Are you still building a house?

When we’ve run into people from Wiston Lodge, this (or some variant) is a question we’ve been asked several times over the months since we purchased our plot of land. And it has been months. When walking around the area, they’d see our bit of land and it was unchanged (until quite recently) since before we bought it in March 2010.

Our plot on 9 May 2010

Looking south over our land on 9 May 2010.

Naturally people we knew in the area were curious why we seemed to be doing nothing. We knew there was a lot to do before the actual building process started (a rough estimate I’d heard is ⅓ preparation/logistics planning, ⅓ building, ⅓ fitting out/finishing). But what has been the biggest lesson so far is how much has to be done before we even have initial design sketches. We thought it would be as simple as, “choose an architect, tell them what we want, get some designs.”

In the end, nothing has been particularly complicated, but there are several steps we weren’t aware of and because of some of our requirements, getting the timing right has been a challenge. Undoubtedly, adjusting to being parents and giving C the attention that he deserves has also meant that some things have taken longer for us to do than they otherwise would have.

Choose an architect

This probably took us the longest. Partly because we were still very new at the parenting thing and had so little ‘spare’ time, and partly because it’s an important decision that we wanted to get right. We drew up a short list of five architects that have a focus on ecological buildings. This was through our own awareness of certain practices, researching cob/mudwall in Scotland, and recommendations from colleagues who work in the building restoration field. We ended up meeting with four of the five. After our meeting with the fourth firm we were extremely impressed (as we had been with the previous ones). But most importantly, we felt a great ease in communicating with them. From what we have been told, other than the importance of being organised, good communication between all parties involved is paramount. So after that positive experience, we just decided that these were the architects we wanted to work with. We did subsequently visit two houses designed by the architects, and the owners were very complimentary and seemed to have the houses they had desired.

During this time, we also contacted the cob experts that we wanted to be involved in our house building. We had participated in a week-long workshop they ran near Forres in June 2009 and knew that we wanted to work with them on our house. As well as construction they also offer design services, which we considered. But in the end because we found an architecture firm we were so happy with, we felt it would be easier to work on the design with someone locally and who was familiar with the Scottish planning system and building regulations (which differ from England where our cob experts have their experience in planning and building regs).

Looking back, this should all be straightforward. But at the time, trying to judge the merits of different architects, or whether to have our cob specialists do the design, or whether we wanted to employ architects at all (and instead do our own designs and pay someone to draw them up) was confusing. There didn’t always seem to be a clear path forward. And even when we had settled on the architects, understanding the process, how costs were assigned, and what other items we needed to budget for took some time (not to mention an admirable amount of patience and explanation from the architects!).

Topographic survey of our plot of land

Topographic survey of our plot of land

Topographic survey of the plot

We needed to have a surveyor undertake a topographic survey of the plot. Can’t we just have some pretty sketches before paying money for something else? 🙂 Luckily this turned out to be easy – our architects recommended someone who did the survey for a reasonable price and didn’t need us to be on site. They arranged it all and we made transferred the funds to the surveyor.

Prepare the Brief

This took us a while because we are both opinionated, have a lot of ideas about what we want our house to be like, and have thought about this for many years. When preparing the brief, we found that it’s not simply a ‘wish list’. As well as specifying what we want in our house, it needs to give the architects a clear idea as to how we use our spaces (and how we’d like to use those of our new home). Because it is the document that informs the design, it was important to be clear in our own minds about what we wanted, but also communicate that on paper. Our architects suggested a great and simple structure to allow us to think about what we wanted and how to prioritise what became a very long list:

  1. Needs;
  2. Things we would really like;
  3. Things we would have in an ideal world.

It was a great way to organise our thoughts and we did it room by room.

In the end, ‘The’ brief is a bit misleading, as we produced four documents: General Brief, Materials Brief, Rooms Brief, and Utilities Brief. Nothing complicated here, it just took a while to get all of our thoughts down, order them sensibly, follow up on some details, and make sure we hadn’t forgotten anything (though I’m sure we have!).

C ‘helping’ dig a test hole

C doing pretty well at digging a test hole

Cob test hole

Cob test hole

Test whether the soil is suitable to build with cob

This is an ‘extra’ step we needed to undertake as our preferred construction material is cob. We wanted to determine whether there is sufficient clay content in our soil to use it as the basis of the cob we will use to construct our house. We dug holes 2–3 feet deep and took samples which we put in a jar, added water, shook, and let settle. The result: at this depth there isn’t nearly enough clay in the soil. Later on in the process we found that: (1) there might be suitable soil at a greater depth and; (2) for logistical reasons, we might want to bring in ‘waste’ soil that is being discarded from a nearby construction site or quarry anyway. Ah well, an enjoyable day out that felt purposeful even if it didn’t add much to the overall project.

Measuring a lime tree

Measuring a lime tree

Tree survey

To ensure we don’t damage the roots of any trees, we needed to measure the trunks of all the trees marked on the topographical survey (from which a calculation as to root size can be made). This involved an enjoyable day walking around and measuring (or hugging?) the trees.

Understand implications of thermal requirements in Scottish building regulations

This was another step necessitated by our desire to use cob for the building. While cob has thermal mass (so it collects heat when it is available and slowly releases it), it is not a good insulator. Because the building regulations consider thermal performance based on a wall cross-section, this could have caused us problems (even if the overall thermal performance of the building – i.e. the heat it requires – was very good). This led to some back and forth between us, the cob experts (who are more familiar with English building regulations), and our architects. Our architects then got in contact with the building standards department at the local authority, and luckily they were interested in the project and helpful. In the end, the architects got the information they needed and felt that we could move forward with a cob design that would work with the regulations.

Appoint a structural engineer

Luckily this was easy – our architects recommended a structural engineering firm. They have experience with cob, we liked them, and they have a good relationship with our architects (which is apparently important and not always the case). Job done (for now)!

Dig trial pits to inspect the ground conditions

This was the first sign of ‘building’ on our land. We had to hire a JCB (with operator) to dig five 1.1 metre holes on the plot so that the structural engineer could inspect the ground and decide whether it was suitable for the stone-filled trench foundations we want to use. This took place at the beginning of August. On seeing the digger, several people from Wiston Lodge asked if we were starting to build the house. I think they were surprised to hear that we still didn’t have initial drawings. But it’s important to get the fundamentals right, and the day of the trial pits was really helpful. We were able to get the architect, engineer, and one of the cob experts together on site. I think that the opportunity for them to meet each other and discuss the project at this stage will be hugely beneficial in the long run. And we all had a useful discussion about options and ideas which was constructive and interesting to all involved.

C by the percolation test pit

Test drainage

During the trial pit weekend, we also attempted to carry out a percolation test, to measure how fast the soil will drain. This is important to decide on options for treating our waste water. Unfortunately, on the Saturday afternoon a very heavy rain started and measuring how fast a known quantity of water was draining away became impossible. We will have to return and carry out the tests again. On further investigation we’ve found that both water and waste water are a bit of a minefield (for us) and I think this blog post is long enough. But the good news is that water and sewage don’t need to be settled for the architects to go ahead and start designing.

So, finally, in the beginning of August 2011, seventeen months after buying our land, we had got to the point where the architects could start working on the drawings that will (hopefully) visualise our dream house. Now we can begin!

2 thoughts on “Are you still building a house?

  1. Really interesting. Thanks for writing it up. Patience is obviously a key element in the building process!

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