A plot on the family farm proved the perfect spot for John and Helen White to build a forever home for their family
TEXT ROSEANNE FIELD IMAGES JOHN & HELEN WHITE
For many who have long dreamed of building their own home, the first major hurdle is finding the right plot, but John and Helen White didn’t have that problem. John’s parents’ farm in the village of Abernyte, just west of Dundee, turned out to be the perfect solution for their particular needs.
Having left home to go to university and then work, John says he always harboured the idea to at some point come back and build a house on the farm. While some might be put off at the thought of living so close to family, there were mutual benefits. His parents had been using external contractors to do the farm work, but now John helps out, and his parents are more than happy to have their three young grandchildren so close by. One has “quite special needs,” says John, paying tribute to his parents for being “amazing all through the journey.”
Although the general location was therefore a no-brainer, choosing a specific patch of ground proved somewhat trickier. “Another one of our fields was our first option, but we were unsuccessful with planning,” explains John. This site was across the road, making it more ‘stand alone,’ which “didn’t really comply with any of Perth & Kinross planning department’s requirements.”
John spent around a year trying to identify the site: “I got a lot of support, a lot of expert advice,” he explains, but it was “quite costly, and took a lot of time and effort.” Eventually someone from the planning office spent time walking around the farm with John discussing various potential plots. The couple were advised to go for full planning permission “to show our commitment, and what the house would look like.” It was a “large upfront cost,” and he admits, “if it hadn’t worked out it would have been another chunk of money sunk.” They also needed support from the local community, which thankfully was present.
Once they’d got permission, the house design itself “sailed through.” However there was one more major investment when they made the decision to use kit frame supplier Scotframe for the build, which meant a structural reset. They had already paid a structural engineer to prepare drawings, but these had to be redone by Scotframe’s team. “That was just down to our inexperience really and bad advice from out professionals involved at the time,” John explains.
A DESIGN FOR LIFE
John and Helen had a very clear idea of what they wanted when it came to the layout and look. “We kind of sketched it up and gave it to the architect to make it look professional, but the actual design was basically done by ourselves,” says John.
They knew what shape they wanted the house to be and how it would be laid out. A particular focus was designing a home that would suit their son for the rest of his life. The house is a square shape, with two storeys at the front and three single storey ‘wings’ surrounding a sheltered courtyard. “It’s a really safe, secure outside space outside so the kids can run in and out,” says John. One of the ‘wings’ is home to an indoor swimming pool, which is brilliant for their family life. Additionally, although their son doesn’t use a wheelchair, they ensured the house has level thresholds throughout so he could move about with as few potential trip hazards as possible.
They also included a bedroom and bathroom downstairs. “He’s probably going to live with us when he’s an adult so it can hopefully be a more independent space for him,” says John. At the moment he has a bedroom upstairs alongside his brothers. The other key requirement was a big open living space. “He used to get quite upset when we left the room, and now we’re all in one big room,” John explains. “It’s quite noisy, but we love it!”
After getting the initial drawings done they decided to work with a different designer after struggling to agree with the initial architect on the design features. They began working with architectural technician Matthew Cowan instead, who John says “looked at the house as the end result.” For example, with the upstairs bedrooms the couple originally wanted large apertures in the master bedroom and smaller ones for the boys, but he advised them to consider how that would look from outside.
“He did lots of little tweaks that really improved the overall feel of the house,” says John. He also advised adding an overhang over the front door, to provide some shelter. “Simple things – thinking about the house as a functional family home.”
Utilities, often a cause of self-builder angst, were largely stress-free for John and Helen, although costly. They had to extend the nearby water and electricity supply to the site, and added a private soakaway. “That was expensive because the soil up here is heavy clay and we had to dig out 120 metres,” says John. “We were fortunate we were doing it on our own farm and there were no issues with access.”
The couple were already aware of Scotframe, not only because they’re local – they also have friends who’d used them previously. They narrowed the quotes received down to three firms, but their friends’ recommendations of Scotframe “played a big part” in their final decision.
It was through friends that they also chose their main contractor – a friend’s family has a housebuilding company, RD Morgan, which John says was “a big draw”. They had heard stories about builders “turning up and then disappearing”, so they wanted to be able to trust whoever they decided to work with. “It turned out really well, we had a great relationship during the whole build,” he says.
John credits the subcontractors with being a big help with various aspects of the project. One in particular, Aqua Leisure, helped hugely with the pool, something they’d been struggling with as being relatively inexperienced with such a construction. They considered delaying it as cost estimates were spiralling, but “he came through and helped us out with contacts and things that managed to get it back to something sensible and manageable,” explains John.
Their main contractor also advised putting hardcore around the outside of the property to avoid it becoming a “mudbath,” which also provided a good base for scaffolding. Their main contractor also took it on the chin when a storm caused damage to the interior. The Nordan windows, which John and Helen arranged through Scotframe, ended up being delayed by 12 weeks. To get the house wind and watertight the builder put up plastic sheets to enable them to continue work. However, a bad storm blew one of the sheets aside, unfortunately allowing a lot of water in. “He took full responsibility and got it all dried and sorted out.”
Although resolved, situations like this were nonetheless testing, particularly for Helen who was project managing the build while looking after the children, while John was abroad with work for weeks at a time. She also had to deal with the issues caused by a few plumbing leaks. “She was up here every day looking at the contractors and plans – she planned all the lighting, flooring and a lot of the interior design,” says John. The couple were renting a house in the nearby village during the build, having sold their house quicker than expected. “It was quite handy being able to pop up and down.”
There were also small hiccups with some subcontractors – partly due to being brought in by both John and Helen and also by their contractor. “Some things maybe weren’t paid attention to because he thought they were our guys’, and we thought they were his,” John explains. One such example was the drain test, which could have been done earlier. “You can do it before the plasterboard’s up, you can just chase any leaks, but if you do it at the end there can be quite an investigation,” he says. “So Helen was up here with the builder digging up floors trying to get it all sorted, but they did really well!”
What John says was his “practical background” meant he also took on some elements of the project. He took care of choosing the heating system – which he admits took longer than hoped. “It took about six months to find the right company, just because of the lack of experience,” he says. “There are so many different options, plus we had the added complexity of the pool, which needs its own heating.” In the end he settled on air source heat pumps, supplied and installed by Anderson Floor Warming, one for the main house and one for the pool. “They’re amazing – even down to minus 15 degrees they still work well.”
They installed underfloor heating which John prefers as it saves space on radiators. However, while they find the system works well for them, he admits it maybe wasn’t the best solution from an economical point of view. The large windows means the house benefits from a lot of solar gain, so they often find they don’t need the underfloor heating on during the day. “I don’t think it was a bad choice, but potentially with a modern house with such good insulation and solar gain, it may be more economical to go with a radiator system,” he says. They’re also not opposed to installing solar panels later down the line, but with the technology continuously evolving, John was reluctant to spend the money at the time.
They chose one of Scotframe’s top end insulation packages which helps make the house very cosy, and keep running costs as low as possible. “When it’s your forever house, that’s definitely the way to do it,” he says. He notes that the Nordan windows as well as the Scotframe system itself “offered some of the best U-values.”
Despite encountering a few small bumps in the road, the build didn’t take too long. They broke ground in March 2019, and moved in December. John credits the contractors for the speed at which they managed to get in. “It’s a big house, and the guys did well. Their commitment to the job just removes an awful lot of stress.”
Erection of the frame itself was very speedy, taking only a week. “The joiners were really impressed with the frame, it was all labelled well and was really easy to put up,” John says. The windows being supplied by Scotframe also meant installing those was smooth in terms of them fitting. “It was like a jigsaw, everything just fitted perfectly. It’s a well thought out package, the wood, skirting boards, window sills etc.”
Due to the temperamental Scottish weather, John and Helen chose to install sliding doors as opposed to bifolds, worrying bifolds might not fare so well when subjected to high winds. Sliding doors also offer a slimmer frame, which along with the tall, frameless windows allows them to make the most of the views. It was something they changed after seeing sliding doors at an exhibition, where they also learnt about MVHR, which benefitted them as they wanted to avoid having openings on the windows but needed to fulfil certain ventilation requirements.
Despite their substantial size, the windows were fairly simple to install. The only ones which proved slightly tricky were the large ones by the stairs. “We couldn’t get a machine in the courtyard, so they had to be carried through the house,” John explains.
THE RIGHT LAYOUT & LOOK
The five bedroom house features a large open kitchen/living space downstairs, complete with a woodburner, with a separate pantry off the kitchen and a boot room and toilet near the front door. “The boot room is a handy space, and the pantry means there’s less clutter in the kitchen,” says John. There’s also a hall leading off to the additional bedroom and bathroom earmarked for their son in the future. Upstairs are four bedrooms, including a master with ensuite, and a family bathroom.
Externally the building is mostly finished with a roughcast render and slate roof, with some larch cladding elements added to “break up the front,” says John. The ‘wing’ housing the pool is fully clad and has a metal roof to add an agricultural element.
The couple didn’t have an absolutely strict budget, but did somewhat underestimate the final cost. “We knew we weren’t building a cheap house, it’s our forever house, but we thought it was going to be cheaper,” John confesses. “Once we’d been to some home shows and started getting quotes we realised it was going to be quite a bit more.” They also hadn’t factored in how much things like lighting would cost, but unanticipated costs aside, John says “nearly everything was delivered to quote.”
Having now lived in the house for just over a year, the family couldn’t be happier. “We’re delighted, it really works for our family,” says John. “We like the flow.” Because of how well it works for them, John’s almost certain they wouldn’t do another build; the next project is to improve the garden. “It’s not that building it was so stressful we’d never want to do it again, there just wouldn’t be that same passion,” he says. “We just want to stay here.”