For Ian Perry and his wife, building their own home in the Sussex countryside meant finally fulfilling a dream they’d held onto for many years, but it was a voyage of several discoveries, including Covid challenges
TEXT ROSEANNE FIELD IMAGES IAN PERRY
Doing a self-build was something Ian Perry and his partner had been thinking about for some time. But it was an episode of Grand Designs that really cemented their thoughts. “The one thing that really inspired us was watching the Huf Haus going up on Grand Designs,” Ian says. “That crystalised our ideas. We’d always thought it would be nice to build something ourselves.”
The biggest hurdle for them was finding a plot of land, a task Ian admits they found “strenuous and quite disappointing in many ways.” Eventually they found a plot near Storrington in West Sussex, an area unfamiliar to them. Nonetheless, they went to talk to the estate agents, only to find the land had been sold to a developer. They offered an alternative plot, which although more expensive, suited them better, being only a two minute walk into town.
The next step, in July 2018, was to decide on a build method. Over the years they’d visited various self-build exhibitions in Birmingham, London, and Sandown, so “had a good idea of the sort of house that we wanted,” Ian explains. They considered various kit builders – around four or five estimates says Ian – but decided to go with Scandia-Hus, after visiting the firm’s showhouses in West Grinstead.
The plot already had outline planning permission – having built his house next door, their neighbour – their land’s former owner – was planning a replica on the site, but never got round to it. In fact, says Ian, “he used it as his dumping ground. So not only did we have to cut out all the forest that we were left with, but we had to clear a lot of other garbage out.”
They hired a gardener to clear greenery as well as erecting a fence but unfortunately after finishing the fence, he didn’t return. A groundworking firm then cleared the rest of the site, which included “a lot of digging,” Ian explains. The consented planning permission was for an ‘upside down’ house – partly inspired by the previous owner’s time living in Sweden and also because of the plot’s substantial slope. Ian was in favour of continuing this approach: “Being built on a bank, it makes sense,” he says.
Being within three years of the initial approval meant Ian could submit a ‘reserved matters’ application. Despite a local resident warning Ian that he would “hate my guts while we were building,” he assured him they “would be best of friends afterwards!” Scandia helped the couple mitigate the disruption, which Ian says was an onerous process, especially when it came to the landscaping. “It required the garden design to be approved by neighbours, and if there were any changes they had to be consulted,” Ian explains. “It had to have all the planting seasons, Latin names – despite the fact the next door neighbour has got artificial grass front and back!” They also had to ensure all delivery vehicles stayed on the site, which was sometimes a challenge. “One of our neighbours very kindly let us cut off a corner of his plot so we could get vehicles on more easily,” he adds.
There was another bureaucratic obstacle when some planning requirements from the initial consented application weren’t resupplied or copied over to the final document. This meant that “when the build started, the project manager was unaware of them,” says Ian. “We had to actually stop for nearly two months.”
The project manager, Dilys Wilson-Layton, was recommended to them by Scandia, one of several recommendations the firm made. Despite Dilys being Somerset-based, they went with her as it made sense from a financial perspective. Also, explains Ian, “she has local contacts, her father is living nearby so we didn’t think it would be too much of a problem.” However looking back, he says it would have at times been better if she had been nearer the site. “Little things we thought we were going to get, we didn’t,” he says. “The pathway up to the front door has lots of little steps, we wanted a slope but missed that at the time.”
Part of their reasoning for choosing a more ‘cost effective’ project manager was that the design Scandia had initially come up with was costing far more than they had anticipated. “We had to tell them to scale it back,” Ian says. The design is based loosely on the company’s Adelia showhouse, but “turned upside down,” he comments, “as we decided we would have one big reception room upstairs plus a bedroom, so we hacked it about until it’s almost not recognisable as the showhouse,” Ian explains.
They had a few key design requirements: they wanted the house to be energy efficient and bright, as well as having at least three bedrooms. Crucially, it also needed to be comfortable for them both for the foreseeable future. “We had a lot of input in the design,” Ian explains. They had some small issues with necessary plumbing elements such as soil pipes not originally appearing in the designs. “You see this lovely bathroom and then they say ‘you’re going to lose a bit of that so we can put a soil pipe in’,” he says. “We went through about three or four meetings and redesigns, but they were toying with a basic plan rather than changing anything dramatically.”
Once the design and planning were taken care of, Ian and his wife waited for the sale of their existing house to go through in order to have the money to fund the build. Work finally began on site in June 2019, with substantial site clearing work. “The scrub just blossomed in the interim period,” Ian says. They also had to bring utilities to the site which presented a few problems. “The project manager had to help me fill in all the forms, like choosing ducting size,” explains Ian. Their initial groundworker also didn’t correctly join the ducting for the telephone wires so another trench had to be dug last minute. He pays tribute to the work of UK Power Networks, saying that with their help, “we finally got it all sorted!”
Due to the nature of the site only the upper floor was constructed using timber supplied by Scandia – the lower floor is built in concrete as it’s dug into the hill. The lower floor slab was laid by September 2019 and the concrete walls poured in October 2019. In December 2019 the block and beam for the first floor was laid, and the timber frame for the upper floor was erected by February 2020.
Not long after this of course, Covid hit, which took their builders off site for a few weeks. The couple also had some issues with some ‘temporary’ fixes during Covid becoming permanent fixtures, such as in glue-laminated timber beams. “Bolts that were meant to be temporary stayed there – by the time they needed to come out it was too late, it would collapse,” explains Ian. Unfortunately, he says, the “glulams were covered in MDF to hide the holes.” They were nice and slim and they’re now a bit more chunky.”
They also suffered from materials shortages. “The project manager got hold of some Portuguese plaster, which you have to treat in a different way,” says Ian, and managed to exchange. “People were driving up to Oxford from down here just to get plaster.”
The couple were renting a property nearby so they could be onsite as much as possible to track progress and make decisions. They moved into the house in September 2020, despite it not being quite finished, but they needed to, to ensure things got finished. “The longer we stayed in rental accommodation the longer it was going to drag on,” Ian says.
The main contractor for the project was recommended to them by Scandia, though it was the project manager who took care of subcontractors. Being based in Somerset, a lot of her contacts were there, however the cheaper labour rates proved beneficial. “We paid for Airbnbs, and they would come up for a week or two,” Ian says.
Sustainability was really important for the pair, and they installed an air source heat pump which feeds the underfloor heating throughout the house, as well as solar panels, triple glazed windows throughout, and they have an electric car with an EV charging point installed. “We are trying to be very efficient,” says Ian. They had several problems with the heat pump but having finally had it reprogrammed recently, they now get a “faultless service,” says Ian. “One of the first problems was they supplied the wrong sort of water tank. A new one was fitted in January, but we still had problems, it’s only recently it’s been reprogrammed.”
The couple had a set budget, but needed their 20% contingency. In fact, says Ian, “I think we went to about 40%!” “There were certain things we had to give up.” One was an MVHR system, but they discovered they would in any case have to install ducting for a full extraction system on the lower floor, having previously been told extractor fans would suffice. “Building Control said no, it had to be more significant,” explains Ian.
The entrance is at the upper floor level, which is where the open plan lounge, dining room and kitchen are. Off this area is a utility room, and the master bedroom. Downstairs are two further bedrooms, one of which is currently used by their son, a study, store room and plant room.
When it came to choosing interior fixtures and fittings, the couple were inspired partly by American house styles. “My wife’s brother lives in the US, and we’ve visited and were actually quite inspired by the houses he’s lived in; that was the way we wanted to live,” Ian says. “We didn’t want a fake ‘olde worlde’ look, it would have looked awful in this particular setting. It was to be in keeping with a modern house so it had to be a modern design.”
One area they struggled with was sourcing tiles. “We looked at so many and they were basically white, beige or grey. Then we were recommended somewhere local, JW Ceramics, by the kitchen company – they had a vast selection in various colours, they really were first class.” The kitchen company, Alexander, were also local and, says Ian, were “very good and came well recommended. They tailored it so that it fits in very nicely.”
Although passionate about installing the latest eco-friendly technology in order to live as sustainably as possible, the couple drew the line when it came to smart home gadgets. “We wanted to try and keep it as simple as possible because the more clever you make it, the more things go wrong!” Ian explains.
The final hurdle was to get the all-important landscaping sorted. After the second lockdown, their groundworker failed to return. “Strangely, after a while he stopped turning up,” says Ian. “I had four big bags of slate chippings, four big bags of gravel and six of topsoil to shift!” Luckily, the plumber recommended another one.
The garden design was done by a friend of their project manager – a Chelsea Flower Show bronze medal winner. With some help from a local gardener they got two cubic metres of bark in place to form a path, and five of compost for the planting. There’s no lawn, but fruit trees at the front and with the back designed to resemble woodland. “It’s going to take some time to fill out,” Ian admits.
Ian and his wife are now comfortable in the finished house, though are still waiting for the battery storage for the solar panels. They’re also still awaiting the completion certification from Scandia which can’t be provided until the company that provided the staircase’s glass balustrade provides the evidence it meets the necessary safety requirements – they are waiting for Scandia to complete the final SIL safety certificate application!
Despite a few bumps in the road along the way, Ian and his wife are very happy and settled in the house, although also adamant they wouldn’t do it again due to the stresses the project put on them. “If we’d had a flat site, it would have been up and finished well within a year.” Other than in hindsight thinking they perhaps should have located the plant room and heat pump at the rear of the house, Ian says there’s nothing they would change. “We’re happy,” he says, highlighting the very quiet interior as one of his favourite aspects of their home. “It’s given us a way of living that our other house didn’t.”