Ian and Tina Huckle struggled to find a place to build a ‘lifetime’ home after some health problems, until they realised the solution was right under their noses, in their own back garden in Hampshire
With their two children having flown the nest, Ian and Tina Huckle were left with a larger-than-necessary house that wasn’t particularly cost-efficient. On top of that, the couple had both taken early retirement when Ian had a stroke a few years earlier which, he says, “makes you look at life a little bit differently.”
It had therefore been on their minds to downsize for some time: “I don’t want to be spending time looking after a garden or house,” says Ian. They’d agreed that they only way to really get what they wanted was to build their own home, but finding a plot of land was proving easier said than done. “We’d been looking mainly in south west Wales, Cornwall and Devon, but there wasn’t much available,” Ian explains. They were also unsure about moving to an area so far from transport links such as motorways and airports.
It was at this point they realised their own substantial back garden, in Fareham near the Hampshire coast, could be perfect. “We thought ‘we’ve got a building plot, let’s use it,’” Ian explains. They knew good healthcare was available locally and had built their lives there, so they “decided to stay put,” and subdivided the plot. The added bonus of this was, as Tina explains, that “the plot was free! And we had no one competing with us for it.”
They set about appointing an architect and went through a few designs before settling on their favourite. “The first was a basement option with bedrooms downstairs, using insulated concrete formwork (ICF),” Ian explains. “I liked the idea of ‘upside down living,’ but the costs of that got horrendous.” There was also more risk: “you don’t know what you’re going to find until you start digging the hole,” says Ian.
They also looked at a more conventional house design with a roof garden on top but, explains Tina, “that got thrown out at the pre-application stage.” She admits they began to get slightly despondent, but they persevered and eventually settled on a timber framed home with an open-plan living/dining/kitchen area. “A timber frame kit was a more cost- certain route,” says Ian. “Being retired, we were trying to work to a fairly tight budget.”
Although the build only started earlier this year, Ian says they really started the process three years ago, when they began doing extensive research. “We went to shows, read lots of magazines and went to the NSBRC in Swindon,” he explains. “But you get to a point where you’ve done enough shows, read enough magazines – you’ve actually got to do it!”
Their decision to do a planning pre- application meant when they submitted their final design, it more or less sailed through. “The planners were very good, we had no issues at all really,” says Ian. They faced a couple of objections from neighbours over the positioning of their Velux windows, but it was “nothing insurmountable,” he explains. “I was pleasantly surprised, the council were receptive. It was quite painless.” Their architect, Cedric Mitchell, was “instrumental in getting it cleared,” Tina says. “He knew what to say and what to do – he proved really useful.”
The final design was very much a collaboration between the couple and Cedric, who Ian found via the Association of Self Build Architects (ASBA) website. They provided him with a three- column spreadsheet: ‘must haves’, ‘nice to haves’ and ‘definitely don’t wants’. Ian also used his experience as a chartered engineer and provided an AutoCAD drawing of the site. “We went to three architects and we liked the ideas from Cedric,” he says, although admits there were “a few bits we disagreed on!”
The main thing they were strongly against was a “Grand Designs-type project,” because of the potential cost and schedule overruns, as well as green roofs, bi-fold doors, tile hung elevations, and noisy floorboards. Their list of ‘must haves’ included a contemporary, detached ‘lifetime’ home with low running costs, two storeys, a utility room and insulation to Passivhaus standards (although they weren’t aiming for Passivhaus certification). While Cedric helped come up with the overall concept, Ian and Tina designed the kitchen and bathrooms themselves. “We did the nitty-gritty details,” Ian says.
THE BUILD BEGINS
With planning approval in place, they were ready to start onsite – in February this year. They demolished the existing garage and filled in their swimming pool – something Tina admits was “heartbreaking!” It was at this point they realised just how substantial the site was: “when we first started it didn’t look that big, but you flatten it and it just grows!” Ian says.
Being in the position of starting onsite didn’t mean the project would go smoothly from then on. The architect had calculated the elevation height incorrectly on the drawings, something their building contractor Ben picked up on. He spotted that the finished building would actually end up taller than specified on the drawings, which would have taken them outside their planning consent. “We had to drop the back end of the house down 250 mm,” explains Ian.
However, not every unexpected turn was an unwelcome one. “Some bits went better than expected,” says Ian. They had been led to believe they were building on clay, and on that basis planned for 2.2 metre-deep footings. When digging began, they realised the ground was actually hoggin (i.e. clay, gravel and sand), and got Building Control to inspect the site. They agreed it was unnecessary to go so deep, particularly given the lightweight nature of timber, and agreed 1.2 metres would be sufficient (with the exception of the back end as it sits near a sycamore tree off their boundary).
All the services (gas, electric, water and sewage) are new – when the pool pump house was demolished they had to have the gas disconnected as it housed a boiler, but, says Ian, “our builder organised all of that so it was ok,” says Ian. Their biggest frustration was the disjointed manner in which things are connected: “You get a service come in a dig up the pavement then fill it in, then another provider comes and digs it up again – none of it is joined up,” Ian explains. “And every time you have a fee. Services aren’t cheap.”
Despite starting in February, Ian says they were “incredibly lucky” with the weather and by April they were ready for the timber frame to be delivered and erected, a process whose efficiency thoroughly impressed them. “The walls were up on day one,” explains Ian. “Day two, we had the roof on, and it was pretty much wind and watertight. The guys who put the kit up were onsite for four days in total.” This included the doors and windows. “It’s pretty amazing really, it was exciting to watch!” The company were recommended by Scotframe, who supplied the timber kit, which mean the arrangement of deliveries was taken care of between the two. “I didn’t get involved in that – which was really good,” Ian says.
The couple chose Scotframe because their pre-insulated kit included all external doors and windows, the mezzanine floor, plasterboard, internal doorsets and the Velux windows. “You’ve got a fair chunk of the building costs fixed, you know that’s not going to fluctuate,” says Ian. There was one small issue when it came to installing the Velux windows – they’d purchased them with an insulation collar but the holes in the roof cassette weren’t big enough. “It was a bit of a faff, but we didn’t put the collars in, and just used Celotex instead,” Ian says. He was seemingly un-phased by most problems that arose however: “There’s always stuff like that. It’s a unique project, you’re going to get issues – you’ve got to be pragmatic and come to a compromise.”
They had one other slight issue when a mistake made by the roofers meant one of the roof window openings was left uncovered during a bout of rain. “We had water pouring down the walls, which had already been plastered,” explains Tina. “I was in tears when I saw it. But we put buckets underneath and it did dry out in the end.”
Because they were staying in their house they had no strict timescale to stick to. Nevertheless they were given a rough estimate of the end of July by Ben and his team, “which I didn’t believe, but he did actually pretty much hit,” Ian says. “It was just finishing bits and pieces but we weren’t in a rush to get in.” They eventually moved in at the end of September.
Having the house onsite proved beneficial throughout the project. Tina says. “You can keep tabs on what’s going on,” says Ian. They encountered no other major problems along the way, other than a few of the builders suffering unfortunate injuries (“not on our site!” stresses Tina) that caused minor delays.
Once work had started onsite Ian took on most of the project management responsibility himself, rather than delegating to Cedric. Ben – who they say was “absolutely fantastic” – recommended subcontractors, while the couple sourced everything from the timber kit and roofing system to the kitchen and sanitaryware themselves. “We’ve had lots of early mornings!” Tina says. “There’s been a lot of long days,” adds Ian. “It’s a full time job – I was often onsite at 7.30 in the morning and still working on stuff at 10 pm, because there’s always stuff to do! It’s hard work.”
Ian gave detailed spreadsheets to Cedric and every tradesman who worked on the project. “It’s easier because it’s not verbal – it’s in black and white so there’s no doubt,” he explains. “I think that worked really well.”
LAYOUT TO LAST A LIFETIME
With Ian and Tina’s key requirement being that the home was future-proofed, bearing in mind their likely future health needs, they included a number of provisions. There are level thresholds and wetrooms throughout and there’s space next to the stairs up to the mezzanine for a lift shaft, should they need it in the future. “And it’s going to be a nice, warm, leak-tight house,” adds Ian.
Entering their home, the two bedrooms are on the right of the hallway, both featuring an ensuite, built in wardrobe and vaulted ceiling, while the master bedroom as leads on to the utility room. “It makes sense!” Tina says. “You can do your ironing and just put it away without having to carry it upstairs. I’ve never seen a utility room next to a bedroom, but it’s extremely practical.”
A glass pocket door to the left of the hallway leads through to the open plan kitchen, dining and living area, with a staircase in the far left corner up to the mezzanine floor. The left wall is lined with slim windows placed high as this side is next to the street, while the right hand side has several sliding doors. The high windows were Cedric’s idea: “It’s brilliant, we’ve got privacy on the street side but lots of glass the other side,” says Ian. “Even on a cloudy day it’s really bright because we’ve got so much glazing and the Velux windows above the stairwell.”
The mezzanine floor is a large, open space, and houses an additional bathroom and a substantial plant room, home to the MVHR system. A small area at the back has been allocated to gym equipment, while the rest currently remains empty while they decide what to do with it. The house is a mixture of contemporary styles with more traditional additions. “We wanted a contemporary feel with a few little cosy touches,” explains Tina. “We didn’t want it too minimalist.”
The couple went “fairly conventional” on heating and hot water, says Ian, with a gas condensing boiler system feeding radiators throughout the ground floor (the house is so well insulated they decided radiators would be unnecessary upstairs). They considered other options but dismissed them for various reasons – the drying time for underfloor heating screed put them off, while other systems just seemed too complicated and expensive to install. “Gas is still the cheapest option and chose it here,” Ian explains. “Heat pumps are great, but I couldn’t really justify it.”
They looked at installing solar panels, but the Feed-In Tariff ended on 1 April, with no replacement in sight. “Everyone’s talking about trying to be more eco-friendly, and so this frustrated us,” explains Tina. “It wasn’t worth it financially,” adds Ian. “It’s a shame.” They did however install a rainwater harvesting system which they use to flush the downstairs toilets, in addition to the MVHR system and well-insulated timber frame.
They faced one final hiccup at the end when trying to get the telephone line connected. It was crucial they got it sorted with so much of the home’s smart technology, such as the boiler, relying on Wi-Fi connectivity, but achieving it was “horrendous,” says Ian. “We started mid- July this year, and I gave up in the end. We’ve now got a 4G router which works fine.” Tina says it ended up being one of the worst parts of the project. “They wanted to put overhead cables in and we just thought ‘no!’”
Now they’re finally in the house, they have some final sorting and clearing to do in the old one before they can put it on the market and fully relax and enjoy their retirement. They’re both thrilled to finally be in: “We’ve got something to our design, our brief,” says Ian. “It’s a one-off, and it suits us.”