Selfbuild in Co Down
Selfbuild in Co Down
Anyone who has gone through a self-build as involved as Derek and Lorna Lawther’s in Co Down will wonder if it was worth all the hardship. On thing’s for sure, the satisfaction of moving in knowing you’ve done it all yourself is hard to beat – even if everything hasn’t gone as planned and the house isn’t quite finished…
Lorna was raised in what could perhaps best be described as a constant state of ‘renovation flux’; her dad built their family home and as a natural result, he was constantly improving on it. With his brother he also converted their parents’ home to make it retirement-friendly.
“Having experienced renovations throughout my childhood, and living with three siblings, I’m pretty much used to things not being finished,” says Lorna. “I was also keenly aware of the importance of hiring an experienced designer! My dad’s never used a professional that provided architectural services and I knew the problems in terms of design that could have been averted had he done so.”
“There were issues with positioning, light, inadequate use of space. My heart bled out for my grandparents’ cottage, I feel like they destroyed a lovely cottage to replace it with a bungalow!”
Derek, meanwhile had been dreaming about building his own house. This was more of a pastime than a serious occupation as he didn’t believe the economics would ever stack up to make it happen.
Building Your Own Home in County Down | In the beginning…
The story starts in 2002 when newlyweds Derek and Lorna bought what they thought was their home-for-life, blissfully unaware of what their future held.
“A couple of years later we had our first child and at this stage we considered extending the house, but there was no question of moving,” explains Lorna. “We loved the neighbourhood and the house worked very well for us.”
Things only started to change when their neighbour’s property was put on the market. “He made a nice profit and we did start to dream,” recalls Lorna. “Derek had always been keen to pursue a self-build and all of a sudden it seemed possible.”
“Even though we didn’t think we’d get as lucky as our neighbour we decided to test the waters and put the house on the market. Within two days we got an offer that was 100% more than the asking price!”
Young and enterprising, the couple rather impulsively chose to sell. “We decided let’s do this! The reality of not having anywhere to move to hit us pretty quickly so every evening we went around in the car looking for a site to buy. We’d set the boundaries within which we wanted to live, an area within half an hour from work and in the vicinity of where our first house was,” adds Lorna.
“We knew this area well, we had contacts and eventually we heard through the grapevine that a farmer was going to put a field on the market.” This was in 2006. “We jumped at it even though it was slightly more expensive than what I had in mind, I did have an idea of the going rate as land was holding its value, not soaring like property was. I think the farmer was motivated to sell quickly because there were just six months left on the Outline Planning Permission.”
The perfect fit
“The next morning on my way to work I handed the yellow pages to Derek and asked him to find us a designer, I wasn’t going to repeat the mistakes of the past! He rang half a dozen and the first to ring back was Julian. It was an unbelievable match.”
“Some of the other architectural professionals were trying to push us into things we didn’t want. In one instance, the designer only had experience with extensions yet wanted to try his hand at self-builds – I didn’t want him experimenting on my house!” Julian’s work jut spoke to the Lawthers. “It was uncanny how his style espoused ours,” says Lorna. “We went to his own house and fell in love with it. It was exactly what we wanted.”
“We just got on so well, we gelled. He was a real gentleman, there never was anything pushy about him but he always gave advice when it was needed. We’re deeply saddened he’s passed away.”
The template used for the Lawthers’ house was Julian’s with some changes in scale. “We had very specific room sizes in mind which was in a large part driven by the furniture we had– in a way we designed around them! We spent our wedding money on really nice pieces that we love, for instance we have a 12ft kitchen table and it simply had to fit. The style of the house also had to match so we went for a sort of modern rustic cottage. Most of the items have a story to tell; the kitchen larder cupboard is second hand as is our bedroom dresser. The fridge was also bought used while the range was refurbished by a friend.”
“The ‘wow’ factor comes from the valuted ceilings, one of Julian’s design features, which makes the rooms feel bigger,” adds Lorna. “At this stage we didn’t realise that from initial concept to completion it would take us five years!” On the wish list they had a nice hallway, flexible enough so that it could be used as an extra reception area and dining room. They also wanted a sunroom near the kitchen. “Julian advised us to have a door, which we close every winter – it does get cold in there!”
Julian’s experience also shone through when Lorna suggested adding a step to bring you down into the living room, having liked the sunken look she’d spotted in interior design magazines. “He advised us it would be expensive to do as we’d have to dig it out, we’d also have to re-think the space to make it work. It was a lot of money to be paying for something that may not turn out to be that practical with children running around!”
Julian’s house had wide cottage walls and the Lawthers also wanted to replicate the look. “I love big thick walls and deep set windows,” explains Lorna. “There was some deliberation on how to achieve this; in the end we went with three skins of block, it’s a house and a half! It definitely helps our heating bills stay low as one of the cavities is fully insulated with PIR sheets.”
Their first house was much smaller, Lorna says, but the bills are comparable. They insulated under the floor and added an insulant within the screed too. “We wanted to make sure it would hold the heat as we installed underfloor heating downstairs,” she adds. And for Lorna, the choice of reclaimed slates for the roof negated the possibility of installing solar panels. “At the time we were building we’d heard of many unfortunate stories from friends who had chosen renewable heating systems. One installed a wood pellet boiler but then had to add solar, then a wind turbine. It just put us off the whole thing.”
The underfloor heating is on six months of the year and their hot water and heating system is oil fired complemented by the kitchen range in the winter months. The one thing they would change, she says, is to get a concrete floor installed upstairs. “The mezzanine above the kitchen is now used as playroom and office in winter but as the floor is timber you can hear every noise with the kids running around!”
“Initially Derek and I thought of the house positioning and I quickly came to the conclusion that we should let Julian worry about all of that, that’s what he spent years training for. I completely trusted his professional opinion and the positioning couldn’t be better, both of the house and of the windows which bring in plenty of natural light when we need it.”
The original design had even more windows than they eventually decided to incorporate. “To cut down on costs we took out some rooflights in the living room, bringing the number down to four as Julian said it wasn’t necessary to have too many to get the quality of light we were after.” The bedrooms get sunshine in the morning, the sunroom all day, while the evening sun illuminates the kitchen and living room. “We get patches of sun at different times of the day in every room,” adds Lorna.
“In terms of planning we were nervous because the clock was ticking. The thing that surprised us when we got the reply were the pages regarding landscaping, the house was no problem at all! There were mostly issues with how far the boundary was, how high the mound should be, so the first thing we did is plant hedgerows – to satisfy the planners and to shield the house from view. “Julian made us laugh when he commented the application had probably been dealt with by a young planner that was going by the rules,” recalls Lorna. “I suppose Julian was matter-of-fact about it because the stipulations were what he would have recommended anyway.”
“It’s lovely now as our house faces onto the lane, nobody sees it screened as it is by the hedgerows. But from the kitchen you can see cars approaching, which is a feature I like living out in the countryside. The rest of the house opens up to the lawn.”
The plot Derek and Lorna bought was one of two, which were located at the end of a field. “Two brothers shared the field and one of them is our neighbour. The boundary outline is not very technical, it consists of a mark on the stones.”
Their neighbour finished building his house before they did and happened to have it facing theirs, but the hedgerows are now mature and they’re shielded from each other’s view.
Lorna argues self-building should come with a health warning! Every case is so individual and unique it’s hard to generalise but it’s clear that the experience will take its toll, even if you don’t have young children to take care of, no financial or health issues.
“I’d never sugar coat it, it’s been really hard work,” she confides. “We have friends who went through a similar experience selling their house and they were motivated by our choice to self-build. I sat her down and told her to really think about it, you have to go all-in. It’s a life experience, not so sure about character building!” After they sold their first house and bought the plot, they decided to buy a house to live in while the building works were taking place. “We moved down to the village, thinking we could keep the house on the side and sell it when we moved into our newly built home. We began to really integrate into the community, especially with the children starting to go to school.”
But the build process took longer than anticipated and the recession eventually hit. “It came to a point where we had to rent the house we’d bought in the village and move into the garage, which thankfully we’d built first,” says Lorna. “It was a difficult decision, it wasn’t what we’d intended – the garage has got a sum total of two rooms and a bathroom and at that stage we had two young children with another on the way! But one was three years old, the other nine months, and they didn’t know any different.”
“I actually think they enjoyed it, they did have a lovely playground. But it was tough in winter, we only had a wood burning stove to keep warm and we had to light it every morning, it felt medieval to be praying for there to still be embers in the fire every time you woke up!” Hot water was running on electricity.
They lived in the garage for two and a half years. “That whole period is a bit of a blur! It was mad but we didn’t have an alternative, we needed to cover both mortgages. On the positive side we were on site and Derek was happier with being able to be close to us yet work on the house and oversee things better.”
Delays were in large part due to health issues. “We had to go back to hospital with the baby and the house project ground to a halt as Derek was the one who was completely driving it,” says Lorna. “I couldn’t walk so he had to take care of the children. But we’ve come through it all, all I can say is I wouldn’t want to do it again; I have no yearning to tackle another big project like this!” The journey
“Derek oversaw the whole project, pricing and organising everything,” expounds Lorna. “We knew of different tradesmen in the area and we got recommendations, Derek knew people too. For instance we knew our brickie was very good, he wasn’t especially cheap but had a very good reputation, and he went on to recommend others. If we ran into problems or got stuck, Julian would help – for instance he found us our joiner.”
“It’s funny to remember how green we were at the time! What got us through it were the people we hired, we could trust them. They were all local with a reputation to maintain. The brickie for instance helped us in many ways, telling us what stage he was getting to and what he’d need the following week. He was good at keeping us right. As for the foundations we drew them out with Julian and my dad’s friend laid them.”
They had to reach stages to draw down the mortgage money, and with Derek working full-time there was no way to progress the house any quicker than they did. “The delays gave us the time to walk around the house and get a really good feel for where everything should go and what finishes to choose.” It also gave them the opportunity to shop around. “I trawled for bargains for everything, the flooring is an example of that. A friend of ours knew of a house being knocked down that had lovely oak floors so we showed up with our trailer and asked them if we could take them and they agreed. We went at it with a crowbar, that’s what we now have in the bedrooms, they’re big wide wooden boards.”
Much of their furniture was found in a salvage yard but so were the rest of the floorboards. “We found reclaimed wood from a convent in Scotland, we sanded every floorboard and as it was tongue and groove it was painstaking work!” The effort really paid off as all of the tiles and other floor finishes came in at less than £2,000. They did get some of the work costed but realised they’d be better off managing it themselves. “We got prices from builders but we were afraid it would not necessarily be done the way we’d have wanted,” adds Lorna.
“We also got the kitchen priced but I hadn’t realised how expensive it could be! Most of them came with fancy finishes like dovetail joints which we didn’t need. I like freestanding furniture so we went with that and also got some fitted units, from a flatpack company / DIY store. Their design service was great and we got them to help us design and fit our utility room too. In the kitchen we then got a granite countertop fitted for a more luxurious finish.”
They also consulted with companies supplying lighting and even home automation products. “The sky’s the limit when it comes to controlling your home – you can open your curtains on demand from your phone! We didn’t go for any of that but did take our time choosing where to put the lights and sockets, our electrician helped us with that.”
An area they did spend money on was the bathroom. “There are many freestanding components, such as the vanity and the bath, which were quite expensive but it adds so much character I think it’s really worth it. In the grand scheme of things I’d say the cost was reasonable. Although as a result we still have no ensuite!”
All in all, Lorna wouldn’t trade this house or its location for any other. “I love living down here, and there’s so much freedom for the kids, it’s also great having friends over,” she says. “You get so used to having the space around you, I can’t imagine going back to living in a terraced house! I have been reflecting on things, we’re moved in five years now, and I do think we’ve gained so much as a family. While we benefited and suffered from the boom and bust cycle, we’ve made the most of what we have and I realise we are very fortunate.”
“The fact that it’s not fully finished frustrates Derek more than me,” adds Lorna. “I think that’s because he was driving the project. I don’t mind things not being quite done. We’re taking it one step at a time!”
House size: 3,000 sqft excluding garage
Plot size: 1 acre
External wall: 500mm thick, made up of three courses of 100mm blocks with two cavities, to achieve U-value of 0.35W/sqmK or better. Floors insulated with 150mm PIR board.
Warm roof construction: covered with marine plywood and 150mm PIR insulation on top and then breathable roof membrane, laths and reclaimed Bangor Blue slates.
Windows: wooden sash, double glazed, argon filled.