Diary of a self-builder – Part 3: Laying the beam and block floor

Last month in our ‘Diary of a self-builder – Part 2’, Welsh Oak Frame’s Managing Director, Mark Jones talked about making a start on the groundworks for his own self-build project and the importance of good planning. This month, Mark tells us about tracing the roots of his oak frame home and laying the ground floor with the help of friends, family and his new mini-digger.

Why oak?

Despite working at Welsh Oak Frame for a number of years now, I still delight in creating beautiful characterful houses.

There is just something about oak which draws me to it. I like the look, the smell and the feel of the wood; rugged, tough and extremely strong from a structural point of view, and yet it has an aesthetic and organic feel that surpasses other timbers, steel or masonry.

I promised Julia that when the time came, I would take her to the forest where our oak came from and show her the tree that would become part of our home. So we visited Northern France and our supplier, who was incredibly hospitable and generous and gave us a grand tour of the sawmill where we watched our logs being sawn and very carefully graded.

Not much of the oak is wasted after the beams are removed from the heart of the log. The central layer next to the beam is considered high quality and is used predominantly for the barrelling market. As you go further out of the core the material is then used in other industries, such as flooring or other ‘square edged’ products. You finally get to the bark which is often used as a fuel.

Be careful with your spending

It was a very strange experience renting a small flat in town, being mortgage free with a large sum of money in the bank, however, spending discipline is still very important when faced with a self-build project. My advice is negotiate hard from the off, as the proportion of spend for the final leg of the build i.e. finishes, kitchens and bathrooms will put a serious dent in your budget and you will be glad that you saved in earlier stages of the build.

I decided a while ago that certain purchases were a must; one of these was a mini -digger. I researched the market and found that the prices for used machines remained remarkably stable (between £5,000 and £8,000) and wouldn’t lose too much value over the next 12 months so it seemed like a good idea to buy one, rather than pay hire charges.

However, I would issue a word of warning to others looking to buy from auction sites – there are many scams. I almost got caught out and came close to losing £6,500 because one seller insisted on communicating via email instead of through eBay. The vendor also made unbelievable excuses for why I couldn’t view the item. I even received some officially headed PayPal correspondence from them, but I grew suspicious. I called PayPal who confirmed that unfortunately this scam was very common. I would advise that if a deal looks too good to be true then it generally is.

Another thing to do is let your bank know what’s going on with your spending levels. I very nearly got caught out because I hadn’t notified them that I would be transferring large amounts of money. One payment was stopped because they assumed that someone was trying to commit fraud on my account.

Utility connections

So at what point do you start to enquire about connecting services? The answer – as soon as you possibly can!

Unfortunately our village does not have a mains sewer so I had no choice other than to consider a treatment plant with a soakaway. One of our conditions of planning was to design a suitably sized drainage system, which involved digging trial holes on site. It was very straightforward and I found plenty of information online about how to carry out a percolation test. The results of the trial dictated the system we used.

The water connection itself did cause me some issues. As mentioned in ‘Diary of a self-builder – Part 2’, we found a 24mm supply of water on the site which, as turns out was used for an animal trough. Unfortunately, 24mm wasn’t big enough for two houses so a road dig was required for a new supply at 35mm.

Scottish Power continued to be very efficient and managed to get a temporary supply sorted (which included a full road closure) within weeks five weeks of paying them £3,500. They were not actually going to be our electricity supplier and I had to go to E.ON for the meter installation. I’d heard loads of horror stories about the length of time we’d have to wait for this but to my pleasant surprise E.ON reliably informed me that as soon as I issued them with a meter point administration number (MPAN) the unit would be installed within 6 days. This meant we could do away with the noisy generators.

When it comes to services, I’ve learned that you should double check the requirements your provider needs to get everything running. I was asked to build a cabinet on site to a certain specification and mounted it on two fence posts driven into the ground – the standard way of doing it. But the morning Scottish Power turned up to connect they rejected this set-up, insisting upon a concrete slab being placed underneath the cabinet. By sheer good luck we happened to be pouring foundations that day so the problem was easily solved.

Site conditions

One of the most valuable pieces of advice that I have been given so far was to lay down some hardstanding to avoid the site becoming a mud bath. It wasn’t until the first heavy rainfall that I realised how important this was. If I hadn’t followed this advice, the mess that would have been carried out onto the main road would have aggravated the locals and the highways department.

With this in mind, I reckon the investment of £2,000 worth ‘quarry crusher’ was well worth it – even though I have a fear that I will be digging up endless bits of brick and concrete when I’m tending to my garden in the future.

When shopping around for suitable products I established that there are basically two grades of hard standing material. One was quarry crusher, which costs approximately £11 per tonne and is a low cost option to be used where depths in excess of 150mm are required. Typical applications would be access roads into building sites, floor filling into houses, farm roads – ideal where conditions are dry underfoot. The second option, known as MOT Type 1, is around £16 per tonne, and is specified by the transport department for its load bearing properties.

Laying the ground floor

When it came to laying the ground floor, I found it difficult to make an informed decision between using a traditional concrete slab fill or a beam and block floor. I opted for the latter due to its cost effectiveness – I discovered I could carry out much of the work myself. I sourced the materials from Tarmac via Travis Perkins and found the technical staff there very helpful. I gave them a floorplan and they came back within a few days with a design and quotation.

Within two weeks the materials were delivered and came in at just under £2,000 for a floor area of 190m. It cost me £5,000 to dig and fill the foundation trenches. Blocks, sand and cement cost £350 and a team of three lads laid the blockwork for around £1,000. The total cost for laying the ground floor was approximately £8,500.

With some help from my family and friends, we set out and lay the beams – using my newly purchased digger. It felt like working on a giant jigsaw puzzle, but it was a very rewarding process – and it only took two days to complete.

Next month Mark talks about the difficulties of building in poor weather conditions and how he got to grips with connecting utilities to the property.

Diary of a self-builder – Part 2: Starting groundworks and arranging utilities

Last month in our ‘Diary of a self-builder – Part 1′, Welsh Oak Frame’s Managing Director, Mark Jones introduced us to the beginning of his self-build journey, covering plot finding and planning. This month Marks talks about ground works.

Two major issues that will without doubt crop up when self-building are: how are you going to fund the project; and where do you intend on living as works progress? When it came to financing our project, we were fortunate enough to have a house to sell. To off load our home and mortgage, having had one for 30 years was an unbelievable feeling and the opportunity to now save money enabled us to have a home that was perfectly finished rather than one that would ‘just do’. However, for the latter consideration, we had the added complication of having two little west Highland terriers to accommodate who were a big part of our lives. Therefore, we needed somewhere to live with two dogs that would be near to the site for as little money as possible. A friend had offered us the use of their property in Shrewsbury during the build but unfortunately they had a no pet’s policy.

We decided that a caravan would be a good solution as we would be able to sell it on once we were able to move into our home. My wife seemed happy with this option and I was personally blinded by the opportunity of potentially saving up to £1500 per month in rent. We looked around numerous caravan retailers together and the reality of potentially living in one for 12 months or more started to hit me. I wasn’t sure if I could go through with it but what option did we have?

A week before we were due to complete the sale of our house, one of our dogs, Billy sadly died. With the heightened anxiety of the house move, the thought of living in a caravan and the loss of our much loved pet, it was a very emotional time.

Our daughter Gemma who was buying her first home in London, offered to take our other dog Bobby to live with her which meant the offer of the flat in Shrewsbury came immediately back to mind and thankfully was still available.

First site meeting

With the living arrangements sorted, we still had the issue of not actually having the Planning Decision Notice in our hands. After a few phone calls we were assured that the Decision Notice would be in the post that evening. So alongside a few bottles of wine, we started putting the basis of a plan together to make a start on site.

The following week was taken up with a lot of phone calls to organise a site meeting between our groundworker, archaeological and ecological consultants, Chas (who was building next to us) and Welsh Oak Frame’s Design Director, Emyr Davies.

I was excited to get started but there was a nervous tension in the air. I had to pacify both our consultants who were on a watching brief (as part of my pre-commencement conditions) which were costing both Chas and I a fortune for every day they were on site. Our groundworker was eager to get stuck in however he knew he had to comply and follow instructions from both consultants. You could have cut the atmosphere with a knife. After the ice was broken we agreed a plan of action and decided works would start the following morning. We waited in anticipation for a call from our archaeological consultant, dreading any bad news, but thankfully when we received the call he informed us that he had found no issues on the site. By this time most of the vegetation and hedging had been stripped and the ecologist also proclaimed he was satisfied however he would need to visit occasionally to keep an eye on things.

Shared works

Following the sale of our house we were able to pay Chas back who had purchased the land on our behalf. So during a meeting with our solicitors, we agreed boundaries etc. and the legal transfer of land was in place. Our projects were certainly unique and full of potential bust ups and disagreements. It’s amazing what one couple’s vision, although similar in many ways can also be poles apart. Chas and I realised very early on that maintaining a healthy friendship was vital for the success of this project, respecting differences was as important as sharing common ground, so we decided to build completely separately. In spite of all common sense suggesting that sharing suppliers, materials and facilities would be more economic, the reality was that this could all lead to problems. So we agreed a basic ‘must share’ element of costs and works which included removing the sub soil to levels required by the archaeologist, removing the boundary hedging, creating suitable access and installing security and sanitary facilities – among other things.

We also agreed that in order to save the cost of hiring lock ups and a canteen, we would construct our garages first and use these spaces instead.

Utilities

After receiving a quote from Severn Trent Water Authority for £3,000 to provide water to the site, we were very pleased to receive a call from our groundworker saying he had found a water stopcock and meter within our hedge. This meant we wouldn’t need to pay Severn Trent to set up their service. However we still needed to find out who the access belonged to on order to transfer the ownership as it didn’t show up on any of the searches. I passed this job on to Chas.

Whilst on the matter of utilities, I could not comprehend why we also needed to pay Severn Trent Water £130 to raise the quotation for a new mains water connection. There was no other option but to accept the charge, as they have a monopoly over the situation. I had never heard of any other utility providers doing this.

After meeting with Scottish Power about providing a temporary supply, they informed me that it could take up to three months for the council to permit a road closure and electricity to be installed. So we had no option but to use generators which I’m sure the neighbours were not too happy about.

Good planning is essential

The idea that your design will evolve does has some merit but in my experience, early planning and decision making is critical to the point of even deciding where furniture, lights and sockets will go, for example. You have really got to imagine living in the house even when it’s just on paper. You can make big savings when you plan from the start. At Welsh Oak Frame we utilise some very clever 3D walk through CAD technology which is great in terms of visualisation. Getting to view your dream home and walk through it is a major tool for a good end product.

We initially planned to finalise the details of our utility room layout later on however it turned out we needed to decide this from the start. Choosing a boiler, the location of the flue pipe and Building Regulation considerations all needed to be established from day one. But all those decisions have also had an impact on the space left for the washing machine, dryer and services to them.

The right approach

When I tell people that it took 8 months from making my planning application to starting the build they think it’s nothing short of a miracle. I believe it was a mixture of luck, the quality of the design and perhaps timing too; giving the economy and government attitude towards getting the housing market moving and a possible relaxation in planning rules.

There is one redeeming factor that I would say helps and this is being civil and polite towards neighbours, parishioners and planners, most of whom have been incredibly supportive. I’m not suggesting that it was a walk in the park, far from it. We’ve had to concede a lot along the way. But being considerate and non-confrontational for me has been at least in my opinion a very strong tool throughout the process. It just seems to appeal to the better side of human nature.

Next month, Mark talks about starting work on laying the beam and block foundations for his oak frame home.

Diary of a self-builder – Part 1: An oak frame build diary

Welsh Oak Frame’s Managing Director, Mark Jones has embarked on his own self-build project and will be sharing his journey with us every month

Building a new home is something I have always dreamed about. The idea of having a completely blank canvas to design our perfect home is something that has always appealed to me. My wife Julia and I have been living in a large, 200 year old country house near Shrewsbury since our children flew the nest. When we first got married, I remember being interested in a plot of land near where we lived at the time in Minafon, Powys, however, by the time I had researched and talked about it with my Father who had recently bought a kit home, the plot was sold and I missed my chance.

I never found the thought of self-building daunting, being a keen DIYer and having an engineering background. I just never plucked up the courage to actually do it.

In 2014 we finally took the leap and we started registering our interest for plots with several local estate agents. Although there were several plots available, they were too big. At the same time, a client of Welsh Oak Frame was also looking for a plot within the same area and we decided it may well be worth looking for a larger plot to build two houses on instead of smaller sites which were proving difficult to find in the area. So I reverted back to one of the larger sites offered by one of the estate agents, which had outline planning consent on and being sold by a local developer.

After exchanging several emails with the vendor, I discovered he wanted much more than I was prepared to offer. After asking many questions and getting very vague responses in return I started to become very wary of the entire situation and decided to do some investigating. It turned out that the plot was owned by two ladies from Cambridgeshire who had inherited the land. I decided to deal directly with them and discovered they owned another plot. I knew the location well and immediately put an offer on it. A few phone calls later I managed to secure a land option contract whereby I could buy the plot subject to me obtaining planning permission.

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One of my concerns about the location was the cost of a ‘watching brief’. I had to pay a set day rate for someone to monitor the site should anything of archaeological or ecological interest come up. I dread to think what the cost implications would have been if something had come up. I was also concerned about the drainability of the site and what may need to be done to enable an acceptable soakaway system on the site, as there wasn’t mains drainage in the village.

A key piece of advice I would give to any self-builder would be to find a plot first before designing a home. This was vital for us. A design needs to sit well within a site and that’s what a good designer can help you achieve. We had every intention of building something that added character to the setting, whilst building something that allowed us to fully enjoy our surroundings.

Between Julia, myself and Design Director, Emyr Davies at Welsh Oak Frame we created the plans for our dream home. We were keen to allow as much natural light in as possible, therefore we incorporated lots of glazing into the rear of the property. We also wanted to benefit from the stunning views. Being able to wake up seeing the views was a key element of the design. We really wanted our home to be full of character and personality so using an oak frame as our structural system was an obvious choice for us.

We wanted to make the property as thermally efficient as possible. There is so much to discover about the breathability of building materials, insulation and cold bridging. I really liked the idea of building our new home using Passivhaus principles. I don’t really see the point of spending loads of money on the most eco-friendly and efficient renewable energy sources, or having the thickest and highest specification of insulation throughout the structure the property is not adequately sealed. We may not be able to gain full Passivhaus certification, however I wanted the best levels of air tightness as possible.

We decided to incorporate a mechanical ventilation heat recovery system to ensure clean and filtered air, which being an asthma sufferer will also have additional health benefits.

Within a short period of time we were in contract for the land, and in May 2014 we went straight in for detailed planning for two dwellings of similar style but with different layouts and finishes.

Gaining consent meant taking part in canvassing as well as sitting in on local parish meetings to gauge the opinions of the parishioners towards the applications. We did encounter some opposition and unfortunately it felt as though those who were in favour tended to remain silent for fear of reprisal. However, I’m pleased to say we found the parish councillors understanding and objective and on the whole, they were very supportive of what we were trying to achieve. In the end they did give their majority support, which counted when it came to gaining consent, despite the commonly-held view that the parish does not carry much weight.

Once we had gained the Case officer’s recommendation for approval, the story was far from over as the Section 106 agreement needed to be drawn up and signed by all parties which seemed to take forever but full permission was finally granted.

Keep tuned for next month’s issue when Mark will be talking about groundworks.