After building his last home, being in the midst of remodelling another, and having spent over 15 years in the industry, Jason put his expertise to the test. Here is what you wanted to know:
Q. I want to build my own house, just a case of finding the land in the countryside, which is not easy to find. Any tips?
Q. What are your real views on renewables?
A. I approach with scepticism. I could rattle on for ages, but in short my conclusion is that the high capital costs of the systems such as biomass mean that, even including Renewable Heat Incentives, the best way to spend your money is on massively reducing your home’s heat requirements.
If you’re on gas, it’s difficult to see a case for anything apart from solar. Oil is a bit of a different issue, but even then the price of oil at around 5.2p/kwh makes it hardly crippling.
In the long term of course we all want to minimise our dependency but my view is that the best way to do that is to go fabric first — then a modest investment in generation.
Q. We have Crittall Windows in our 1960’s home and are about to do a home renovation project and a small extension. We are deciding between retaining the existing windows/patio doors (which are in good condition and just need repainting), or replacing with new double glazed aluminium.
Do you have any thoughts or recommendations?
A. They [Crittall] look great. They perform, unfortunately, not to modern standards (for obvious reasons). The choice for you is whether you’re willing to compromise a bit of warmth for the undoubted aesthetic benefits.
You could always replace like with like. Crittall are still going of course, but they are not cheap.
I think my view would be that windows and doors are such an essential part of the way a house looks that they are worth investing in — so I’d look at replacing old Crittalls with a new, more efficient, version.
Q. As the developer of a small self build community, how can I ensure that an individual self build is not left unfinished. Obviously a building that is out of the ground, perhaps to ground floor cill level and abandoned will have a serious adverse effect on the site and compromise the roads etc being completed.
What practical and or legal procedures can be adopted to protect other self builders?
A. You could do lots of things, (covenants, etc.) but how enforceable they would be I’m not sure. You could in theory put a clause in the sale contract that requires completion within say two years but your company would have to be prepared to enforce the clause and step in if it is breached — which sounds highly impractical.
I’m a bit unsure as to why a self builder not finishing off one of their homes would affect the roads being completed. Surely all the civils will be completed prior to sale?
I’m afraid there isn’t a legal way to deal with this — as you point out, once the house is commenced, planning permission cannot be revoked.
Q. My husband and I bought a house last December. The house is in need of renovating completely. The original house is 1830 with additions in the 70s and 80s. The entire inside decor is all 70s: no shower, two baths, carpet in bathrooms, teal bathroom suite and all of the wood detailing throughout the house including the kitchen is all dark walnut colour.
The conservatory is wood and glass. The wood is in bad condition and the windows leak plus plants are growing through where the conservatory attaches to the house. The room is south facing which gets very hot in the summer, very cold in the winter and has no door to close off to the house, which gives very low energy efficiency!
We would like to extend and renovate when we have money saved, in about 2.5 years but, for now we would like to do cheap decoration to help make the house more aesthetically pleasing and keep our heat from exiting the conservatory in the winter. Can you give us any advice?
A. It’s a sensible approach, but it sounds like you need to make some modest improvements now to make the house comfortable.
Are the conservatory windows single glazed? I would be looking to see if this room can be largely closed off from the rest of the house or even, if it’s really crappy, it could be knocked down, enabling the house to be effectively re-sealed. I suspect you’ll be doing that work anyway.
The key in these phased projects is to not repeat work but I’m sure a splash of paint and perhaps some modest home comforts such as a cheap bathroom suite from one of the DIY sheds might make life more palatable for the next couple of years.
Living in a house for a couple of years before really nailing the remodel is the best way by far to make sure you eventually get what you want.
Q. I’ve got a couple of questions about timber frame houses:
If I have a plot with outline planning permission for a detached house how easy is it to get permission to build a timber frame “Fjord Hus” style house?
If I have a plot with detailed planning permission for a conventional detached brick house how easy is it to convert this permission to a timber frame “Fjord Hus” style house?
A. Well, I’m afraid the answer is that it depends. Houses with more esoteric ‘foreign’ influences might not always find favour with planning officers and committees particularly in either a) sensitive areas e.g. conservation areas or b) built-up areas with a strong commonality of house design.
If, however, your plot is fairly isolated and there is no strong overall local style, I don’t see any reason why your Fjord Hus design would handicap you. For converting your existing DPP, the issues are exactly the same.
Q. You must have seen so many houses. Are there any that really stand out as your favourites?
A. We all have our own architectural tastes and I’m drawn to the organic, natural end of modernism. So I’m not such a huge fan of what I’d call white-box modernism, but I do like that kind of rich, mid-century style, with lots of timber and stone mixed in. We see a fair few houses like that.
I visit around 20 homes a year, and there is usually something to like in each one, whether you would actually want to live in the house or not. So I’m stealing ideas from most houses I visit! I’ll always remember the Treetops House in Somerset (by the Dyer family) as being a favourite. It wasn’t a massive plot, but the design was just perfect for the site and the family.
Q. I’ve heard about a few Government measures aimed at helping boost self build in the UK (Community Infrastructure Levy exemption, scrapping Code for Sustainable Homes). Which measures do you think will be the most successful?
A. Well all these things really do is get us to the position we were at about five years ago. Undoubtedly, the removal of Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) is a huge boost meaning that self builders won’t be paying £10,000s for the privilege of building their own home.
Code for Sustainable Homes probably added a few £1,000s to build costs but I don’t see how scrapping it will help enormously.
The biggest boost to self builders will be long-reaching reform of the planning system which is beginning to happen, slowly.
Q. Do you think the removal of CIL will act as a disincentive for planning authorities to grant planning permission for individual self builders (because they will no longer receive the CIL)?
A. Potentially yes, and that was raised in the consultation docs around the policy. However, our view was that LPAs don’t actually give permission for self builds — they give permission for individual plots (which could in theory be built out commercially by builders) and secondly, they’re not giving many permissions anyway!
Also, of course, the huge challenge of being faced with (in some instances) a £20k+ bill just for the privilege of building a house, when that individual house had hardly any impact on the local infrastructure requirement, seemed grossly unfair.
Q. I have a plot of land which has got a restrictive covenant dated 23 December 1925:
“The Purchaser for himself, his heirs and assigns hereby covenants with the vendors their heirs successors executors administrators and assigns ….. that no buildings shall be erected on the said land without the previous approval of the vendors surveyor and that the said hereditaments shall not be used for the purpose of a Theatre Music Hall and that no wine spirits beer or other intoxicating Liquors shall be permitted to be sold on.”
All I want to do is to build a two storey residential property — what advice can you please give me to work around this?
A. You can apply to extinguish old covenants that have no existing beneficiary. It sounds like the purposes of the covenant are for a completely different era and that the beneficiaries would no longer be around. Your solicitor should be able to advise on this. Many plots have old things like this on them — it is a question of cleaning up the deeds, effectively. Restrictive Covenant Insurance can be a good idea.
Q. What is the new ‘Right to Build’ scheme I’ve heard about in the press? Do you think it will have a positive impact on self build?
A. This is the concept that individuals wanting to self build will sign a register with their Local Authority and the LA will have to, within a certain timeframe, deliver them a plot.
Loads of details to iron out — five vanguard councils are being selected to trial the scheme which should roll out nationally in 2015. We’re working with Government on how the details will look. In theory, it works the same as the local housing need registers currently in place.
Will it make a positive impact? If done correctly, it could be revolutionary. The big issue is how LPAs will handle it and if they can be bothered, and therefore what the sanction is from central Government.
I’ve heard one suggestion that if the LPA falls short of their demand target, individuals will be able to build homes of up to 200m² anywhere, without needing planning permission. It’s highly unlikely that that will go ahead but is an indication of the thinking.
Q. What is the difference between a good house and a bad house?
A. Design, specification and the site itself is the holy trinity of goodness. Badness is usually the result of the owner not really engaging with the project. So I’m almost as turned off by fancy architect homes where the owners have effectively outsourced their decisions as the homes that appear to have had no decisions made at all (or, even worse, made by the builder!).
The best houses are warm, light, snug and open, with loads of interesting spaces and a feel that is somehow difficult to grasp. When you can see the owner’s involvement in the house, that’s usually a good sign — and what it’s all about, ultimately.
Q. I am about to build a timber frame detached house and am looking at how best to achieve air tightness. The research I have done indicates fitting a service void after fitting insulation and vapour barrier. Do you know of any other ideas that negates having to install this additional service void.
A. The fitting of a service void in itself doesn’t mean you won’t be able to achieve exceptional levels of airtightness. However, I know that there has been some look at this issue and the fine experts at the Structural Timber Association will be able to fill you in if you’re wedded to the idea of removing that void.
Q. You’ve been quite negative in the past about architects. Do you think we should use one for our project?
A. I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with architects. Some are really, really good. Others have an inflated view of their own worth and importance, and little willingness to listen to their client. The conclusion I’ve come to is that there are good and bad architects in the same way there are good and bad builders, plumbers, technologists and so on.
I would say that design is the best investment you can make — trying to avoid paying design fees, or scrimping, is a big mistake. Good design adds value and sets the project off on the right foot, so is money well spent. The key is choosing the right person. It’s a bit like saying all football managers are good. For every Alex Ferguson there’s a David Moyes.
Q. I am in the process of building a new house. I am looking for advice on insulation. I have been advised to use span but is there a cheaper equivalent in glass wool or similar?
A. Good question. Best way to compare insulation prices is through one of the handful of online insulation merchants (such as Insulation Shop).
If you’re struggling with Kingspan’s prices there are alternative suppliers, e.g. Knauf, of glass wool products; also, Seconds & Co supply, as the name suggests, seconds of Kingspan products. Well worth a try.
Q. Do you think self build is a feasible option for those trying to get on the property ladder? Self build appears to have a better potential for equity to be made compared to a developer home, but it seems like such a daunting task that would require a large investment upfront.
A. It’s tricky for first timers — usually there is a significant equity requirement but in truth that also applies to most regular mortgages too. There is talk of the Government expanding Help to Buy to become Help to Build which will definitely help.
That said, if first-timers can raise 15–20% of the land and build costs, then self build is definitely a great option to consider particularly if they want to boost themselves up the ladder. Done right, in a flat market it should result in 10–30% equity savings (‘profit’) which can obviously help to get you moved on to the next step!