Carol and David Fordham took a huge gamble when they bought a tired old 1930s house with the aim of starting from scratch and creating an ‘eco’ home
TEXT HEATHER DIXON IMAGES HEATHER DIXON & DAVID FORDHAM
The plot was perfect and the location in North Yorkshire ideal; just what Carol and David Fordham were looking for as a site for their first eco-self build. The only thing standing in their way was the dated property that came with it.
Built in the 1930s, the house was too small for their needs, unsuitable for extension and, more to the point, at completely the wrong angle.
There was only one ‘fix-all’ solution and that was to demolish the existing house and build a new one facing the spectacular views that were crying out to be appreciated.
However, the Fordhams faced a huge gamble: were they prepared to buy the £350,000 property and risk having their ambitious plans for a modern family home rejected? “We knew we didn’t want to live in the house as it was, or even extend it,” says David. “The only way it would work for us was if we could knock it down and start afresh. We knew we were taking a huge risk, but we had been looking for a long time and this plot ticked all the boxes – except for the house itself.”
To minimise the risk as much as possible, Carol and David arranged an informal meeting with Hambleton District Council planning department to discuss their ideas and assess the likelihood of their building plans being passed. The positive response they received was enough to give them the confidence to forge ahead.
“It was still a gamble, but we were confident we could make it work with a bit of negotiation and compromise,” says David.
In June 2016 the couple sold their nearby 19th century farmhouse, where they had lived for 17 years and raised their three children, and moved into a rented property until the new build was completed in May 2017.
They had already done their homework, visiting build shows and exhibitions and David had even taken a course specially geared towards first time self-builders. They had also drawn up a wish-list of what they wanted, including an open plan kitchen and dining room, four family sized bedrooms, energy efficiency, low maintenance and future proofing.
“We have had some experience of self- building because we built a house in Grassington many years ago, although it was very traditional and in a national park, with all the restrictions that imposed,” says Carol. “We also extended and modernised the farmhouse, so we knew what to expect. But this was the first time we had done anything on this scale, this energy efficient, or using modern materials.”
The priority was to find an architect who understood what they wanted to achieve and who would build on their ideas. They chose York-based Brierley Groom Architects whose experience, previous projects and enthusiasm won them over.
They also took tenders from five builders and eventually chose Honeybourne Developments, who not only came highly recommended but also had experience in bespoke properties.
“They wanted to understand our budget and contingency plans so they could quote accurately, and we felt we could trust them to do an excellent job,” says David. “They turned out to be very easy to work with and we were always kept in the loop, even if we didn’t manage to get to the site every day.”
The builder was also very thorough about informing them of the next stages so they could plan ahead and give them time to make decisions in advance of work being carried out.
Something else that was high on their ‘must- do’ list was to arrange meetings with their new neighbours to discuss their plans and talk through any concerns they might have about the new build.
“It was probably one of the most difficult parts of the process,” says David. “One side was reasonably receptive to the idea while the other was opposed to it from the outset. It’s quite a challenge to find your way through it without compromising your own dreams for the way you want to live.”
In the end, the architects had to negotiate with the planning department to agree on the exact location of the property on the site.
Long before they applied for planning permission, the Fordhams cleared the overgrown site, which hadn’t been touched for 15 years and was full of conifers, diseased trees and disused ponds.
“It was impossible to see the amazing views,” says Carol. “As soon as the site was cleared we could see the potential. It opened it all up.”
Planning was granted in May 2016 and building work began in September of the same year.
“The plots along our road are at a strange angle and each of the original houses overlooked a neighbour,” says David. “The new house has been positioned at a different angle so that the main aspects from the house are down the garden and not overlooking the property next door.”
David made sure the water and electric supplies were shut off and the old house was then demolished in just three days, the rubble taken offsite in skips. “Nothing was salvageable, so the builders were able to start with a clean slate,” says David.
The strip foundations were laid along with a garage base which was reinforced to allow for a guest sitting room in the roof space above it. The garage was built ahead of the main house so it could be used for storage during the main part of the project.
The main build was straightforward, aided by good weather and easy site access. The insulated block wall shell of the three storey property was completed to roof level – complete with Spanish slate tiles – and then finished externally with colour-fast thermal KRend render, before the windows were installed. The underfloor heating and thermal screed ground floor were also laid, alongside the installation of an air source heat pump to run this and provide hot water. They also installed an MVHR heat recovery ventilation system. All was going smoothly and according to plan up until the delivery of the windows.
“We knew from everything we had read and heard that the windows are often the sticking point on a new build,” says David.
“To prevent delays, we ordered the Velux windows long before building work had even started. Unfortunately, even that precautionary measure didn’t quite work!” They were due to arrive in December 2016 but didn’t actually arrive on site until February 2017, and even then two of them were the wrong size and had to be remade. Despite this, the couple are “really pleased with them.”
The windows offer the best of both worlds combining low maintenance aluminium on the outside with wooden inner frames that have increased thermal values. There is also a double height glazed entrance hall and zinc cladding detail around the larger windows and bi-fold doors.
An unlikely second glitch arose in the form of the bespoke staircase. It was designed and made by a company in Hull using a CAD system.
“Everything was measured and applied with utmost accuracy, yet when it came to the installation it just wouldn’t fit and no-one could understand it,” says David. “After a lot of head scratching it transpired that there was a problem in the CAD software itself. As soon as this came to light they remade one section. Fortunately, the second fitting was perfect.”
“I was very relieved,” says Carol. “I didn’t particularly like climbing up the three storeys on ladders.”
Before Carol and David moved into the house in May 2017, the MKM kitchen and Watermark bathroom fittings had been installed, second fixes completed, floor coverings were down and most of the decorating completed.
They also had the garden landscaped long before the main building work got underway to make sure a large digger could access the back of the house.
“It sounds a bit back-to-front to start landscaping before the house is built, but it actually made a lot of sense,” says Carol. “We asked designer David Webster to transform the wilderness into different areas, including a wildflower garden. Opening up the view was a priority from the outset – on a clear day we can see the White Horse of Kilburn from here.”
Thanks to their prudent budgeting and the efficiency of the tradespeople involved, the build came in virtually on time and only just over their allocated budget. A further £20,000 had been set aside for the garden but that escalated to include professional landscaping, a good- sized workshop/garage, Indian stone patio, fencing, rabbit proofing and a large gravel area to the front of the house, as well as improvements to the drainage – bringing the overall total to around £400,000. The house, which has a 2,500 ft2 footprint, was recently valued at around £900,000.
On top of this, they have reduced their annual fuel bills from £4,000 for LPG at the farmhouse to £2,400 a year, less an annual £1000 Domestic RHI grant.
“The house has lived up to all our expectations,” says Carol. “The whole process was incredibly straightforward but much of that was down to good forward planning and good professionals involved in the design and build.”
“Our advice to anyone embarking on a self-build project is to do your homework, choose a good architect who understands what you are wanting to achieve and can make those ideas grow, and find a builder you can work well with on a daily basis,” says David. “You need to be able to communicate well together, trust them to do a good job and negotiate your way through challenges. With those foundations in place, you have the basis of a successful build.”