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05 May 2021

The Self-build Diaries: Hannah Pike

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Hannah Pike and her partner, Phil, took a huge leap of faith in 2017 when they left London’s Hackney for the Peak District’s rolling hills. Having purchased one-third of an acre in Derbyshire’s High Peak, the pair embarked on their self-build journey, creating the family home of their dreams in the form of an upside-down house. Here, self-proclaimed ‘self-build survivor’, Hannah, talks to i-Build’s Editor, Rebecca Kemp, about the nuts and bolts of her ‘Upside Down House’.

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RK: What inspired you to embark on your own project rather than buying?
HP: I saw an episode of Miss Marple in December 2014 where a couple built a property – I loved the house. From there, the seed was planted. It made us do a total 180 on our plans to continue our life in London – with lots of ‘what-if?’ conversations. However, I was pregnant with our first child at the time, so we were at a crossroads anyway – we just threw a few more paths at it.

RK: What was the vision and inspiration behind your new home?
HP: Initially, the Homewood House – the property in that Miss Marple episode. As the design process developed, we abandoned lots of aspects for financial or planning reasons. For example, only one mortgage lender would consider us if we were building a flat roof. But, the space layout and upside-down living aspect was retained – as well as the Mid-Century Modern interior style.

RK: How did you approach finalising your design brief?
HP: My dad was the architect, so I don’t think a design brief was ever finalised. Unfortunately for him, I had a lot of access – and we tweaked the design regularly. Initially, I had given him my design – wonky lines and all – and that was the starting point. I’m very proud of that design. You can see it on my blog about the build.

RK: How and why did you choose this plot?
HP: We had been looking for over a year and didn’t realise how hard it is to buy a piece of land – it sounds much simpler than it is. We got super lucky in the end with a site that I could see a property on immediately. What’s more, the plot already had planning approval for a detached house. The plot was for sale via closed bid, and we lost out. That was gutting, but we were approached six months later by the agent to say the deal had fallen through – it was destined to be. We said yes, and a few months later, it was ours.

RK: How long did it take to gain planning permission?
HP: Four months from the application going in and nine months from the initial conversations. We had to change our materials considerably to suit the planners, who felt we weren’t blending in with the neighbourhood enough. I wanted a lot of vertical wooden beams – we got there in the end. The planners’ suggestion of shingles – which I was initially mortified by (it conjured thoughts of alpine chalets) – we took and went big and modern with. Now, I love it.

RK: Were there any challenging aspects to the project and build?
HP: Nothing dreadful; a few areas ran over cost-wise, but we had a contingency. The schedule did slip by three months, and we were on site a lot. A combination of excitement, being in rented accommodation nearby and on maternity leave meant we could be present. We spotted a few problems so they could be rectified early or thrown out and reinvented. We got pretty good at saying, “OK, we’ll think about it”, and developing a new alternative.

RK: Did you project manage the build yourself?
HP: No. We employed contractors and a project manager (PM) to run the build. We felt the expense of a PM was worth it in order to keep everything on track and reduce fall-out costs – such as extra rental and any big financial shocks. My dad was the architect. Because he was retired and not keen to take on the management responsibilities, become insured again, deal with planners and do the technical drawings, we asked a local surveyor to take this on, who then became the project manager.

RK: How did you approach material and product specification?
HP: Our sustainable wish list was for a timber frame and ground source heat pump. However, this proved too expensive, so we had to resort to more traditional methods and materials. We do have 100% underfloor heating which is a nod to sustainable living. We left product choices in the hands of the contractor.

RK: How long did the project take?
HP: The contractor expected a nine-month build, but it took 12 months. The planning and preparation took a year, which was the most frustrating aspect. We bought the land in January 2017 and our second child was due in September. My early – and completely naive – expectation was that we’d be in not long after she came out.

RK: Did you remain within the original budget?
HP: There were several unexpected costs – excavation, plumbing and correcting a structural design element, to name a few. It was all covered by reducing the pots of money elsewhere, such as the expensive kitchen, staircase and landscaping – or taken from the contingency. We also took on sourcing all fixtures, fittings and flooring, including the kitchen and wood burner. We organised the mains connections too. Anything that we felt was feasible to do ourselves, we undertook. That said, we did keep to the decoration budget so that we’d have a pro finish instead of bribing friends and family to come and help.

RK: Talk us through the finished space.
HP: In both the interior and exterior spaces, it’s the angles and glass that strike you. The external textures are shingles, render and reconstituted stone with a full-height glass entrance. The organic colours blend with the natural setting. Inside, there are three defined areas. The ground level is a functional utility space; off the stairs (leading to the social room on the first floor) is the bedroom quarter, and back up the remaining stairs, you arrive at the open-plan kitchen and living area with doors out to a deck.

RK: How does the property respond to its surrounding landscape?
HP: Hopefully, it will be a lot less visible from the road in a few years as we’re keen for nature to bring us back into her fold now. The plot is almost glade-like – it was at the bottom of a very mature and large garden that our neighbours sold off. We have been gifted lots of established shrubs and trees that bring so much wildlife to the plot. These include mega rhododendrons, cherry blossom, alpines and oaks. We have planted a new oak and three Himalayan silver birches so far. We looked at what the neighbours have in their gardens. We thought that if it grows well there, it should grow well in our garden too. I’m still waiting for lots of new shrubs to climb the walls before we thoroughly blend in again.

RK: Did you work with a landscaping professional at any point in the process?
HP: Our deck was built single-handedly by a local landscape gardener and the front drive was levelled and landscaped by a local groundworks firm because if we don’t get the levels right, we are prone to flooding in this area. Dad came up trumps again with a garden plan, and we’ve done the rest of ourselves in lockdown, which has been so much fun, if not utterly exhausting as well.

The garden needs three years of growth, but it’s going to be the best feature. It wraps around the house, so we are taking each aspect’s lead to create a different feel in each area – the lawn, the deck, the working garden and the front garden.

RK: What does the local community think of the new property?
HP: The neighbours are lovely, and no one appears to be offended. I think they like it and can see we want to blend in instead of sticking our chests out.

RK: Is the final property everything that you hoped it would be?
HP: It’s so close to our vision and the final plans, and we are super happy. The feeling of being in the treetops was the best surprise addition to it all. It’s such fun to feel like you’re in a treehouse. Changes we made to fixtures and fittings have come out better than expected, such as going for a cork floor instead of parquet and adding a bold stamp of plywood to a plain IKEA kitchen.

RK: Is there anything that you would have done differently?
HP: I would have made our bedroom lighter. A vaulted ceiling and VELUX windows were on the cards at one time, but we ditched them to accommodate something else. It’s a small thing that has now become a future project.

RK: Would you do the whole thing again?
HP: Ask me again in five years!

RK: What advice would you offer to anyone looking to self-build?
HP: Focus on and invest in designing the space, flow and light etc. These are our most ‘wow factor’ elements. Try to concede quickly. If you can’t – you know you want it, and if you can – you’ll probably come up with something even better. Get to the site as much as you can – not everyone sees the big picture, so it’s good to connect the dots and be there for questions. When you’re on site, don’t agree to anything with the tradesmen until you’ve discussed costs with the contractor. See if you can take on any of the basic jobs – clearing the land, mains connections, buying and organising all the internal fixtures arrivals etc. Also, have a 15 to 20% contingency fund; you can always get lovely house stuff with it if you don’t need it.

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