De­sign­ing the Build It House

In the sec­ond in­stal­ment of our ground­break­ing new se­ries, editor Chris Bates ex­plains how the de­sign for the Build It Ed­u­ca­tion House evolved – and the lessons we learned along the way

Build It - - EDITOR’S LETTER - Fol­low our jour­ney on­line at our­house

Editor Chris Bates works with Lapd Ar­chi­tects to de­velop the de­sign plans for our Self Build Ed­u­ca­tion House

Self build­ing rep­re­sents your chance to cre­ate a value-for-money home that’s per­fectly tai­lored to your house­hold’s needs, in a lo­ca­tion that works for you. If you’re at the start of your jour­ney, your big­gest con­cern might be whether you have the prac­ti­cal skills to re­alise a scheme like this. But the truth is, the se­cret to suc­cess lies in the very early stages of your project. If you can find a good plot and get the de­sign right, then you’re prob­a­bly at least half-way there.

Over the course of de­sign­ing Build It’s Self Build Ed­u­ca­tion House, a cou­ple of things have stood out. Firstly, com­mu­ni­ca­tion is key. You need to have a good rap­port with an ar­chi­tec­tural team that un­der­stands what you do and don’t want from your new home. And that prin­ci­ple stretches to all the other par­ties in­volved in get­ting your scheme re­alised – from the struc­tural en­gi­neers to plan­ners, sur­vey­ors and sup­pli­ers whose in­put will shape the de­sign. As the process evolves and you fi­nesse the ini­tial draw­ings, you’ll also quickly find that the devil is in the de­tail. The tech­ni­cal phase can be in­ten­sive, but stick with it and keep main­tain­ing those com­mu­ni­ca­tion chan­nels, and you’ll reap the re­wards. Here’s how the plans for the Build It Ed­u­ca­tion House de­vel­oped.

Set­ting the brief

Ev­ery self builder wants to start their project off on the best pos­si­ble foot­ing and, un­sur­pris­ingly, get­ting the brief right is a cru­cial step. You’re com­mis­sion­ing a be­spoke home de­signed to suit your house­hold, so you need to give your de­signer a clear pic­ture of what will work for you.

That doesn’t have to mean delv­ing into the mi­nut­est of de­tails – once you’ve iden­ti­fied a plot, of­ten the best place to start is with list of pri­or­i­ties for your scheme, in­clud­ing how you want to live, key fea­tures you can’t do with­out, niceto-have el­e­ments and ab­so­lute no-nos. This in­for­ma­tion will help your de­signer un­der­stand where you’re com­ing from, and they can then add their flair to your ideas.

Our full brief for the Build It House was too de­tailed to re­pro­duce here. So here’s an over­view of the head­line con­sid­er­a­tions we had in mind prior to our first meet­ing with our de­signer, Opin­der Lid­dar from Lapd Ar­chi­tects: We want to demon­strate that it’s pos­si­ble to cre­ate an in­ter­est­ing be­spoke home on a com­pact plot. We en­vis­age a four bed de­sign that rep­re­sents good value for money for a high-per­form­ing home.

We’d like a con­tem­po­rary yet con­tex­tual de­sign that max­imises our cor­ner site’s po­ten­tial.

The project will be on Graven Hill, the UK’S largest self build de­vel­op­ment, and should con­form to its de­sign code and Plot Pass­port plan­ning regime.

The project will be a self build ed­u­ca­tion hub for the first few years of its life, as well as an on-site base for Graven Hill’s sales team, but it will ul­ti­mately be­come some­one’s home. So the de­sign needs to be in­spir­ing, prac­ti­cal and flex­i­ble – with an el­e­ment of fu­ture-proof­ing.

The scheme should achieve a good level of sus­tain­abil­ity and en­ergy ef­fi­ciency, so that long-term run­ning costs are kept low for any fu­ture own­ers.

We want to show­case a range of prod­ucts, so we can share our ex­pe­ri­ence of them with self builders to help them make their de­sign and build choices.

There are al­ready op­por­tu­ni­ties to visit con­ven­tion­ally­built demon­stra­tor homes across the UK, so Build It’s pref­er­ence would be to show some­thing dif­fer­ent. We in­tend to achieve that by us­ing in­su­lat­ing con­crete form­work (ICF) for the main su­per­struc­ture.

The first meet­ing

Build It has worked with Lapd Ar­chi­tects for a num­ber of years – in­clud­ing on previous ver­sions of a vir­tual ‘Bench­mark House’ – so we’ve seen first-hand how they work. But this is the first time we’ve built to­gether. As for­mer Build It Award win­ners, Opin­der and his team take the kind of per­sonal, col­lab­o­ra­tive ap­proach to the de­sign process that we feel is cru­cial to a suc­cess­ful scheme.

In­deed, in our ini­tial meet­ing Opin­der was clear that the house had to work for Build It first and fore­most; his role as the ar­chi­tect was to guide us through the jour­ney and add value to the project through his cre­ative flair, ex­pe­ri­ence and tech­ni­cal knowl­edge. Lapd is also based just a few miles from the Graven Hill site, so it made sense from a prac­ti­cal per­spec­tive, too – es­pe­cially given I would be com­mut­ing in from Lon­don for site vis­its.

We spent a good deal of our first ses­sion go­ing over the brief and the na­ture of our plot. For Opin­der, draw­ing up a de­sign starts with work­ing out the site pa­ram­e­ters (ie any

con­straints or spe­cial fea­tures of the land and plan­ning sit­u­a­tion). From here, he can start to vi­su­alise how the brief could be met within the con­text of the plot and bud­get.

Our de­sign route is a lit­tle dif­fer­ent to the ex­pe­ri­ence a typ­i­cal self builder would have at Graven Hill, in that we needed to go in for full plan­ning per­mis­sion, rather than tak­ing the fast-track Plot Pass­port route (which can al­low for ap­proval in just 28 days). Nev­er­the­less, we still wanted to fol­low the de­sign code prin­ci­ples in our scheme, in or­der to demon­strate the kind of home that might be pos­si­ble on this po­ten­tially game chang­ing self build scheme.

To that end, we’ve been sup­plied with some over­ar­ch­ing pa­ram­e­ters by the Graven Hill team – so Opin­der and I ran through this at our first meet­ing, along with some of the gen­eral rules that ap­ply to the whole de­vel­op­ment. Key de­tails in­clude: We can have a max­i­mum gross in­ter­nal floor area (GIA) of 160m2 on this plot (which we agreed would be a good fit for a three or four bed­room home). There is a de­fined build zone on the site, which in our case is trape­zoid in shape. The max­i­mum ridge height (top point of the roof) is 8.1m above ground level. There’s no ma­te­ri­als palette to fol­low on this part of Graven Hill. We know that the ground con­di­tions are likely to be some kind of clay soil. Graven Hill’s de­sign code sets out a va­ri­ety of gen­eral re­quire­ments as di­verse as en­ergy per­for­mance cri­te­ria and bound­ary treat­ments.

We also dis­cussed some of the op­por­tu­ni­ties the plot of­fered – the street-fac­ing fa­cades had views over wood­land and Graven Hill it­self in the dis­tance, for in­stance. And the south-fac­ing as­pect here, with some shel­ter from trees, might al­low for a free boost of warmth from so­lar gain in win­ter to help keep heat­ing bills in check.

I was par­tic­u­larly keen to talk about an area we know a lot of self builders re­gret when they come to the end of their projects – namely not think­ing about stor­age at the de­sign stage. Early on, we iden­ti­fied the pos­si­bil­ity of in­clud­ing a base­ment as a good route to over­com­ing this is­sue – not least be­cause our cho­sen struc­tural sys­tem, ICF, lends it­self to this kind of ap­pli­ca­tion.

Base­ments are com­mon in Europe, yet they barely get a look-in here in the UK. But on a fairly tight plot like this, with a re­stricted ridge height to boot, it seemed a good way to max­imise the size of house we could get on our site. The Plot Pass­ports at Graven Hill don’t count un­der­ground space in the to­tal GIA. In fact, they give a spe­cific di­rec­tive that you can build a base­ment that delivers up to 40% of the per­mis­si­ble gross in­ter­nal area. On the ba­sis of a 160m2 house, that would equate to the po­ten­tial for 64m2 of ex­tra liv­ing ac­com­mo­da­tion (ie 40% more space).

Not long af­ter the meet­ing, we com­mis­sioned a soil test on the plot (some bore holes were dug us­ing a hand auger and sam­ples sent away for anal­y­sis). The re­port re­vealed our site fea­tures made ground for the first 1.5m, and good clay to a depth of 5m. This con­firmed our sus­pi­cions that build­ing a base­ment would be a good in­vest­ment. In fact it will cost rel­a­tively lit­tle more than us­ing a stan­dard foun­da­tions and floor slab, whilst also giv­ing us valu­able ex­tra space for stor­age and a plant room. Plus, it gives po­ten­tial for a home cin­ema or games room if a fu­ture owner wanted to in­vest in these much-de­sired fea­tures.

The big re­veal

Af­ter six years of man­ning the Ask Our Ex­perts zone at Build It Live (, Opin­der and I know each other pretty well, so I was con­fi­dent he’d be on the right track. But first im­pres­sions mean a lot in the de­sign world – and when Lapd Ar­chi­tects pre­sented its ini­tial ideas, just a few weeks af­ter we’d met, it was an thrilling mo­ment.

When I saw the mock­ups, there was that same mix­ture of ex­cite­ment and re­lief other self builders must ex­pe­ri­ence when they get that first tan­gi­ble ev­i­dence that they’ve made the right call on their ar­chi­tect or de­signer. Opin­der had done a fan­tas­tic job of in­ter­pret­ing the brief, achiev­ing the wow fac­tor we were af­ter and al­ready look­ing for ways to add value to the scheme – and this was just the first draft of the de­sign.

This wasn’t sim­ply a case of be­ing shown flat el­e­va­tions or hastily hand-drawn scrib­bles. Opin­der uses Sketchup Pro to cre­ate a 3D ren­der (above) of what your scheme could ac­tu­ally look like on site. He also sup­plied floor­plans show­ing a sug­gested lay­out for the in­ter­nal spa­ces.

Soft­ware like this is help­ing to rev­o­lu­tionise the way de­signs are pre­sented to self builders, giv­ing those of us with­out seven years ar­chi­tec­tural train­ing an ac­ces­si­ble way to vi­su­alise how a de­sign would work in the real world. If you want to try play­ing with de­sign ideas your­self, an ac­ces­si­ble al­ter­na­tive is the Build It 3D Home De­sign Soft­ware – visit­ware to find out more.

You’ve now got a live de­sign in front of you, ready to be poked and prod­ded into shape un­til it delivers ev­ery­thing you want to achieve from your dream home – for a construction bud­get you can af­ford. This is the point at which things should, hope­fully, start to move for­ward at a rate of knots.

De­vel­op­ing the de­sign

I spent a few days di­gest­ing the sketch model be­fore com­ing back to Opin­der. Hap­pily, it was still tick­ing a lot of boxes, but a house plan al­ways evolves as you get more of a feel for it. A good ar­chi­tect or de­signer will be a part­ner in that process – lis­ten­ing to your ideas and com­ments as much as you heed their ad­vice and ex­per­tise – and Opin­der was clear from the out­set that’s how he en­vis­aged the process work­ing.

There were sev­eral it­er­a­tions along the way to the fi­nal plan­ning draw­ings for our 150m2 house. The most press­ing chal­lenge was that, in seek­ing to sim­plify the shape of the house by us­ing a rec­tan­gu­lar foot­print, part of the de­sign was now sit­ting out­side of the trape­zoid build zone. Opin­der hoped there would be some flex­i­bil­ity on this from the plan­ners, as we were still within the over­all size limit. But a quick chat with the Graven Hill team clar­i­fied this wouldn’t be al­lowed, so there was a sig­nif­i­cant change to make there.

Opin­der’s re­sponse was to an­gle the rear of the build­ing, in line with the de­fined build zone. To claw back more foot­print, the re­cessed bal­cony at the front of the house was swapped for an over­hang that links up to the front door porch – while the main fa­cade is squared off. It’s an in­tel­li­gent change that gives a cleaner, more con­tem­po­rary look.

In­ter­nally, it was easy to en­vis­age the liv­ing ar­eas work­ing ef­fec­tively for a fam­ily – and there were some clever touches. But a more open-plan feel could po­ten­tially ac­cen­tu­ate the sense of space and bet­ter serve our needs for the house in terms of its role as an ed­u­ca­tion cen­tre. Key con­sid­er­a­tions were in­creas­ing the size of the sit­ting room, and cre­at­ing more of a wow-fac­tor feel on en­ter­ing the house.

To ac­com­mo­date the new an­gled foot­print, Opin­der made some changes to the kitchen lay­out, which now in­cludes an is­land unit – the per­fect place for peo­ple to un­furl their plans to dis­cuss with the Graven Hill team. We’ve also re­duced the amount of work­top space in gen­eral to al­low for more wall­mounted cabi­nets. The hall­way cup­board has been lost, but the sit­ting room is now a much more com­fort­able size, with a slid­ing glazed par­ti­tion to the din­ing area pro­vid­ing flex­i­bil­ity.

We also hatched a plan to re­place the study area with a dou­ble-height en­trance hall, com­plete with fea­ture stair­case. The en­trance now al­lows for views all the way through to the back of the house via the glazed doors at the rear.

Up­stairs, Opin­der had man­aged to fit in the four bed­rooms we’d asked for in the brief – along with a stair­case lead­ing up the loft (which we in­tend to kit out as stor­age, but it could po­ten­tially be con­verted into liv­ing space in fu­ture). But dis­cussing it with the rest of the Build It team, we won­dered whether we were ask­ing too much of the lay­out. Ev­ery­thing felt a bit tight, and none of the rooms screamed mas­ter suite – so Opin­der and I dis­cussed the pos­si­bil­ity of drop­ping to three bed­rooms and re­mov­ing one of the en­suites.

This worked well, giv­ing us space for a dress­ing room and en­suite for the mas­ter, along with a larger fam­ily bath­room. Graven Hill iden­ti­fied the bal­cony here would need to be a Juliet ver­sion, as full side-fac­ing de­signs aren’t al­lowed.

Se­cur­ing plan­ning

Through­out the de­sign process, we com­mu­ni­cated reg­u­larly with the Graven Hill team to en­sure we were com­ply­ing with the plot pa­ram­e­ters. There was a lot of cross-check­ing to be done, cov­er­ing ev­ery­thing from the ex­act type of cladding we could use (nat­u­ral tim­ber, as op­posed to fi­bre ce­ment or other al­ter­na­tives) through to which fenc­ing ma­te­ri­als would be per­mit­ted along the bound­aries (closed-board pan­els are banned in our lo­ca­tion, so we’ve gone for wil­low hur­dle).

Opin­der took care of the plan­ning ap­pli­ca­tion on Build

It’s be­half, keep­ing us in the loop about how things were pro­gress­ing. The early con­ver­sa­tions with Graven Hill paid off here, and there were just a few hic­cups – one of which was down to the client (no names men­tioned), who de­cided to switch from pow­der-coated alu­minium for the win­dows and front door to fac­tory-fin­ished tim­ber.

The rest of the process was fairly smooth, but Graven Hill’s plan­ning con­sul­tant did re­quest some ex­tra in­for­ma­tion on ex­ter­nal ma­te­ri­als. Opin­der’s an­swers to pretty much ev­ery query passed muster, the only ex­cep­tion be­ing that we were in­formed we’d need to grow the hedge on the ex­ter­nal face of the fenc­ing. But be­fore long, our scheme was rub­ber stamped and we had plan­ning per­mis­sion in the bag.

Tech­ni­cal de­sign

Gain­ing for­mal con­sent is a sem­i­nal mo­ment on any ma­jor home build­ing project, but don’t let your­self be fooled into think­ing it will be plain sail­ing from here.

On the Build It Ed­u­ca­tion House, it felt like at least as much work went into the next phase – namely the nitty gritty of the de­tailed de­ci­sions on the struc­tural spec. Work­ing along­side project ar­chi­tect Si­mon Chung from Lapd, who’s co­or­di­nat­ing this part of the process, we be­gan to wade through all the tech­ni­cal points that needed to be clar­i­fied.

This stage is all about en­sur­ing the amaz­ing de­sign you’ve dreamed up along­side your ar­chi­tect trans­lates into a vi­able build­ing that achieves the per­for­mance lev­els you want – cul­mi­nat­ing with the pro­duc­tion of the spec­i­fi­ca­tion and sec­tion draw­ings that will be sub­mit­ted for build­ing con­trol ap­proval (as well as those you need for your con­trac­tors). This means Si­mon’s fin­ished out­put needs to take into ac­count ev­ery­thing from struc­tural safety through to fire regs, en­ergy ef­fi­ciency, heat­ing, ven­ti­la­tion, ac­cess and more.

Most self builders can agree a spec with their de­sign team and let them crack on with this work ac­cord­ingly. But our project is un­usual in that we’re look­ing to show­case a range of prod­ucts and sys­tems, in­clud­ing a num­ber of in­no­va­tive op­tions, and some we’ve not even fi­nalised yet. We’re there­fore deal­ing with more sup­pli­ers than your typ­i­cal self builder would, some­times tak­ing an un­con­ven­tional pro­cure­ment route and, just oc­ca­sion­ally, mak­ing tweaks to parts of the spec that ne­ces­si­tate mi­nor de­sign changes.

A case in point would be with our ICF su­per­struc­ture. We’re ex­cited to show off what the sys­tem can do. But our in­su­lat­ing con­crete form­work sup­plier would nor­mally ex­pect to be able to rely solely on their pre­ferred struc­tural en­gi­neer to get their side of things right: the right con­crete slump, a bit of re­bar where needed, straight­for­ward junc­tions with con­ven­tional floor and roof struc­tures, and Bob’s your un­cle.

To help pro­vide an ed­u­ca­tional ex­pe­ri­ence, how­ever, we’re com­bin­ing the use of ICF for the base­ment and above-ground walls with an­other mod­ern method of construction – struc­tural in­su­lated pan­els (SIPS) – for the roof. All of a sud­den, that means we’re deal­ing with two struc­tural en­gi­neers. Both work with ex­cel­lent sys­tems and known them in­side-out, but nei­ther is as cer­tain about the other’s. It took time to clar­ify ex­actly who was re­spon­si­ble for which parts of the de­sign. Who de­cides where the roof loads trans­mit down through the walls into the foun­da­tions, for ex­am­ple?

It’s been an eye-open­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, and one that’s high­lighted the fact that self builders need to be ready for the bits of a project that will in­evitably fall be­tween the gaps – whether that’s at the plan­ning stages or dur­ing the build it­self (more on this next month).

I would imag­ine all of this makes us some­thing of a chal­leng­ing client, but it’s much more cost-ef­fec­tive to make changes at this stage than when you’re al­ready on site. Ul­ti­mately our goal is to lock down the de­sign now, so that the build­ing work goes as smoothly as pos­si­ble. The good news is that, work­ing along­side Lapd and some of our other key part­ners on the Build It Ed­u­ca­tion House, we’re very close to fi­nal­is­ing the tech­ni­cal pack­age and start­ing to think about sched­ul­ing the works and ap­point­ing con­trac­tors.

For more in­for­ma­tion about Lapd Ar­chi­tects, call 01865 407722 or visit www.lap­dar­chi­

Above right: As we close in on de­ci­sions for the cladding and fen­es­tra­tion ma­te­ri­als, the aes­thetic is sub­tly evolv­ing. This 3D ren­der is part of Lapd Ar­chi­tects’ de­sign out­put for the house

Above: Viewed from the front el­e­va­tion, the Build It Ed­u­ca­tion House feels rel­a­tively mod­est in size – a symp­tom of the rel­a­tively tight plot and build zone – but it’s still packed with wow fac­tor Above: The eastern el­e­va­tion fea­tures an an­gled sec­tion, adding ar­chi­tec­tural in­ter­est as you ap­proach from the main ac­cess to Graven Hill. There are no houses on this side of our cor­ner plot, so we’ve maxed out on win­dows to take ad­van­tage of the views

ORIG­I­NAL GROUND FLOOR LAY­OUT Opin­der’s ini­tial de­sign in­cluded a study on the ground floor

RE­VISED GROUND FLOOR LAY­OUT The re­vised plan with larger rooms and a dou­ble­height en­trance in place of the study

Be­low: Glazed slid­ing doors will help to give the fin­ished house an in­side-out feel. Note the small win­dows on the western side el­e­va­tion, where we need to avoid over­look­ing is­sues

ORIG­I­NAL FIRST FLOOR LAY­OUT We orig­i­nally asked for four bed­rooms up­stairs, but they felt a lit­tle cramped

RE­VISED FIRST FLOOR LAY­OUT A three bed ar­range­ment means more space for wardrobes and other key items

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