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Dennis & Rita Dixon

Dennis & Rita Dixon's finished self build project

Dennis and Rita Dixon completed a modern ‘Arts and Crafts’ style home in 2019, opting to self build their dream home in a convenient location halfway between family.

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

In addition to the building regulations, these days new builds have to meet a whole raft of targets designed to demonstrate the efficiency of the building.  Coming to grips with these can be quite bewildering.  The achievement of the required standard must be demonstrated in documents such as a SAP report, Energy Performance Certificate, MCS certification, Air Permeability Certificate, Water Efficiency Report.  And in our case to add to our endeavour the Planning Department made it a condition that we had to achieve a saving of no less than 10% above the level set in the Building Regulations.  Fortunately the NSBRC came to our rescue with a very useful 'Heat and Energy' course which went a long way to providing some of the answers.

I think it must be fairly common for a building project to be off the gas grid and also with no access to a mains sewer.  In order to meet the requirements we had to turn to either an Air Source or a Ground Source - Heat Pump for water and central heating.  We chose an ASHP with underfloor heating throughout.  We also installed a Biological Treatment Plant for the effluent.  These were major considerations which required quite a bit of research and had quite an impact on the project.  The time spent doing the research and the extra work paid dividends in the end because our total electricity cost is only £150 per month and we get a grant towards the cost of the heat pump.

Floor Plans

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

External floor area 292m2.

Ground Floor - D&R.jpg

First Floor - D&R.jpg

Elevations - D&R.jpg

Experience at the Centre

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

When we started this project we lived in Devizes and used to visit the National Self Build and Renovation Centre regularly. In 2007 my book, 'Planning and Fitting Kitchens' was published and I gave a couple of presentations on kitchen design at the Centre.

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

I also attended a course, 'The NSBRC Guide to Heating your Home’ which provided my introduction to this subject.

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

The NSBRC is great place to find suppliers.  It is very helpful to be able to see the actual products and make comparisons between different manufacturers. When you are spending a lot of money on a product you need to be able to explore their features.  We used: The Folding Sliding Door Company, Norrsken windows and The York Handmade Brick Company.

What did you enjoy most about your visit to the NSBRC?

It is like going to an exhibition but without the crowds.

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

I definitely would and have recommended the NSBRC to people.  If someone is contemplating a self build I think a visit is a must. Also, it is one of the few places that offer courses such as the Heating your Home Course that I attended.  Without this introduction I would have been very bewildered.

Before and after 1.jpg

Dennis & Rita’s Self Build Experience

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

We have grandchildren in Wiltshire and in East Sussex and are often called upon to look after them in school holidays. Petersfield is about halfway between the two and during school holidays we would meet there for 'handover'.

The area is in a beautiful part of the South Downs National Park and we soon fell in love with it. We decided that it would be a lovely place to live as well as being convenient. However, when we started to look for a suitable property we could not find anything that suited us. We came to realise that the only way to get a house that we really liked was to build it ourselves.


What was the cost & size of the land?

The cost of the site was £490,000.  The cost reflects the size: 2/3 acre, the location: the South Downs National Park, and the prospect for getting permission. The site is just over 0.6 acre. It is at the side of the main road but has fields on two sides with lovely long distant views over the South Downs countryside.


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

On one of the 'handover' trips we spotted a derelict house and on the return journey we noticed a hand painted 'For Sale' sign with a mobile phone number. In curiosity we rang the number and sure enough it was for the house we had spotted. Unfortunately, the vendor wanted too much money for it.

Some months passed before we contacted the vendor again. We found he had put the house up for auction and the sale was scheduled for 4 weeks later!

There was no planning permission for a new house on the site so we arranged a Pre-Planning meeting with a local planning officer. The site is in the South Downs National Park and we guessed that there would be stringent requirements concerning new buildings. We did not want to take the risk of wasting our money on something that was unachievable.

The letter from the planning officer arrived less than a week before the auction date. Fortunately, as prospects looked positive we decided to take a chance and make a pre-auction offer. We struck a deal with the vendor.

Tips for others searching for a plot:  'Green-field' plots are extremely rare and if you are lucky enough to come across one, especially one with planning permission, it is going to be expensive.  In fact, the prospect of getting Planning Permission is the key to it all.  Prospective sites are most likely to be associated with existing buildings; perhaps when someone wants to raise some money by selling off a part of their garden.  Alternatively, be prepared to buy a property with an existing house that can be demolished to make way for your dream home.  My top tip would be to have a pre-planning meeting to assess the feasibility of the project before risking time and money.


Did you have any issues getting your planning permission granted or with building control?

Getting Planning Permission for your dream house can sometimes be difficult and this site being in the South Downs National Park could make it especially onerous. Fortunately we would be replacing an existing dwelling and the special policies of the National Park allowed for this as long as we did not increase the floor area by more than 50%.

We checked out any planning policies that applied and produced a report that strove to cover the issues that could arise. This was supported by photographs and descriptions of the local materials we intended to use. Planning Permission was granted five weeks later.

I have found that with Building Control a lot depends on the officer that you are dealing with.  Some are strict and by-the-book but most are very helpful and will offer advice.  It is important to keep them 'on side' and not be confrontational.


Why did you choose your method of construction?

I always had a warm spot for oak framed houses. I like the beauty of the timber and the way it provides a link with the past. As well as using oak for the structural support it could be used for detailing at the front and rear entrances.

Next, we realised that to stand a reasonable chance of getting planning permission it would be wise to use vernacular materials. Brick and flint were the obvious choice with clay tiles on the roof.

As for the design, we wanted a traditional look with a modern twist. A building in this setting provided an opportunity to make a statement showcasing modern elegance rather than an artificial copy of a past style. We liked the look of hipped gables and to make it a bit different decided to add a tower. The overall effect is a modern 'Arts and Craft' style house.


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

The oak frame and roof was done by Border Oak Design and Construction and they included the services of a project manager for their part of the build. For the rest, I found I had to step into that role.

I found myself being drawn into the role of Project Manager without realising it.  In hindsight I realise that it was inevitable.  I found that by employing different contractors then it fell to me to manage them.  

The early stage was quite stressful owing to having to be in two places at the same time. At the start there is a lot of research to do and this requires an office environment.  Paradoxically as Project Manager you need to be on site to make sure things are progressing the way you want them.  It was a dilemma made worse by living so far from the site.  In a perfect world the answer would be to get the bulk of the planning out of the way before work commences.  


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

The budget ceiling was governed by the projected selling price. From this we worked back to arrive at preliminary budget figures. A project like this can be a money pit and it would seem foolish to spend money without being able to recover it - not that we had any intention of putting the finished house on the market. Fortunately this has worked for us.


What is the value of the property now?

The house has been valued at between £1.2 and £1.3m so if we were to sell it now we may not make much of a profit but we would at least recover our expenditure.


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

We waited as long as possible to claim back the VAT. We wanted to wait until most of the expenditure was over. The reclaim was £38,000.


What aspects did you find stressful - and do you have any tips on how to avoid the pitfalls you encountered?

The most stressful part of the project was at the beginning when we still lived in Devizes. I was having to juggle my time between my office at home and being on site, an hour and a half drive away. At the start of a project there is so much desk work to do: drawings have to be scrutinised, research carried out, designs tweaked, specifications written, contractors found and yet it was important to be on the job to make sure it was being done properly.

Added to that was the stress of selling the existing house, putting furniture into storage and finding temporary accommodation near the site.

My tip would be to try and get as much sorted out as possible before starting the build.


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

It was great each time we achieved a target. Our highlights included:

When we finally had glass instead of polythene sheet.  It always seemed to need repair at an inconvenient time; mid winter when the wind was blowing a gale and it was pouring down with rain.

When the staircase was installed and we could get rid of the ladder, the only access to our makeshift bedroom.

When the lovely oak handrail and bannister were installed and we no longer had to worry about safety on the landing. 


What is one of your favourite features about your project?

My favourite feature is the central section with its galleried landing and the way the light floods in from the atrium window.  At Christmas time it is the perfect place to put a huge tree – but there are so many others I love the long distant views, especially when the fields have been sown with rape seed. I love the relaxed atmosphere in the lounge with its inglenook fireplace and views into the garden through the huge window. I love the way the kitchen has turned out with its generous breakfast area and bi-fold access onto the patio.


How did you tailor your home to suit your lifestyle?

There are just the two of us but we needed to make provision for when the family would visit and this gave us the overall framework.

At the earliest stage of the design process we took a critical look at our old house. For each room we considered if we could do without it and if we decided that it was needed then we looked at the dimensions to see if the proportions were right. The end result was a wish list of ideal sizes.

Finally, we took account of lifestyle. When weather allows we like to eat outdoors so a generous patio was essential, shielded from the main road and with views across the open countryside, ideally with access directly off the kitchen. I need a good workshop space so one garage bay was allocated for this. Rita's hobby is sewing and it was decided that a single bedroom should be set aside.


Is there a possibility you would ever undertake another project in the future?

Last year I would have said definitely 'No'. But time is a great healer and you tend to forget the times on site, mid-winter, when no one had turned up, a cold wind was howling and the plastic sheets covering the open windows had ripped away!

Memories are clouded by the euphoric feeling when something you had created on paper several months earlier finally came into being. The warm feeling of a plan coming together, of creating something elegant and pleasing knowing that it came from yourself.

So, never say never.


If so, is there anything you would do differently?

Unfortunately age is now against us so if we ever do this again it would have to be as a package deal. I would intend to have everything planned in advance including electrical layout, plumbing design, and materials. The intention would be to find a trustworthy contractor to quote for a turnkey contract.


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

My top tip would be to research as much as possible in advance when time is not at a premium. Become familiar with current building and regulatory requirements, especially if you intend to take advantage of eco technology.