We’ve been to two self build shows over the last couple of years – the Grand Designs Show and the Homebuilding and Renovating Show at the NEC. At the time we weren’t fully committed to the idea of self-building. We were effectively ‘just browsing’, which feels like a fairly pointless exercise until you know what you’re looking for.
So now that we’re more (well, fully!) committed to the idea of self building, we decided to attend the latest Homebuilding and Renovating Show at the Excel in London. If you hunt around beforehand the tickets are free, so it’s just the hassle of getting there, which for us means a trip on the bus from Oxford.
My best advice when attending one of these shows is to prepare. The day can go quite quickly, so if there are specific things you want to look at try and plan ahead. They have some really great presentations, workshops and advice sessions, so check which ones you’d like to see and work your schedule around them.
Ask an Expert #1
One of the best bits of the show is the ‘ask an expert’ area, where you can book a 15 minute session with one of the many experts on hand. The areas of expertise range from architects, costing, planning and sustainability, plus many have a great deal of experience having self-built themselves, so they can offer plenty of general advice. These sessions can only be booked on the day however, so you have to get in the queue early and book a slot. We were limited to 2 sessions, so we chose to see an architect, and someone with experience of the Passivhaus standard.
Our architect expert was James Hood from Model Projects (www.modelprojects.co.uk), who jumped in as a last minute replacement. He didn’t have anyone booked in, so we were first in the queue and met him straight away. 15 minutes isn’t long, but we were prepared and printed off a short list of questions we wanted to ask.
We mentioned that we were interested in Graven Hill, and he was very familiar with the project as Model Design have been involved with one of the Grand Designs houses. So the conversation took a slight diversion as we couldn’t resist probing for more info.
One of the requirements of the Graven Hill development for self builders is a 6 month design period once you have reserved your plot. Is 6 months enough time to design the house? James reassured us that 6 months is plenty of time, but it’s well worth being prepared beforehand by carrying out as much research as you can. You can develop a brief for your architect before you finalise the plot which will help you think about what sort of features you want in your future home.
James suggested we speak to his colleague Kathryn Mansi who has been working on the Graven Hill project for a client. So the next stop was the Model Projects stand…
We had quite a long conversation with Kathryn, who was really helpful. She showed us the proposed plans for the Graven Hill house, which will be presented to the Grand Designs judging panel panel this week. The house looked fantastic, with large rear glazing and lots of double height areas to create lots of space. One of the restrictions with the Grand Designs plots is a GIA (Gross Internal Area – or in other words the total floor space) of 124m2. But the allowable build area is bigger than this so it means that you can effectively create more internal space by having full height areas. This is a trick we could consider for our future design.
One of the mysterious aspects of self build for us at the moment is the process of going from wanting to do it, to actually getting the project underway. Model Design had a very helpful brochure which guides you through the process, with varying levels of support depending on how much you’re willing to take on yourself.
Ask an Expert #2
The next expert on our list was Ron Beattie of Beattie Passive, who supply bespoke timber frames based on their own build system.
Should we go to an architect with a firm idea of what we want?
Ron’s view on this was that yes, it’s a good idea to have a detailed brief to help ensure you end up with what you want. The architect’s role is to turn your vision into reality, so the more information you can supply, the more likely they will understand what you are trying to achieve.
Are there limitations to the shape and form that the house can take when building to Passivhaus standard?
Whilst it might not be ideal, there is no reason why a house built to Passivhaus should be restricted to a simple box. Ron made the point that this is your home, and you should specify it as you want, rather than be dictated to by the standard.
It was a reassuring response. Passivhaus isn’t about compromise – it’s about getting the house you want, but with the added bonus that it will be warm, comfortable and free of drafts and mould. Sounds good to us!
Is it worth getting Passivhaus certification?
Yes. If everyone involved in the build knows that at the end of the process the house will be tested, then it ensures the details are correct. Once you start adopting the attitude of ‘close is good enough’ you could drift further and further as the project goes on and ultimately not achieve the full potential that a passivhaus offers.
We wanted to know whether it’s a good idea to engage with architects early
Yes, it is worth getting in touch with architects early on to discuss the potential project. You can conduct your own background research and perhaps visit some existing projects to get an idea of whether an architect seems right for you. Then once you feel comfortable with a particular architect, and you have a plot, you can proceed to the detailed design brief.
The Beattie Passive Build System
After our chat with Ron, we headed over the Beattie Passive stand and had a chat with (we presume) his wife Rosemary. They have a cross section showing the construction system, which comprises a wooden framework with a cavity between them. This cavity is then pumped with an insulating material (a sort of resin mixed with tiny polystyrene balls) to form a continuous insulation barrier. The idea being that this structure forms the outer ‘skin’ of the house leaving you free to arrange the internals as you wish.
It seems like a very simple system, and indeed simple enough that with some training you might be able to assemble the structure yourself. Beattie Passive have a training academy which will teach you all you need to know to be able to take care of the assembly yourself. This could obviously represent a significant cost saving for anyone on a tight budget, plus the satisfaction of knowing you have literally built your own house!
The first question on my mind was “what happens if I build it and it isn’t airtight, and so fails the Passivhaus test?”. Their answer was “ we won’t let that happen!”. It’s reassuring to know. They are there every step of the way, and carry out inspections throughout the build so that they can spot any problems early and guide you back on track.
Self Build Mortgage Advice from BuildStore
The next item on our checklist was a visit to the BuildStore stand to discuss finance. It seems quite tricky initially to get a picture of where we stand financially because there are so many unknowns. Without a plot we don’t know how much we’ll need for the build, and so we can’t apply for a mortgage to see how much we’d be able to borrow. But, we know that as a ballpark figure, we could probably borrow around 4 times our total income (minus any credit or house rent), and upto around 85% of the expected house value.
We had a good chat with Thomas Honour from Build Store, who coincidentally used to live in the village next to us – it’s a small world! He now lives in Bicester, so was also up to speed on the Graven Hill development.
We were able to go through some basic figures (I was prepared with as much info relating to our finances as I could gather). So far I’ve been working on an assumed budget of around £330,000. This would require us to borrow around £230,000.
Based on the numbers we looked at, this was pretty much the value that Thomas calculated we’d be able to borrow, although of course this is just a rough estimate as any lender would take into account other factors such as your monthly expenses and ability to meet the repayments.
Still, it means we’re on the right track, and as long as we don’t do anything drastic and keep saving, we should be in a decent position come this time next summer.
One interesting tip we picked up was to be aware that your mortgage provider will look at your previous statements to check your spending, typically 3 months’ worth. So it’s well worth ensuring that you keep spending well under control during this period to reinforce the fact that you are indeed very careful with your money (and hence are a safe pair of hands).
The Self Build Theatre
To finish the day off we attended a couple of the seminar sessions, both presented by Ron Beattie (he must have thought we were stalking him!). They were mainly centred around the benefits of Passivhaus from a comfort and heating efficiency point of view. He also highlighted one of the key benefits of the Beattie Passive system, being built with an outer shell with a services void on the inner face. This allows the internals of the house to be changed as technologies move on, but crucially without disrupting the insulation layer.
And that was pretty much that. We had a quick wonder around the rest of the show, and then headed home. It was pretty much non-stop from when we arrived at 10:30 through until 4:30, so we were pretty tired by then. But it was definitely worthwhile, and I’m glad we planned our visit.
For us, the next Homebuilding and Renovating Show is at the NEC in April. Hopefully by then we will have a much better idea of what our plans are…