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Ben & Kay Adam-Smith

Ben & Kay Adam-Smith's finished self build project

Ben and Kay Adam-Smith are Video and podcast production company owners from Hertfordshire who completed their certified passivhaus Self Build in 2018.

Floor Plans

What is the floor area of your project in sq ft or sq m? 

226 Sq m.

Ben adam smith floor plans.JPG

Could you tell us any interesting facts or remarkable features about your project?

It’s a certified Passivhaus home.

Experience at the Centre

How many times have you visited The National Self Build and Renovation Centre before?


What would you say is the most helpful feature or resource at the NSBRC?

What I loved most about our visits to the NSBRC were the talks by self-builders who have been there and done it. It’s always easy to find professionals but a lot harder to bump into people who have been through the process, are willing to share what they’ve learned and will tell you how it really is. 

The 3D displays showing foundation options and build systems in the Self Build Educational Zone are also incredibly useful to help you understand how things work.

Did you use any exhibitors at the NSBRC? If so, who? 

Green Building Store for our MVHR, Passivhaus Homes for our windows, Lifetiles for our roof tiles, Hormann for our garage door and Eco Flooring for our wooden floors.

Would you recommend the NSBRC to a friend, and if so, what aspects of the Centre would you recommend?

Yes, and I have done several times already. The show and tours are great for an overall introduction to self build and the help desk and experts are great for more in depth queries when you’re ready to build or are building.

Young couple with child standing in field

Ben & Kay's Self Build Journey

What first inspired you to undertake your self build project – what did you hope to achieve?

We wanted to build a Passivhaus-standard forever home for our family in light of the increasing fossil fuel shortage, other environmental issues, the very poor standard of developer house builds and to create a comfortable environment in which to live. Self build was therefore a no-brainer!


How did you find the land? Do you have any tips for others currently searching for a plot?

We actually found it on Rightmove of all places in the end. We tried driving around the local villages we liked and dropping printed mailers asking if anyone was selling, used social media and our friends to spread the word, joined auction sites and specialist land sellers too but it was Rightmove that came up trumps in the end. Our tip would be to allow more time to find land than you think and to broaden your area as land is very hard to find in certain areas, eg: home counties and London. 


Did you have any issues getting your planning permission granted or with building control? If so – why was this?

It was fairly straightforward as we bought the land with DPP and the house that had PP already was much larger and more imposing than the one we wanted to build. However, we had to site the house in a very particular part of the land as most of it is on Green Belt land and outside of the village boundary so we had a little to-ing and fro-ing with planning on the exact boundaries and position of the house. We also had to lower our whole house by 50cm to keep the ridge height down and preserve the amenity of the neighbour.


Why did you choose your method of construction?

We chose a traditional route of masonry and cavity wall construction because the skills are there and easy to find, and it’s one of the cheapest ways of building. We had been tempted by a straw bale build (as that would have been a more ecological route) but were concerned about resale value and insurance, etc.


Did you use a project manager, or did you choose to self project manage?

We went fully project managed in the end as we got planning permission at the same time that our baby girl was born (our second) and the thought of looking after a pre-schooler and a newborn at the same time as being self employed and project managing a house left us feeling a little overwhelmed!


What was your budget and were you able to stick to it?

Circa £450k and no! When we went to tender, we got a real shock when all five of the quotes came back way, way over our budget. Some by more than double and all significantly over. We had to do some serious value engineering and that helped to reduce the cost but we still had to borrow more to build the home we wanted. We ended up at £550k.


If you didn’t stick to your budget, what was the main reason for the overspend?

We think Brexit had an influence on the rising costs as labour costs were high due to a shortage of workers with a lot of them going back to Europe. Exchange rates for components didn’t help either. The house design itself is pretty simple and there’s nothing extravagant in the spec. We used all of our contingency though on removing spoil when we had to lower the house by 50cm to get planning.


What is the value of the property now?

About £1.4m at last valuation.


Did you reclaim the VAT, and if so, how much were you able to reclaim?

Yes but most of the purchases were through the builder so the VAT wasn’t passed on to us. I claimed a couple of hundred back still with things like bathroom accessories, light fittings, etc. as well as on the turf, shrubs and trees that were included on the planning permission.


What aspects of the self build process did you find stressful – and do you have any tips on how to avoid the pitfalls you encountered?

We expected to make lots of decisions but I don’t think either of us expected just how many! So just allow lots of time and try to research and think ahead all the time. Ask your builder and / or architect for a list of upcoming decisions that they’ll need from you and in of urgency. Also, the major headaches were caused by the utilities and Openreach. DO NOT underestimate how long it takes to sort these out and keep on their backs to confirm EVERYTHING! Water held our completion date up and we were without internet or a landline for 3months after moving in.


What did you find most enjoyable about working on your project?

Designing our very own home, just for us. Watching it go up more and more every week. I also quite enjoyed the monthly site meetings!


What is one of your favourite features about your project?

We think that the handmade clay tiles look awesome against the lime render walls. Ben loves his large kitchen and open plan living area. The handmade tiles in the kitchen are gorgeous too!


How did you tailor your home to suit your lifestyle?

Ben works from home so a nice office space away from the noise of the rest of the house was important. We also have ageing parents so we decided to have the main spare room downstairs with easy access and decent size ensuite. Open plan main living space is important to us as we like to cook and entertain. It also means that we can keep an eye on the kids most of the time! The snug was also important to give the option of a quieter space where you can get away and close the door (see the kids note!) Finally, we don’t believe in big wasted spaces so all of the rooms except one are regularly used every day. The office for example is designed as a second spare room too with a sofa bed.


Is there a possibility you would ever undertake another self build, or perhaps another type of project in the future?

Yes, hopefully, but it will be as an investment rather than a home for us. Watch this space!


If so, is there anything you would do differently?

Get onto utilities even earlier than we did!


What would your top tip be for other NSBRC Visitors about to embark on their first self build journey?

Seriously consider an interior designer to help - and get them involved at the initial drawings stage. A good one will be invaluable in helping to ensure that room layouts, lighting, door and window positions, electrical plans, kitchen drawings and any special features are considered. It’s much easier to make these decisions earlier on than trying to change something during the build process when you suddenly realise that the lighting is all wrong in a room for example!