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.
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.
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.
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.