The first seventy years...

I have been writing and editing the Housebuilders’ Bible since 1993 and I frequently get asked about this somewhat unusual career choice. It really is a one-man effort and although countless others have helped me along the way, all the information in the book has been written and set by me. The cost tables are made up of one Excel file made up of 80 interlinked worksheets. No one besides me has a clue how it works though it’s not that complex.  One day I’ll decide enough is enough but, thus far, I am happy to continue to add to it bit-by-bit, updating and re-pricing as and when required. 

So what prompted me to start down this course? And how come I am still doing it? As I recently turned 70, it’s time to reflect a little. 

Born 1953, in Cambridge, England, where I still live. My parents were both well-off professionals and I was privately educated at Christ College, Brecon, and Trinity College, Cambridge. A very comfortable start in life but I didn’t exactly make it easy for myself thereafter.

For back in 1974, when I graduated from Cambridge, I was not in the least interested in pursuing a conventional career, or indeed any career. With my shoulder-length hair, appalling dress sense and little sympathy for the world I was brought up in, I was determined to change the world. Or so I thought.

So I went and worked in various alternative-style enterprises for the next decade, including Arjuna Wholefoods, Cambridge Learning Enterprises and the Cambridge Building Collective. I was also one of the original organisers of Strawberry Fair, a free fair started 1974, still going strong. During this time, I was living a typical 1970s hippie lifestyle and got involved in communes and co-operatives and also the nascent green building movement.

 The roots of much of the sustainable building movement which we read so much about today were sown back then, with the opening of the Centre for Alternative Technology and the publication of magazines like Undercurrents, to which I occasionally contributed. I started building with a bunch of what I later learned to call gentleman builders (mostly Cambridge graduates) and worked with the Vales, the ground-breaking green architects who later emigrated to New Zealand. I decided that if I was going to be a green builder, I’d better know a bit more about building and I got onto a Government sponsored TOPS course to learn Carpentry & Joinery for six months in 1982 — I swear it was the best bit of education I ever had.

Despite our group’s very green and alternative leanings, there simply wasn’t very much of that sort of work around in the 1980s and we found ourselves competing more and more with regular building firms. They all thought we were very strange — the hippy builders — but we slowly but surely began to win respect from the regular builders and I begun to understand life from their perspective and learned to respect them as well. The “Them and Us” stuff gradually faded away, and I realised that it was indeed a noble aim to be a good builder, not just a different one. I was growing up.

The green politics gradually evaporated too: partly this was down to life experiences, but there were a number of interesting booklets doing the rounds at the time questioning many of our alternativist assumptions. One I remember clearly was called That’s No Way to Run a Railroad, which neatly outlined the inherent uselessness of trying to run businesses by committee, which was a big part of our lives. I was convinced and by 1984, I had stopped believing we were all doomed and I found myself wanting to make some money.  I started renovating houses and bought and completely gutted a house in Cambridge, which I then moved into.

In 1986, I started a property development company with another ex-collectivist called Robin Gomm. We built a small number of flats, houses and barn conversions in and around Cambridge, but came badly unstuck in the 1989 recession and spent the next three years unpicking the mess. 

For at exactly this moment, aged 36, I married and became a father, three times over in four years. Part of the unpicking process involved building a house for us all on a plot we couldn’t sell in Cambridgeshire. It turned out to be a life changing experience. We designed the house during late 1991, built it in 1992 and moved in just before Xmas that year. Despite having built a number of houses by now, the process of selfbuilding was surprisingly different and posed a lot of questions that I could only vaguely guess the answer to. I decided that now was the time to put my expensive education to use for the first time and write something down.

I started the book-writing project by approaching a couple of publishers to see if there was any interest in such an idea. “Absolutely no way,” said the first, “it’s far too specialised.” “Absolutely no way,” said the second, “anything with prices in will date far too quickly.” If anything, these responses just strengthened my resolve. I was convinced there was a book here, something like a rough guide to housebuilding. If publishers weren’t interested, I would self-publish and concentrate on selling the book directly by mail order and at selfbuild exhibitions. First I had to write it.

All I had in 1993 was a series of notes on an Amstrad PCW plus masses and masses of price data in the office. It seemed a mammoth task to turn it into a readable book, especially with a young family to look after, a new house to finish off and an existing business to keep going. Looking back on it, I am not too sure how I got it all from an idea to a physical book in just 18 months with all that going on in the background. As I said, this book is a by-product of recession and recessions make you work that much harder.

My first print-run was tentative, a few hundred run out on a DocuTech machine, a sort of upmarket photocopier. Had they sat around for ages, I would have written off the whole project to experience and gone back to join Robin in the building business. But the first edition sold. They sold off the page in the selfbuild mags and the sold by the hundred at a selfbuild exhibition at the NEC. Within a couple of months I had to do a reprint and the Housebuilder’s Bible was on its way.
For the first couple of years I tried to get a presence in the major bookshops, making several appeals to WH Smith and Waterstones to stock my baby. But they were not in the least interested in such an amateurish product without a major publisher or a TV series behind it. Despite this, the sales kept climbing and the book sold very well through the selfbuild magazines and also through some professional titles as well. It surprises many who think of it primarily as a selfbuild title that around half the sales are made to ‘professionals’  — small builders and tradesmen, architects, surveyors, even estate agents. The fourth edition, the Millennium one, finally broke through into the retail market albeit via the newly arrived, whose sales depended to a large part on customer reviews. The Bible had some good ones —  and no, I didn’t write them myself! The Millennium edition was regularly appearing in the top 100 of all Amazon’s book sales and remains one of their top five Home and DIY titles.

People began to notice the book and to notice me. Suddenly I was getting asked to write articles for selfbuild magazines and professional ones too. Michael Holmes, the editor of the leading selfbuild magazine Homebuilding & Renovating, was an early fan and over the years I contributed over 400 articles for the magazine. Freelance journalism also improved my skills as a writer and in 2001 I picked up my first, and as yet only, gong, Residential Property Writer of the Year, at the Halifax Laing Homes Press Awards.

By the turn of the millennium, I had become a full-time working writer. I spent the next decade or so talking at selfbuild shows, visiting selfbuilders and suppliers, researching abroad and digging deeply into the fascinating world of housebuilding. There is a huge amount to know and there is surprisingly little written about it. I set out to fill that gap. The Housebuilder’s Bible got bigger with each edition and got more technical. In doing so it rather moved away from its original idea of being a fun-filled companion to keep in the loo. 

What I had stopped doing was building and this began gnawing away at me. A costly divorce in 2007 made that even less likely but in 2014 my fortunes changed for the better when I got together with Mandy, soon to become my wife, and we suddenly found ourselves embarking on a very urban selfbuild in central Cambridge. We completed the house in 2018, and published edition 13 of the Housebuilder’s Bible the next year, featuring our story in some depth. 

Since then, I must admit to taking my foot off the pedal a little. I’ve pretty much retired from public appearances and from magazine journalism. I now live a life that is far removed from what I would have imagined in my twenties: gardening, cooking, golf, shopping, keeping up with my three sons, all now in their 30s, and also with Mandy’s far flung family as well.

But I still like to keep my baby, the Housebuilder’s Bible, ticking over. I even have a garden studio where I while away the hours doing bits and pieces of research. No 15 came out in September 2023 and I haven't lost interest yet!



When I first launched the Housebuilder’s Bible in 1994, there was no internet. We had dial-up connection which delivered Compuserve emails, and that was it. So in the early days, I advertised the book in various magazines and invited people to ring in on our land line with their credit card details. It seems antiquated now, but it had one great advantage in that you got to speak to would-be selfbuilders and I used these mini interviews to get closer to the heart of what people actually wanted to know.

It also established an easy rapport with my readers. They were genuinely surprised to be talking directly to the author and often twenty minute conversations would ensue. After four or five years of this, it got rather too distracting and we started to seek alternative methods of sale. At this point Amazon arrived on the scene and took a lot of the leg work out of it. 

But one of the great features of being so close to one’s readers was that I got lots of positive feedback, some of it very funny. And so in homage to those early days here are some of the best.


Anon: “My husband keeps it in the loo and now he’s stuck in there for two hours every morning.”


D.Sharpe, York: “I only got it this morning and already it has saved me a small fortune.”


Simon Frobisher, Jan 97 via e-mail: “let me congratulate you on a unique and indispensable book. I bought my first “Bible” a couple of years ago and then hid it so that I could convince the wife I needed to buy the updated one!…..”


Anonymous builder by phone September 1999: “I went to visit a prospective client the other day and I saw that Yellow Book on his table as I went in. I thought to myself, I’m wasting my time here.”


January 2001, Simon Hudson, Cotswolds: “It’s a brilliant book. I read it whilst sailing across the Atlantic and, by the time I arrived home, I had decided to knock down our house and rebuild it. A complete change of plans.”


Simon Cullum via the internet, January 26, 2000 : “Incidentally, your Bible is indispensable and both my wife and I have read it cover to cover - indeed it sits by the bed in the position favoured by the Gideons for their Bibles!”


The book has changed somewhat over the years. Its original purpose was to be a hand-holding exercise to get enthusiastic amateurs up and running in the world of construction and this remains its core idea. I saw it as being something similar to the Rough Guidebooks used by tourists, except instead of explaining where to head for in Barcelona or Rome, it would take you through the world of housebuilding. 

But over the years, as I learned more and more, it’s all got more technical and less chatty. Besides we now have Google which is the obvious place to go when you want to learn about almost anything. You might well think that search engines render a book like this redundant. 

Well maybe. But whilst no one would dream of building a new home now without the help of Google or YouTube, much of the information you really want just isn’t there or it’s spoon fed to you by some commercial interest who really just want to sell you something. And there are still answers to many questions you don’t even know to ask. So I think there is still a place for a Housebuilder’s Bible and there is still a place for it in print.