The end result of Sarah and Andy Ball’s somewhat gruelling self-build saga is a sleek, modern ‘forever’ home in Derby, with wide-open views of landscape plus space, comfort and sustainability
Over the past couple of years we have tracked the progress of the Balls’ contemporary Derby self-build in Selfbuilder + Homemaker, and it has been a rollercoaster to say the least. Being let down by not one but two builders, they ended up spending four Christmases living onsite before they even got to start their forever home, a real test of character.
The story starts back in 2013, when Sarah and Andy moved into the house they were to demolish on the 13 metre x 30 metre plot, which backs onto a hilly park in the suburb of Allestree. They lost their original builder when the firm ran into trouble, and in early 2017 with their design approved and ready to go, they found out there would be a 40-week delay due to other jobs. When they finally demolished in January 2018 and moved into a bungalow, the ‘Beast from the East’ meant they didn’t actually get to start building until April. It’s testimony to the couple’s fortitude that they didn’t lose heart completely.
Their experience working in the construction industry (marketing in Sarah’s case, commercial roofing in Andy’s), and doing previous refurbishments meant they knew how things can go awry. While a new build was the goal, they pragmatically began to look at the options, such as refurbishing, or project managing a new build themselves.
Sarah and Andy’s only fixed goal was creating the right kind of space for them and visiting family and friends, as well as strong energy-efficiency credentials, but they also wanted a very contemporary look. The design, done by architect Daniel Evans from Matthew Montague Architects was for a “crisp white box,” in Sarah’s words – flat- roofed like the smaller L-shaped building it replaced, but with a far better use of its site. Sarah says there haven’t been any issues with neighbours complaining: “They’ve been lovely, nobody’s really batted an eyelid.”
The site was ideal – the old village and shops being nearby, but not being subject to the strict planning rules there which would make a modernist flat-roofed house tricky. Sarah says: “There’s a variety of styles here, from Victorian to a dutch barn, to chalet-style, and a large white- rendered house which we’ve given a nod to.”
Andy and Sarah have a big family – Andy has five brothers. “We wanted a house where we could throw a party – if we do, there’s often more than 30 people”. They wanted an entertaining space that could accommodate such a gathering, rather than being split across different rooms.
The house is of brick and block construction. It has very thick external walls, packed with insulation, and Andy took a painstaking approach to filling all gaps with extra expanding foam post-construction to ensure thermal efficiency was maximised. The only downside to the foil backed insulation in the walls is that their Wi-Fi is not great!
Walking into this clean-lined, spacious house now, a few weeks after completion, the tranquil white-painted interiors belie the fact it has been a labour of love. Through the centrally placed, oversized front door is a hallway which leads your gaze straight through to the rear garden off the kitchen/dining/living space. Sarah and Andy’s meticulous approach is visible in the precisely aligned ceiling LEDs in the hallway and beyond: “Every single light lines up.”
To the left is what will be an office, but currently just houses an upright piano, donated by Sarah’s mum, who was to have a bedroom here with her dad before their plans changed and they moved nearer to the Balls. There’s a thin but full height curtain wall-style window to the front providing ample light but also privacy, plus acoustic and thermal benefits, being triple-glazed. Window frames are painted black so that they’re less visible from a distance.
In the hallway there’s a very large plant cupboard – almost a room – containing a 300 litre water tank, manifold for the downstairs underfloor heating, and the air handling units for the Mechanical Ventilation with Heat Recovery (MVHR) system. This surprisingly spacious provision for services delights engineers, Sarah says.
The kitchen/dining/living area to the rear takes up the full width of the house, the back wall being a sliding eight metre-wide set of three oversized glazed doors. The design nominally breaks down this large space following the lines of the glass panels, dividing the area into a third each for the kitchen, the central dining area, and the lounge/living area – each being very generous spaces in themselves.
Despite their size, the glass panels open relatively easily thanks to the AluK system used, which is the first installed triple-track variant by the manufacturer AluFoldDirect. Its thin frames maximise the view of the garden, still to be landscaped but already benefitting from a wall separating it from the park visually and acoustically. Solar control glass avoids overheating – essential as an alternative to brise soleil as the living space is south facing – and space has been left for blinds to be installed later.
The kitchen is divided from the dining/lounge area by a huge white Corian-topped island, which is Sarah’s pride and joy in this space. The top and sides are jointed, but appear as one solid piece of material thanks to meticulous finishing by the supplier; the island also houses a drinks cabinet.
Sandwiched between the wall to the downstairs WC (which features Roman-style geometric black and white tiles), and the wall to the kitchen behind, is the simple enclosed staircase. Being somewhat hidden when you enter the house, it has the effect of revealing another glimpse of green from the cantilevered bay window on the landing above, which overlooks trees. It’s “like a tree house,” says Sarah, and brings extra light into what could have been a slightly murky space. She adds that this was “part of the original plan,” and one they stuck to. Further improving light to the first floor corridor are a couple of rooflights, which were easy to include thanks to having a flat
The stair is a standard solution, necessitated by the fact the builder put a steel here which couldn’t be easily moved, but it was a highly cost-effective result, coming in at only £340. It’s one key example of how the couple made big savings on some aspects that helped them spend money elsewhere.
There are three large bedrooms, all with ensuites. One for their grandsons over the office, with the same tall window, plus a side window overlooking the trees, where squirrels playing often provide great entertainment. The guest bedroom sits above the garage, with a large window which continues into the ensuite, but is frosted for privacy, This is also the case in the family bathroom which sits behind this room, off the corridor, and faces the neighbours.
The guest ensuite was to have a glass roof too, sitting at right angles to the striking curtain walling, however as Sarah says, they decided to shelve this design as it was impossible to achieve. “We just couldn’t make it work, so we had to rethink it. Any redesign costs a fortune – it’s galling that it cost so much extra money for removing a design feature, especially as we have ended up with a standard ceiling.”
However there were no compromises when it came to the master bedroom, which has a great view over the park thanks to the sliding glass doors. The wall behind the bed separates the room from a walk-in wardrobe (a room in itself), and off this is the ‘big reveal’, a very impressive mosaic-tiled bathroom, featuring a free-standing bath in pride of place, centrally located on a protruding wall flanked by two windows.
“We compromised on all the other bathrooms to get this one perfect,” says Sarah, explaining how this refuge was at the top of their wish-list. The wall that the bath sits against wasn’t quite central, “so the bath had to be exactly central; the minutest detail was important to us,” says Sarah. The shower has a £500 ‘soft-feel’ shower tray, there’s a Bluetooth-enabled speaker in the ceiling, and various lighting moods can be provided. The tile “wasn’t expensive,” insists Sarah, “however, buying through our tiler meant we got his 35 per cent trade discount.”
The bedroom is double-aspect, with a window to the side giving a view of the tree, and the squirrels’ dray, which helps give the room a feeling of tranquility with views of nature wherever you look. Sarah and Andy carried through this idea having enjoyed seeing the squirrels in the previous house’s bedroom which also had a window on this side. (Somewhat bizarrely, the house was designed with no window looking towards the park, however they have remedied this in a big way.)
Situated above the living area is a snug lounge, an alternative to the open living space below with a large window providing another great view over the landscape. “We think this is going to be our winter lounge,” says Sarah. A frameless glass balustrade sits outside the lift-and-slide windows as well as behind the sliding windows to the master bedroom; “you can barely see it at night,” enthuses Sarah.
Cost & challenges
Achieving cost savings has been a major goal for Andy and Sarah, and they have used their contacts in the industry to get products direct from manufacturers where possible, or simply contacting companies to find the cheapest price for the products they want. An example is the striking grey laminate internal doors which ended up not costing much more than “bog standard” doors. They have magnetic black ‘carbon fibre’ handles, completing a modern look inspired by the couple’s love of Formula 1.
Sarah is proud of their thrifty approach: “Almost nothing in this house has been bought at retail price.” She explains further: “We’ve basically bought on sale or gone to the manufacturer.” For example, the sofa and rugs to the living area came from an auction.
A further weapon was their project manager, who was invaluable in helping to shave thousands both off the costs of the steel in the build, and associated concrete foundations, following Brexit concerns forcing a hike in steel prices. Sarah says: “There was originally £23,000 of steel in the design holding up the cantilevers, and protecting the sliding door against deflection.”
Despite the £300K budget being adhered to rigorously in most cases, the brickwork went “massively over,” says Sarah. This has prompted the couple to think that if they had their time over, they’d have gone for timber frame throughout. “We would have got it done much quicker, while getting the same result from the point of view of air-tightness.”
Unfortunately their project manager was to fall ill late last year and was unable to return, leaving Sarah and Andy to project manage on their own, over the critical final stages of fixtures and finishes. “We’ve basically managed it since Christmas, you learn on the job,” she says philosophically. Despite the ups and downs, they’ve achieved a cost of £1,395 per square metre, which is “not bad at all when you look at the space, the high ceilings, and the fact we have a few nice things,” says Sarah.
The sliding doors to the living area were the ultimate example of this, but were also probably the most nervewracking challenge. The glass panels, each weighing a third of a ton, had to be craned into the back garden from the adjacent car park, there being no direct
Sarah says the installation, despite the help of a robot, was “very hairy, terrifying”. She explains that because of a packing issue, the robot had to manoeuvre to the other side of each panel before they were installed: “As we took each panel off there was a moment when the robot had to hold the glass, let go of it as we held it in place, and then take it from the other side.” She recalls: “You’ve never heard a site so silent.”
This is not only a handsome, imposing home which takes the maximum benefit from its site to provide some very pleasant internal spaces, with strong visual connections to the landscape, plus family comfort. It has also been achieved for a very modest budget, and with a responsible attitude to sustainability.
Measures range from the copious insulation e.g. around potential metal connections causing thermal bridges in the fabric, to add-ons like the efficiency-maximising Lutron smart home unit (controlling lighting, alarms, blinds etc.) and an air source heat pump, plus the coming installation of PVs on the 100 m2 flat roof. The big aim is for the house to be energy self- sufficient if needs be in future.
As well as their house providing the space and features that Andy and Sarah need for them to entertain friends and family, the energy performance is the crucial future-proofing final element that makes this house an out-and-out success for them.
While Sarah says that although they’re not ruling out building another house in the future, they’re unlikely to do it for themselves again, as they hope to stay in this one for the long-term. The couple’s painstaking as well as patient approach has paid off, having produced their ideal sustainable home – and will continue doing so long into the future.