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
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 (www.builditlive.co.uk), 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 – visit www.self-build.co.uk/3dsoftware 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.
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.
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.lapdarchitects.co.uk
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