The Best Laid Plans…..

Over the years, we had pulled together a clear idea of the home we would like to live in – the house we wanted to build. It is an amalgam of homes we have owned, particularly our family house in Atlanta, together with memories of places we’ve been to, houses we’ve visited, films we’ve seen, houses Karin had driven past and photographed. Hard to pinpoint, but we just knew. It’s one of the reasons we chose to go with Frank and Lloyd – they understood exactly what we wanted.

So we met with them, we shared our ideas, photos, plans we had and how we wanted it to feel, as well as a wish list of certain spaces or features we wanted the house to have. And, to their credit, Frank and Lloyd very quickly came up with an outline of our dream home. It’s been tweaked a few times, but the essence of what they first drew up still stands – or will stand, once it’s built……(again, sorry)

Here’s an idea of what the house will look like once completed, from some early plans :

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It’s worth outlining here roughly what we intended to do. We had an idea initially that we would like to preserve some, or most, of the original 1930’s shell of the building that we were acquiring. That seemed like the right thing to do for all the obvious reasons – cost, environment, speed, preservation – but it turned out not to be so easy. Firstly, the quality of all of the extensions that had been added to the rather small, original 1934 house turned out to be very low with poor construction and limited foundations. The layout and design of the internal rooms also left a lot to be desired, unless you are a fan of long corridors, wood panelling and fibreglass beams……

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In fact, because of our original intent, and due to the process that we were advised to follow to maximise the potential for the final planning approval, we first submitted plans to retain the core house and replace the extensions, which was accepted. We then separately submitted plans to replace the outbuildings with new outbuildings, that would become garages. These were also ultimately accepted, with a few tweaks following the pre-planning application. For some bizarre reason, even though the garages will be finished as traditional, agricultural outbuildings and they really cannot be seen by passers by at all, this was harder to get planning for than the house. And finally we resubmitted plans for the house, but this time as a complete new construction, but with a broadly similar layout and style. The rationale for this was health and safety (a new build is a safer process rather than working round and crucially under an existing building), environmental (it’s possible to create a much more eco friendly, carbon efficient house with new build) and a shorter period of disruption to neighbours. There was the small added advantage that we avoided paying 20% VAT on the build and we could get exactly what we wanted. But these were just fortunate by-products of doing the right thing……

So what was the planning process actually like? It seemed to us that it should be pretty straightforward given the circumstances. We had acquired a rundown house, with some unattractive extensions, which stood in the middle of 8 acres, not easily seen by passers by. So we went to the local authority planners, and after a couple of chats they signed off our plans and we started building!

Or not…..

Somehow it turns out not to be that easy. Because common sense, logic, intelligence and pragmatism play no part in the world of planning, or in the world of local authorities generally it would seem. Ticking “the right boxes” and as many of them as possible, no matter how inappropriate to our personal circumstances, seemed to be the order of the day. Do the planners really think it is a good idea to ensure there is disabled access to the basement from a terrace that is in fact only accessible if a wheelchair user has negotiated a perilously steep grass slope? They are not bothered that access to the basement terrace itself is dangerous, just that a wheelchair user can get into the house from that particular location. And we only narrowly averted a hotel style external fire escape from the loft area just because we had the ridiculous idea of using ALL the available space and so created a bedroom in the eaves. Bonkers… and “more than my job’s worth” thinking.

That’s enough. We won’t rant any more about the process. In the end, due to the skills, persuasiveness and patience of Frank and Lloyd and a surprisingly helpful, and dare we say it, pleasant planning officer who succumbed to Karin’s charms and ultimately even wished her good luck with the project, we have got most of what we wanted and probably more than we had expected at the beginning. We know that many people have been through a much harder process than us (@iolly, you know we’re thinking of you here) so we certainly won’t complain any more.

We also won’t bore you with a blow by blow account of what it took to obtain permission to build. But we did think a simple summary of what we went through might be helpful, with a rough chronology.


So after 1 yr and 3 months, 6 surveys, 204 emails and £!!!, we received planning permission and National Trust approval to build. Wasn’t that hard really. I’d do it again tomorrow. Worth pointing out that Karin really did all the work. She wouldn’t do it all again tomorrow…..

Helping Hands

So we had the land, and an outline idea of what we wanted to create.  What we needed now were the professionals and experts who could actually bring it all to life.

The two most important players, in our view, were the architect and the builders.

Choosing an architect is a tough one.  At the risk of being too repetitive, we had seen many of the problems on Grand Designs projects caused by the architect.  The reasons ranged from lack of competence through poor instructions to arrogance.  So we were determined to find the right architect.

We had some recommendations, and we spent a lot of time on Google, and even, I’m sure you’ll be surprised to know, researching some of the architects who had been on Grand Designs.

We tend to take the same approach when appointing any professional, in many respects you take the technical competence as a given, and it then largely comes down to personal relationship, personality and impressions.  Do you like the individual?  Can you get on with them?  Will you work well together? Do they share your sense of humour?  Do they even have a sense of humour? Are they interested in your opinion? What have they actually done before – how much is action and how much is talk?

In the end, after all the research, we only met two firms of architects.

The first had been highly recommended, had done work for friends and was reputed to be a real expert in the area and with planning.  So we went to see him.  Somehow we didn’t hit it off. It started when we went to his office, at his house.  There were some scrappy cars in the driveway, peeling paint and a bell that didn’t work.  Bad first impressions.  Like a workman who turns up in a battered van.  Or a hairdresser with bad hair.  Not confidence building.  Then he proceeded to disparage our ideas and tell us what we should build.  Next, he told us how he was very aggressive with the planners and forced them to agree with him.  Not really our style.  Lastly, he didn’t really know how to operate his computer so couldn’t show us photos of previous projects.  Quick decision for both of us. We had to keep looking.

We did finally find an architect – a firm of two actually – who seemed great, and we’re now working with them.  We’re quite proud of how we found them.  While searching for a property to buy, during one of our frequent nights of internet surfing, we saw a house for sale. A really ugly, 1930’s house!  Ugly on the outside, but stunning on the inside. Remodelled, modernised, crisp and clean, the interior was exactly what we had in mind.  It’s easy to be somewhat sceptical about the genuine usefulness of most of what is on the internet, but every now and again it proves that it really can be useful, and not just a way to waste time or learn facts you never needed to know. So, we started to investigate.  Once we had worked out the address of the house, we found the relevant local authority, went on to the planning website, found the submitted plans – on which were clearly printed the name and address of the architects.  Result!!!  Sherlock Holmes, eat your heart out!

So Karin got in touch, we met them, looked at dozens of photos, spoke a lot about houses, and design – and of course Kevin and Grand Designs – got some references, really hit it off and appointed them.  And so far, we’ve continued to be highly impressed and have never looked back.

As an aside, we have decided at this time not to disclose the identities of our professionals.  Once the project is finished, and a complete success, if they agree, we will do.  If not, better not…..  So let’s call our architects, Frank and Lloyd, after you know who….


We relied here on recommendations.  We ended up going to tender with 5 building firms, having met them, seen what they had built and established that we were like minded.  Two didn’t bid in the end, for different reasons.  One, used to working with Russians in Central London it turned out, bid 50% above the other two. One, was close on price, we really liked them and their work, but they wouldn’t go sufficiently open book.  One met all our criteria and we went with him.  Let’s call him Bob…..

One thing we have established in this whole process is that everyone has advice.  On everything.  While we were in the process of choosing a builder, we were told how to think about the quotes and the ultimate cost.  We were told to get 3 quotes, add them together, and that would be the cost of the build in the end.  We think that was a joke.  We certainly hope it was.  So far it seems to be, but then again, Karin hasn’t shared the spreadsheet recently…..

So we have the land, what are we going to do with it????

So we’d bought the house – or the plot to be exact.  What now? Now, we had the hard bit.  We had to decide what we were going to build.  What sort of home did we want? What would it look like, be constructed from?  Lots of questions – few answers.

At this point, there are just soooooo many choices that things seem a little scary.  Especially if, like us, you have watched every single episode of Grand Designs, and even, I will admit, a few episodes of Changing Rooms, House Doctor and Location, Location, Location.  The latter programmes, however, were only watched while waiting for the next series of Grand Designs, and in truth we never transferred our affections away from Kevin McCloud and his band of merry, over optimistic, terrible at budgets, intrepid house builders.  However, we realise now that Grand Designs, although the best programme ever on TV, can if taken literally cause a normal house builder sleepless nights.  Before we became a fan of Kevin, all we really knew was that houses were generally built from bricks, sometimes wood, and occasionally, as by our hero Frank Lloyd Wright, of concrete.  Over the series, Kevin introduced us to more building materials and styles than we had thought possible – the traditional ones of course, but a myriad more – straw, old tyres, polystyrene, cob, glass, metal, shipping containers, a boat, mud, lifeboat stations, a cinema, water tanks and on and on and on.

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Not forgetting of course Huf Homes and prefab American kit homes.  Fancy a Spanish castle with a touch of morocco anyone???

All of this was made even worse by the fact that neither Karin or I are what you would call craftsmen, or even any good at DIY.  Although we do own a tool belt and a hammer…..

So common sense set in quickly.  In some respects, we were saved by the fact that The House on the Hill is set in an area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, which inevitably would lead to some planning restrictions.  We have a few neighbouring houses too, which we wanted to blend in with.  And although the house will not be that visible to passers by, we are in effect surrounded by 5,000 acres of National Trust land with beech and oak woodlands, commons and chalk downlands. So we also felt a lot of responsibility to build something in keeping with the surroundings.

Ultimately, this meant that our choices – luckily – were more limited and we determined to end up with a building that was very traditional on the outside, brick and tile to be specific, but more modern and a little different on the inside.  We are still very keen to at some point to build a ridiculously modern glass box – which Kevin might actually be interested in.  Karin has calmly suggested patiently that we might wait a few years to do that, given we haven’t finished our first house build yet, but she was of course very supportive of her husband’s ambitions.  Actually, her exact words were along the lines of “&@%*! @% &%@!& &@±§ %$@!*§!!!!!  So the glass house might be a few years off then…..

And for those of you who know us, you won’t be surprised to know that along with the house, we needed a decent sized garage.  Or two,  Or three.  Or maybe one or two more…….  It is probably appropriate to disclose now that Richard has a bit of an addiction.  To cars.  Being much better at buying cars than selling them, combined with a handful of race cars collected over the past few years, one of the benefits of building our house from scratch is that we can design and add the appropriate garage space.  It would be an exaggeration to say that for Karin The House on the Hill is all about the house, whilst for Richard it is about the garages.  But only a small exaggeration.  In fact, there was a suggestion that the blog could have been called The Garages on the Gradient.  One of us still quite likes that idea.

Having decided what we wanted to do, we needed some help, so we set about starting to build the team that would bring our dream to reality.

Surely our best Valentine’s Day Gift ever

Karin and I are not big ones for Valentine’s day.  Been married too long.  We usually give each other a card, then apologise for not having remembered a gift.  14th February, 2013 was different.  On that date, we finally closed on the purchase of The House on the Hill.  It was hard to believe that after so long looking and so many delays on the purchase, that we finally owned the piece of land, and house, that was to become our dream home.

The House on the Hill is in South West Hertfordshire, in a very rural setting, but within 2.5 miles of a small, local town and equidistant from a couple of excellent local pubs a healthy walk away. We have some neighbours, a couple of whom we knew already as they had originally informed us that the house was for sale, and others whom we have already got to know even before we have moved in.

Our purchase comprised what was originally a small, 1930’s house, augmented with some slightly alarming extensions.  This resulted in an internal floorpan that was more maze than amazing, with some unusual decoration.  I should say that this had been a comfortable home for many years for the family from whom we purchased the house.  It worked well for them, and we know they have many happy memories of living here, but the time had come to update and build somewhere for us to create our own memories for our own family.

We attach below a few photos to give you some idea of what we had purchased.  The site was what we really went for.  Karin has always been really good at seeing the potential in properties and persuading me to trust her.  Which I have done and never regretted.  So far…..

Here is a photo of the original house.  It shows the land and a building which looks much grander and more substantial than it really was.



We had intended at the start to find a way to preserve the original part of the building.  However, it quickly became clear that the mishmash of extensions, which turned out to be poorly designed, generally poorly built and dated, made this next to impossible.

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Inside, things were no better.  I have to admit though that having got used to them throughout the planning and design process, we will miss the fibreglass beams, the wood panelling and the swirly carpet……

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We also had acquired some outbuildings.  Although rickety, and already collapsing in some places, they had the perfect footprint for what we (I?) were looking to build – the garages.



In the end, what we really bought was what had struck us both immediately on first visiting the place.  It is the great location and land. Eight acres on the top of a ridge with a sloping front garden down to the road, some uncultivated paddocks and open spaces.  As “townies” with little inclination to mess about in gardens and with far from green fingers (or so I thought, more of this later), we know that in many ways all of this is impractical, will be a lot of work and is wholly unnecessary.  But from the beginning we had wanted space around our new home and some land. This was the main reason that we hadn’t looked for a house closer to London, and we’d found exactly what we wanted. Right here, at The House on the Hill.







How it all started…..

We know we’re not the first to want to build our own home.  And we certainly know we’re not the first to write a blog about it.  So why are we doing both of these things?

It’s hard to remember exactly when we decided that we wanted to do just that – build our own home.  And to be clear, it is definitely a home we want to build, not just a house.  A home that is uniquely our own.  That is comfortable and welcoming and represents us.  As you will see, it won’t be fancy, or particularly modern, or even that unusual.  But then, neither are we. Which is why, even if we’d applied, which we didn’t, we wouldn’t have appeared on our favourite TV show, Grand Designs.  We might have made it on to Series I, but by now Kevin & Co. are well advanced from what we’re planning to build. We’re not using straw, or lime, or plastic bottles.  We’re going to build a traditional home, in a traditional way.  Like us……

So, how did it all begin?  Back in 1999 we moved to Atlanta, Georgia, a pretty typical US City.  We loved living there, with our 3 children, and got to know a lot of the locals.  We were surrounded by new build houses, by people building new houses and we lived in a nearly new house.  In the US they tend to build houses out of wood, very quickly, in a huge variety of designs.  Before that, back in the UK, we had really only known one couple who had built their own house.  We liked it, liked the idea, but thought it wasn’t really practical to do it in terms of time, cost and real life.

Our time in Atlanta changed our minds.  It got us thinking that it wasn’t necessary just to go with the flow, and live in a house designed by somebody else.  It got us thinking that we could decide exactly what we wanted.  Since we returned to the UK in 2001, we’ve been planning.  Not in a big way, but slowly, waiting until the children were the right age so that we could move from our current home and until we had the money and time.

There was a house built on an empty plot next to our Atlanta house, which we watched in fascination as it went up, in just a few months.

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03_31_01 CImg_1985So Karin started to collect ideas, plans of houses we’d lived in before that had design and features that really worked for us, and I started buying books.  Rather a lot it turns out as we’ve started to go through them all.  Books of photos, of plans, by architects, by Kevin and so on.

And we started looking.  For a plot of land.  For a derelict house.  For a derelict house with a plot of land.  For anything we could knock down or build on!!  We live in Southern Hertfordshire, and given my work, friends and Karin’s interests, it was important to us to stay close by.  We learned pretty quickly that there is almost no land available in our part of England that has not already been built on and where it is possible to get planning permission.  We looked at every website, every estate agent and spent many weekends driving around just seeing what we could find.  The real estate world is not an easy one to navigate, as those of you who have tried a house build, or even a house purchase probably, will know.  The good stuff goes before it hits the website, sold to a longstanding developer usually, and what is left is often not worth buying.

We could fill a blog with the travails of searching for property, but we won’t.  Eventually, after about 4 years of searching, a friend recommended a house that was for sale, some 17 miles from our current home.  After 6 months of waiting and negotiating, we had a deal.  And 3 months later, we owned our new plot, with a rather tired house standing on it.

The adventure began!