13 May 2022

The Self Build Diaries: Oliver and Vickey Nolan

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In this article, Vickey talks to i-Build’s Editor, Rebecca Kemp, about the issues the pair encountered when it came to planning, how they managed to complete the build in an outstanding six-month timeframe and explains the benefits of having her husband as the architect.

RK: What inspired you to embark on your own project?
VN: My husband had completed his degree in architecture and always wanted to design our forever home. We were living in Dublin at the time and looking to relocate back to Meath to be closer to our families and friends and start a family. Being able to design and build a house has always been our dream. It would mean that we could discuss everything we wanted and incorporate it into the build. We both grew up in Meath, and when the opportunity to buy a local site from the area arose, we knew it was fate. We just had to make it a reality.

RK: What was the vision and inspiration behind your new home?
VN: The dwelling is organised into two distinct forms, which are linked with the entry. At the entrance, the space promotes views through the home into the woods, which provides the perfect backdrop. As for the layout and orientation, these are designed to maximise the number of rooms receiving direct sunlight from different aspects during the course of the day. Meanwhile, the L-shaped plan creates partially-enclosed, sheltered patio areas, which provide many opportunities for connecting the inside with the outside.

RK: How did you approach finalising your design brief?
VN: There was a lot of back and forth with the design, making sure every area was perfect inside and out. The beauty of having my husband as the architect meant we could make changes in 3D, and I could walk through all proposals and see the implications fully. It was incredible to move the walls and stairs and see the possibilities.

RK: Did your project need to cater for any special requirements?
VN: No, not really. We were conscious that we perhaps would need the ability to live downstairs when we’re older, so we have catered to these requirements in the bedroom, living room, kitchen and bathroom.

RK: How and why did you choose this plot?
VN: The plot was not for sale when we approached the owners, but the location was perfect. Being from the area meant we had local needs with family and friends living within a few minutes from our proposed home. When we approached the owners, we were pleasantly surprised that they were open to the suggestion and inevitably sold the site to us.

RK: How long did it take to gain planning permission?
VN: It took us 12 months to obtain planning. We were refused the first time due to sightlines on the road being an issue. However, we were fortunate that the landowners had a plot further along the street that they were willing to sell to us instead. So, we up and moved the planning location 100m down the road and were granted permission.

RK: Were there any challenging aspects to the project and build?
VN: When you are building a home, it can be one of the most stressful situations. Still, if you keep your eyes firmly fixed on why you’re building, everything will fall into place. As a self-builder, organisation was vital, from managing who needed to be on site and when to what materials they needed to cleaning and clearing the area every evening. We found the most difficult thing was delays with contractors not starting or finishing on time and holding up the next tradesperson or even trying to manage different trades in the house simultaneously. Another thing we found challenging was navigating the banking drawdowns and having stages completed before funds would be issued, and needing the money to finish the stage.

RK: How did you approach material and product specification?
VN: We went with high specification on everything we used as it meant a better quality build in the long term. Oliver is a Commercial Architect and specified many commercial products.

RK: Did you install any renewable systems?
VN: Yes, we installed an air-to-water heat pump. We have also first-fixed a heat recovery system; however, we are still to finish this.

RK: How does the property respond to Passive House principles?
VN: Timber frame houses are recognised as the most thermally-efficient form of building. Engineered timber framework offers the flexibility for high levels of insulation to be fitted as it arrives on site preinsulated. Timber frame offers excellent thermal efficiency, low thermal bridging and excellent airtightness. The entire house is wrapped with airtightness tape with high levels of insulation throughout.

RK: How long did the project take?
VN: We wanted to move in as quickly as possible, so we gave ourselves an eight-month build timeframe, but we pushed hard and managed to get in within six months. We broke ground in May 2020 and moved in October 2020 – this is something we are very proud of. When we moved in, the house wasn’t finished; we had no kitchen, floor or hall, but within a few weeks had the downstairs completed.

RK: Did you remain within the original budget?
VN: We stayed within budget, but we left big-ticket items off our budget and thought we would worry about them as the need arose, like our automated gates. We left the outside landscaping and concentrated on the house in the first phase. So, the budget is ever-evolving now as we complete the outside of the house and finish some more projects inside. We are currently adding a basketball half-court and a decking area with a pergola and jacuzzi.

RK: What are the interior and exterior finished spaces like?
VN: On the ground floor, we have clear views directly out to the back of the house with floor-to-ceiling glass that captures the woodland scenery. The kitchen is recessed into the floor above, creating a flush wall of units as you come into the space. To the right is a 4m window that extends into the double-height space with ever-changing landscape views. The house is situated in a barley field, and the crop is fascinating to look at as it dances in the wind. Our bespoke kitchen was made by ‘Dillions Kitchens’ and boasts a 3m island, black stone tops and a secret door into a hidden utility room. The house itself is open plan, and the kitchen/living space is ideal for having friends and family over.

Continuing on the ground floor, there is an office for my husband, a gym, a bedroom and a bathroom. Moving to the first floor, we have two en-suite bedrooms, one soon to be a nursery as we are expecting our first child. The master suite is my favourite room in the house; it includes walk-in wardrobes, a rainfall shower and we have a bathtub in the main bedroom space. It has a luxury hotel feel with deep teals, blacks and golds. Both bedrooms have 4m skylights over the bed, meaning you can lie in bed and watch the stars.

Outside, the house’s exterior is clad in charred black larch and contrasted with sawed natural larch. We also have a Tegral Fineline roof and expansive skylights.

RK: How does the property respond to its surrounding landscape?
VN: The house sits beautifully into the landscape with a look of a barn conversion amongst a tillage farm and woodland.

RK: What does the local community think of the new property?
VN: Cars stop daily and take pictures, and people call in all the time to ask for the architect’s name and number, which I find amusing. The response has been overwhelmingly positive and a talking point.

RK: Is the final property everything that you hoped it would be?
VN: Yes, we love it. I couldn’t have ever dreamed that I would live in such a perfect space.

RK: What’s your favourite thing about your new home?
VN: We adore the peace and quiet, and the fact that it is so close to all our friends and family makes it perfect.

RK: Is there anything that you would have done differently?
VN: I would have met all contractors before going ahead with anyone. We did everything over the phone or by email as we were in lockdown. You need to know who you are working with, understand if they hold the same vision as you and know if they can be trusted to complete the job to the standard you want.

RK: Would you do the whole thing again?
VN: I would not be afraid to do it again. That said, I never fully understood the extent of work we would have to undertake ourselves initially, but my eyes are wide open now, and I would do it again.

RK: What advice would you offer to anyone looking to self-build?
VN: Be prepared to work hard and reap the benefits. We did the work for approximately €200,000 cheaper than going with a builder; however, aspects of the home are still not finished, but we will get there. The other advice I would give is to know exactly who needs to do what and make sure it’s all done while they are on site, or you will be left to plug the gap! Do take some time away from the build, whether it is a date night or a trip away, as it can be all-consuming and just try and relax and enjoy the process.

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