With the roof on and better than expected weather in the colder months work carried on outside. Our original plan entailed cladding the first floor in wood. As part of our Cornish-New-England theme. Allowing it to age naturally. In theory, this is low maintenance. In reality, I had visions of having to regularly pressure wash and treat it.
The architects were flexible in their specification of how we’d clad the house on our planning application. However, a planning approval condition required us to submit example materials to be used before building could commence. At this point, our builder spotted a potential issue.
Building regulations require wood cladding to be treated with a fire proof coating if another property is within three metres of the build. The theory being that if the other property sets alight the fire could easily spread to our property via the cladding. Not a huge issue in itself, lots of fire-proofing techniques and options exist. Sadly none of them would achieve the look we were after.
Enter the new contender. Despite it being cliche and overly popular on new-builds, I really wanted Cedral Lap Weatherboarding: Zero hassle, great range of colours, never needs to be painted, resistant to rot and things growing on it, and only needs rain to clean it. What’s not to like!
So, getting out of the ground was far easier than anticipated. A refreshing and novel change to the stress of getting the land, and issues dealing with planning. Four years of nothing but bills and hassle vs. three weeks from ‘waste ground’ to foundations. Karma perhaps, or another reason to be grateful for my great-great-grand-father’s shrewd investment.
The majority of UK houses are built around the concept of a cavity wall. Two four inch block walls separated by an insulation filled cavity. Timber framed houses are also gathering momentum thanks to their speed to build, and lower cost of development. Combining a heatpump and living in Cornwall’s, slightly less extreme temperatures, we are gambling there is a more energy efficient way to construct our house. Building single six inch block walls externally clad in insulation, creating a cave like effect. In summer months the insulation reflects higher outside temperatures, helping the block stay cool. In winter months the heatpump and underfloor’s heat soaks into the block were the insulation helps retain the heat, and protects it from the outside elements. Creating our very own heat store.
Low intensity heat required to maintain a core temperature, ideal conditions for a heatpump and underfloor heating.
Six inch block provides a larger thermal mass to store heat.
Insulating the outside, not being limited for space by a cavity or framework, allows for significantly more insulation.
Twice as expensive to build.
Complex to build, especially where we’ve used stone cladding.
Slow to finish.
Even slower to initially heat (or change temperature).
In our case, were we are not building for profit, the upsides far out weigh the down. The concept of the heat store and easier to maintain temperature should require a lot less energy to keep the house warm. As long as we avoid completely losing the core temperature in the house. Getting heat into the floor and block is no small task, and can take over 24 hours to heat.
In theory (hopefully to be proven in practice) by heating the block work and floor of our house, using it as a heat store with extra insulation on the outside, means for less energy we’re warm in winter, and cooler in summer.
Credit goes to our structural engineer, and my Father-in-law, for pioneering the approach in our current house.
Initially our heat store approach is far quicker to build. Thanks to only building single six inch block walls. The extra cost and complexity creeps into the latter stages of the build. Two layers of 50mm insulation are battened horizontally and vertically to the exterior of the block. This is then clad in 9mm marine ply, a damp proofing layer, mesh, and finished with render.
Complicating things nicely, where we are using stone to finish the house doesn’t work with our chosen construction technique. To get around this we’ve attached 75mm of insulation to the outside of the block work, and combined it with Surecav damp proofing. The stone has ended up costing us fourteen inches of interior space, a fair bit of head scratching and a few headaches. Here’s hoping it looks good when done. Local Cornish stone at least.
Cornwall’s rich mining heritage is one of the reasons we have our land. It is also a cause for concern when it comes to what’s hiding underneath. Fears of contaminated soil, mining features, mining spoil, undocumented offshoots of known/unknown mine shafts, and more.
All of the above could negatively impact chances of getting a mortgage, and easily cost tens of thousands to fix. To better face and prepare for potential issues we arranged a full mining survey from Wheal Jane Consultancy. Our planning application included an environmental search that suggested the land was contaminant free. However, the search was merely a desktop search: ‘Computer says No’. The full mining survey included digging inspection pits horizontally and vertically through where the footings will go. Offering our first insight into how easy or hard it would be to get out of the ground. ‘Sadly’ this is when the wall came down. Our friendly mining consultant suggested it was unsafe, and needed to come down sooner rather than falling on someone’s head later.
The inspection trenches revealed no nasty surprises and good quality ground: “Ideal for building”. With planning permission granted the ground work finally began. We’d been warned earth expands when taken out of the ground, and were fortunate in not needing to dig too far to find suitable ground for the footings. Even with this good fortune a small 300 tonnes of top soil had to be removed from the site.
300 tonnes! The trucks kept coming. We hope they didn’t disrupt our neighbours and village too much. Maen Karne provided a very professional service, with friendly drivers. Their highly skilled drivers, mostly on turn around, managed to negotiate the drive and tight space on site with ease.
The footings / foundations are a standard affair:
600-800mm deep trenches: mostly 600mm, and 750mm+ for our stone fronted walls
225mm of concrete
5 courses of tench block
Filled with hardcore: recycled 4 inch clean
Blinding sand in the garage with Damp Proof Membrane (DPM) before slab.
House is slab on top of 803. Then the DPM. Easier to do this way round and possible because of underfloor heating, and needing to have a 150mm difference between the finished floor height of the house and garage for building regs (potential fluid spills).
Only the drains caused Rich a minor headache. Tolerance for the drop from the furthest drain was tight, down to the last millimetres. Thankfully easily sorted by Rich.
Digging out lead to lots of discoveries: random pottery, medicine bottles and even a leather tap dancing shoe! Relics of generations passed. Nan is convinced the tap dancing shoe belonged to mother when she was a child. Digging the final tench Sam discovered a further ‘gift’ from the old bus depot, an inspection pit.
We’re enjoying the continuation of the inspection pit forming part of our garage’s foundations. We’d hoped to be able to use the pit but closer inspection revealed it to be poorly built. Scary to think people worked under heavy busses in it! £400 worth of additional concrete appeased the building inspector. The only additional cost suffered in getting out of the ground.
Once out of the ground we all breathed a sigh of relief. Each completed phase reduces our risks and stress levels: Land ownership > planning approval > mortgage approval > out of the ground >… Greatly looking forward to the roof being on and windows in.
This is draft number 101, and long. My longest blog post to date! It’s taken a lot of revisions and thoughts to convey my points in anything other than a very negative manner. Our experience with Cornwall Council’s Planning department can be summarised as: stressful, miserable and unprofessional. In this post I hope to salvage something positive by sharing tips that helped us. I fear many people endure a similar experience with Cornwall Planning. They’re then so relieved to be granted planning permission, or so busy altering plans, their stories don’t get shared. If anyone else would like to blog or share their story (positive or negative) please comment below and I’ll gladly link to your experiences. This lack of feedback allows planning to brush terrible practises and poor quality of service under the carpet. In our case it cost our architects and us so much, in time and money, we simply don’t have the capacity to file an official complaint. It’s ludicrous that to officially complain you run the risk of incurring significant costs. But that is a minor point in a failing system.
Our planning journey started when our architect, Jeremy Bradley from CAD, submitted the first draft (featured here) of our plans as a pre-planning application. We concluded this was wise to get the plans in front of planning as early as possible. In theory this lets us find out if they’d have any objections in principle However, we made two mistakes:
Mistake 1: Not having a cheque book we submitted our pre-app and elected to pay by credit card. An option offered by planning. After 3 weeks of hearing nothing a bill arrived in the post. Poorly worded and claiming we owed £60. Planning wouldn’t process our application until we’d paid what we owed. A three week delay before we’ve even begun, and our first interaction is a poorly worded letter demanding money for a service not yet started. I’m considering adopting this practise too. I reckon I will go far doing nothing for three weeks then demanding money owed for not actually starting the work I’ve been asked to do…
Mistake 2: We bothered with pre-planning. After the three week delay we then suffered a further two week delay, and repeatedly had to chase for our pre-planning feedback. At one point Jeremy suggested ‘Could we just submit our full application?’. To be told ‘No, the pre-planning feedback is a valuable part of the process and we should wait’. After a further wait we received a document stating we’d paid for a desktop search. A desktop search that suggested no issues. Great!
Tip 1: Submit everything by email and follow up all interactions. Post adds a higher risk and further delays. When submitting anything call and chase it. Be proactive and ensure anything that needs paying is paid at the earliest opportunity. Planning are ‘busy’, and we speculated delaying sending out bills is a great stall tactic providing an additional buffer for their work flow. Chasing also gives confidence planning have you on their system, and your application’s dates will reflect this. Thus avoiding a three week delay like we suffered.
Tip 2: Be aware that planning officially have ten working days to respond to email, and two days to return an answerphone message. This doesn’t mean they do. It just means they should, and that they have ten days worth of email and two days worth of answerphone messages in a backlog. I imagine this isn’t relaxing or productive. It is no wonder they can sound stressed and claim to be too busy. Log everything and, as with Tip 1’s chase everything, use this log to backup when you sent things and when you are due an answer. Our experience shows if you don’t do this planning are quite prepared to ignore you, and forget you’d like to build a house this decade.
The Pre-planning (lack of) feedback meant Jeremy submitted our plans largely unchanged, and we crossed our fingers. Learning from pre-planning, the minute we received an email with a number we rang and used the application number to pay our fees (Tip 1). This meant our application was registered on the 30th May with a decision date of the 18th July.
As part of the planning process applications are sent to local Parish Councils. Each applicant is given two minutes to introduce their plans before the Parish Council discuss and vote to support, or not, the application. Both Jeremy (Architect) and Richard (Builder) offered to represent our case. But Sarah and I elected to attend and represent ourselves, with Sarah speaking. Sarah did a great job and gained unanimous approval and support on Tuesday 8th July.
About now you might be considering a five week delay isn’t much of a issue, and it all seems to be going well. Even the public feedback period yielded no complaints. We thought the same. Then our planning officer (here in referred to as the planner) started ‘thinking’… Walking through the village I’m stopped by a Parish Councillor who said he’s sorry to hear our application is being rejected, and that he, our ex-Parish Councillor neighbour, and other Parish Councillors have written an appeal to the rejection. All suggesting the reasons are ludicrous. When challenged by the Parish Councillors for our Architect’s feedback the planner said we hadn’t provided any. Could this be because this is the first we’d heard of a rejection, and she’d neglected to feed this relatively important point back to us…
Before rejecting plans planners provide the Parish Council with their reasons and see if the Parish will support the rejection. Thankfully the Parish said no, and Jinny Clark championed our case. Without Jinny, the support of our neighbours, and the parish our plans simply would have been rejected. We owe them all a lot of thanks, and a big party when the house is built!
Thought 1: The wall is historically significant
Despite the fact the Council’s heritage expert is on long term sick leave our planner, and her equally unqualified colleagues, thought the falling down wallm, picture above, was of historical significance. Therefore it needed to be saved. Even though it’s not historic, had nearly fallen down, and there is no mention of it in the World Heritage’s survey of historic walls in St.Agnes.
Out of respect for planning we didn’t pull the wall down straight away. Despite being well within our rights to. Instead Jeremy hired a World Heritage Consultant who researched the wall and documented the conclusion it wasn’t of significance. With the expert’s opinion and a digger onsite we needed to have a mining survey undertaken. This involved digging a trench under the wall. On examining the wall the mining expert suggested it needed to come down, now! Before it fell on someone. Several taps of the digger bucket later and the wall was no more. I’d be lying if I said this wasn’t a satisfying moment. In amongst the wall’s rubble we found several ‘historic’ breeze blocks and a captain crunch cereal packet from, the very historically significant, late 70’s.
I make light of the wall as it was falling down, dangerous and not historically significant. However, we’re very keen to preserve the history of the plot. Most of the stone we’ve dug up and reclaimed form the wall will be re-used.
Thought 2: The design needs some alterations
The pre-application’s terms and conditions state you may be assigned a different planner for your detailed application. They don’t tell you planning is subjective. So while the planner who processes your pre-planning application might be reasonable, capable of performing their role, and in agreement with your plans, there is no continuation. Sadly, it just as likely you’ll be assigned a different planner who could have any number of personal issue with your plans. They may even try to redesign your house into a one bed bungalow with no garage, hipped roof, and a stupidly huge stacked chimney………. Who wouldn’t want that after spending months with an architect designing a three bed eco family home, with double garage! Especially as this was first suggested in the last two weeks of July. Two weeks before our approval was due and we hoped to start building. Sixteen weeks into the process having only previously been told it’s all fine.
Thanks to Jeremy, Parish Councillor Jinny Clark and our next door neighbours we fought this. Eventually we managed to persuade our planner’s team leader to visit the site. After being on site and submitting our plans through a ‘quality circle’ it was decided our plans ‘didn’t work‘. Not because of a planning law, or article X,Y,Z… Nope the reasons was…
“We approved 84% of plans!” a defensive start…
“If a random passer-by walks into your neighbour’s garden, looks at your property and says ‘that’s too big’ then we have a problem…..”
I challenged this with “You’re seriously saying we can’t build our house because a random person could walk into our Neighbours’ enclosed garden and think our house is too big. Despite having a letter from the neighbours calling your feedback ludicrous and offering their full support”
“…… Yes……. and it’s my professional opinion too…”
Tip 3: Be prepared to fight. With Jinny, the Parish, neighbours, and Jeremy all in support we weren’t prepared to let our house go without a fight. Our planner’s team lead asked if we were willing to compromise, and I flatly said no. This is our one chance to build here and they’d given me no reason other than an opinion as to why we couldn’t. An opinion no one else agreed with. Looking back this was a pivotal point. Had we agreed to changes planning would have continued to push, or rejected our plans and we’d of had to go to appeal.
After the planners site visit on Wednesday 3rd September, things came to a head the following Friday. We received an email from Jeremy informing us planning were going to reject our application, and we would have to go to appeal. This is where we enter a whole new tier of costs, and our case goes in front of local councillors to be determined. Planning can say what they like during these meetings, and if there isn’t enough time we might not have been able to state our case. However, the email was also CC’d Jinny Clark. Jinny rang our local councillor and explained the situation. He then rang planning, and we received an email stating we’d been granted delegated approval. This is when a local councillor tells planning it’s approved, or rejected! We should expect this to be written up and with us Monday 8th September!!!!
Certificate B and the triangle
Monday comes and goes, you can imagine I’m frequently checking my email! Tuesday comes and goes… Still nothing! Wednesday lunch time I’ve had enough, and try to ring our planner to find out what’s going on.
Tip 4: Redial! If you need to speak to someone just keep dialling. The planner only ever once answered the phone on my first attempt to call. It usually took 2-3 presses of redial to get through, minimum. I’m aware this makes me an annoying customer but I was driven to it by their unprofessional nature:
Not doing things they committed to.
Not replying to emails and calls within their allotted time.
Sending emails completely out of the blue containing major updates and issues without enough information to be able to understand what’s going on.
Not following or adhering to their own processes.
Not updating their calendars to reflect their movements. If you ring the Council’s very helpful call centre they can look up an individual’s calendar and let you know if they are on vacation, on a site visit, or in meetings etc. While this makes me akin to a stalker you try being patient after two days of being ignored when someone is ruining your house build.
If you need to speak to someone who’s trying to derail your house build with their opinion the least they could do is answer the phone, reply to emails, or correctly use their answerphone & calendar.
Paraphrasing, it went something along the lines of……
Me: “Hi XXXXX, it’s Olly. I’m just ringing about our delegated approval that was due on Monday?”
Planner: “Ah, well… In light of all the support we’ve changed our minds and decided to approve the application ourselves [remember that 84% approval statistic….]. However, a Mr.XXXXXXXX (my delightful uncle) has raised an ownership complaint on Monday and I’ve given him until Friday to present his case”
Me: “Errrrrrr… and you didn’t think this was worth mentioning to us on Monday…………….”
Over the summer planning informed Jeremy my uncle had raised a complaint. However, planning weren’t allowed to tell us what the complaint entailed. Our planner’s team lead suggested we could fix the problem by confirming ownership of the land to be built on. We did this, and thought no more of it. Unfortunately on the 10th of September with planning approved but not in writing, we discovered Nan hadn’t been served notice. An oversight on our part. While we own all of the land we intend to build on, we only have right of way over the drive. Because the access is considered part of the build, and the drive is owned by my Nan, we needed to serve her notice. Twenty one days of notice from re-submitting our Certificate B form, and serving Nan. Three more ‘joyful’ weeks of will it won’t it! This was a minor annoyance. The more unfortunate issue was my uncle winding Nan up during this notice period. Over a triangle of land we’d included as the border of our plans. Nan became convinced if our plans were approved this triangle would magically become ours. This was a significant problem for her. Why, she couldn’t articulate. No matter how we tried to re-assure her, she didn’t want to know.
This small triangle of land was included by following the natural border of the drive. We don’t have any rights over it, and it was a mistake on our plans. However, the triangle didn’t feature as part of our build or access requirements. Planning suggested it wasn’t an issue. Jeremy said it wasn’t an issue. My uncle said it was and issue. Jeremy kindly drew up a new site plan without the triangle (see the orange boxes and red border lines below). For this we owe planning a thanks, they allowed us to amend the border without resubmitting our plans, or further delay. Even at this late stage they could have rejected the application, and caused further delays and grief.
Finally on the 3rd October our approval arrived! Predictably after I had to ring our planner and chase it. Our potted timeline:
2nd April – Submitted Pre-app
20th May – Receive Pre-app feedback
30th May – Submitted full plans, date acknowledged by planning
8th July – Unanimous support from St.Agnes Parish Council
18th July – Decision due date
3rd September – Site visit with planner and her team lead
5th September – Email to say it’s being rejected
5th September – Email to say we’re getting delegated approval
8th September – Issue with the triangle and ownership
10th September – Serve Nan notice and submit our amended Certificate B form
3rd October – Finally granted planning
Only 11 weeks late……
Tip 5: Don’t plan on planning. All being well our application would have been approved on the 18th of July, and we’d of starting building on the 25th. Sadly that wasn’t to be. We were fortunate our Builder is very understanding!
Tip 6: If in doubt request another planner. We were too late to this party, and gambled it would be ok. Planning is subjective. Whether it should or shouldn’t be is another topic, it is! We’ve heard lots of horror stories relating to some planners, and good feedback on others. In theory if everyone did the research and pushed for a good planner it would free up the time of the others to improve, and force the planning team leaders to address the imbalances in the quality of service offered.
Tip 7 – The most important: Have a good team. Without Rich’s patience & advise, Jeremy and Sally from CADs hard work & efforts, the support of the Parish Council, and the lengths Jinny Clark went to we wouldn’t be building now.
Who hasn’t sat and watched Grand Designs and considered what they’d do differently. How you’d manage a budget differently, or not have put the wall there in the first place. How silly the people were to think it would only cost £XXXXXX to build, and how laugh out loud funny it is when they say they’ll be in by Christmas. The sheer glee on Kevin McCloud’s face when they utter the words “I’m going to project manage the build myself”…
Well, this our turn. The time has finally come to build. After what can only be described as a test of our tenacity, and a long journey. Massive thanks to friends and family for their support. Last week work finally began and we’re building our new home!
The plan is to chronicle the journey from ‘waste ground’ to home. Sharing the highs and lows of building, some of our rational / lack of rational, and hopefully offer an insight into building from the perspective of none-builders.
Build an Eco family home to meet our current and future needs, featuring:
Open plan living space (big enough to host a joint family Christmas)
3 Bathrooms (including a downstairs wet-room)
Family friendly, young and old
Dog and surf friendly
Ground source heat pump, solar PV, and underfloor heating
Office space (I work from home)
Double garage with space to work on cars
Taking everything learnt from over 14 years in IT, and watching Grand designs… I’m going to manage the build myself… Kidding, but IT has gifted us two carry-overs so far:
1. Hire the best / most experienced project manager (PM)
In my experience a good PM is worth their weight in gold. By good I mean: experienced, proven, someone you get on with, and an individual aligned to your values. To this end we’ve hired local builder and project manager Richard Llewellyn, of Llewellyn Design and Build Ltd. We’re fully entrusting the build to Rich. This doesn’t mean turn key. Decisions will still be ours to make while Rich project manages, and chases us for them.
In work we put our faith in the Agile Manifesto and its natural alignment with the way life works on IT projects. Lots of people practise Agile outside of IT. The build presents an opportunity to try applying it / Agile aspects (more on this to come :D). How does this apply to our build so far?
We’re not running with a fixed cost. We’ve estimates for the various stages of the build and these will be adapted making decisions as we go. A lot of articles and self build guides insist on going to tender and fixed price. I dislike fixed price in IT. It would be hypocritical to enforce it building our house. With fixed price the final finish and last stages are in direct competition with the profitability of the project. This is not to say we want to economise on the building / structural work. We’re hoping by adopting an agile non-fixed price approach to do the best we can with the funds (and time) available. Delivering the most value and best fit for our needs.
Using SCRUM principles. Accepting not all problems can be fully understood or defined, focusing instead on maximising our builders’ ability to make decisions, build and respond to the trials and tribulations building brings. For example: being on site daily to keep in contact with what’s going on, share requirements & ideas (and understanding of requirements), remove blockers, and priorities. Keeping other meetings to a minimum.
Embracing feedback and learning from the good and bad aspects each build phase delivers. As first time builders there is a lot to learn. Agile’s iterative and incremental development breaks the build into manageable chunks of learning and development points.
Should be a fun experiment balanced with a reasonable amount of pressure to get it right…
Rich recommended Jeremy Bradley from CAD Architects and our current rented home was also designed by one of their founding partners. They’ve an excellent reputation and some lovely examples on their website. After our first meeting onsite Jeremy went away to draw up our fee proposal and quote. I spent a further few hours summarising all of our requirements, thoughts, and drawings in an email. Breaking things down by room, and offering context and whys behind our thoughts.
When Jeremy sent the plans through I was gutted. I’d drawn an L-shaped building and been mentally living in its layout for 3 years. Jeremy proposed a T-shape with a very different layout upstairs and down. My initial reaction was “find a new Architect”. Predictably, Sarah loved it and told me, in no uncertain terms, “you’re not an Architect”. It took three days for me to come round. Lots of going over, and over, the plans. Discussing it with friends and family. Imaging living in the house and using its various flows: Coming in with wet dogs or wetsuit, working in my office relative to the rest of the house, and guests being able to use the wetroom as an ensuite(ish). Jeremy’s attention to detail and skills met our requirements far better than my humble drawings. Further proving Sarah’s point.
A further couple of emails were exchanged and we had a final meeting in CAD’s Truro office before submitting our pre-app plans. Exciting times!!!!!!!!! Massive thanks to Jeremy and Sally from CAD for all of their help and support. More on the thanks and nightmare that is dealing with Cornwall Planning coming soon…
For now we’re trying to source energy and powder coated aluminium windows suppliers. All recommendations and suggestions appreciated.