A project being built in rural Somerset shows that self-build schemes can be imaginative and still work effectively Self-builders come in all shapes and sizes. From unemployed 20-somethings building their Barrett-style semis, to hippy 40-somethings and their dog-eared copies of Walter Segal.
Whether millionaires or paupers, several things are common to most: a blissful ignorance about the time and effort involved; and a self-belief in the autonomy of their project. Many do it for cost-efficiency reasons, writing off their own labour time, but very few, it seems, do it for profit.
This is the story of how, by careful input from all the skills engaged on site, a building has emerged that is more than the sum of its parts; a novel design and a learning process, in a positive sense, for all of those involved.
On their first visit to the site, architect Hugh Alexander and client John Moore were both taken by the seclusion and drama of the area. Set in a curious hillside 'street' in the middle of nowhere (Somerset), accessed from an unpaved track off a country lane, the plot was crowded with 15m-high leylandii. It was this drama and remoteness that attracted the client and, on removal of the hedge, it was found that the site offered views of 20 miles or so, up to the Severn Estuary.
The plot was purchased in May 2000. Some site clearance was started, but after June the weather turned so bad that work did not really resume until February 2001.
The original planning permission allowed Moore to build a traditional retirement bungalow, but he had no intention of retiring; and he thought that the site and his design aspirations deserved better. Everyone agrees that the planners have been very helpful, but the initial design proposals for a Modernist concrete and steel structure foundered when the architect realised that the design might have caused a family rift. Moore's wife would have hated it. Something less 'severe' was needed, and it was decided that, if they were to stick with a non-traditional layout, natural materials would be needed to soften its impact.
Site information comprises working drawings and 'mini-specifications' for work packages. In general, the architect devises details to suit occasions, rather than providing a full set of detail drawings, since site conditions and the configuration of the building may alter pragmatically from day to day. For example, on site, the client decided to 'dig out a little bit more' of the basement than originally intended; to optimise the JCB rental, to maximise the useable space, and partly to prove neighbours wrong - those who had told him that the site was solid rock (it turned out to be soft clay throughout). Such are the spontaneous ways of self-build.
Agreeing on the need for a dramatic timber aesthetic, Jim Blackburn of the Timber Frame Company was brought on board, and together they devised a grid plan using internally exposed timbers and as much glazing as possible to maximise the natural light in the north-facing site. Blackburn works traditionally with oak, but due to the cost limitations, locally grown Douglas Fir has been used, which doesn't weather as well. The structural frame has been set back into the house with an uninterrupted nonloadbearing frame clad in horizontal cedar boarding across the frontage.
The house is large (although the ridge has been kept below that of the original planning approval) and contains split level living/dining facilities, four bedrooms, balconies (for the client to sleep on in the hot summer months and games and music rooms. Apart from the brickfaced, in situ concrete basement, the garage is the only area of traditional masonry, built in facing blockwork.
The basement walls, below the pot and beam ground floor construction, have been thickened to take the timber column point loads.
The central stair is defined by six huge posts, 7.5m high x 250mm square, made from single tree trunks.
Even though Douglas Fir is not as shrinkable as oak, dramatic cracks are evident along the planed timber surface of most members. All timber framing pieces were framed off site and craned and assembled on site in a matter of days. Edge beams have been provided with diagonal bracing, which acts solely against racking. All joints are secured with oak pegs although several multi-nodal joints have been made with steel flitch plates and oak splines, to minimise the amount of half-lap and tenon cuts.
The timber external wall frame was built up of individual softwood cladding rails, packed with Warmcel and internally lined with plasterboard.
This labour-intensive on-site construction of the external skin is the one thing which Moore would not do again. He realised, too late, that this activity was better suited to off-site prefabrication of wall cassettes, freeing up labour time and scaffolding hire.
Because of the kink in the floor plan, the eaves of the second bedroom are angled slightly to maintain the line of the eaves and ridge. This gives an unintentionally quaint, oldworldly feel to the upper floor, and you have to duck slightly to access the balcony. The modern aluminium guttering has been provided with welded verge spouts to discharge into lower level gutters.Moore says: 'If you want to make it look right, you have to pay a little bit extra.'
Moore's reputation as a perfectionist stems from his past life as a cabinet maker, and three of the main 'labourers' on site are experienced craftsmen colleagues of his. The blockwork contractors, who constructed the garage, were discovered by word of mouth and Moore would 'recommend them to anybody'.
Like most self-build clients, Moore is primarily engaged in management, purchasing and geeing along the site staff. Architectural detailing - and liaising with the local authorities - in this type of relationship is a non-linear process. Alexander is circumspect, and happy that the team is 'all pulling in the same direction'.
What this scheme shows is that an experimental client, a good teamworking relationship, flexibility of approach and a willingness to learn from different trades are essential for satisfactory performance. It also suggests that an hourly rate makes sense.
CONTRACT Ordering, project management and engagement of direct labour all carried out by EPC using letters or standard terms CLIENT AND MAIN CONTRACTOR Exclusive Property Consultants (EPC)
ARCHITECT Alexander & Thomas Architects
STRUCTURAL ENGINEERS timber frame P A Squibbs, Wells substructure Structural Engineering Design Consultants, Bristol;
SUBCONTRACTORS AND SUPPLIERS timber frame The Timber Frame Co; windows O-Vinduer (UK); Concrete waterproofing Bituthene;
concrete floors RMC Flooring; sheathing Panelvent; roof membrane Tyvek ; gutters Marley Alutec; cement board cladding Cembrit;
timber cladding locally grown cedar boards machined to special profile; basement insulation Rockwool;
upper wall insulation Warmcel; underfloor heating Thermoboard