Wheel of good fortune


A young couple seeking their first home together in Cumbria brought in family help to maximise the benefits of a site that once housed a water mill, and on which now sits their four-bed property


At the start of 2021, Tom Horner and Lucy Rae were keen to buy their first home together. Having previously bought a small terrace property as a ‘fixer-upper’ to sell on rather than to live in, they were able to fund their next move with the proceeds.

The couple had been to a number of house viewings to no avail. “We were getting a bit deflated, we couldn’t find any houses that we thought could be ‘the one,’” explains Lucy. It was shortly after that they stumbled upon “an affordable” plot of land in Egremont, in the west of Cumbria, near the coast. 

It was tucked away down a lane, but a convenient five minute walk to the shops, and “the perfect place for this time in our lives,” says Lucy. “It’s a small market town just a short drive from the Lake District, close to work, friends and family.” Having grown up in the area, they didn’t hesitate, and – despite fierce competition – their offer was accepted in April 2021.

Lucy’s parents were a big help, having had first hand experience with self-building, in fact completing a number of properties previously themselves, her father being a builder. “I was brought up around the idea of self-builds being an option,” comments Lucy. It meant that her dad, her uncle and Tom were able to handle the lion’s share of the actual building work.

All in the planning

Originally setting out to find a three bedroom property, changing their option to build from scratch allowed the couple to consider a four-bedroom design. However, says Lucy, it wouldn’t be an overly large property: “As it’s just the two of us at the moment, we weren’t too fussed about a big house – we just wanted something that would be affordable to build, and affordable to run.”

Luck was on their side again when it came to finding an architect. The land was sold with a consented design for a four-bedroom house with an integrated garage. Coincidentally, the architect – Geoffrey Wallace – who had designed it had also previously worked with her parents – “it’s a small town!” she laughs.

Lucy and Tom met the architect and explained their ideas for a revamp of the design to provide an open plan layout with aluminium bi-fold doors, plus an added boot room and utility room. “As we’re both quite outdoorsy, we wanted a separate boot room just to hide the muddy walking boots, and an area large enough to entertain friends,” says Lucy. The architect wasted no time in making the changes, and eight weeks later, planning was granted.

As the garden has a small stream along one side, flood surveys and a mining survey were carried out as part of the sale, fortunately all came back with no issues. To provide a ‘belt and braces’ solution however, the architect insisted on raising the damp course higher than stipulated in the Building Regulations, and once completed, the drive will be made from a permeable material for better drainage.

There was only one objection raised during the whole planning process, and that was from neighbours worried about the damage construction vehicles would do in the narrow shared lane. This was easily resolved, with Tom and Lucy promising to fill in any potholes at the end of the build, a promise they duly kept.

Roughly 0.4 of an acre, the plot was originally part of the neighbours’ garden. When they purchased the land, the only thing standing on it was an old workshop. However, they quickly discovered once digging commenced that there were signs of there having been a  water mill on the site; “the amount of sandstone we pulled out of the ground was enough for anyone!” Lucy exclaims. This included several original mill wheels; “We intend to clean them up and make a nice feature out of them,” she adds.

Pandemic predicaments

The construction of the property took place during the pandemic, but Covid restrictions did mean that with a lot more time at home, they could take an even more active role in the build. Lucy adds that “As the builders were mainly my dad and uncle, we had no choice but to be hands on!” The couple also learnt a lot – there were no services on the plot, so that was another thing they had to organise.

In common with much of the construction industry during the pandemic, lead times for parts and materials were a big issue on this project. “We had to wait nearly two months for the steel beam for our bi-folds, which was a big holdup,” says Lucy. Also during that time, cement was in short supply, the price “rocketed,” and the couple were limited to five bags per day from their local supplier. “It was probably the most frustrating part of the project – there were quite a few periods of time when we had no choice but to play the waiting game for materials,” she adds.

While sustainability was not at the very top of the couple’s agenda, they nevertheless saw it as important to include where their budget would allow. They decided to incorporate an air source heat pump (paired with underfloor heating downstairs and radiators upstairs), as well as a Mechanical Ventilation with Heat Recovery system (MVHR), to give a continuous supply of filtered fresh air throughout the home. 

Interior inspiration

In addition to the open plan layout of the kitchen/entertaining area and utility/boot room, the downstairs also has an inviting hallway, downstairs WC, and separate snug; “It was important for us to have a separate living space – especially for the winter months where we could cosy up in front of the log burner!”

Upstairs, the layout provides them with four good sized double bedrooms, including a master bedroom with an ensuite and walk-through wardrobe, and an attractively-designed family bathroom.

Inspired by images of past projects on Instagram and Pinterest, the couple’s vision for the interior was a traditional country feel: “We wanted a timeless theme with a fairly neutral palette, but accentuated with bursts of colour from soft furnishings and pictures.” They opted for limestone tiles throughout the downstairs (apart from the carpeted snug), complementing the Farrow & Ball painted walls. 

The two tone kitchen units, and the ‘khaki’ green in the boot room, reflect the property’s rural setting, and create a calm and natural living environment. A brick slip surround to the fireplace in the snug offers a feature focal point, along with an oak mantel that ties into the other oak elements throughout the house. Lucy is particularly pleased with the feature TV unit in the open plan kitchen: “My dad built it out of MDF sheets – this saved us thousands!”

The exterior of the property has been mainly rendered, although the lower half of the chimney stack and around the front door has been finished with a random-coursed, natural stone walling.

Keeping a grip on finances

Although the couple didn’t have a strict budget, they were equally realistic about not letting the cost run away. They kept an inventory on an Excel spreadsheet so they could see exactly where their money was being spent. 

Despite already facing financial challenges such as price hikes of materials and needing to dig deeper foundations than initially planned, Lucy was adamant about not cutting any corners when it came to the finishes.

“It’s hard because you want to stick to a budget, but then at the end of the day it’s the house you’re going to live in so you want it to be perfect.” To offset some of the additional costs, Tom brought his DIY skills to the fore, upcycling a dining table from Ebay, as well as making a couple of matching benches from pine sourced from their local wood merchants.

Feeling positive

Tom and Lucy say that their first experience at a self-build has been a positive one, in part because of the fact their family offered so much support, including hard graft. Their new home took just under a year and a half to complete and was signed off in September 2022. 

The young couple couldn’t be happier with the end results. Since moving in, they have been making the most of their new, open plan kitchen, which is “definitely our favourite room in the house,” enthuses Lucy with a smile. “We have been busy repaying everyone involved in the build with Sunday dinners!” 

Are they planning any future builds? The couple say they think they will be living here for a while, and are “still recovering from this one!” laughs Lucy. “We would possibly be tempted in the future if a plot came up that offered views of the Fells,” she admits, “but they tend to come at a higher price.” For the time being anyway, they are going to enjoy their new home, and the results of all their hard work.


“Keeping your neighbours on side is always a good idea!”

“Try and stick to your budget as much as possible, because you do want to be able to live your life once the build is finished.”

“At times a build can test your stress levels! Keep your spirits high, and keep working together.”