Ian and Julie Perrin were unsure about buying the ‘difficult’ plot of land they ended up building on in Montgomery, mid-Wales, but they convinced themselves to take the plunge
TEXT ROSEANNE FIELD IMAGES NIKHILESH HAVAL
When the time came for Ian and Julie Perrin to retire, they set about scouring the country for a place to settle down in, with no real desire to stay in their then home village of Mortimer, near Reading.
They came across the town of Montgomery in the Welsh Marches “by accident” when they were researching their family history. “My grandparents came from this part of the world,” explains Ian. “We were having long weekends away in various parts of the country, half looking at houses where we might like
It was while in Montgomery that they spotted a Georgian house for sale in the town centre, and having been “charmed” by the town and its people, they decided that this could be the place for them.
The house they’d seen had made them “re- assess what kind of house was best for us long term.” Originally their plan had been to live in a more remote, rural setting: “we were looking for a house in the country with a couple of acres and views, but the ones we’d see had always been a compromise,” Ian explains. They put an offer in on the Georgian property, which fell through, but by this point they had their hearts set on living in the town.
The couple were aware of a building plot for sale in the area, but admit a self-build wasn’t something they had even considered. Despite having planning permission, they were also acutely aware that the plot had garnered little interest due to its tricky topography. “The plot had been up for sale for a long time, as it was a difficult site,” Julie says. “We didn’t feel capable of taking it on as a project and rejected it at first.”
Despite their reservations, when the house sale fell through they decided to give the plot another look. “The garden sloped three storeys from one corner to the other,” explains Ian. “I think that’s why it didn’t have a lot of interest.” It also suffered from slightly awkward access, located off a “steep single track” with the road two metres below the plot’s ground level. “It was a big job just to get onsite,” Ian says.
As well as the difficult terrain, one of the neighbours’ sewer pipes ran right through the middle of the plot, roughly one metre above the road level. “We began thinking about how we could make the plot work for us,” says Ian. “With no experience we were wary about buying it, but there were lovely views, in addition to the fact that we loved the town.”
Before they committed, Ian and Julie wanted to first explore their options, and second, ensure the planning permission was extended, as it wasn’t far off expiring. The planning approval had been given to a Victorian-style house that catered for the requirements of the owners’ disabled son. They visited the National Self Build & Renovation Centre (NSBRC) in Swindon to look into companies who could offer ‘turnkey’ kit houses – an option they thought would work for them given their lack of experience and knowledge of the local area and suppliers.
It was at NSBRC that the couple noticed Welsh Oak Frame had a mock-up of one of their builds, and began to discuss options with the company’s representatives. “They took us around local projects, and showed us pictures of the kind of oak-framed house we could build,” explains Julie.
“We were unsure whether to press the button,” she says, “but they came out and said that while the site was awkward, the idea wasn’t unachievable.” They also liked the idea of using oak, deciding it would sit well in the historic town, finding some other kit offerings too modern.
With the company having convinced them the idea was feasible, they negotiated with the current owners to get a planning extension and eventually bought the plot in November 2014.
They worked with Welsh Oak Frame on a revised planning application, which the company submitted on their behalf – something the couple say definitely helped. “The planning consultant was familiar with the local policy so they were able to ease it through compared to if we’d done it ourselves,” says Julie.
Because they were amending an existing approval they had to keep the building’s footprint the same size as the original one. The new design did however bring the building forward slightly, increasing the garden space at the back. A few conditions were set by the local authority: “We had restrictions on the windows facing the town,” Ian explains. “A big hedge also had to be destroyed to break into the site, so we had to replant that after.”
There was also some negotiating around the creation of a 5.5 metre hardstanding area for lorries to be able to enter the site and turn. “It was virtually impossible,” admits Ian. “We got the impression they weren’t keen on the site being developed.” Despite the obstacles, they were granted permission in February 2015, three months after submitting the revised application.
Ian and Julie were ready to set about clearing the site in March 2015, and one of the first jobs to tackle was redirecting the sewer pipe. They then began removing several lorry loads of soil.
Their neighbour allowed them to take a digger through his garden so they could cut into a two metre high bank and create their own access. As part of being located within a conservation area, a planning condition meant an archaeologist had to watch over the process. When they came across a medieval drying kiln where their entrance was to be located, a minor delay resulted. “It was interesting, but set us back a couple of weeks,” says Ian. They eventually got the site cleared, a site cabin in place and the footings done by June.
The sloping nature of the site means that what is the first floor at the front becomes the ground level at the back, and the ground floor at the front ends up below ground. This is where the majority of the soil was excavated, and the nature of the design meant extra support had to be included. “The below ground level needed overhead steel beams to support the concrete beams above,” explains Ian. “This effectively created the robust foundation structure the oak frame sits on.”
As the groundworks was the most complex part of the project, Ian and Julie hired a project manager who helped oversee things during this period. “He got things rolling for us,” Ian explains. “He had lots of contacts with local contractors, and that worked well in early stages.” Once this tricky stage was over, he took a step back and left the couple to manage the rest, stepping in whenever they needed support. “I was onsite every day, learning as I went, carrying stuff around, clearing up and getting ready for the next day,” says Ian.
The frame arrived onsite in September, which Julie says was a “really exciting” time, for both them and the locals. “A crane arrived lifting all these great timbers – it was quite a spectacle,” she explains. “It took about three weeks to get the main structure up and then it felt like we had a house, but really it was just the start.” The ‘A’ frames were craned into position, while the rest was “like putting together a big jigsaw.”
They had been warned that the oak would stain when touched or walked on, as it brings out the tannin. “It’s quite horrible to look at,” Ian says. For that reason they treated all the internal elements with diluted oxalic acid which, he explains, “you have to really scrub in. That was my job in the evenings – scrub the timber, treat it and power wash it off. It was a big job but well worth it as the oak looks stunning now.”
Once the frame was up they hoped to have the roof on so everything was watertight before the worst of the winter weather kicked in, but sadly it didn’t quite happen. “We had the wettest winter ever,” Ian says. They also hadn’t anticipated the floor screed would take three months to fully dry out, which meant tradesmen had to go off to work on other jobs in the meantime. “We couldn’t do very much,” says Ian. They found work slowed up in general towards the end of the project. “Trades came and went and it was difficult getting them to come back when we needed them,” Ian admits.
The interior was eventually finished in January 2017, although Julie and Ian had moved in during the previous October as the buyers of their existing house were ready to proceed. “It was finished enough for us to move in, but we didn’t have the downstairs shower room fitted out,” Ian says. They spent the next two years finishing off small jobs and doing the landscaping, with the house and garden finally fully complete in the summer of 2018.
When it came to designing their home, the couple had a few key requirements. They needed something large enough to accommodate their family when visiting, as well as an open plan living area, plenty of glazing to both let in light and maximise on the views of the surrounding area, and they also wanted eco- friendly features. As well as this, it was also important to them that the house fit in with the locale, and Ian wanted a basement room to house his model railway, which is located behind the garage and utility room.
Ian says that in some respects, the 340 m2 house “designed itself.”As you look at it from the road, the building line floats 1.5 storeys left to right with a double garage on the lower side, and the main floor straddling the garages,” he explains. The main living area sits above the garage at the front, but due to the slope is at ground level at the back.
They worked on the design with Welsh Oak Frame’s John Edmunds, who they say “brought together our nebulous thoughts, and produced a design that’s nice to look at, and solved all the things we were hoping for.” They’d seen another project with a large front gable which they liked, so this was incorporated into their design. “Usually they’re part of the hallway or stairs, but ours has a dining and seating area with the bedroom above,” Ian explains. “It gave us the views of the countryside we wanted.”
Another key design feature is the ‘cathedral’- style vaulted ceiling. “It could have been dark, with the dining room in the middle of the open plan, so having a big open void has added a lot more light,” says Ian. “Light drops right the way through the building.”
They made some small tweaks to the design, swapping two ensuite bedrooms for three bedrooms and a family bathroom. Welsh Oak Frame produced a 3D walk-through which Ian says made it “much easier to understand what it would look like. We could see if rooms looked oppressive.” This proved particularly useful when finding the right balance with the oak, which they didn’t want to “overdo.” They left it exposed in some areas, such as the contemporary staircase finished with glass, but omitted beams in the contemporary kitchen. Externally, the house was finished with a mixture of cladding and stone, which they says helps it blend in.
Ian’s desire to make the home as sustainable as possible saw the couple install an air source heat pump, a rainwater harvesting system which flushes their toilets, a Clearview Stoves log burner, and underfloor heating. “We have the renewable heat incentive for our heat pump so for seven years we get a payment back that virtually covers the cost of our winter fuel,” he explains. They wanted to install solar panels but the removal of the feed-in tariff meant it wasn’t financially viable – something they admit was frustrating. “I would have liked more of an eco house than we have,” Ian says.
They also found the process of choosing everything somewhat overwhelming. “You think it would be lovely to choose from scratch, but it’s not easy, especially as we had to travel far and wide to visit all the shops,” says Julie. “We could have bought online, but we wanted to see things in the flesh – otherwise you’re just hoping you’ve made the right decision.”
Despite those small frustrations, Ian and Julie are more than pleased with the finished product, as, they say, are the local residents. “They’ve been amazed by it, which is nice,” Julie says. They credit Welsh Oak Frame with supporting them through the project – the pair say they were “able to hold our hand throughout.”
The couple in particular pick the gable window as a favourite feature – they can look out of it from the kitchen island – along with the void above the dining table. “If you look directly up, you can see the sky above you,” Ian explains. “We’ve ended up with the house we wanted, in the place we wanted to live. We’re very happy.”