Part Seven – Pouring Concrete!

This seventh entry was published originally  on the 12th July 2013 and received 1,198 views on the old forum

Wonder of wonders, the DNO turned up mob-handed yesterday and moved the cables and made all the new connections, leaving us with a site with no obstructive power cables. Only taken 2 1/2 months – maybe they are reading this blog?

Today was a BIG DAY, but not, I have to say (with some regrets) a very green day. To cut a long story short, having settled on using gabions and timber crib for the big retaining wall we ran into a small problem with our neighbour. The said neighbour has been fantastically helpful, but was clearly unhappy about his garden being retained by gabions and timber crib (and the end of his garden is around 2.5m above our plot). He also wanted the boundary fence replaced as a stone wall, which makes a lot of sense given the big drop the other side, and it would have been hard to sort out foundations for this on top of the gabions and crib.

After much deliberation we opted to go back to a reinforced concrete block wall, which does have the advantage of giving us a bit more garden space, but more importantly allows the boundary wall to be built directly on top. The downside is the slightly higher cost (maybe £5k more than the gabions/timber crib) and the use of more than 100 tonnes of concrete in the reinforced concrete foundations alone.

This brings me to the reason today was a BIG DAY. Somehow, pouring the first load of concrete marked a turning point from just clearing the site and removing stuff, to actually starting to build something. Yet again I’m as chuffed as ninepence with the ground works guys. The temperature on site this afternoon was up in the mid-thirties (it faces more or less south, and is in the bottom of a deep valley), yet the guys worked their socks off as lorryload after lorryload of concrete turned up. The fact that the concrete supplier was two hours late, then sent lorries in very quick succession, added to the pressure.

Here are the latest crop of photos:

First, the plot minus the overhead cables:

No cables

It looks better already, just need to get BT to move their single cable and then get the DNO back to take down the redundant pole. They won’t let me keep it, unfortunately – pity as I had an idea to use it as a raised bed surround.

The concrete arrives

Much excitement (for me at least) when the first load of concrete turned up. Better late than never……….

The first pour

Finally, the momentous moment when the first bit of real construction starts.

Part Six – There We Were, Digging This Hole…………

This sixth entry was published originally on the 10th July 2013 and received 1,360 views on the old forum

I know I’ve missed bits out, but frankly that’s because the plan for this blog seems to have gone for a ball of chalk. Luckily the plan for the build is on schedule, despite the best attempts of a well known utility company to hold us up.

A few hundred cubic metres have now been dug out, leaving us with this partially excavated hole:

The hole - N face

The ground works chaps (that’s Scottie in the photo, BTW) are currently putting the steel in for the retaining wall founds, with luck they should do the pour on Friday. Here’s another view of the North face of the excavation that gives a better idea of the scale of the retaining wall (this time with boss man Ben walking away from the camera):

The north face

I’m dead impressed with the ground works guys, not only have they had to deal with being dicked around by the utility companies (who are seemingly unable to get their act together, despite charging vast amounts of money and being given months of notice), but they’ve also cracked on and done more than I expected at this stage, and, most importantly for us, they’ve done a really good job of keeping the site clean and tidy and keeping the neighbours happy. If anyone in the Salisbury/Andover general area is looking for a good ground works firm, then I’d recommend these guys.

Once the retaining wall is up, probably by around the end of next week with luck, I think we’ll all relax a bit, as that steep cliff at the back of the plot isn’t going to stay like that for ever on its own. I’ve got the borehole rig arriving on site in around three weeks and had a site meeting with the driller last week, As we hit the water table when digging the trenches for the utilities we at least know we have water. In fact, as SWMBO wants a water feature in the garden all I need to do is dig a hole about a metre deep and use it as a well, perhaps with a small solar powered pump, and we can have a water feature and irrigation system if we want, without needing to use the clean water from the borehole.

One ongoing issue is that we’ve had to work around problems caused by the tardiness of the DNO, as they have a big cable running across the plot that they still haven’t sorted. We stuck the new pole in for them (as they couldn’t get a digger to the site), we’ve dug all the trenches and laid new cables for them, all they need to do is get a jointing team in to disconnect the overhead wires and connect up the new underground cables we’ve laid. For that they’ve charged me over £3500, which I had to pay in advance back in April (yes, that’s right, I paid them to do this work just over 2 1/2 months ago!!!). I’m going to be arguing for a refund of part of this money, as we’ve done half the job for them. Luckily I had a brainwave (one that will probably cause the DNO to freak when they see it) and suggested that we just pull the problematic underground cable that was in the way (the one in the last photo of the previous instalment) away from the pole it runs down, to give a couple of metres of extra slack. This has been enough to be able to pull the cable to the side of the plot, allowing the excavation for the retaining wall to be completed. Had this not worked we’d have been twiddling our thumbs, waiting for the DNO to get their act together.

By way of contrast, BT Openreach (who also have overhead cables we need to shift) have been very helpful at the local engineer level. The downside is that, as an organisation, they really couldn’t organise a piss up in a brewery. An example: The helpful local engineer arranges to drop off a load of free issue duct 56, some hockey stick bends to run up the new poles, a roll of 28 pair cable and a couple of cast iron ground mounted termination boxes for the ends of the ducting. Believe it or not, these items arrived as FOUR separate deliveries, spread over ten days, from the same depot in Basingstoke, around 50 miles away. All told their delivery drivers clocked up around 400 miles delivering this stuff, when with a bit of coordination they could have done it in one run of 50 miles each way. Still, I can’t complain, as they are doing the underground diversion for us free gratis.

I’ve no doubt there will be photos of concrete being poured in the next instalment, but for now this is what the plot looks like (Scottie and Joe on the right aren’t worshipping boss man Ben on the left, they’re manhandling a sheet of steel mesh!):

The plot revealed - 2

 Here are the calcs and drawings for that wall:

Retaining wall drawings


joiner wrote on 20th July 2013 at 01:44 pm


Excellent stuff!

Part Five – Trials And Tribulations………

This fifth entry was published originally on the 26th June 2013 and received 1,149 views on the old forum

Well, it’s been a fair time since the last entry, and much has been going on. I’ll gloss over the financial issues, suffice to say that the moral of the tale is to never, ever, trust a bank to tell the truth, and most of all, never, ever, believe any promises made by Santander. I could expound on this at length, but suffice to say they made us a firm mortgage offer on our existing house (for a fraction of its value) then withdrew the offer at the very last minute (literally on the day I went to draw down the mortgage).

Leaving aside the finances (which we have finally sort of resolved) we next ran into delays caused by, yes, you guessed it, services…….. We need to move some electricity cables, both overhead cables and a big fat underground cable. I first arranged all the details for doing this back in the early spring. I paid the electricity company £3500 in advance 6 weeks ago. I had been told that they needed at least three or four weeks notice. Guess what, after 6 weeks they tell me that they can’t do the work for another 5 weeks. I refrained from losing it with the guy at the company, as one thing I’ve learned is that venting your spleen at people like this, no matter how stress-relieving it may be at a personal level, rarely results in moving things on. To the chaps credit, he did then offer to come out to site and is trying to work through a compromise, albeit one that means I have to dig holes for his pole etc, even though I’ve already paid them to do this.

Still, on the bright side, we eventually got diggers on site at the start of the week, and started work. Great fun, as we’ve not been able to walk on and see the site since we bought it back in November, as it’s been too overgrown. This gives an idea of how it looked on Monday:
The diggers arrive

After a couple of days work we have cleared all the overgrown shrubs etc and got to this:

Looking across the plot from the top of what will be the retaining wall - Copy

There are still a few hundred cubic metres of soil to come out yet, as where I’m standing to take this photo will be around 2.5m lower when everything is at the finished levels. To the lower left you can see the errant power cable that runs diagonally under where we want to put the house. We need to shift this (and the pole it runs to) to the left corner (as viewed from this picture). One slight problem is that this is going to cause some inconvenience to the neighbours, as that big cable supplies power to quite a few houses in the village. On the positive side, it does mean we have three phase power right next to where our meter box is going, which bodes well for connecting up a big PV array.

I’ve given up predicting what the next episode of this blog will be. Predicting how a self build will go, even after as much planning as we’ve done over the past 18 months, seems akin to trying to forecast the weather a month in advance. Stayed tuned, folks, as I’m sure there are more fun and games to come.










Part Four – Services

This fourth entry was published originally by JSHarris on the 9th April 2013 and received 1,301 views on the old forum

When we bought the plot we knew that getting services in was going to be a costly business. The nearest water main was over 140m away and the nearest sewer was around 85m away, both up a steep, single track lane. Luckily the electricity supply and telephone were at the edge of the plot, but both had cables that were in the way, plus we had a pole that would be right in front of the house if we left it where it was.

I first got the water company to quote for a connection to the mains water supply and sewer. Unsurprisingly, they wanted around £30k to connect to both services (£22k of that was for the water connection), but there was a fairly large (~£26k) contestable element, so I could look at getting this part done by another approved contractor. After some ringing around I had a best estimate of around £16k, plus the £1k highways fee, for the contestable work, giving a total of around £21k. A fair bit cheaper than just going with the water company quote, but still a lot of money. I’d also need a sewage pumping station, at an additional £1.5k or so, bringing the total to around £23k, just for water and sewage.

With costs this high I needed to look at other options, so I looked at getting a private borehole for water and using a package treatment plant for sewage. The latter was the main problem, as a previous planning application for this plot had suggested using a package treatment plant and the Environment Agency had refused to allow it. There is a stream running close to one boundary and the EA had taken the view that the plot should be connected to the main sewer, as there was supposed to be one in the area.

I decided that, given the high cost of connecting to the main sewer, it was worth approaching the EA again, as there was a clause in the building regulations that allowed a package treatment plant if the distance to the main sewer was more than 30m. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the EA were quite helpful (although slow, as they don’t use email or ‘phones!). They granted me permission to use a package treatment plant and to discharge the effluent into the stream. As the cost of a treatment plant was broadly similar to that of a pumping station, this decision represented a significant overall saving.

Water was much easier, as no permission or licence is required for a domestic borehole, provided you don’t draw more than 20,000 litres of water from it each day. As we would be unlikely to use more than around 300 litres per day we could just drill a hole and have our own virtually free water supply. I already knew that the area had abundant water in a fairly shallow underground aquifer, as there are springs all around, and several other boreholes nearby. Nevertheless, I decided to get a full hydrogeological survey done (fairly cheap, at £300, and well worth the money).

I went out to tender for the borehole and was amazed at the variation in quotes received. Given that I’d sent copies of the hydrogeological report to each of the bidders, with a detailed specification for the borehole, I expected the quotes to be fairly close. The four quotes I received ranged from just over £9k to over £20k, with a fairly even spread between these figures. Just goes to show that it’s well worth shopping around. The end result of all this work was that I’d got the total cost of the water and sewage services down from around £23k to just over £11k, plus we will save the ongoing cost of paying for water and sewage disposal.

The package treatment plant we’ve opted for (a small Bio Pure 1E) will need de-sludging about every three to four years (at a cost of around £200 to £300) and it only uses about 30W of power (so an additional £40 in electricity each year, less whatever we generate from PV). The borehole pump will use around another £20 of electricity a year, plus £30 to £50 a year for UV treatment (if we need it, and again less whatever we generate from PV). Our total annual costs for water and sewage should be around £180 to £200 at the most, significantly less than our current water and sewage charges of around £600 a year.

Next I had to sort out the electricity supply and telephone. Both of these gave us problems, as there was a combined electricity/telephone pole obstructing part of the new drive, plus there were overhead cables that crossed the plot and severely restricted the use of cranes etc. The local DNO*** were very helpful, responding to my request within a couple of days, making a site visit and quickly giving me a quote to move the pole and relocate all their cables underground (with me digging the trenches and laying ducts). It was quite reasonable, too, at £3.5k, especially given the length of new cable they had to put in. The telephone network provider, Openreach, was a different kettle of fish, though. In fact they were nothing short of a complete and utter shambles. I contacted them in early January, by mid- March they still hadn’t got back to me. Eventually, after a couple of hours effort, I tracked down a telephone number (they don’t make their ‘phone numbers public, in case anyone might want to ring them…….) and managed to get hold of the mobile number for the local chap who looks after things. He was very helpful (in complete contrast to his own management), came out straightaway to look at things, agreed with our proposal to move the cables and quickly came up with the best way to get their work and that of the DNO synchronised.

In essence, we dig the trenches and lay the ducts, the DNO erect a new pole and move all the power cables (leaving the ‘phone cables on their old pole), plus hook up our new supply to a meter box that I’m having fitted into a low fence at the side of the plot. Openreach then come out and move their cables into the ducts and across to the new pole and then someone (the DNO?) takes down the old pole. This all sounds too sensible to actually work in practice. We shall see in a few weeks time.

***DNO – Distribution Network Operator, the people who look after the local power grid. In our case this is Scottish and Southern Electricity.

Next – the minefield of choosing contractors

PS: If anyone wants the spreadsheet I mentioned in the last episode, the one that I used to help check that the retaining wall is safe, then PM me. It comes with no warranty, and needs a basic understanding of the data needed, but I’m happy to let it out in the wild if it might help someone.


Part Three – The Devil Is In The Detail (Episode One)

This third entry was published originally  on the 8th April 2013 and received 2,149 views on the old forum

Having received planning approval, the next step was to get the pre-commencement planning conditions discharged. We had four of these, one needing details of surface water management to be approved, one asking for details of a scheme to keep mud off the road during construction, one that required external materials to be approved prior to commencement and one for approval of a landscaping plan before we start.

I addressed the surface water run off and landscaping condition together. Having looked at the cost of getting a professional landscape design (upwards of £800) I opted to do it myself. I kept the detail to a minimum, on the basis that being overly specific might well cause problems later if we changed our minds about plant species etc. I did detail how surface water from the house and garage roof would be fed to soakaways, and that the drive would be surfaced with permeable, SuDS*** compliant, pavers. A fairly simple site plan, showing the layout of the drive, soakaways etc, together with some details of key planting, was drawn and accompanied with a photo of the scale model to illustrate how the landscaping might look.

Dealing with the “mud on the road” was just a matter of providing an assurance that contractor’s vehicles would be inspected before leaving the site and their tyres/tracks cleaned if necessary.

The final condition was to get approval of the roof and external cladding material. I’d included photos of these in the Design and Access Statement, so assumed that the planning officer would now need to see samples, rather than just photos. I duly drove around the country gathering bits of wood, roofing etc, and then called the planning officer to ask when and where he’d like to inspect them. This resulted in an interesting Catch 22 moment. I was told that, because of health and safety issues, I would not be allowed to bring the samples to the council offices. Instead the planning office suggested a site visit. I pointed out that the site was overgrown with 4ft high brambles and surrounded with security fencing, and that I couldn’t lawfully start work on it to make it accessible until I had the pre-commencement conditions cleared, one of which was the approval of external materials. The planning officer then suggested that I take photos of the materials and that he would accept them instead. I then pointed out that I had already done this, and that they were in the D&A Statement that formed part of our application. The response was for me to just reference the D&A Statement in the application for discharge of conditions. I had to wonder why the approval of materials had been added as a pre-commencement planning condition, particularly as obtaining approval turned out to be just reminding the planners of what I’d put in the original application.

The up side of this was that I submitted my form (and fee) for discharge of these conditions on the Monday afternoon and received a letter telling me they had been discharged the following Thursday morning. Quite a remarkably quick turnaround, and far faster than I’d assumed.

Having finally got the paper work out of the way, I could make a start on getting some of the details sorted out. We knew that services would be a problem (more on that in the next episode) but the first priority was getting the design of the big retaining wall we needed right. I knew this was going to be costly and potentially problematic, as it is around 2.5m high in one corner and around 40m long in total. To add to the potential difficulty, the wall needed to be as thin as possible, particularly in the north east corner, in order to get the house as far back in the plot as possible, leaving room for the drive at the front. Having looked at various options, I first settled on this being a plain hollow block reinforced concrete wall, rendered to make it look reasonable. I duly went to a couple of structural engineering firms and asked for quotes to design the wall, explaining the constraints. The first came back with a quote for £1500 (inc VAT) just to do the design work, which seemed massively OTT. The second was a fair bit better, at £360 (inc VAT), so we went with them. This turned out to not be a great idea, as when I got quotes for constructing the wall they came in at £25k to £32k, far more than I’d expected. There was also a problem pointed out by one of the ground works companies, in that the width of the wall footings was such that the house wouldn’t fit where it was supposed to be.

Having wasted the money on the SE’s design, I decided that I’d look at all available options and design the wall myself, doing my own structural calcs. With hindsight I should have had the confidence to do this at the start. I looked at several different systems, from the big, dry laid, block systems, like Porcupine, Redi-Rock, Allan Block etc, through dry laid, but reinforced concrete filled systems, like Stepoc, to gabions and timber crib.

The cheapest were gabions, but when I’d originally looked at using them, the advice I’d had was that they would take up too much space, plus they don’t look that great, IMHO. Timber crib is somewhat more expensive than gabions, but takes up as much, or even more, space, but does look more attractive.

Although I’ve done a fair bit of structural engineering work in the past, it has all been associated with aircraft structures, not civil engineering. A quick crash refresher course on retaining structures, Rankine etc revealed that the engineering design for retaining walls is pretty straightforward, so I cobbled together a spreadsheet to allow the calculations to be done quickly and repeatedly. The idea was that I could try lots of different designs by just sticking some numbers into a spreadsheet and seeing if they stacked up.

The first discovery was that vertical gravity walls, using gabions or blocks, are a bit of a disaster structurally. For them to be structurally sound at anything over about a metre high they need to be ridiculously deep (front to back). My 2.5m high wall would need to be 2m deep at the base if I used vertically stacked gabions, just to get an acceptable safety factor against overturning. This was no better than the reinforced concrete block wall.

However, by creating a batter angle (effectively leaning the wall back a few degrees), the resistance to overturning increases massively, and the overturning moment from the backfill and soil behind actually decreases, allowing the wall to be made a fair bit thinner. In practice this batter angle can be achieved without actually building on a slope, by just stepping back rows of gabions to form a shallow terrace. The depth of the gabions at the top can also be reduced, so reducing the overall footprint of the wall.

After several iterations of different gabion designs I ended up with something that would fit in the available space, be significantly cheaper and be OK for the less visible wall section behind the house. We didn’t want gabions for the more visible wall section behind the garden, though, so opted to use timber crib (the Permacrib system from Phi). The same basic design spreadsheet worked OK for this wall system, so after a few hours work I ended up saving money and getting a reasonable compromise design for this wall.

I also learned during this design process that gabion wall design can be very sensitive to things like rock fill density and backfill material choices. For example, my ground works chap suggested that backfill with shingle, rather than crushed concrete, would be much quicker, as it wouldn’t need to be compacted in layers. A quick check with the spreadsheet revealed that doing this would result in an increased risk of the wall falling over, just because the internal friction angle for pea shingle was so much lower as to put excessive horizontal force on the rear of the wall.

***SuDS – Sustainable Urban Drainage System, see:


Part Two – The Joy Of Planning

This second entry was published originally on the 6th April 2013 and received 1628 views on the old Ebuild forum

This entry includes comments that were asked and answered on the old Ebuild forum, if anyone objects to their comment being included here please contact me and I will remove it.

Reading the planning file for our newly purchased plot made for interesting reading. It seems some of the neighbours had been quite vociferous in raising objections over the years, as had the Parish Council. Clearly getting planning permission for a house built using rather non-traditional methods, next to a grade II listed mill and inside an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty might not be exactly straightforward.

The delay caused by the legal issues gave us time to research the history of the area, and even find evidence of some old agricultural buildings that had been on the plot until 30 or 40 years ago. It also allowed an opportunity to contact the neighbours and post out newsletters, letting them know what we were thinking of doing and giving them an opportunity to raise issues before we submitted plans for approval.

At first I had planned to get an architect to design the house, but after drawing up a careful brief and hawking it around a few practices I decided that the only way we were going to get the house we wanted was for me to sit down and design it myself. To say the learning curve was steep is an understatement. House design is a succession of compromises, forced by consideration of the plot shape and orientation, access arrangements, our needs for practical living spaces and last, but far from least, the requirements of the Building Regulations. After around a dozen iterations on paper I had a design that looked reasonable, so I made a scale model. This looked OK, but after a few days of looking at it over breakfast I felt it lacked “design” (in the artistic sense).

For the next iteration I started looking at pictures of some of the houses I’d seen in magazines and the web for inspiration. In the end I decided that replacing the front porch and door with a double height glazed wall and gable managed to lift the look of the house from “just another box” to something that looked rather like it might have been converted from one of the old barns that had been on the site. It also allowed solar gain right where it would be most useful, in the centre of the house, heating the insulated floor slab. The downside was that doing this meant adding bedroom windows to both gable ends, something that at one end had previously caused an overlooking issue with a neighbours garden around 25m away, on the other side of a lane.

In an attempt to show the neighbours and Parish Council that there really wouldn’t be any over looking issues, and that the planned house would sit deeply inset into the ground, so minimising any visual impact, I spent a few tens of hours making a detailed scale model of the whole plot and house. Once satisfied that we’d got things as we wanted them, it was time to submit the plans for approval.

Model - SW View - small

As soon as they were in I contacted the Parish Clerk to find out when the Parish Council Planning Committee would be meeting to consider our application. She was very helpful, and gave me the date of the meeting, plus some useful inside information. We agreed to attend and bring the scale model along. As luck would have it I found that I was scheduled for abdominal surgery two days before the meeting, but was still able to hobble along and chat through our plans. We were expecting a lot of resistance, as the previous application had been recommended for refusal by the PC, who had raised fourteen points of objection. We were pleasantly surprised when they voted unanimously to support our application. It felt as if we’d won “round 1”.

Every day I watched for consultation documents to be posted on the planning website, and as the consultation closing date came up was surprised to see there were no objections raised at all. As soon as the time was up I called the planning officer and asked whether or not he was going to decide using his delegated powers or whether it was being called in to the Planning Committee. I was expecting the latter, as every previous application for this plot had gone to committee. A few days before Christmas the planning officer called to say that he couldn’t see any problem, was going to recommend approval and that it wasn’t going to go to committee. He did warn us that there might be a delay in getting his team leader to sign it off, but said that we should have approval by early January 2013.

What an excellent Christmas gift!

Stay tuned for the next episode – dealing with some of the difficult build decisions.


Old comments and replies:


oz07 wrote on 6th April at 04:52pm

That gabled entrance trick does the job. Looks good!


joiner wrote on 7th April 2012 at 10:20 am

Taken together, caliwag’s excellent blogs on design and JSH’s contribution on how to go about the actual self-build process, makes this forum a front-runner in its field.

An object lesson in how to present an idea. The scale model, especially when lit to give shadow, shows the benefit of doing the visualisation for others who perhaps don’t have the imagination and spatial awareness needed to translate paper plans into a 3D mental image.


jsharris wrote on 7th April 2013 at 01:37pm

Thanks for the kind words, I’m still catching up here with things that have taken over a year so far! Part 3 will be along shortly…………………


dlewis61 wrote on 4th March 2016 at 07:16am

Hello , Just started to follow your blog as we are right a stage 1 . just chosen and architect, had out eco survey and topo survey. Is there a house floor plan anywhere in your blog please?



JSHarris wrote on 3rd April 2016 at 10:24am

Sorry, I missed this comment. The plans etc are in Part Fifteen of this blog


dlewis61 wrote on 3rd April 2016 at 07:36pm

and thank you

no problem


Part One – In The Beginning…………..

This first entry was published originally on the 3rd April 2013 and received 2,340 views on the old Ebuild forum


We first decided we’d like to build ourselves a house several years ago, but with both of us working full time we did little more than think about it for a few years. Then, almost out of the blue, I was given an opportunity to take early retirement in September 2010, with a favourable pension and a tax free gratuity. So started our adventure!

We looked far and wide for a building plot, with our only constraint being that we didn’t want to be more than around a couple of hours drive from where we currently live, in South Wiltshire. After much looking through plot search web sites, calling around estate agents and even cold-calling people who had put in planning applications for plots, we found a few that looked interesting, ranging from Ross on Wye, across the Cotswolds and down to Somerset. It seemed that plots in our part of Wiltshire, or the adjoining counties of Hampshire and Dorset, were very scarce, or beyond our budget. The first plot that caught our eye looked wonderful, it was fairly large, situated on the site of an old mill, just on the Welsh side of the Wye valley. After doing some basic research into the cost of getting services in, the likely planning constraints we may face (it only had OPP) etc, we made an offer which was accepted. Unfortunately we then encountered two major problems during the legal searches. The first was that a large part of the plot was actually being used by a neighbouring house as part of their garden. The second was that at some point a public footpath had been moved, without consent. Despite months spent trying to get these issues resolved, it became clear that the footpath problem alone was likely to take at least a year to be fixed. Reluctantly we pulled out of the deal and had a re-think about our plans.

The next few months were spent driving around looking at both plots and some houses that we thought might have some potential. As advice to anyone else going through this, all I can say is use every tool you can get your hands on to try and look at places before driving miles to see them. We made extensive use of Google Earth and Streetview to look at potential plots, and this quickly gave an indication as to what the local area was like (at the date of the imagery, which is often a few years old). Even then we made long journeys out to view plots that turned out to be hopeless. Generally, the worst of these came via the “free to the seller” plot sales services. We quickly found that the best source seemed to be Rightmove, although the filters on their search facility were often poor, meaning that plots might well be listed as houses, for example.

In October 2011 we found a plot just a short distance from where we currently live, much to our surprise. As it was only half an hour’s drive away we drove over to take a quick look. Despite all the undergrowth and untidiness, we could see straight away (well, by using a bit of imagination to visualise what it’d be like without all the mess) that the plot seemed ideal for our needs. The house would face more or less south, giving the potential for good solar gain and photovoltaic panel performance. The plot was small, but this suited us as neither of us are keen gardeners. It was also semi-rural, right on the edge of an ancient village, opposite an old mill (in fact it is on what was the old orchard that belonged to the mill at some point). The price looked good, too, even if the plot itself looked less than wonderful in its present state.


Having been caught out by the first plot, before making an offer for this one I set about finding out as much as I could about the likely issues and costs of building on it. This plot had a chequered planning history, with several applications on file and a few refusals, and it was clear that there had been a lot of local opposition to developing it. I also discovered that there was no water main or sewer within reasonable distance, so we knew that the costs of getting these services in to the site was going to be high.

Armed with this knowledge, we negotiated the price down to a lower figure, to allow for the added costs imposed by the nature of the plot (it slopes, so needs a lot of ground work) and the difficulty with getting water and sewerage services in. By early December 2011 we had agreed a price and started the legal process to buy the plot. Our hope was that we’d be able to start work during the late spring of 2012.

Once again we found we had a boundary problem, severe enough to cause a major problem with the approved plans. The next 9 months were taken up with protracted legal arguments, ending when the vendor finally agreed to get the boundary positions shown on the Land Registry title amended to reflect what was actually on the ground. We completed the purchase in early November 2012, more than a year after first seeing the plot and deciding to buy it.

The next task would be to submit a new planning application, for the house that we wanted to build, rather than the one that was currently approved, and get it through before the introduction of the Community Infrastructure Levy.

Stay tuned for part two of this tale, where we venture into the interesting world of local politics and planning.