Ascending to


Young couple Lianne and James took the design of their home into their own hands, despite a challenging steep plot in Neath, South Wales, and managed to take full advantage of their surroundings while offering a residence that worked well for their family


The idyllic landscapes around Neath, South Wales, provided the backdrop for Lianne and James Davies’ self-build project. Situated in a rural valley, their site overlooked a scenic woodland filled with waterfalls and old stone ruins, making it a very special location to build their home.

What made the site even more meaningful was that Lianne’s parents had built their house nearby when she was a child, adding a sentimental touch to the project.

However, despite the picturesque surroundings, the site presented one immovable obstacle: its steep gradient. While the street had seen several other self-builds over the past 30 years, no one had dared to tackle this particular plot, deterred by its challenging topography.

But, with James’ background in civil engineering, coupled with Lianne’s clear vision for the home’s design, the couple had the confidence to begin planning their project. “I knew there were ways around it,” explains James. 

They acquired the site during the pandemic. “The housing market was going crazy, yet we noticed the price of the plot stayed the same. That’s when we thought ‘this is our opportunity,’” Lianne reflects.

Following the site’s CONTOURS

With two young and lively children and two energetic dogs, Lianne and James’ guiding principle for their design was to create a cosy, family-centric home, prioritising both functionality and efficiency.

With a keen eye for practicality, Lianne wanted every room in the house to serve a purpose, avoiding the inefficiencies of larger, underutilised spaces. “I didn’t want a big house with several rooms not being used, because what’s the point? I wanted every room to be intentional.”

James focused on the structural aspects, ensuring that the design not only met their aesthetic preferences but also adhered to sound engineering principles. Yet, the steep slope posed a variety of challenges.

A friend in the industry looked at the site and said “there’s going to be too much money in the groundworks,” James discloses. To mitigate costs, they opted for a 300 mm thick reinforced concrete pad foundation, which was linked to a 310 mm thick retaining wall. “After those were done, you are then just building a house off of it!” explains James.

Though Lianne preferred not to have excessive space, the terrain dictated a split-level, three-storey design for the home, featuring a generous lower level that connects to the garden. Here, the couple faced the dilemma of either placing the primary living and kitchen area on the lower level for easy garden access, or on the middle floor to capitalise on views of the valley.

Observing neighbouring houses, which featured living spaces on the lower level, James and Lianne deliberated over their layout. “If we could include a balcony on the middle floor which would connect to the garden, we’d much prefer to have the living space on the same floor that you walk into when you come in,” explains James. Lianne didn’t want to have to descend to access the living spaces, which further cemented the desire to prioritise the views from the living and kitchen area. 

Embarking on construction in March 2021, the work unfolded in two phases. Initially, groundwork saw a local contractor equipped with an 18-tonne excavator to tackle the challenging terrain, followed by a main contractor.

Being mindful of their impact on the local area, the couple proactively spoke to their neighbours to inform them on what was happening: “We made sure we communicated with everyone throughout the build, sharing copies of the plans, letting them know the duration, and any obstructions such as cranes entering the street,” explains Lianne. Thanks to this, they’ve become close friends with the neighbours, considering them “lifelong friends.”

Despite initial projections, the project was extended to 18 months. Fortunately, during this period, the family found a place to stay with the kindness of a friend who had temporarily vacated her home to embark on her own building project. “We were really lucky as she was so understanding and allowed us to stay for the length we needed, and with two big dogs!”

However, as the Bank of England base rate began to increase, the mortgage market became increasingly volatile. “We had to complete the build as soon as we could in order to secure our mortgage rate,” explains Lianne. “We had also given our friend a final date a few months before so she could advertise the house.”

This resulted in the family having to move in significantly earlier than planned. “When I say it wasn’t ready for us, it really wasn’t ready,” reflects Lianne. “I was stacking kitchen cabinets while they were still putting the kitchen in!”

GOING THE ‘no architect’ ROUTE

With James’ experience in civils coupled with their “shoestring” budget, they decided not to employ an architect, apart from to review their plans at various stages for their self-build mortgage, costing them a mere £200 a time.

However, James explains that one issue that arose from relying solely on his civil engineering expertise, was a significant error they made in the roof design during planning. It arose from a miscalculation during planning. Originally, the plan was to position the stairs leading up to the top floor directly above the stair below. Unfortunately, during construction there was a sudden realisation that there was insufficient headroom to meet Building Regulations. This meant a last-minute adjustment, relocating the upper stairs to a position on the other side of the hallway.

Reflecting on this hurdle, James admits they would have done things differently: “I think £12,000 could have been spent on an architect as there would have been fewer stress and problems.” Lianne echoes this, advising other self-builders to “get an architect!”

A Home RUN

Despite lacking architectural expertise while navigating a tight budget, Lianne and James have crafted an elegant three-storey home to be proud of. The home maximises its terrain to create distinct spaces across different levels which cater to the needs of their growing family.

Stepping through the front door onto the middle level, guests are greeted by a bright hallway with stairs branching off to the upper level and descending stairs on the left to the basement. Adjacent to the hall lies a small living area and bathroom. This leads to an expansive open-plan space housing a modern kitchen and living area, complemented by a generous balcony giving striking views over the nearby woodland.

Moving to the upper floor unveils three generously sized bedrooms. “I wanted equal-sized bedrooms for the kids because I’m not arguing with them when they’re older,” jokes Lianne. 

Lianne and James’ master bedroom features a large gable window, a standalone wall creating zones for sleeping and changing, and an ensuite. “We wanted to have our grown-up bathroom which the kids can’t ruin!” explains Lianne. 

Meanwhile, the children’s bedrooms and bathroom on this level boast bright colours and playful artwork. Here the design intends to allow the children to “express themselves.”

The lower level is what the couple refers to as the “fun” area – a multifunctional space designed for both leisure and professional activities. On this floor, there is a playroom, gym, additional living area, office, and a dedicated treatment room for Lianne’s holistic therapy sessions. Towards the back of this level, three double doors open up to the garden.

Outside, there’s a spacious patio adorned with “some big steps leading onto a large flat lawn,” as James describes it. Despite initial doubts, the couple managed to create a level grassy area, providing a secure playground for the children. Another access point to the garden is through a metal spiral staircase extending from the balcony, although the
dogs refuse to go down them, (“a nightmare,” says Lianne.)

The exterior design of the house seamlessly blends with the overall aesthetic of the street while subtly standing out through a mix of materials. “Other neighbouring houses mainly have red brick and white PVCu. We wanted to add a bit more by using a render,” explains James. Black roof tiles and timber cladding contribute additional texture.

Adjusting to a new way of life

Although the home now suits the family’s needs, adapting to the layout they chose posed a challenge, with Lianne confessing she “struggled to settle in.” When asked what
has changed since moving in, James says, “What hasn’t?”

Over the past two years, the couple have continuously tweaked the layouts on the lower and middle floors to find the optimal arrangement for their family dynamic. The original gym became a living room, then a playroom, while the initial playroom transitioned into an office. What was the cinema room has been repurposed as the gym. Lianne’s therapy room became a spare bedroom before reverting to its original purpose. And on the middle floor, the snug transitioned into an office before returning to its original state.

These adjustments have all been part of a learning process to create a cosier atmosphere, and spaces which cater to their children’s evolving needs. Due to the home’s perch on a steep gradient, its design is of a contemporary style which is a departure from Lianne’s preference for more traditional designs.

While Lianne now loves the interior, creating the cosiness was a struggle initially, with their space feeling rather “vast,” as she describes it. However, with time and the adjustments to the functions in various areas, plus the addition of blinds, soft furnishings, and greenery throughout, the family has now found contentment. “You just don’t know, until you lived in it, how it’s going to work for you as a family,” Lianne reflects.

The design of distinct zones, from the playful areas to the more sleek and “sophisticated” spaces incorporating more contrasting tones, works perfectly for them. “It now all makes sense,” asserts James. “The kids have their own space, we’ve got our own space, and then we’ve got the communal areas as well. It is very much a family house.”

Among their favourite spaces is their bedroom, boasting expansive windows overlooking the woodlands, and the inviting balcony on the middle floor. “We spend all of our summers sitting out there. From how we’ve designed it, it’s part of the living space,” says Lianne.

The couple’s advice for those embarking on a similar project with financial constraints, is to prioritise wisely. Instead of investing endless amounts into the home, they focused on
putting money aside for future holidays and the goal of “enjoying the kids grow up.” She concludes: “My advice is to be realistic about your budget. Don’t lose sight of why you’re doing it, which for us, was family.”