After having their design for a dream home rejected on two sites, a retired couple succeeded in creating a modern, sustainable and visually ‘transparent’ self-build on a rural site in north Devon. James Parker reports
Mark and Melanie Goldman’s self-build story is a real example of how persevering with a plan can reap rewards, and refine your design. Although they had previously extended a house in Surrey before moving to Devon and converting a stone barn into holiday cottages, this was their first experience of a total new build, and it wasn’t exactly a small project.
Despite the substantial nature of the task, project managing their imposing, modern four- bedroom home near Torrington, north Devon, was a challenge that Mark and Melanie relished. They had refined their design through two failed attempts to get planning permission on other sites, and by the time they secured this plot in 2015, then occupied by an old bungalow, they knew exactly what they wanted to do.
As Mark explains, “Over time you actually evolve a much better design. I think the result wouldn’t be so nice if we’d started on this with no experience of doing it before.” He says that they “spent a lot of time designing and refining it, because we knew what it was like with builders – if you have to change things mid-flight it can be very time-consuming and very expensive.”
They had decided to move after living in the area for 12 years and he says “had always wanted to build own our home”. As well as creating a ‘forever home’ for themselves, Mark and Melanie’s big ambition was to create a highly sustainable, as well as low-maintenance, building. So, in addition to a well-insulated fabric, they decided to invest in the very ‘eco’ solution of ground source heating. From an early stage they engaged renewables specialist RES (Devon) to advise them on the right products and installation to help them realise their green dream.
However this wasn’t just an ethical way to save on bills, it also helped the scheme get through planning. Says Mark: “Ground source ticks all the boxes, and the planners were very good. They gave us pretty much a free hand to do what we wanted.” This was also in part because the plot, surrounded by trees, is largely not visible to others.
Melanie says that their key design intention was to create “open-plan type living”, but also “have the ability to cosy down if we wanted to.” Now retired, this couple who met working in the IT industry therefore wanted a layout with a mix of spacious open plan areas and cosy spaces, to suit their lifestyle.
Melanie: “There’s just the two of us, but we like entertaining, so we wanted a house that would open up and lend itself to that.” So as well as practical, accessible things for a ‘forever home’ like a ramp to the front door and downstairs bedroom with an en-suite, there is a kitchen/diner with parliament-hinged doors onto the living room that can open flat against the wall – and thereby open up the whole space. Also, if it’s a summer occasion, the 3 metre bifold doors from the living and dining areas lead onto a full-length covered terrace along the back of the house.
A see-through house
To take the open-plan theory one stage further, they decided to open up the middle of the house completely, and have two windows front and back, letting light flood in. Melanie comments: “As well as the back-to-front view and added light coming in it gave us the added wow factor to the overall feeling of the house.” And in fact if the trees surrounding the plot were not there, the house would be a glowing beacon when lit up at night.
A ‘floating mezzanine’ floor is the only thing that breaks up the 9 metre double-height hallway that splits the house in half, providing a large landing which also serves as a study and sitting area.
The chalet-style house is built with a straightforward double skin of blocks plus render construction. Additional steel frames support the front and rear glazing as well as roof overhangs and the two balconies to bedrooms on the front of the house.
Mark notes that due to the open core, they had to design and install additional steel supports/frames to prevent lateral movement of the big windows to front and rear, the front
one being floor-to-apex. “Normally this would be incorporated into the first floor structure but because we have a mezzanine there was nowhere to anchor.” He adds: “This caused a bit of a headache as the window installers did not advise this at the project start and despite being repeatedly asked, said the windows were self-supporting. When they came to do final measurements, they then asked ‘What about the support frames?’”
As a result, Mark and Melanie had to get the frames designed, manufactured and installed in a hurry to avoid what he says would have been major delays. In the end, the design they came up with is almost invisible, fitting the modern, minimal look of the house, with no bolts or plates.
They engaged local architect Deborah Somerville, who took the scheme through planning, and also proposed the one major change to Mark and Melanie’s scheme. That was to include a second void at the back of the property so that the mezzanine would fully ‘float’ across the hall space.
Because the bathroom that would have been included to first floor in this space was no longer there, it meant that valuable roof storage space above it was removed. Therefore they decided to extend the lounge by 50 per cent to an 8 metre length, with a pitched roof above it. This area provides convenient storage, accessed off the dressing room in the centre of the master suite.
The house consists of regularly-sized, spacious rooms, with a layout designed by the couple to provide a free flow from one space to the next. Says Melanie: “Everything has basically been designed around 4 metre blocks. It flows very well – you don’t suddenly end up in a tiny room, and no-one is ‘shoved in a box room’.”
An oversized red-painted aluminium front door is located at a 45 degree angle to the front facade – Mark explains: “The majority of the facade is glass, and we originally had a door in the middle of the glass, but we decided that was a stupid thing to do.”
This then lets onto a spacious main hall and oak and glass staircase, and off it a snug study, understairs bathroom and downstairs accessible bathroom. Under the mezzanine are double doors leading to the dining room, next to the large rear window to the apex, and bifolds onto the patio with its retaining wall at the back. This is separated from the large kitchen by a wide breakfast bar, whereas to the left is the double-sized sitting room area.
Upstairs, their master bedroom suite runs along the entirety of one side, with a balcony at the front, a dressing room in the middle and an en-suite at the rear. The main guest bedroom also has a balcony, en-suite, and walk-in wardrobe, and there is another bedroom with separate bathroom. This was part of the design’s future flexibility – the mezzanine level study could be converted to a bedroom and its occupant could access a bathroom without going through another bedroom first!
The flooring is engineered oak throughout, with granite slabs outside. With low maintenance as well as sustainability being Mark and Melanie’s watchwords, they opted for no gloss paint, and simply stained wooden frames and floors (they did all the hard work themselves here). The colour scheme is generally pale for walls, and accents of purple here and there, picked up in the stair carpet.
The Mackintosh kitchen is high-spec with modern glossy pale grey lacquered cupboard doors, two sinks, and granite worksurfaces. This leads onto the large utility room, which continues the finishes found in the kitchen, and contains the sustainable beating heart of the house, the ground-source heat pump.
Hidden discreetly in a cupboard in the utility room is a NIBE 12 kW heat pump, about the size of a normal fridge freezer. “You walk in and you’d never know anything was there,” says Mark. He says the “thing that gives it away is the pipework, which is quite impressive. When you first put it in, you think blimey, that’s a lot of pipes.”
A total of 650 metres of pipe needed to be buried a metre underground across the site, collecting heat from the earth for the house.
Because the site is wet clay, the pipes maintain their heat much better than if it was a drier soil. The pipes provide heat at a consistent temperature of 55 degrees through the year and which isn’t prone to weather changes. This temperature means keeping the system running is more efficient than switching it on from cold.
The house is heated using a wet underfloor heating system downstairs only, which is kept on continuously at around 22 degrees by nine thermostats, following what Mark says was “a lot of experimentation”. The MVHR fresh air ventilation system is necessitated by the efficient air-tight construction, and this provides enough heating for the upstairs. The only service supplied to the house externally is electricity; they have a private water supply plus a Klargester packaged sewage treatment plant, and solar PVs on the roof topping up their electricity.
In addition to the ground source heating, a NIBE solar cylinder was installed, storing hot water heated by a combination of the ground source heat pump and a solar thermal array on the roof. Except in emergency breakdown situations, renewables will provide all of their heating, and the couple’s income from feed-in- tariffs is greater than their energy bill. Although it’s a healthy return on the ground source heating, the downside is the tariff only lasts seven years, theoretically enough to pay back the £14,000 cost of installation however.
The living room includes a woodburner, however Mark notes that thanks to the house’s highly airtight construction, they haven’t had to use it since they moved in October 2016.
In fact, the house performed well in terms of the air-tightness of its fabric during the post- completion air-test, despite the fact that “a couple of things were left open,” says Mark. He says that they decided against triple-glazing despite the sustainability benefits, due to poorer sight lines, and they “wanted to have trickle vents, which you can’t with triple glazing.”
In addition, the weight of the glazing units that would have been required if triple-glazing had been used made it non-viable, says Mark: “It was tough enough getting those front glazed units in with double-glazing”. Glazing alone, including standard aluminium window frames, came to around £45,000 for the project.
The only downside to the high levels of foil- backed board insulation included in the walls is that the couple’s mobile phone reception is “zero” inside the house, but a booster has solved this problem.
When it came to ensuring that everyone was on the same page for the construction phase, it was a combination of a good architect, a coordinated approach from Mark as project manager, and an experienced and trustworthy builder. “The architect was very good,” says Mark. “She made sure the builders and everyone else were working in concert regarding the plans. It helped that I made sure we had a big site kick-off meeting here in the freezing cold in December 2015.”
He says that as a result of this joined-up approach, “everyone knew all aspects of the plan, down to where power sockets were going. They all took them away, thought about their requirements, and made sure they were dovetailed together.” He admits it helped that most of the sub-contractors knew each other – “they coped very well.” The level of co- operation was essential to a smooth construction process. Once building started on the main house in December (after the three-car garage – used by the grateful builders as a site hut), Mark says: “It rained for three months!”
Mark and Melanie are full of praise for the standards of work and efficient organisation shown by builder Graham Brend, who was on his last major job before retiring. Melanie: “He’s well known and respected in the area, that was key.” Mark says: “If a supplier was a bit slow in getting something here, he’d be on the phone and they’d be here in a couple of hours.”
Mark put his own organisational skills to good use in project managing the scheme. He jokingly says, “The contractors really loved my critical path document,” explaining further: “Because we were project managing a number of disparate contractors and we were project managing, I needed some sort of mechanism to keep them all in sync.”
Because the builder didn’t have plumbers or electricians, they decided to go with a single company to oversee the renewables installation. “There were a lot of pieces that needed integrating to a reasonably high degree,” says Mark. “I had heard horror stories about company A blaming company B, so I wanted one person to point at.”
This house’s smooth passage to completion wasn’t only because of the planning department taking a favourable view due to its eco-credentials. It was also because the builder commanded a lot of respect for his 50 years of work. Mark concludes: “The Building Regs guys took one look at the spec and said ‘that’s fine’.”
Last but not least, they have one tip for anyone installing large sealed glass units for a project – to make sure you take all the labels off the glass first. As Mark says: “Trying to reach the labels on the inside on very high scaffold towers, once they were installed, took sheer guts and determination.”
“Seeing the layout of the building as it came out of the ground to DPC level, it all became very real” – Mark Goldman
The delay caused by the struggle to get the house’s big glass ‘walls’ installed correctly
- Current annual electricity spend £1,500 (expected to fall as house dries out)
- Feed in tariff income pa £4,000 (first seven years, dropping to about £600 for 25 years)
- Internal floor area: 332 m2
- Build cost: c. £450,000
- Total cost: c. £800,000
Stairs, balustrades & balconies
Prado (sourced through Tamar Trading)
Tiling (walls & floors)
Wood and Beyond
Wall & roof insulation