November 2017: Catching up, the end of one long wait and the beginning of another.

My best intentions of posting progress monthly have already fallen by the wayside.  Since moving to Gatehouse, into a holiday cottage that I have the use of until the end of March 2018, the time has flown by and I have failed miserably to keep the blog up to date.  But here comes the latest instalment.

The site for my house (Plot 3; but a proper name is under consideration) is one of six plots on the western side of Memory Lane in Gatehouse; postcode DH7 2JF.  When I bought the site there was a planning consent for plots 1-3, 5 and 6, and a separate consent for plot 4.  The houses proposed for plots 1-3, 5 and 6 were kit homes produced by HebHomes, one and a half storeys high, white rendered with timber clad porches and slate roofs.  The house proposed for Plot 4 is a sizeable white rendered bungalow with slate roof.  Both planning consents state that a degree of consistency between the six plots is important.

The planning application for Plot 3 was submitted, and validated on 25th July 2017 and planning permission was eventually granted on 31st October, a total of 14 weeks.  The only query from the planning officer related to the orientation of the house, which doesn’t line up with the rest of the houses on Memory Lane, or with the proposed houses on either side of Plot 3.  An explanation of Passivhaus principles followed, repeating much of the information contained in the Design Statement submitted with the planning application.  The house needs to be orientated so that heat from the sun can penetrate into the interior and provide the majority of the heating requirement throughout the year.  This will reduce heating costs and fossil fuel consumption, and contribute to lower CO2 emissions, as well as keeping me snug and warm.  It seems that conforming to the street pattern is more important than tackling climate change, according to the planners, that is.  But a small adjustment to bring my house more in line with the buildings proposed for plots 5 and 6 was made with little effect on the heat equation; a compromise was reached, honour was satisfied and permission granted.

However the planners imposed a condition on the permission requiring me to submit details of the external wall finish and the colour of the windows and door.  It was stated that these needed to match those of Plot 4, the white painted bungalow which has been approved with mid grey window frames and doors.  However fortunately my proposals of untreated vertical larch boarding for the external walls and dark grey window frames and doors have been approved, and a line of suburban white rendered bungalows has been avoided.

In the meantime, Steve Mason of SRM Building Design progressed drawings, specification and schedule of work for the Building Warrant application, which was submitted on 15th November 2017.  A decision is not expected until the beginning of January 2018 at least.

The house is likely to achieve close to Passivhaus standard in energy efficiency; U values for walls, roof and ground floor will all be 0.11 W/m²K, with the windows having an average U value of 0.75 W/m²K.  Combined with an airtightness standard of a maximum of 0.2 ach (air changes per hour) and a mechanical ventilation with heat recovery system (MVHR) the house will need a very small input of supplementary heat on around 30 – 40 days a year, to be provided with a small wood burning stove.  This stove needs to be vented from outside the house to burn properly, but will be the only heating needed within the house.  So … no boiler, no radiators, no central heating pipework – just the sun and the recovered heat from cooking, electrical appliances and people (me!).  Cost limitations mean that there won’t be enough money for PV solar panels, so hot water will be provided by a well insulated hot water cylinder with immersion heater.

I don’t intend to go out to tender for the building contract as it’s small, there are not many contractors around this part of the world, and a significant part of the contract is supplying and erecting the timber frame which will be done by Eden Insulations.  It will be important that the trades finishing the building after the frame is erected do not compromise the airtightness of the structure; not universally understood, and requires a contractor and tradesmen who are careful and mindful of the requirement.  Discussions are in progress with 3b Construction who are partway through building the house on Plot 4.  Cost will be an issue, as always, with the added problem of increasing costs of building materials caused by the fall in the value of the pound following the decision to leave the EU.   I need to be prepared to make economies and work out how I can carry out as much of the work as I’m capable.

3b Construction won’t be able to make a start on site until sometime in February 2018; things in the development world have become busy, so there is no way that the house will be complete by the end of March.  Another problem to solve, but not right now.

2EBA463C2-3DA0-400D-B549-72F6CADFAD3C

Plot 4 progressing quickly – windows in and slates being fixed on roof slopes facing road.

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MAY / JUNE 2017: PRIORITIES, COMPROMISES, DECISIONS.

When it comes down to it, what really matters?  Priorities, and deciding where these can be compromised, playing one off against the other, is a big part of the design process.  Even if there was a generous amount of money (which there isn’t), there would be constraints to shape the design of the house.  When money, and therefore internal space is tight, the exercise becomes one of making that space work really well, and if something isn’t working, maybe it has to be discarded.  Every now and then the process brings about an inspired ‘light bulb’ moment when the constraints result in something special that will make a real difference to the space inside the house; like a glass balustrade linking upstairs with downstairs.

The list of essentials I gave to Steve Mason, of SRM Building Design were;

  • A small, two bedroomed, one and a half storey house with a floor area of between 75 and 80 sq.m. requiring a very low input of energy; as near to Passivhaus standard as possible within the cost constraints, highly insulated in an airtight timber frame structure with mechanical ventilation with heat recovery (MVHR).
  • The interior to be light and airy, well connected to the surrounding garden spaces.  Living, cooking and eating spaces to be open plan to give a feeling of spaciousness.
  • Views northwards up the valley of the Water of Fleet towards Kenlum Hill are visible from the first floor of the house.
  • The living space should accommodate my weaving floor loom; a significant bit of furniture 1.25m wide and 1.6m long, with working space needed around it.
  • A utility space with storage for a bicycle (hanging vertically), washer, freezer and muddy boots.
  • Porch space (unheated, and not insulated, to save on costs) as a place to unload before entering the house proper.

Several versions of plans for a small house went back and forth, with scribbles and alternatives on tracing paper.  The loom made a tour of the house; starting in the living room, then having a small garden room to itself, before it became clear that it really didn’t fit anywhere in the living space and that part of the brief had to change – compromise number one!  Its final position is on an enlarged landing which forms a gallery overlooking the living space.

sketch 2

Early version

After several iterations the floor area had crept up – while we weren’t looking, I think, so a pruning exercise followed.  Several tweaks brought the internal floor area closer to the target of 80 sq.m.

sketch 1

Evidence of much discussion!

The need to provide a room useable as a bedroom and bathroom on the ground floor means that an upstairs bathroom can be reduced to just a toilet and handbasin to reduce floor area.  Access to the utility room is provided from a glazed porch running along the northern elevation, allowing less circulation space in the hallway.

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Ground floor plan

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First floor plan

The house will be heated mainly by solar heat gain through south facing windows; windows on the other elevations are limited to the area needed for adequate internal daylight levels.  All windows and doors will be energy efficient, triple glazed, timber framed, with aluminium cladding if the budget will stretch to it.  Projecting eaves will shade the windows from sunlight in summer while the sun is high to help reduce the risk of overheating, while allowing sunlight and heat to enter the building in winter.  A pergola structure clad with deciduous climbing plants along the southern elevation will also help reduce summer overheating.

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Garden elevation

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Side elevation

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Site plan

Eden Insulations will manufacture the timber frame in their factory in Appleby, with 300mm wide ‘I’ beams forming voids which will be filled with recycled cellulose insulation, contained by specialised boards and membranes inside and out to control vapour and air movement, the whole thing carefully taped up with very strong and very sticky tapes.

The Green Building Store will provide the design and installation of the MVHR system, slotting ducts through the building to collect warm, stale air from kitchen and bathroom areas to be removed from the building.  The heat from this air is recovered and added to fresh incoming air which is delivered to the living and bedroom areas.  A summer bypass allows cool air to be drawn in during the night to cool the house during warm weather.  The house will have no central heating system or other source of heat other than a small wood burner for very cold, overcast days.  All the sophisticated calculations say that it will work, and keep me warm and cool when needed – it has worked for decades in Germany and other countries, so there shouldn’t be any need to worry it won’t work in Gatehouse.  As they say, the proof of the pudding …

Plans are now ready to submit to Dumfries and Galloway planners for approval, and building

contractors are being sought …

In the meantime I continue to dream about the garden; more on that next time.

Starting out

APRIL 2017

Why build a new house; it looks like a lot of unnecessary bother.  Why not just buy one that’s already there?  Questions answered to myself many times over many years; developers don’t build beautiful, small houses the right size for one moderately creative person, much less with a good sized garden.  Existing small houses (or any sized houses for that matter) are generally lamentably inefficient in their energy needs; not enough insulation, leaking warm air from all their numerous gaps and not taking advantage of all that free heat from the sun; and all of these deficiencies difficult and expensive to remedy.  So the ambition to build a small, energy efficient and perfectly formed house for myself has been around for practically decades.

Why Scotland?  It’s always attracted me; politically slightly more left leaning than England, a strong sense of it’s own identity, great scenery, the best access to land for walking and cycling in the UK, and weather (mostly) not as bad as reputed, as well as family members living there.  Met Office records give a detailed picture of the regional variations, showing significant parts enjoying less rain and more sunshine than Kendal, Cumbria (which, it has to be said, is not difficult).

So here I am, the proud owner (or more accurately guardian / custodian / safe keeper, as it’ll be around long after I’m gone) of around 770 square metres of land on the northern edge of Gatehouse of Fleet, Dumfries and Galloway, near the coast between Kirkcudbright and Newton Stewart, with permission to build a house on it.  The view up the valley of Water of Fleet is lovely, there will be walks from the doorstep, and the sea is not so far away.  Memory Lane, the road is called, which makes me wonder what memories will be made there.  The house will be small; around 80 square metres in total, and the finance available is also small – the aim is to build it for £100,000.  So it will need the creative use of inexpensive materials and modest ambitions; not a big problem, as I’ve never wanted a fancy kitchen or a roll top bath, and if I haven’t got much storage space then I just need to get rid of some stuff.

There are all sort of reasons to keep a blog recording the adventure – to let friends and family know how things are going, for myself to look back at when it seems that nothing is moving forward, or when it’s finished and I’ve forgotten all the trials and tribulations, to show that lovely, light, warm, small houses can be built for reasonable costs; a ‘not very Grand Design’.  The aim is to make monthly updates as regularly as possible.

The first proper site visit brought a nice surprise; the soils samples were nice sandy loam with few stones (at least in the six holes I dug).  On the acidic side, so a new experience as I’ve only made gardens on alkaline soils.  I expected heavy glacial clay needing much cosseting and lots of grit and organic material, but no, ideal soil for growing food is what I have; a great start.  Next will be a planning permission for what I want to build, rather than what is permitted under the current consent.

So it’s all systems go at last; which feels amazing after all the years to trying to get this project going – but also daunting, exciting, and sometimes (usually in the middle of the night) overwhelming.  But as someone once said, ‘onwards and upwards’ is the only way to go, and taking one step at a time is the only way to get to where you want to be.

Panorama S small

Starting out

APRIL 2017: STARTING OUT

Why build a new house; it looks like a lot of unnecessary bother.  Why not just buy one that’s already there?  Questions answered to myself many times over many years; developers don’t build beautiful, small houses the right size for one moderately creative person, much less with a good sized garden.  Existing small houses (or any sized houses for that matter) are generally lamentably inefficient in their energy needs; not enough insulation, leaking warm air from all their numerous gaps and not taking advantage of all that free heat from the sun; and all of these deficiencies difficult and expensive to remedy.  So the ambition to build a small, energy efficient and perfectly formed house for myself has been around for practically decades.

Why Scotland?  It’s always attracted me; politically slightly more left leaning than England, a strong sense of it’s own identity, great scenery, the best access to land for walking and cycling in the UK, and weather (mostly) not as bad as reputed, as well as family members living there.  Met Office records give a detailed picture of the regional variations, showing significant parts enjoying less rain and more sunshine than Kendal, Cumbria (which, it has to be said, is not difficult).

So here I am, the proud owner (or more accurately guardian / custodian / safe keeper, as it’ll be around long after I’m gone) of around 770 square metres of land on the northern edge of Gatehouse of Fleet, Dumfries and Galloway, near the coast between Kirkcudbright and Newton Stewart, with permission to build a house on it.  The view up the valley of Water of Fleet is lovely, there will be walks from the doorstep, and the sea is not so far away.  Memory Lane, the road is called, which makes me wonder what memories will be made there.  The house will be small; around 75 to 80 square metres in total, and the finance available is also small – the aim is to build it for £100,000.  So it will need the creative use of inexpensive materials and modest ambitions; not a big problem, as I’ve never wanted a fancy kitchen or a roll top bath, and if I haven’t got much storage space then I need to get rid of some stuff.

There are all sort of reasons to keep a blog recording the adventure – to let friends and family know how things are going, for myself to look back at when it seems that nothing is moving forward, or when it’s finished and I’ve forgotten all the trials and tribulations, to show that lovely, light, warm, small houses can be built for reasonable costs; a ‘not very Grand Design’.  The aim is to make monthly updates as regularly as possible.

The first proper site visit brought a nice surprise; the soils samples were nice sandy loam with few stones (at least in the six holes I dug).  I expected heavy glacial clay needing much cosseting and lots of grit and organic material, but no, ideal soil for growing food is what I have; a great start.  Next will be a planning permission for what I want to build, rather than what is permitted under the current consent.

So it’s all systems go at last; which feels amazing after all the years to trying to get this project going – but also daunting, exciting, and sometimes (usually in the middle of the night) overwhelming.  But as someone once said, ‘onwards and upwards’ is the only way to go, and taking one step at a time is the only way to get to where you want to be.