceiling. Outside, they want an outdoor kitchen and a sunken fire pit.
They have a mortgage for £190,000 with which to build the house. The foundations cost them a fortune, so that have just £90,000 left for everything else. Olaf gets to work with a mate. He only has one speed: “Go.”
Of course there are problems. He is 2 degrees out on a large beam, which turns into rather a big gap at the other end. “Mind-boggling geometry” slows down the work. Getting the beams to meet at the top of the triangle was tricky in the extreme.
And there is another stress – they are going through IVF during the build as they try to start a family. There are no secrets with these two. They tell us everything, which is endearing. There’s a lot to like about this couple.
After four weeks, the roof has taken shape, and Fritha is taking a pregnancy test in the portaloo. The crew films Olaf looking at the stick showing two blues lines. It’s positive. Congratulations guys!
“Getting the test result hammers home the necessity for this house,” says a proud Olaf. “It definitely concentrates the mind a little more.”
McCloud revisits, and sees just how complex and odd the build is (he calls it “completely nuts”). But they have come a long way in six weeks. Olaf’s amazing carpentry skills are to the fore.
Then Olaf returns to his full-time job, while subbies work on. They talk about how labour intensive the work is.
McCloud checks out another semi-industrial well-insulated home with similar noise issues from trains. But he learns that road noise has so many different frequencies it’s harder to block it all out. That was interesting.
Olaf, however, has a whole mountain of insulation materials on hand (plus the triple-glazed windows). The windows arrive and nine of them have the handles on the wrong side, which means it’s almost impossible to use them as intended. (We have seen this happen here with doors.)
The trickiness of the 3-D build is taking its toll: “It’s all-consuming. You wake up in the middle of the night, and you end up deconstructing the roof in your brain,” says Olaf. “I think if we had money, I would sleep.”
We feel for this couple, but they manage to score a new mortgage, which is a relief. The zinc roof goes on, and Olaf is back on site full-time. Fritha is excited by their new bedroom, which she says is going to look like a hotel suite.
One of the last things the couple does is buy a huge red metro Double-Decker bus, which Olaf parks over the sewer line. “Drunken Ebay purchase,” says Fritha.
This is going to be Olaf’s carpentry workshop. Sounds brilliant, because he can’t build a workshop over the sewer line, so why not park a bus?
And then great news. Baby Lagertha (Viking Queen) arrives and instantly puts everything into perspective (as they do).
McCloud arrives for the reveal – the red bus finally made it onto the site after getting stuck. We are not sure how they managed it. Last time we saw Olaf he was swearing at both the bus and himself, while traffic banked up in both directions.
But wow, this is a striking building. “That is looking acutely sharp,” says McCloud predictably. The handcrafted timber, render and engineered black brick exterior is faultless. And Olaf has managed this in a mere 15 months.
We love the way the corner of the triangle penetrates the paving – McCloud calls the whole work “exquisite”.
The house is not huge inside, but every detail is considered, and it appears to work like a charm. Even the stair treads lift up to reveal storage.
McCloud looks at how they managed the corners on each floor, and he’s happy they are “embracing” the triangle, rather than ignoring it. The windows provide slices of the view and tree canopy. And the robust soundproofing is working well.
‘The entire building is made like a piece of furniture – an intricate jewellery box filled with precious treasures.” The presenter gets a little carried away.
We love the handbuilt kitchen, in birch ply with stained coloured doors in sunshine shades of orange, red and yellow. It is somehow fitting for this home and this couple.
This house is just as much “out-of-the-ordinary” as last week’s hugely expensive Shard house. It serves a different purpose, however. This house is intimate, warm and inviting, as opposed to huge, sculptural and, well, clinical. (Build costs: £280,000 versus £2.5 million)
Both projects are brilliant, and both show no compromise, which is exactly what we love to see on Grand Designs UK.
But let’s just hope in a few years that Lagertha doesn’t eye up that roof as the perfect slide.
If you would like to follow up this build, Olaf and Fritha answer viewers’ questions in the Grand Designs Insta post below:
Grand Designs UK screens on TVNZ1 on Sundays at 8.30pm and at TVNZ OnDemand.
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