Bristol,  Cheltenham,  Cotswolds,  Crafts,  Lifestyle,  Photography

To self build or not to self build

Bristol’s been a wonderful home for the last 6 years, especially the central spot we have with its easy access to all Bristol has to offer. Living in the middle of one of the most popular cities in the country comes with its compromises though, and the main one is space- both inside and out. So for a while now (nearly 4 years) we’ve been looking for a new home in a slightly more rural setting. 

We’ve viewed dozens of houses and with each viewing we honed our view of what’s important to us, seeing features we loved as well as those we’d rather not have. If you had a vast budget it might be easier to find exactly what you want, but we don’t and so we always found there to be a compromise. Compromise is just a part of life isn’t it- we make them all the time, and if you don’t you’ll tend not to get very far, unless you come from a well-off family, in which case you might become a widely disliked US president (although he’s learning about compromise now money isn’t the answer to everything). But what if there was another way?! What if you could design the house you wanted? Well you can if you take the path less trodden and do a self build, so off we went to numerous self build shows, exhibitions and seminars to learn all about it and see if it was for us. 

A couple of things stood out at these shows: Firstly, how, generally speaking, everyone there was very positive; there seemed to be a real ‘in it together’ feeling which was quite uplifting (and when I accidentally grazed a brand new car in the carpark, the owner kindly let it go; I can’t imagine that would’ve happened anywhere else). Secondly, how we seemed a bit young for it. We appeared to be about 20 years too early and the vast majority of visitors looked to be nearing retirement. Everyone though was excited about building their dream home and we were happy to ride this wave, getting all sorts of helpful advice on every subject from budgeting to coordinating trades.

It turns out one of the biggest challenges of self building is the first hurdle, which is finding somewhere to build in the first place! Plots are few and far between and fiercely competed for. If they don’t already have planning permission then you take a huge gamble as you’re not certain to get approval. If they do then a plot’s expensive. Really expensive! And if you find a decent sized plot which’d have a good sized garden then a developer can go and stick multiple houses on there, so the plot’s worth even more to them. 

We found a couple of potential options over the space of a couple of years, and got quite close to getting one in particular- an old barn for conversion, only to get outbid at the last minute. That was upsetting as we’d allowed ourselves to get quite emotionally invested in that (a welcome distraction when my mum was ill). Back to square one we started proactively making inquiries about land without planning permission, and this brought us to the second big hurdle; planning permission.

We went through one planning application on a plot, which was eventually declined due to potential flood risk issues. The process was frustratingly slow and the planners not particularly helpful. We then found another plot with ‘outline planning permission’. That is the approval of the principle to build a house on the plot, but with the details of the house size and appearance still to be approved. We made an in principle agreement with the land owner, on the understanding that we could get approval for the sort of house we wanted. We were very lucky to find such a reasonable land owner- many wouldn’t be so accommodating but we got lucky. After our failure dealing with council planners the first time, we decided to use the services of a planning consultant to help us tie down the details of plans with the council. This was still a slow process and often frustrating, having to make the most annoying concessions and even to specify exactly what plants we were going to have in the garden, but in the end we got there- the approval of a house we designed and hoped would be perfect for us.

Time for hurdle number three; finding a builder! We’d considered all sorts of innovative build methods, but in the end we couldn’t find a local builder experienced in any of them, and so that felt like too much of a gamble. In the end we found a local build manager who came highly recommended and who, after many meetings and planning sessions, we’ve come to trust. I’ve heard horror stories from friends and family about bad builders which were nearly enough to put us off this route altogether, but the recommendations, quality of their work, and local proximity gave us the assurance that we could put our faith in them.

At the time of writing this the build is about half way through. It’s been an emotional roller-coaster but so far so good. Here’s part one of what’s been done so far:         

Planning permission approved midday Tuesday 30th April.

Diggers arrived on site the next day!

And by the end of the day on Thursday 2nd May the site was level and the team were ready to start on digging the foundations.

On the Bank holiday Monday (6th May) part of the hedge came down which will form our new driveway, and 120 tonnes of hardcore went down so heavy machinery could access the site without turning it into a bog!:

On Tuesday 7th May the trenches are ready and by midday have passed building control and the warranty company inspections, ready for concrete later in the afternoon (6 loads of concrete which will be set within a day!).

The concrete arrives on the afternoon of Tuesday 7th May, shortly after the foundation trenches are approved (such a well oiled machine!). Amazingly (and thankfully) it is rainproof after a couple of hours, as it started chucking it down that night!

That was 6 loads; they were 8 cubic meter lorries, so 48 cubic meters, or around 52 tons!

On Thursday 9th Blocks started going down:

I visited site on the eve of 10th May; initially the rooms felt really small and I was a bit worried, but as I spent more time in them they seemed to feel bigger and after 10mins they felt a good size. Must be a perspective thing of initially having all that space around you and this little brick perimeter, and then when you’re focusing in on the rooms your perspective changes. Very unusual feeling.

Steph and I took time to have a little play!

15th May: large gravel and then sand’s gone down ready for a polythene layer and then the Celotex insulation sheets (a huge amount of insulation goes into the floor, which all helps with the thermal efficiency of the finished building):

And this is our waste treatment unit: a 2800 litre capacity tank which will be buried in 15m3 of concrete.

And on the 18th May it’s straight in with the underfloor heating (UFH).

Great swirly detail in the W/C.

Then, after the UFH system is pressure tested, the concrete goes down on Thursday 23rd May:

So there we have it; a heck of a lot of work to be back at ground level, but we now have a solid foundation, drainage, underfloor heating and a floor! Stay tuned for more soon!

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