04 Jun 2015

Character and charm


Lesley and Wyn Jones challenged themselves by rearranging the layout of an existing property and adding an extension to dramatically increase its size. Here, Lesley describes their self-build journey.


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Location was important to us and we were looking for a long-term family home around Montgomery, Carmarthenshire. We had recently sold our first, jointly owned home, after completing a couple of internal renovations and external landscaping, which we’d both thoroughly enjoyed. Wyn had built a house previously on his parents’ land and being a Chartered Surveyor and Estate Agent, he had a great deal of useful knowledge and contacts for this sort of project.

We had looked at several existing properties to purchase in Montgomery but none of them ticked all our boxes and it is not a town where properties come on the market that frequently. Neither of us liked the idea of living in a modern house with a small garden and neighbours over the hedge. We didn’t want that many rooms – four bedrooms and two reception rooms was our aim – but we wanted them to be large and full of light, with lots of outdoor space around us.

The original property was advertised in the newspaper as a five bedroom, detached house, 1.5 miles outside Montgomery. We arranged a viewing and realised it was a pair of 1940s brick semi-detached houses which had been knocked through into one unit. It still had both staircases leading to two bedrooms on each side and an upstairs bathroom had been removed to produce a fifth bedroom. All the rooms were quite small, no central heating, dodgy roof, small upstairs windows and loads of ramshackle farm building around the house – but the views in one particular direction were great.

We could both see its potential as a renovation project but it was Wyn who very quickly came up with the idea of extending and re-orientating the house and was the driving force behind the Oak-framed idea. He was brought up in a traditional Welsh farmhouse, which was long and low with exposed beams in the ceilings – all painted black of course! He fancied the idea of creating a traditional looking house, which appeared like it had been around for a long time but that had all the modern conveniences, high insulation, large spaces and lots of light. Together we went to look around three modern, oak-framed properties and then I was convinced too.

Grand ambitions

An offer was made on the house and whilst the sale was progressing we contacted an architect to draw up some plans. Our idea was to build a two storey, extension at right angles to the existing house, thus creating a T-shaped property, with the new space facing the best views. All we wanted was a living room and kitchen downstairs and two large bedrooms upstairs, with a central staircase and landing connecting them. Our brief was that we wanted to maximise the room sizes, dependent on permissible length of timbers, loads of windows on at least two sides of each room, but none of the fancy design extras, which always end up costing more money.

We chose an architect who was familiar with the design of oak framed properties and – with almost no amount of tweaking required – we submitted his drawings with our planning application. The extension doubled the size of the existing dwelling’s footprint and our architect advised us that if this application was being submitted in his county of Herefordshire, it would be very unlikely to succeed.

Then started the nervous wait; the sale was finalised and much of what we were planning to do with the existing property depended on whether planning permission would be given. Luckily, it was not a long wait as we received approval only three months after we had submitted the application.

Finally we could decide what we wanted to do with the existing part of our new home. The plan was to renovate it and move in within five months – especially as our second baby was soon due! We decided to build the concrete pad for the oak-framed extension, but nothing more for five years or so, until we had replenished our savings. We put the extension project out to tender and ended up choosing Welsh Oak Frame as the company with whom we wished to proceed.

Not such a long wait

After living in the old part of our house for two years, I think it’s fair to say, I pushed for starting the extension early – why not have the benefit of the extra space, sooner rather than later? So, the crane arrived and the first timbers were erected. Within 12 days, the oak frame was up and we could finally see the shape of our new home.

We were very familiar with our plans – especially as they had been up on the utility wall for over two years, where we looked at them nearly every day when passing! We made some alterations whilst it was still a paper plan, such as omitting a door in the kitchen, removing a partition wall in the boy’s bedroom and increasing the amount of fenestration in the living room. Welsh Oak Frame then created detailed plans of each room, including a simulated walk through, so we had a very good idea of what we were creating.

I feel I should say we had loads of challenging aspects to the build but the truth is, if we did, I can no longer remember them! That could either mean we didn’t encounter big problems, or I have a bad memory, or my husband sheltered me from some of the heartache, or using a professional company such as Welsh Oak Frame meant we avoided many of the possible pitfalls! I know Wyn found the hardest bit the scheduling of all the trades, so that we had things done in the right order but he managed this wonderfully.

We recieved lots of good advice from other people whose oak-framed houses we’d looked at, our skilled builders who’d worked on the old part of our house and from Welsh Oak Frame. The choice of wood and infill panels had been done for us but there was the question of brickwork, render, internal plaster, heating, lighting, doors, windows, latches, lighting, switches, bathrooms and flooring! For me, that was the hardest part; not the making of each of these decisions but the amount of them there were to make!

It’s worth noting that we are not a couple who see something we like and buy it. When we know we like something we’re then prepared to do a search to see what is the best price we can acquire it for, or compromise on a close match if it’s significantly cheaper. We didn’t necessarily use traditional suppliers for our materials either; our granite worktops came from a local stone mason, who historically had dealt in granite gravestones. Our kitchen floor comprises of patio slabs which we bought in bulk for the outdoor paved areas and then polished, sealed and waxed for an indoor look. Our hearth is an old piece of slate that was used to salt pigs in the outhouse of our old property.

Time and budget

We moved into our completed extension less than eight months after we started the project. We had been advised that it would take around six months, however, we were happy with this change in the time frame. It helped greatly that we were living on site and many nights we would be up until midnight working on the property: oiling wood, painting walls or plasterboard, even cleaning floors, all ready for the next step in the process required the following day. I remember that in the end, all the trades had finished on the Friday and we moved in over the weekend. We were on a deadline because we were renting out some of the old part of our house, as we didn’t need the extra two bedrooms and kitchen. We’re both quite decisive people too, so even if we needed to revise something that we had spent ages planning, it didn’t cause us too much worry.

I did receive one piece of memorable advice: “When building you have two main variables, time and budget – one or both of these is going to slip, so decide which is the most important to you and be prepared to give some slack to the other!”

In our case, I believe trying to bring it in on budget was the most important. Invariably, any self-builder will encounter additional costs but the only one that sticks in my memory is a sun tube which we put in the landing which connects the old part of the house to the extension because we’d lost a window there and wanted some extra natural light.

Perfect family home

The new extension has greatly improved our house and transformed quite an ugly building into a good-looking, sizable family home. It stands proud of the front garden and is approached by stone steps, set into a retaining wall up to Jacobean-style porch – our only concession to a fancy bit, as my husband would say – where the first floor is proud of the ground floor, so the person waiting for the door to be answered, has some shelter! A second oak door then opens into the hallway, where an oak staircase goes straight up to a galleried landing on the right hand and a corridor takes you down to the old part of the house with the dining room ahead of you. To the left of the hallway is the kitchen and to the right is the living room, both with bedrooms above.

The living room is just short of 6m2 and the south facing wall has six floor to ceiling panels of glass, the middle two which open out onto the patio. There are two more windows in the room and a recessed fireplace with a wood-burning stove set on a slate hearth. Although we have underfloor heating in the room, we rarely have it switched on because the sun on all the glazing seems to do the job for us! All the ceiling and wall beams are exposed and have been treated with an oil product which gives a golden, natural, matt appearance to the Oak.

The kitchen has oak fronted, fitted cabinets in a U-shape around one half of the room, with dark, mottled granite worktops and a breakfast island in the centre of the room. There are three windows in this room and the wood is all similarly exposed and treated. A door from the kitchen leads to the utility, which is part of the old house and then to the back door and on to a washroom.

Above the porch, on the galleried landing is an office space. We had originally thought we might partition the space off as a separate room but thankfully we decided against it as we would lose the light which floods into this area. All the ceiling joists and purlings are exposed here, as in the two bedrooms. The master bedroom is the smaller of the two, due to an en-suite and fitted wardrobes. The space above the bathroom provides attic storage and the false ceiling enables vents to be hidden and inset lighting to be used.

The largest bedroom is shared by our two boys and measures over 5m2. There are hanging ropes for swinging and a rope ladder which leads to a mezzanine floor above half of the room, where they play table football. It has four windows of three sides of the room and is a fantastic sized bedroom and playroom.

When we rendered the panels of the extension we were looking for a rich cream/pale yellow colour. We were given the advice to use Southampton sand in with the mix, so that it would give us the desired colour but also negate the need for painting the exterior. We were able to have this colour matched for an exterior paint to be used on the render on the old part of our home. So we’ve ended up with a coherent design that looks like it was always meant to be together.

The feedback we’ve received from the local community has all been good. I think a few people were surprised at the size of the extension, when it first went up but then again, so were we! We’ve planted lots of hedges around the property and quite a few trees, which are now beginning to establish themselves. There is a decked area with a playhouse and wildlife pond in one area and a wind turbine in the field behind us which provides for most of our electrical needs. We’ve also dug a bore hole and have our own septic tank, meaning our outgoing costs are kept to a minimum.

Dream home

We do consider ourselves lucky to have this house but as various people have quoted in the past: The harder you work, the luckier you get. This home is exactly what we wanted and because we’ve put so much of ourselves into it we both feel connected to it. I can remember oiling the beams with Wyn in our living room by flood light on a winter night, with the woodburner fired up but no glass in any of the window or doors. Or the day when I was loading our eldest son into the car, only to hear our two year old shouting down from three flights of scaffolding, “I’m up here Daddy!” My favourite room is the sitting room – it’s cosy and homely in the winter and lends itself superbly to Christmas decorations and family gathering. Then in the summer it’s bright and airy, and with the double doors open you feel totally connected to the outside. I don’t think Wyn has a favourite room as such, he just loves the wood, particularly the vaulted ceilings on the first floor.

Lots of people ask us if there’s anything we would have done differently and the only thing I can say is I would have put a oak flooring in the dining room, rather than carpet, but that’s in the old part of the house. Wyn wanted one wall of our bedroom to be fully glazed too, but I didn’t – even though we only look out on fields it was not something I was keen on, not least because you have less wall space for furniture! We are very happy with what’s been created and hope we are able to pass it on as our family home for many generations to come.

We would do another self-build again because it’s a great feeling to be a part of creating something which you’re proud of. Not many people would be lucky enough to find the perfect ready-made home in the right location, so self-build cuts down on the level of compromise needed. I would compare it to a good party with a few drinks: it’s great fun while you’re doing it, you feel totally shattered afterwards and make promises that you’ll never do it again but before long you find yourself hankering after another good night out!

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