What is it about self-builds that take so long?
Finally! I am in touching distance of actually starting the build of my hempcrete home/studio. A price for excavations and foundations are agreed with a local builder, who is able to start in three weeks, and the timber frame company is appointed but, but nothing can begin before I get Durham County Council’s official sign off.
Going through Building Regs
It is now 2 years since the virtual hammer fell in my favour at the online auction for a three acre field with planning permission and a shipping container. New Plans for the home/studio were submitted to DCC in December 2022 and approved, 8 months later, in August 23. With only days to spare before the end of the last working year, I received the architects’ final working drawings and two days later, the structural engineers civil and structural reports. So, a full year after the initial submission, I was able to submit a full plans application on Dec 23 2023, about 20 minutes before the council’s offices closed for the Christmas holidays.
Understanding the planning process
I have since come to understand, that just because initial planning approval approves the building doesn’t mean that they don’t need to approve some things all over again and with a different team. My original case officer left DCC so the new officer doesn’t necessarily know about all the other conversations that took place between the architect and original case officer, leading up to our original planning application .This is why I have had to resubmit certain documents that I had thought had already been approved.
A new case officer
I now have two new case officers, one for building regs and the other for discharge of conditions. Regs answers his phone and replies to some of my emails, so I sort of know where I am with him. I also had to apply to discharge conditions from the original approval before work could begin. **Conditions ignores all my phone calls and emails so I don’t know where I am with her.
A couple of weeks ago I was in the south east for an art exhibition when, in the morning, I received two back to back emails: one from Regs beginning ‘I will be rejecting’ and the other from Conditions entitled ‘Invalid’ ..panic .. I rang Regs who agreed an extension of time. I rang Conditions, left a message, sent some more docs and was completely ignored. To date my application to discharge conditions is still marked *Invalid.
More soil samples, Geo Investigate return
Regs has since requested a phase one study, and soil samples in order to rule out ground contamination. Six months ago, I had a *Geo Investigate team in the field drilling deep bore holes, taking shallow soil samples, and planting gas testing pods. This would have been an ideal time to take more samples of course, except no one asked for them so no one did them.
*Due to the field being in an historical coal mining area, a coal mining report (CMRA) was needed to establish any big holes beneath my plot and that no trapped gases were present. Mains water, luckily connected just before the Kings Coronation’s national holiday, had to be connected for the bore holes to be drilled under a pressurised system (they know if you’ve got a hole as the water suddenly disappears) Fortunately my water didn’t .
Geo Investigate have since returned to the field and the brand-new soil samples are now in the lab being tested.
Money continues to slide out of my accounts with alarming ease and regularity.
While I wait for the latest results of my field soil samples, which I can then send on to Regs, I have a small team working out the *SAPS and the *PSIS in order that the *O values can be calculated. Collectively these equations demonstrate the homes air tightness and liability to over-heating. The sum total of all this is to show that the new home conforms to the new building regs of 0.11 W/m2K in the roof and 0.18W/m2K in the walls. This must be able to be demonstrated on paper before work can commence. In practice, I won’t know whether it actually will pass until the pressure test is taken when the home is finished.
What about then, back in ‘21 and ‘22 ?
Finding an architect
Buying via auction is supposed to be quick, in my case though the seller sold the field so fast it took another 3 months before deeds were transferred. So, it wasn’t unit late April 21 that I started looking for a green architect in the north east, none were forthcoming, so I filled in the RIBA ‘Find an Architect’ form, Hexham based, Elliott Architects responded, and stood out with their enthusiasm, aesthetics and clearly set out work and costs. My dear Pops, who very sadly died in Feb ’22, was also keen on Elliott’s saying that I had made a ‘good choice’. It is of course, heart breaking that Pops wont see the finished house having been with Mum and me on our first visit to the snowy field in early Jan before the auction in 21.
Having just won lots of awards, Elliott’s were very busy, so work on my project was scheduled to start in June.
In July, my youngest son, Hector, and I drove over the moors to Elliott HQ, Hexham, for the ideas meeting. I immediately loved Option One, a single-story combination of 4 adjoining rectangles, cleverly addressing the original planning for separate house and garage. This design gave the impression of separation but joined the two spaces, within a similar sqm and negating any windy wet walks between the two.
I hadn’t thought about Hempcrete
I must make it clear at this point that I had not then even heard the word Hempcrete and to me an eco-house then meant one that used renewables and faced in the correct direction to facilitate this. I had not considered the possibility or importance of trying to use natural materials for the build.
Elliott’s proposed new house faced south and the studio, as requested, faced north with a gallery hall between the two. The plans included roof mounted solar and a 5kw domestic wind turbine sited on the WSW boundary.
(When plans were submitted, I received some pretty speedy objections to the wind turbine, even though there were two identical in the village. The prospect of the shipping container becoming a permanent fixture despite it having been in the field since 2007 also caused upset. In order not to slow planning progress it was thought best to remove the turbine from our application and perhaps submit a separate application once the house was built.
Signing off on Option One
I signed off on Elliott Architect’s Option One, returned to Hexham HQ in August, then the architects went on holiday and we reconvened mid-September.
HM Queen died
With a nation in mourning and in anticipation of presenting a thorough and informed application to planning, a topographic survey, an ecological PEA survey (ruling out bats, barn owls and great crested newts) and an arboratorial survey (for my *3 trees,) were carried out.
*Of the 3 trees on site T1 an old apple on the boundary was the only one scheduled to keep, the other two were growing on the site of the proposed house, so were marked as fell. All trees were graded C1 which means of little value in tree hierarchy. Once the build is finished an extensive planting schedule will be undertaken to re establish and improve the biodiversity.
The Field grass was cut and baled
My project architect left the practice
Following the original application to DCC in November ‘22, my project architect left the company and I was appointed a new one. He has been very patient indeed and for that I am truly grateful. Later that month I met for the first time with DW, a highly recommended local builder.
Christmas Holidays again
The mysteries of the planning Department
When a planning application is submitted, the case officer sends relevant information to the relevant departments, in my case 13 different ones. Each of these is asked for comment within in an allocated time frame. Their comments then relay back to the case officer who in turn contacts the applicant, Elliott’s, acting on my behalf, who also have lots of projects going on. You can see how this process can be lengthy because of all the other projects and applications being processed at the same time.
Feb ’22 My Dear Pops died very suddenly and without any warning, we were all in a state of numb shock.
The Kings Coronation and three public holidays in May
Flush through bore holes, shallow soil samples and gas testing pods go in.
More requests from Durham County Council
In June, the initial application having been in planning since the previous November, the council requested that I employ a registered landscape architect. One month later the landscape plans specifying each individual plant, were dually submitted.
In July 23 the field status was upgraded to Upland Hay Meadow. This meant no tree planting in or near it, so the landscape plans had to be re done.
Appointing a Structural Engineer
Structural Engineers were appointed and arrived for a site visit in September, he was optimistic that I would be able to have economical beam and block foundations. Unfortunately, the results of the bore holes identified the coal seam at 15.5m and I needed it to be at 17m for beam and block. Raft foundations for me, read solid concrete with mesh panels holding it all together.
I received quotes from Northern Power Grid to connect to the grid
In August the gas testing results were returned and found to be negative
I bought a caravan so I could live on site and enjoy the lovely views
Tree 2 was felled and chopped in to logs
In October I moved out of caravan as it was too cold.
Last month I had to fell Tree 3 before any birds, bats or barn owls start to nest in it, date and time stamping photos .
There is no doubt that my decision to use cast in situ Hempcrete in the walls, mid way through the project, held things up during the working drawing production. I caused further delay trying to find a natural material to use in the roof insulation. If I were to start the project again I would first decide what I wanted to build the house from, then everything else would tailor around this.
Comms with Conditions
**Guess what? around 4.30, just as I was finishing writing this, the phone rang, it was Conditions! I was so happy to hear from her. Conditions was clear and helpful. A *decision to discharge will be made by 25 March!! Where does time go? this is where.
*Application to Discharge conditions now marked ‘Valid’
*SAPS Standard Assessment Procedure, calculating energy performance of buildings
*PSI linear thermal bridging calculations
*O Values ,think this simply means Overall values, the sum of all the others
Architects: Elliott Architects
Structural Engineers: JC Consulting
Landscape Architect: Arlene McKintosh
Topology Survey: Academy Geomatics
Bore Holes and Soil Samples: Geo Investigate
Ecology Survey and PEA report: Fran Mudd
Arboratorial Report: Dendra
Stand Pipe and connection: RJ Utilities
Water connection: Northumbrian Water
Durham County Council for all permissions and regs
SAPS Caculations: Zoe at L&F Solutions Ltd
PSi Calculations: UK Hempcrete
Timber Frame: Fencehouse