15 Jun 2021

The Self-build Diaries: Joseph and Emily Bonar


When Joseph and Emily Bonar completed their first self-build project back in 2011, they thought it would be their last. However, flash forward 10 years, and the Bonars have just completed another project. Having well and truly caught the self-build bug, two-time self-builder Emily talks to us about her family’s latest project and explains what made them want to do it all over again.


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RK: What inspired you to embark on your own project rather than buying?
EB: I definitely think my inspiration came from my dad. He used to work in the building trade. I suppose my love for building stems from him. When I was young, we’d go for Sunday drives, looking at houses, and he would show us the different ones he had built. I suppose it’s always the dream to create your own home, and we were just blessed that we got to do this twice.

Our first self-build journey started when we broke ground in August 2011. We were gifted the site from my father-in-law. At the time, we never had any intention of building again. That was going to be our family home, and we worked extremely hard to complete the build in just a little over two years. We lived in a mobile house for four years and saved as much as possible. We had family and friends all roped in to help at different stages, and we even went on a tiling course and tiled the house ourselves.

In 2018, we bit the bullet and decided to build again. This time it was our dream location – by the beach, a site that we talked about a million times over. The plot had an old dwelling, which was my mother-in-law’s old family home.

RK: What was the vision and inspiration behind your new home?
EB: I suppose we were very clear from the offset that we wanted to make the most of the views. We wanted a large apex window to maximise the stunning sea and mountain views to the front of the house. We also overlook a golf course at the back of the house, so it was important to focus there.

RK: How did you approach finalising your design brief?
EB: The design process was a lot smoother than I thought it would be. We had images of what we liked, what we wanted and took it from there. A friend helped us with our drawings and planning application process. We discussed our first self-build and what we would change. We told him what we wanted and gave him some pictures.

He went off and worked his magic. From there, we probably altered the drawings five times until we were completely satisfied with our plan. We would sit at night with colouring pencils and markers, crossing out walls, changing layouts and also comparing room dimensions to rooms that we were in. The whole process, from the start of discussions to submitting our application, was three months.

RK: Did your project need to cater for any special requirements?
EB: As our plot was an SAC (Special Area of Conservation), we had to get an Environmental Impact Statement as part of our planning.

RK: How and why did you choose this plot?
EB: We lived in a mobile home for four years beside this site and had endless conversations about it. Joseph’s uncle owned the plot, and he was delighted to see it been given a new lease of life, with the added bonus of remaining in the family. The location is fantastic, and the views are just spectacular. To us, it was the perfect plot.

RK: How long did it take to gain planning permission?
EB: We submitted our planning in October 2018, and further information was requested at the end of November 2018. We then resubmitted in July 2019 with the Environmental Impact Statement, a traffic study and made some minor alterations to improve the balance and appearance of our house. Overall, planning took 11 months, and we received notification of approval in September 2019.

RK: Were there any challenging aspects to the project and build?
EB: Our two biggest challenges were the weather in February 2020 and the lockdown in March. February was an exceptionally wet and windy month. There seemed to be one storm after another, and we had no builders on site. Then the weather picked up and worked recommenced. We had not long started on the roof when the first lockdown began. We had to close the gate to our site, and it was closed for 10 weeks.

RK: Did you project manage the build yourself?
EB: I project managed both self-builds and absolutely loved it. With our first self-build, I kept a record book of all my contacts, quotes, suppliers, prices, monies spent and jobs that had to be done and when. This was like my building bible. Project managing and being a mum, wife and working full-time was hard work and stressful, but so worth it. I knew I would have to devote a significant amount of time and energy to the second build. However, having my record book and building up a great relationship with some fantastic tradespeole from our first build made the second build so much easier to manage. It was interesting to compare prices from 2011 and 2020, although prices increasing wasn’t in our favour. I was fully confident in managing the build, organising trades, pricing and ordering materials, negotiating quotes, checking in on site every day with trades and making some on-the-spot decisions. I made sure to liaise daily with my tradespeople and to keep everyone in the loop of what was happening. Our blockwork started in January 2020, and we moved into our forever home in November 2020. As one of my tradesmen said: “If he wanted something on site for Thursday, I’d have it there for Tuesday.”

RK: How did you approach material and product specification?
EB: The one area that we never compromised on was insulation. It was essential to us with the two self-builds that we had well-insulated houses.

We made sure that we did our research, asked all the questions that we needed to and listened to the professionals. Concerning materials, I would ask the trades to make a list of what they required. From there, I would contact several suppliers and get quotes, negotiate prices and order.

RK: How long did the project take?
EB: From the blockwork starting in January 2020 to when we moved into the house in November 2020 was 11 months. Within this time, we lost four weeks to bad weather and 10 weeks to lockdown. Overall our building project was approximately nine months, which we are still surprised by. My tradespeople still comment on how smoothly everything fell into place. I originally predicted that we would be doing well if we were in the new house in 12 months, giving myself 18 months as a worst-case scenario. Looking back, I almost feel like the first lockdown benefitted us, as it gave us time to design our kitchen, organise windows and doors and make some decisions internally.

I also got quotes from tradespeople for jobs further down the line. I designed a feature wall for our open-plan living room, and I had time to spend on this. We also had time to think about the different room layouts. Once we came out of lockdown, we were full throttle, and I could concentrate on tiles, sanitaryware and the stairs.

RK: Did you remain within the original budget?
EB: Keeping a log of monies spent for both builds helped me keep track of our finances. Building our first self-build with no mortgage set us up financially for our second build. We had the funds from the sale of our house then for our second build. We came in €10,000 over our original budget, but this was by choice. We made some decisions during the build and decided to spend the extra monies – for example, triple glazing windows and quartz countertops.

RK: Please provide an overview of the finished space.
EB: Inside, we wanted to kick it up a notch, and our main focus point was our apex window. The layout was well-thought-out and organised, so we made the best use of every space. The vaulted ceiling in the open-plan living area added a little ‘wow factor’ to the large window. We wanted to create a spacious, warm feel in our home that was unique and personal. Our house needed to be practical and functional while remaining modern and bright. The bespoke feature wall brings warmth and cosiness, with soft lighting and an electric fire. We opted for tiles throughout the ground floor and added some patterned rugs for a bit of texture.

The U-shaped kitchen layout with our island in the middle makes everything functional. We decided on light grey kitchen units with a dusk grey island. The white diamond quartz countertop brightens up the whole kitchen and adds a little sparkle. Meanwhile, our custom boot room at the back door provides ideal storage for outdoor attire and includes a seating area for removing shoes. Upstairs, we opted for carpets in the bedrooms to add a little cosiness. We created playful bedrooms for the children with their bespoke bunk beds while also focusing on storage. We went with modern designs and simple geometric shapes with our bathrooms and en-suites, keeping all sanitaryware white and going bold with our paint colour.

We are still working on our interiors, and some rooms are unfinished. We are looking forward to adding more furniture, textures and fabrics to our home to continue the flow of our personality throughout the house.

RK: How does the property respond to its surrounding landscape?
EB: We considered if our build would be compatible with the surrounding landscape and existing buildings before planning. We discussed landscaping ideas and are trying to keep the character of the plot alive with the old stone walls.

RK: What’s your favourite thing about your new home?
EB: It’s so hard to choose! I would have to say the apex window (because of the views) and the feature wall. I had an idea for a feature wall back when we started our blockwork and began to draw out designs to suit the space. It was a collaboration between tradespeople. The carpenter had to build the frame; it was then plasterboarded, then the tiler applied the stone-effect tiles on the back wall, and the electrician installed the spotlights. The plasterer then plastered it, and I painted it. I suppose I felt a great sense of accomplishment when I saw it completed; it was no longer a vision in my head.

RK: Would you do the whole thing again?
EB: I enjoy being stuck in the middle of a building project so much. We have built our forever home, but I wouldn’t rule out another little project down the line if the opportunity arose.

RK: What advice would you offer to anyone looking to self-build?
EB: Firstly start a record book and work with trusted and recommended tradespeople. Word of mouth is critical, and don’t be afraid to look at previous jobs. Think about your interiors early on and your layout. Research your heating system and trust the professionals. Get three or four quotes for everything. Try to stick to your plan and don’t get led astray by beautiful pictures online. Try to do some of the work yourself and be creative with inexpensive materials. Work out an approximate monthly timeline and make sure you allow enough time to order things, e.g. windows and doors, concrete stairs, kitchen etc. Have clear deadlines when you want jobs completed, liaise with your trades daily and be visible on site regularly.

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