For many self-builders, finding a plot to build on is the biggest hurdle, but for one retired couple using their own land proved just as problematic, for a host of reasons. Roseanne Field reports
Set back from the main A22 road and tucked in to a tight site behind large trees and bushes, it’s hard to fathom why Alan and Elizabeth Berryman’s self-build in the desirable East Sussex town of East Grinstead would have initially been refused planning permission.
But the couple’s journey has by no means been an easy one.
Their substantial and elegant current house, built in the 1960s, is situated in a large plot at the end of a long driveway, the garden including a small parcel of land to the front where they initially decided to build a modest new home for Elizabeth’s elderly mother. Sectioned off by an assortment of trees, the plot is in line with various other houses that have been built on adjacent plots throughout the years.
The first hurdle was arranging a meeting with a planning officer – at a cost of £100 – at Haywards Heath Council, to discuss the way forward. Showing up for the appointment, they found they were meeting someone who dealt only with extensions and couldn’t help them.
They were told that while there was no guarantee they would meet the relevant person, they would have to apply for another meeting, and find another £100. Upon hearing this, “my mouth dropped open,” says Elizabeth, who ran a chocolate shop before retiring, adding: “The more I try to find out about planning, the more I realise I don’t know.”
Nevertheless they persevered, and it was during this second meeting they discovered that their proposed plot was classified as ‘C1 countryside’, meaning it can only be built on in exceptional circumstances. Despite being somewhat disheartened, a visit to Grand Designs Live proved to be a turning point. “We met a young designer called Will Foster who had won several awards,” explains Elizabeth. “He said, ‘I’ll get your planning permission,’ and a great deal of time and money later, he did.”
The design that was eventually given approval was a low, circular house with a small chunk missing to allow for existing trees. Alan, a former IT specialist, explains that as well as two bedrooms, it had a lounge and open-plan kitchen diner, and its circular design allowed every inch of space to be utilised. “It was quite clever, actually,” he says. However, during 18 months of design tweaks required to get through planning Elizabeth’s mother passed away, which naturally meant the project was put on hold.
Despite the trouble their design had faced getting planning, permission for two new houses was granted on an adjacent plot of land fractionally bigger than their site, and demolition began within six weeks of the previous owner moving out. It was this state of affairs that steeled their determination to go ahead and build.
A change of plan
Although the ‘round house’ design had planning, they decided against it due to cost, opting instead for a two-storey dwelling, as Alan explains, saying: “It worked out that it would be the same cost to build a two-storey house.” They also contemplated selling the land, but decided it wasn’t worth it, due to the risk that “somebody could build anything.”
Following all the delays, they wanted something that would be quick to build, as well as good quality, so they paid a visit to the nearby showroom of Swedish timber frame ‘kit home’ firm Scandia-Hus. Impressed, they decided on a two-storey, split roof design which would limit the height of the house and thus make it more discreet.
However there was a further twist in the tale. Alan and Elizabeth discovered that their assigned planning officer, having not been in agreement with the decision to allow permission for the houses next door to their plot, was not minded to grant further planning. This was complicated by objections from a neighbour to the house (seemingly sensibly) facing the driveway, claiming it would overlook their swimming pool, despite numerous tall trees in between. Confusingly, the planning officer said that “he would have granted permission, if we had any trees!”, comments Elizabeth.
The house had to be rotated 90 degrees so that it now faces the hedge dividing the plot from the road beyond it, but this meant the design had to be altered. “It was going to have a carport on the side with a balcony above it so you could see the South Downs,” explains Alan. It also had to reduced by a metre horizontally, in order to sit at least five metres away from another neighbour’s trees. “This made things like wall widths and positioning of things much more critical than they would have been,” says Alan. A bath was to go in one of the ensuites, but had to be replaced by a shower: “It’s only a metre, but that has made a lot of difference,” adds Elizabeth.
They sought the help of a local councillor, who along with Scandia-Hus helped them fight their case with the planning department. They attended the planning meeting, and were finally granted permission – with a majority of 11 to one.
Building finally begins
Once actual activity began on site, things went a little more smoothly. However there was a costly misunderstanding with the drainage system. A surface water drain was mistaken for a sewage drain, meaning a pumped system had to be connected to an alternative drain at the rear of their existing house – at a not- insubstantial cost of £15,000.
Things really began to motor in October 2016, but Alan and Elizabeth weren’t there to see it. Following what was a stressful few months, they flew to America for a well-earned break as the block and beam floor was being laid, but returned to find a very a different scene on their plot. “We went away for five weeks and when we got back we had a house!” says Elizabeth.
The relatively compact four-bedroom house began as a simple adaptation of a Scandia-Hus model but became more and more bespoke with the necessary changes required to achieve planning. It has been constructed using a combination of blockwork and timber frame with the ground floor rendered and the first floor covered in wood-effect cladding. The roof design reduces the height of the building to the extent that it isn’t visible from their existing house.
There are three bathrooms, including two ensuites, plus an additional downstairs WC. The bathrooms have all been finished to a high standard and are fully tiled. On the ground floor, efficient warmth is provided by a water underfloor heating system, while there are radiators upstairs. One of the two ensuites features another space-saving addition, an electrically-heated wall, which is a clever alternative to a heated towel rail. All of the building’s windows are triple-glazed and aluminium coated.
The two floors are connected with a central modern oak staircase with a glass balustrade which creates an impressive focal point upon entering the house. No expense has been spared in the kitchen, which sits to the left of the entrance hall. The modern, dark brown units feature three integrated ovens (two standard and one steam), a microwave and dishwasher, while an island/breakfast bar houses the hob with a downdraft extractor that sits hidden in the worktop when not in use. A separate utility room includes space for a washing machine and tumble dryer.
The living room sits to the right of the hallway, a bright room with double doors leading out to the garden. The landing features a large window and skylight, while the two front bedrooms benefit from floor to ceiling windows, filling the space with light. Leading off the driveway up to their existing house, the new dwelling’s good-sized driveway offers plenty of parking, and the rest of the outside space is turfed. A row of hedges will run up the side of the existing driveway to give the house some privacy and separation.
As well as erecting the frame, Scandia-Hus provided a full design service – including all changes needed, as well as constructing the entire framework including all internal supporting walls. The main contractor Head & Southon – recommended by Scandia-Hus – managed the project and sub-contracted all other trades, including the groundworkers who constructed the block and beam floor.
The main contractor is based locally, which Alan and Elizabeth say has been a major advantage compared with working with a London-based builder – as has been their previous experience. “It makes a big difference,” Alan says.
The majority of the construction work took place over winter which meant predictable delays caused by weather conditions and Christmas and New Year. The blockwork got wet during winter rains and therefore the rendering was delayed while it dried out. They also struggled to get hold of the edge tiles for the roof which Alan puts down to “the general slowdown in the industry last year.”
Scandia-Hus’ eco credentials as well as build quality influenced the couple’s decision to go with the firm. However, the air tightness levels provided means an MVHR ventilation system will normally be required to remove stale air. They planned to install this, but it had to be abandoned as it upset the SAP (Standard Assessment Procedure) calculations for Building Regs compliance. “If we wanted that we would have had to have a woodburner,” says Elizabeth, “but we didn’t, so we had to go around it.” They instead installed extractor fans in the toilets and could also only use a certain type of combi boiler to satisfy SAP. But looking on the bright side, she says: “Actually it saved us quite a bit of money!”
The installation of the utilities also proved somewhat frustrating. “The services were a nightmare,” Alan says. They arranged for the water and electrics work to be done on the same day to prevent the road from being dug up twice, but only one of the two turned up. They also experienced a wait between each step of the electrics and gas installation – having to wait for one job to be finished before the next could even be arranged. “It’s a sequential problem,” Alan says.
They also had to pay £3,500 for a telegraph pole to be moved 15 feet and discovered that the utility companies “will not work under scaffolding,” says Alan. He says, resignedly: “It’s the little things like the services that have caused us more grief than building the house.”
Reflecting on their experience, they agree there are lessons for others from what was an expensive process. “It really is quite scary,” says Elizabeth. “For example, suddenly all sorts of people want different surveys which all cost money.” Alan gives one example of an unexpected sudden charge in the form of the SANG (Suitable Alternative Natural
Greenspace) payment, which they discovered was compulsory when building on empty land. They also found themselves paying a fee for the build due to it being within 7 km of the Ashdown Forest, plus various soil tests.
Elizabeth says one of her biggest frustrations with the process is what she perceives as a lack of rights when appealing decisions or arguing additional or unnecessary charges. She cites the example of the drainage issue, for which they paid the council for a sewage map only to find it so out of date their existing house isn’t even on it. “You pay your money and there’s no redress,” she says.
They have also found other extra costs cropping up that hadn’t originally been allowed for. “Because we’ve got a slightly sloping site, we’ve had an additional cost to put steps down out the back,” says Alan, giving one example.
Ending on a high
Although the project has taken longer than they had originally anticipated, Alan and Elizabeth had no specific deadline to finish by and so were not feeling unduly stressed as the project neared its end. Says Elizabeth: “On the whole, it’s most likely taken longer than we thought it would, but our motto throughout was ‘It doesn’t matter’.”
The ‘inside-first’ efficiency of the Scandia-Hus construction method has impressed Alan. “Because they put the interior of the house up first, it’s waterproof and all the windows go in straight away, they’re able to work through all the cold weather.” He adds: “You haven’t got these scenes like you see on TV where all the water’s pouring in.” Elizabeth agrees it was a very smooth process: “It went up easily and they were there to support us.”
They are still undecided as to what they will do with the house once completed. But despite the rollercoaster ride they’ve been on to get here, remarkably the pair say they would take on a self-build again – providing they could find land with some form of building, and therefore utilities, already in place!
“We like the house, we think it’s been well built and we haven’t really had any problems on that front,” summarises Elizabeth. “We would build another!”
“Without a doubt the house!”
– Elizabeth Berryman
“I think the most frustrating thing is still the planning permission. It took far too long and was far too irritating.”
– Elizabeth Berryman
Tiles: Barge Tiles
Kitchen units: Schüller
Kitchen sinks: Carron Phoenix
Bathroom fixtures & fittings: Pura; RAK Ceramics; R2; Kudos; Carron; Thomas Dudley
Cladding: Marley Eternit (Cedral)
Carpets: T P Martin
Head & Southon, Lingfield