February 2018: The digger rolls in.

St Valentine’s Day, 2018; not memorable for the usual reason, but because it signals the start of work on site – at last!  It’s exciting and daunting at the same time, and brings about a distinct change in mood, with much more purposefulness and a real feeling that progress is being made, rather than the seemingly endless waiting of the past few months.

Quite a bit has happened; I haven’t managed to agree costs with 3b Construction, as they insisted on carrying out and overseeing the whole project as a condition of using them to do the work.  This would have entailed them adding a significant percentage to the costs of timber frame, ventilation system and window and doors, which increased the costs beyond the available budget.  So I’ve engaged a smaller local builder, GS Constructions run by George Shaw, to carry out the building work with the specialist elements of timber frame, windows and doors and ventilation being carried out by the respective suppliers and installers working direct for me.  This means that I need to do much more of the the coordination between the various aspects of the work, but will save costs significantly.

The subject of money occupies quite a bit of time; it’s become clear that constructing my high quality, energy efficient house, although it’s small, is just not possible on a budget of £100k.  The structural insulated panels (SIPS), with large amounts of insulation, the airtight structure with MVHR, and triple glazed, energy efficient windows and doors make up the greater part of this amount, and when electrics and plumbing, kitchen and bathroom fittings and internal wall and floor finishes are added the costs come to considerably more.  But of course there will be minimal heating costs over the lifetime of the house to offset against the high initial cost, as well as the comfort of a warm and well ventilated house.  Now I just have to work out how to pay for it.

So after some heartache, I’m reconciled to the need to obtain a mortgage to cover this, and will be on the lookout for second hand kitchen and other fittings and fixtures.  A perfectly presentable stainless steel sink has already come from a refurbishment project in South Lakes, with a built-in oven to follow; saving money as well as fitting well with the sustainable ethos for the house.  I think Ebay and Gumtree will be frequently used bookmarks in my browsing history over the next few months!

George Shaw has completed the  topsoil stripping (of which there was a LOT), and excavation down to solid subsoil that will support foundations.  The Building Inspector will be calling tomorrow to inspect and approve the formation level.  The photo shows the state of the site at the end of last week; the paler soil is where the house will be located.  As there was so much topsoil that had to be removed from the building footprint (really nice topsoil at that), the finished floor level of the house will be 300mm lower than shown on the construction drawings, to avoid the need to import large amounts of hardcore to make up the levels.  This won’t cause a problem with the foul water drainage as this has to be pumped up to the public sewer anyway, and another 300mm vertical difference is not significant.  The site levels are such that surface water will still drain away across the site without ponding, so the house will just hunker down a little bit further on the site.Panorama1

And not forgetting the snowdrops – they’re going great guns at the back of the site on the allotment.  The ones with yellowed leaves were rescued from the mound on site, just before the digger scooped up the soil and shifted the mound in about 30 minutes flat!

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January 2018: Building Warrant arrives!

Yes, at last, approval for the technical details of how the house will be built.  However. like most things that aren’t run of the mill, this has been a bit of a challenge, and the explanation is potentially long and boring.  In order to obtain a Building Warrant (the Scottish equivalent of the Building Regulations in England), a building has to conform to a certain standard of energy efficiency, called a SAP rating (Standard Assessment Procedure) laid down by the Building Research Establishment (BRE).

So far, so good, and one would imagine that a house that is extremely well insulated and airtight, where energy from the sun provides a significant proportion of the heating requirement, where the ventilation system recovers around 75% of the heat produced within the house by people and activities, and which therefore doesn’t need a primary source of heat would pass with flying colours.  Well … think again.  The current version of the SAP software designed in consultation with BRE, universally used to determine SAP ratings, doesn’t acknowledge that a house can be designed in this way.  If a dwelling with no primary heat source (i.e. no gas or oil fired central heating, no ground or air source heat pump) is submitted, the SAP software defaults to assume that the house is heated by electric heating with NO controls, and the dwelling receives an automatic FAIL, meaning that it doesn’t conform to the energy efficiency standards required by Building Standards.

As I understand it, this problem applies to all dwellings currently designed to Passivhaus standards in the UK.  The SAP standards, and the software needed to determine compliance is due to be revised soon, and rumour has it that this anomaly will be addressed in the new version.  Can’t help thinking that it should have been sorted from the start – it’s hardly rocket science, as they say.

After much discussion, and submission of extra information from the Passivhaus analysis of the structure of the house, Dumfries and Galloway Building Standards have agreed to make a one-off exemption, and have issued the Building Warrant.  It all makes me wonder why we Brits are so bad at building warm, airtight, comfortable houses that have very small fossil fuel requirements for heating.  This type of construction has been around for at least 30 years in continental Europe, where winters are colder and summers are hotter than in the UK, but still we refuse to take up the proven technology and insist on inventing our own standards.

It’s probably the same mentality that caused us to vote to leave the EU; enough said.

Oh, and the snowdrops are flowering … hurray!

January 2018: Is this the year I finally build a house?

The answer is hopefully ‘yes’; surely having got this far it shouldn’t be beyond the realms of possibility that the house might be substantially finished by the end of this year.  Surely …

However, not much progress on site, other than some fairly energetic gardening on my part at the back of the plot where I’ve decided the contractor won’t need access (hopefully there’ll be general agreement on that).  I’ve cleared the grass clumps, docks and nettles from an area which now looks a bit like an allotment.

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Some of the many plants that have followed me around in pots have been planted in the ground, not least the several trays of snowdrops which started growing quite a few weeks ago, and which have been waiting for proper ground to grow in for over a year.  I planted them on the site, with traces of the dark topsoil from Kendal contrasting with the brown Gatehouse soil surrounding them.  There are now green shoots above ground; the first plants on site that aren’t weeds – that at least feels like progress!

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I’ve also started clearing the nettles and other weeds from the mound that stretches from side to side across the site.  There is a significant amount of really good topsoil in parts of the mound, but with brick rubble and stones mixed in.  So the work consists of digging out the nettles and extracting the rubble and stone; the rubble to be disposed of either off site or buried on site away from the house, and the stone stockpiled for building a dry stone wall along the boundary to Memory Lane at some point in the distant future.

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There’s a lot of it to go at, and it seems like I’m only scratching the surface, but I can’t bear to see good topsoil disappear or get mixed up with subsoil and rubble.  So I’ll rescue what I can before the diggers move in.

Frozen ground, a Christmas and New Year break of two weeks and efforts to get a bit fitter have slowed progress, but the year has turned and days are getting longer, so here’s to a new house in 2018!

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.

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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.