16 Jan 2020

A modular modification

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The Speakmans had lived in their High Wycombe home for more than 20 years when a property on their road came up for sale, offering the perfect chance for them to create their dream house. Keen to work with a company that could assist with everything from project management to construction, WeberHaus seemed like a natural fit.

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When Helen and Mike Speakman purchased the traditional home next door but one from their existing property, the initial plan was to renovate and extend the house. “But when our architect costed the project, the sum was astronomical because the house was in such poor condition,” says Helen. “A builder suggested we demolish the house and start again from scratch.”

Plus, building a new house would come with the added advantage of being zero-rated VAT on labour and materials. Therefore, Helen and Mike would be able to claim this sum back at the end of the build.

While Helen wasn’t keen on the idea at first, Mike realised that creating a new home would provide a golden opportunity to make the most of the site’s orientation and views. “Design decisions are more of a challenge in renovations. Constructing a new one gives you more opportunities, which really excited me,” says Mike.

The couple met WeberHaus at a self-build exhibition and were instantly impressed. “We engaged with them immediately and were definitely on our wavelength. They seemed very honest and had a lot of integrity,” says Helen.

As Mike travels a lot for business, he wanted to take a construction route where the bulk of the design and build decisions could be made upfront. “I didn’t want to leave Helen with a contractor asking her questions every day and harassing her for decisions,” Mike says. “I wanted to be able to specify as much as possible during the early stages of the project, taking a route that was as close to a turnkey solution as we could get.”

The Speakmans were also impressed with the honest approach adopted by the WeberHaus team. “If there were things that had historically caused problems in the build, they’d highlight it to you at the start. The sales team were very transparent about what was and wasn’t included in the contract, so we knew there wouldn’t be any nasty surprises later,” says Mike. “They also came across as having very strong project management skills.”

Design process

For the Speakmans, timber frame construction was another key advantage of working with WeberHaus. “It’s a proven system,” says Mike. “The fact that the structural components are all manufactured in a factory-controlled environment before being assembled with absolute precision on site really appealed.”

The couple already had a set of plans drawn up by their original architect for the renovation and extension of the house. WeberHaus was able to use these, plus a project wish list the pair had drawn up, to create a set of designs. “They were good at taking our plans and incorporating what we wanted into the design for the new house,” says Mike. “Our designer was flexible and would take on board our ideas about what we wanted from the house.”

One of the key parts of the design process was a trip to Germany, where Helen and Mike were able to specify all the products and materials for the build. “We went through the fit-out process, from day one choosing the exterior colours, tiles, doors and windows, right the way through to day five specifying taps, light switches and so forth,” says Helen. “If we’d have gone down a more conventional build route in the UK, we’d have been visiting showroom after showroom choosing individual items. With WeberHaus, everything was all under one roof, which was great because we knew everything we chose would come together nicely.”

For Helen and Mike, getting the local planners and neighbours on side was a key part of the design process, too. “Our neighbours have been brilliant. Everyone was so excited by the project; we had lots of letters of positive support for it,” says Helen.

As the house is situated within a conservation area, the design of the front had to mimic the previous property in terms of massing and colours. “However, on the rear side, the planners were completely open to what we wanted to do,” says Mike. “If they understand where you’re coming from and what you’re trying to achieve, they can give helpful advice as to what they can and can’t accept.” Thanks to their considered approach to the design of their new home, Helen and Mike’s scheme was passed by the local planners with no issues, and construction could begin.

Action on site

The first step for Helen and Mike was to tackle the groundworks while their timber frame was being manufactured in Germany. “The preparation of this aspect was probably one of the trickier phases of the project,” says Mike. The couple had engaged a separate contractor to handle this side of things, so Mike was coordinating multiple parties. “It was sometimes challenging to get things done in a timely manner, so they didn’t interrupt the programme of the build,” says Mike. “Things like getting the soakaway done seemed to take forever, as there are various stages you have to go through to get things done.”

For the Speakmans, witnessing the assembly of their WeberHaus home was the highlight of the whole project. “We had 23 lorries come to deliver the structural components, arriving at two-hour intervals. It was like clockwork,” says Helen. “All of the walls, floors and roofs were craned in and fitted together with absolute precision, down to the millimetre. It was the highlight of my life! I was like a child at Christmas.” In total, it took nine days for the house to be erected and reach wind and watertight levels.

Fantastic result

Now the house is complete, Mike and Helen are delighted with the results. The couple lives here together, while their 23-year-old son lives in their previous property next door but one. The Speakmans share three dogs – a labrador, a spaniel and a sprudel – with their son, so the new living setup works excellently. Though their 27-year-old daughter owns her own property, she has a bedroom in the new house, too.

The couple has many relatives and close friends from abroad who come to enjoy the new house, too. “

Although the house seems very big for two people, it’s always full. It’s like a family hub,” says Helen. “We love it. We had to keep pinching ourselves during the first few months of living here because it felt like we were in a luxurious villa abroad. We’ve got so much space, but the house still feels warm and cosy.”

For Helen, one of the key successes is the open-plan kitchen-diner. As the couple’s previous home was traditional with a boxier layout, Helen was keen to avoid feeling isolated on the other side of the house when she was in the kitchen.

“The kitchen-diner we’ve got now is fabulous. It’s modern with white Silestone worktops, and we’ve got a huge central island that we basically live around. All the materials complement each other beautifully, resulting in a fresh, streamlined feel.”

The Speakmans also enjoy having a large garage that is integral to the layout of the rest of the house, with a utility room positioned above. This design idea was something they drew from trips to visit relatives in Vancouver and Seattle, and is something Helen admits is working excellently so far.

For Mike, one of the standout areas in terms of design details is the light-filled entrance atrium. “It’s got a very high, lofty roof so that when you come in, there’s a very spacious feel immediately,” he says. As well as inviting plenty of sunshine into the house, the broad spans of glazing also serve to frame fantastic vistas across the surrounding area. “We deliberately positioned the staircase on the right-hand side of the space so as not to block out any of the fantastic views.”

Green features

Mike is also delighted with the results of the various eco-features that were incorporated as part of the project. The couple has fitted a solar panel array to generate their own electricity, which feeds into Tesla batteries. The energy they generate from this setup is also used to power their two air source heat pumps, which, in turn, generate warmth to provide the domestic hot water and power the underfloor heating.

Mike pulled together information from various sources to design a renewable setup that would deliver the best possible results. WeberHaus were very supportive throughout the process. “We were aiming to be self-sufficient in terms of electrical energy for six months of the year, and that’s how it’s effectively worked out,” he says. “To date, since January this year, we’ve produced 75% of the energy we’ve consumed.”

The next chapter

Reflecting on their entire journey, the Speakmans acknowledge that they have learnt a tremendous amount. “I think the main thing I’ve learnt is how important it is to be discerning about who you work with on the scheme,” Mike says.

Helen agrees with the fundamental importance of setting aside enough time to do your homework. “We put a lot of time into our research and travelled to various parts of the country to look at builds in progress,” she says. “However, for me, I’ve learnt that anything is possible. I never imagined for one moment that we were the sort of people who would build our own home. Sometimes I have to pinch myself.”

Now the process is complete; the couple certainly hasn’t been put off the idea of doing it all again. “I’d do it again without a moment’s hesitation,” says Helen. “But I couldn’t do it just for the sake of doing a project. It’d have to be for me or someone in my family to live in. You need to have that emotional contact with the house.”

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