12 steps to self-build success
Jane Meggitt’s life ambitions had never included physical labour on building sites, wrangling prima donna builders and travelling the country inspecting bricks. Then fate intervened in the form of Tim, the man who would become her husband. “He was doing up a completely dilapidated farmhouse near York,” Jane recalls. “I didn’t really want to get involved, but I started going to the site just to have a look and gradually it became addictive.”
Three decades on, Jane, 60, and Tim, 58, have spent half their lives renovating wrecks, including a former schoolhouse and barn at Barkisland, West Yorkshire, where they lived with their daughter, Lottie, now aged 24. When Tim, a chartered surveyor, got a new job in Surrey in 2011, the family needed to move on. They sold the barn, moved to a rented house in Ifold, West Sussex, and began hunting for another ruin to rescue. But they quickly found that vendors down south are a far more ambitious bunch than those they had encountered in the northeast.
“People wanted almost the same money for something that needed renovation as for something that had been done up,” Tim says. On top of that, there was the VAT issue: there is no tax relief on a renovation, but it is possible to claim back the levy on a new-build. So Tim and Jane changed tack and decided to build a house from scratch.
From purchasing a site to completion, the project took more than two years, and costs spiralled. But the couple are now the proud, if slightly exhausted, owners of a fabulous contemporary house that costs almost nothing to run. This is what the experience taught them.
1 Be ready for obstacles
The first step was finding a building plot. Tim and Jane scoured estate agents’ windows until they found a site occupied by an ancient, asbestos-riddled bungalow in Rowhook, near Horsham, Surrey. “It had been on the market for a couple of years, it was a complete mess, full of weeds, and there was a right-of-way issue,” Tim says. Despite its shortcomings, they had a look and were enchanted by the gently sloping 10 acres of bluebell-studded woodland and paddocks.
The owners of the adjoining land had a right of way across the plot, so the couple went to meet them. “I don’t think anyone had gone to see them before,” Jane says. The meeting went well and they agreed to waive their right of way in return for shifting the boundary between the properties about 10ft in their favour.
The bond Jane and Tim had made with their neighbours held firm even when a property developer got wind of their plans, and tried to step in and snap up the land from under them. “Luckily for us, the neighbours were people of principle,” Jane recalls. “They said the agreement was with us and nobody else.”
2 Haggle hard
The land had initially been listed for £900,000. As time passed, this dropped to £850,000, £750,000, then £725,000. The couple felt this was still too much, so they offered £600,000. “We told them to take it or leave it,” Tim says. They reasoned with the vendor and, after the offer was upped to £610,000, a deal was struck and they bought the site in September 2013.
3 Find the right architect
Jane says the single most important person in a successful self-build is the architect. To find the right one, she scoured magazine and newspaper articles for leads, and attended self-build shows and conferences. While negotiations over the land were going on, the couple were already meeting potential architects who could design a modern house for them.
“We talked to agents, and they told us that because it was such a unique site, we needed to build something bespoke to maximise our money,” Jane says. They chose Nick Willson, founder of Nick Willson Architects. Not only did they like his work and hit it off with him personally, they were deeply impressed by his willingness to meet on a weekend — “It showed he was going to be flexible” — and by the fact that as soon as they started talking about their ideas, he began sketching designs.
4 Brief well
Jane and Tim drew up a two-page brief detailing what they wanted from their new home — it had to be open-plan, contemporary (but “not a white box”) and full of light. It also had to make the most of the beautiful rural site, be flexible and be cheap to run.
They included photographs of their favourite furniture, which they planned to bring with them. It had to physically fit into the new house, but it also gave Willson a good idea of their taste. Within two months, he had drawn up plans for a long, slender, two-storey timber-frame house with a brick facade presented to the road and a more open glass aspect overlooking the grounds.
He designed a semi-open-plan ground floor with a light double-height kitchen/living room at the heart of the house. The 3,444 sq ft property also has a second sitting room on one side and a utility room/plant room/office on the other. Upstairs, the four bedrooms lead onto a series of cantilevered balconies.
5 Whatever your budget is, be prepared to pay (a lot) more
Tim and Jane initially expected the build to cost about £600,000. They now admit that they were being wildly optimistic: the work cost about £900,000 and the landscaping (including building a swimming pool) added £100,000. Taking into account the £610,000 they spent on the site, this brought their total spend to roughly £1.6m. They had to take out a mortgage to cover the full cost.
6 Hire with care
The couple project-managed the build themselves, and hiring the right team of contractors was crucial to its success. They went to building shows to learn about green technologies (they opted for solar panels and an air-source heat pump) and asked suppliers and tradesmen for recommendations.
Crucially, they met everyone face to face, asked to see examples of previous projects and visited their premises to get an idea of how they operated. This was time-consuming, but they believe it was essential. “They also need to be local,” Jane says. “Then, if there’s any snagging, they’ll come back.”
7 Get the materials right — and at the right price
Choosing materials — and not paying over the odds for them — is another piece of due diligence that shouldn’t be scrimped on. Tim and Jane called in endless samples of bricks until they found something they liked, and went to visit every company they could find to inspect examples of concrete floors before hiring a firm to put one in their kitchen. Willson was, of course, also able to advise them.
Once they had settled on what they wanted, Jane entered into what she describes as a “war of attrition” with suppliers to get the best possible prices. She was able to buy all the glass for the windows and doors for £105,000 — the original quote had been £130,000. And she paid £104 per 8ft x 4ft sheet of the bamboo cladding used on the interior, rather than £150.
Yet the couple agree that, while discounts are great, it really isn’t worth skimping. “If you want quality and the right products, you have got to pay for it,” Tim says. “You simply can’t manufacture quality cheaply.”
8 Keep calm and carry on
By September 2014, the couple were ready for construction to start. They drew up a detailed timetable of what was supposed to happen when, and made sure the materials were going to be delivered at the right time.
The first job was the groundworks, which took three months. The timber frame was built off site, but things were then held up by a delay with the steel “skeleton” that supports the building, so it was not until the spring of 2015 that the main structure of the house was up and watertight.
Jane went to the site every day to troubleshoot problems and make sure all was going to plan. With endless mini dramas, she might have been forgiven for losing her cool, but she says patience is a virtue when wrangling builders. “If you feel you are getting angry, walk away — because if you do get angry and swear, then the problem becomes about your behaviour.
“I just supported the workmen as much as I could, making sure they had the materials and tools they needed and constantly reminding them about what had to be done. Choose your battles, because there is no point falling out.”
Jane recommends keeping a close eye on builders so they’re not tempted to slip off to other jobs. She also wrote snagging lists so that nothing was forgotten, and spent hours checking the progress of the build.
“You can’t have a personal life, because you have to be on the site all day — and in the evenings and weekends, you are checking lists and sending emails,” she says. “It is really all-consuming. We have neglected our friends. They all know we go into housebuilding purdah.”
9 Bespoke can be a bargain
The kitchen has bamboo-clad cupboards, Corian work surfaces and appliances bought from the Miele factory shop in Abingdon, Oxfordshire. It was designed by Willson and built by a local joiner for £12,000 — a fraction of the price of a “designer” kitchen.
10 Listen to the experts
When the plans were being drawn up, the architects told the pair that they wouldn’t need underfloor heating because the house was so well insulated. They found this hard to believe and installed it anyway — which they now admit was a waste of time. “We have never switched it on,” Jane says.
11 Don’t expect the project to finish on time
By August 2015, the Meggitts were able to move out of their rented home and into their new house, though work continued around them until September. But they are still working on landscaping the garden and grounds, and there are inevitably niggly bits of snagging. “With any home, you have always got continual maintenance,” Tim points out.
12 There is no such thing as perfection
Jane and Tim say they are 99.9% thrilled with their house. They particularly love their double-height kitchen and the fact that the house is so light. (Willson aligned it to take advantage of natural daylight all year round.) But if they were doing it again, Jane would like more storage in the kitchen and more electric sockets. Meanwhile, Tim is planning an anti-deer fence to keep out unwelcome wildlife.