Selfbuilder Diaries


Navigating their way through planning hurdles and DIY adventures, Fiona & Jon’s eco self-build journey is a testament to their patience and bravery, including getting their hands dirty to stay within budget constraints

‘Never again!’ That was what we said after renovating our Victorian home nearly a decade ago. But now it was time to move again, and we were disappointed at the lack of sustainable homes on the market. The more homes we viewed, the more we started to wonder whether we could design and build something ourselves instead. There were plots with outline planning permission in the area, so we met with an architect to discuss what was possible.


From that first meeting, it took seven months and 30 (hand-drawn!) revisions before we eventually settled on a design to submit to planning in January 2022. This was just in time for all planning applications in our area to be put on hold by new nutrient neutrality guidance issued by Natural England! After weeks of getting nowhere with the planning office, and wondering whether we would be able to build our dream home at all, we took matters into our own hands and contacted Natural England. They quickly ascertained that our site should not be impacted by the guidance and planning gave us (and all the other applications that were on hold) the green light.

During that long stressful wait, we attended the Homebuilding Show in Harrogate where we came across several companies offering SIPs (structured insulated panels) builds. Having spent so long working out the design, we hadn’t given much thought as to what we were going to build it out of. But as our goal was to build an airtight sustainable property, SIPs seemed the obvious choice. It also came with the advantage of being a lot faster than other types of construction. We had to swap architects; this wasn’t an easy decision, but our original designer did all drawings by hand, which took time, and it was easier to have CAD drawings for working with the SIPs company. 

The build

We toyed with the idea of using a contractor for the entire project, but were keen to get the most out of our budget and have a bit more flexibility around making changes. Following our architect’s recommendation, we opted for a project manager, coupled with highly recommended builders from a neighbouring site, steering us towards the direct labour approach. After paying various fees (land insurance, soil tests, building control, a structural engineer, etc) and setting up accounts at local builders merchants, we finally broke ground in April 2023. With our project manager at the helm and the builders living up to their good reputation, the foundations were completed on time and with precision and accuracy for the SIPs’ arrival in May. Four weeks later the house was built! Well, the structure of the house anyway. With direct labour, you don’t have much control over tradespeople’s availability – which can lead to delays. 

Fabric first

Sustainability is a big consideration for us, but with a limited budget, it is about working out where to get the biggest ‘bang for your buck.’ Windows were a key item so we spent a lot of time researching, even travelling as far as Scotland and Swindon to look at windows with our long-suffering children in tow. The triple-glazed Norrksen windows we selected have a U-value of 0.9 with all the south facing windows having solar control glass to reduce solar gain. We opted for 172 mm SIPs panels with a foil backed breather membrane that provides a U-value of 0.15. 

We are trying to make the building as airtight as possible so tape up and joins and use grommets for any penetrations into the SIPs. We also went for an MVHR system (mechanical ventilation with heat recovery) to ensure a fresh supply of air, but also reuse the heat energy generated in the house. 


To try and reduce costs, we have tried to do some of the jobs that require less skill. These include installing the MVHR ourselves, laying the underfloor heating, making temporary windows, getting knee-deep in a muddy trench to lay ducts, and cleaning up the site. As we both work full-time and have young children, it has been challenging, but rewarding, and spending so many hours on site getting stuck in has helped us develop good relationships with our trades. We have ended up managing the majority of the project since the roof was complete, as our project manager became occupied with a commercial project. This saved us on his fees but has meant many late nights pricing up materials, sending emails, and generally being quite stressed trying to work out what needs to happen and when. 

If we had a pound for every time we’ve been asked ‘when will you be in,’ we might have been able to afford a contractor! But you can check in on us on Instagram to find out how we get on.

We set up an Instagram account for the build (at @selfbuildfamilyhome), and we have been quite moved by the support from other self-builders and tradespeople who have reached out to us on there.