In 2006 Philip and Caroline commissioned a local builder to complete a considerable extension on their West Dorset home. Seven years later, with their two teenagers about to embark on a move to university and worried that their home would be too big once the children had left, Philip and Caroline decided to build a new, smaller home in an unused corner of their large garden. They envisioned an ultra modern building, with a steel frame, acres of glass and trendy timber cladding. However, as is often the case with a self-build project, things didn’t exactly go to plan.
“I had always wanted to build my own house and the idea was confirmed to me when we extended,” explains Philip. “During the project I realised that builders were no better than a good DIY-er – yes they had better tools, but I felt they lacked commitment and regard to cost. So, when we decided to go ahead with the new project in 2013, I decided to do the work myself.”
Having decided to take on the build himself, Philip wanted to keep it as simple as possible. After watching a home built using Insulated Concrete Form (ICF) on an episode of Grand Designs, he visited a self-build exhibition to learn more about this method. There he met Nick Fell, of the Fell Partnership, who is the South West distributer of a Canadian ICF product called Nudura. With all the information buzzing in his head, he decided there and then that ICF was the ideal material for his new home. Philip approached two other suppliers of ICF building products, but felt nothing compared to the quality, strength and design flexibility of Nudura.
ICF structures have incredibly high-energy efficiency levels. This method of construction significantly reduces the amount of carbon emissions and the amount of fossil fuels needed for heating. Nudura ICFs are stay-in-place forms that consist of two panels of Expanded Polustyrene foam that are 67mm in thickness and connected together using a patented web system made from recycled material. The forms are stacked, then steel reinforced and filled with concrete.
Building in a conservation area
Philip and Caroline approached a local design and management company armed with a brief that they felt would be granted planning permission. After much discussion the designers came up with a plan that suited the site and made the most of the stunning coastal views. Nevertheless, gaining planning permission did not run smoothly. Being granted permission to build on an infill site in a Jurrassic coastal village, which lies within an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, was not straightforward. The couple also faced objections from a neighbour whose garden bordered the plot. After almost a year, Philip and Caroline decided to bypass their agent and deal with the planners themselves.
Philip continues: “We demanded that a decision was made, one way or another. Once planning permission was finally granted, we dumped the agent and assembled a very small, hand-picked band of local sub-contractors that I knew and trusted. The important point here is that your labour force has to be flexible yet reliable. You need a team that is available when you want them, willing to stand down when you don’t need them and able to turn their hands to do most things – after all, your self-build is all about you!”
Once the build was underway, Philip and Caroline encountered another challenge due to the low and narrow access to the site. All materials had to be delivered to the end of the garden via the driveway of their current house, which runs through an archway with a neighbour’s property above it. The height restriction was just over 7ft, with two ancient stone walls enclosing the driveway only 8ft apart. The access was simply too narrow to allow lorries onto the plot, meaning all ICF forms, timber and virtually everything else needed to complete the build were transported to the site on the back of Philip’s trusty old Mercedes estate.
The Harrison’s decided to use an in-line concrete pump for the first pour because the limited site access meant using a boom pump was not possible. However, even this method proved difficult due to the problematic entrance. The remaining concrete ended up being hauled onto the site using dumpers. The team then constructed a ply hopper, tipped the concrete into it and then shoveled the material into buckets by hand to pour into the ICF cavity.
Although the project was originally predicted to take 15 months, it ended up taking exactly 17 months, three weeks and one day. Philip discusses the delay: “This was my first house build and I got the timings wrong. Two stages took much longer than I had planned. The groundworks process of moving 600 tons of muck off site in three-ton dumpers took forever because the site access would not allow the use of lorries. The other delay was caused by the complexity of the roof design.”
When it came to budget, they admitted to having figures in mind, but never actually finalising one. When asked what the project cost them, Philip replies: “The art of decent conversation and many hours of sleep! During the build I rarely spoke about anything that was not related to the project – I must have bored friends stupid!”
Change of plan
The finished property is everything the couple hoped it would be, and more. It has the refreshing look of a Mediterranean villa. The design contrasts with typical properties on the Jurassic Coast, however the site isn’t overlooked and it adheres to the mixed architecture within the quaint coastal village.
Named ‘Pippin’, the house is upside down, with three large bedrooms, two bathrooms and a utility room downstairs and a study, cloakroom and large open-plan living/kitchen space and balcony on the first floor, making the most of the fantastic views beyond the expansive glazing and bi-folding doors.
Philip continues: “We all love the open space of the upper floor with the vaulted ceiling and how the doors bring the outside in. Although we initially planned to live in Pippin, we have now decided to stay put and holiday let our lovely new self-build. I’m sure we will move into the house in the future, but not until the children have finally flown the nest.
“I would most definitely be keen to do the whole thing again. I’m currently looking for another plot with similar sea views!”