What is the floor area of your project in sq ft or sq m?
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How many times have you visited The National Self Build and Renovation Centre before?
I’ve lost count! I was there on the day it first opened to the public and have been in literally hundreds of times since!
What would you say is the most helpful feature or resource at the NSBRC?
The free availability of unbiased information, especially during the shows. The courses have always been well received and have saved attendees literally thousands over the years by giving the right advice before costly mistakes are made. Being able to see full-scale exhibits is another bonus. The lass running the training courses and events is pretty good, too, but I might be a bit biased!
Did you use any exhibitors at the NSBRC? If so, who?
I used Design & Materials Ltd, sadly no longer trading, who were long-time exhibitors at the NSBRC.
What did you enjoy most about your visit to the NSBRC?
Imparting knowledge and enthusing others to take on their own projects.
Normally we interview visitors from the Centre…but you’re an expert! Can you tell us a bit about your involvement in the Centre over the years?
I first heard about the NSBRC when visiting a jobs fair in Swindon. I was about to leave the RAF after 26 years and had just completed our self build. I really wanted to help others self build their own home and thought I could add something to the Centre, so sent in my CV. Nothing much happened as I was in senior management roles at the time and the Centre was looking for customer facing staff on reception and the like. However, the lovely Naomi Handford-Jones, sadly no longer with us, asked me to present a case study on the opening day, which I was delighted to do. Senior members of the NSBRC were in the audience and spotted that I was a reasonably competent speaker and kept that on board. When I finally left the RAF, I ended up being employed setting up a national supply chain network to support RAF Chinook helicopter servicing at Gosport, but a week before we went live, an insurmountable contractual difference meant the project was cancelled and I had my first taste of redundancy. On the way home, I called Naomi at the NSBRC wondering what jobs were on offer. She arranged an interview with Tim Doherty, the MD at the time who confessed that while they had loads of people who could meet and greet or sell finance products, they were missing first-hand technical experience from those who understand the process of building your own home. I was offered a position as Technical Adviser and started the next week. After 18 months, I went freelance, setting up Mike Hardwick Self Build Ltd and I’ve been selling my services to the Centre ever since, writing and presenting the self build and project management courses for a number of years, as well as delivering presentations and expert advice at almost every self build show since. Although I’m technically retiring at the end of this year, I fully expect to be wheeled out on occasion to man the Technical Help Desk if needed. It’s hard to say no!
Would you recommend the NSBRC to a friend, and if so, what aspects of the Centre would you recommend and why?
I recommend it all the time, and for all of the reasons above. The Centre is a national treasure for self builders, custom builders and renovators old and new. It is unique as a resource in the UK and serious self builders should make every effort to visit before committing to any aspect of their project.
What first inspired you to undertake project – what did you hope to achieve?
Travelling home by road from a tour in Cyprus, we stopped off with friends in Germany. Their new home had stairs that went down as well as up – they had a fabulous basement. New UK homes didn’t have basements and that set the seeds of designing my own home to incorporate one. Funnily enough, what we built doesn’t actually have a basement as we had enough space available above ground. As for motivation, when the family arrived, I was still serving in the RAF and being posted every 2 years or so. For family stability reasons, I wanted to create somewhere the family could call home while I weekend commuted. Junction 17 of the M4 was pretty much in the middle of where future postings might be, so that’s why we are here. As it turned out, I loved our home so much I didn’t want to leave it, so decided to leave the RAF and pursue a second career in the self build world.
What was the cost & size of the land?
Just under 0.3 acre. I paid £140,000 for it in 2000.
How did you find the land? Do you have any tips for others currently searching for a plot?
It was actually advertised in the back of Build It magazine as part of the PlotSearch pages. I can spend hours offering tips on land finding. The best tip is not to pay full price for land without planning permission. Offer to buy subject to obtaining the right permissions for what you want. Also, make your own luck. Write letters, knock on doors, ask questions as to who owns what and if they would sell to you. The worst that can happen is that you get ignored. Several self builders I know built on land that was never advertised as a building plot.
Did you have any issues getting your planning permission granted or with building control? If so – why was this?
Yes we did. I reckon it was the hardest part. We were in a Conservation area and outside the development boundary. While we had planning permission for a 4 bed home, the approved design was effectively a bungalow. Getting the two-storey house we wanted took 18 months, several redesigns and a few sleepless nights. Our original submission was for a Potton timber frame design, serendipitously called ‘The Hardwick’ finished in Cotswold stone which we had seen at a self build show at Alexandra Palace some years earlier. However, the asymmetric roof of the Potton Heritage style was not acceptable in the conservation area and couldn’t be amended by Potton, so we asked for bespoke designs from three other companies with varying degrees of success. Beverley Pemberton at Design & Materials understood the brief perfectly and that was the design we went for, albeit with several ‘tweaks’ before it was approved.
Building control were OK for the most part, but the rules changed in April 2002 just before we moved in. Part M covering disabled access came into force and the inspector insisted I put a ramp up to the front door and a pathway up to the road to avoid some steps before he’d sign the Completion certificate. It cost me another £1,500 I didn’t have. I now realise that the inspector was wrong to make me do this because the regulations that were in force when my plans were signed off still applied, regardless of subsequent changes. I still feel like I was robbed.
Why did you choose your method of construction?
The package supplied by Design & Materials was brick and block. We were happy to go with it. If they had provided a timber frame, I’d have been happy with that, too! However, as they owned the copyright to the design they drew for us, and that we loved, we were happy to use their package of materials. They also guaranteed the quantities so we knew we’d have enough of everything.
Did you use a project manager, or did you choose to self project manage?
I set off with the idea of self project managing, but after sourcing my groundworker, plumber and electrician, I received a quote from a builder to do the rest of the work that was too good to refuse. They included an element of project management as part of the service so we shared the management of the build. It was closer to what is known as a Shell Build than full self-project management.
What was your budget and were you able to stick to it?
My original budget for the build was £300,000, the project actually cost £340,000 after VAT reclaim. It took every penny we had, and a bit more. My classic motorcycle had to be sold to meet the last payments, and I’ve still not quite got over that.
If you didn’t stick to your budget, what was the main reason for the overspend?
Land cost. I budgeted £100.000 and paid £140,000 for the plot. It seemed a lot at the time, but looking back it was a bargain.
What is the value of the property now?
Around £750,000. It’s been a good investment!
Did you reclaim the VAT, and if so, how much were you able to reclaim?
Yes, I did, it was just under £17,000 in the end. Because I had to pay this out before it could be reclaimed, it was a significant cash flow issue. I borrowed the money from my dear late mother-in-law and paid her back with interest when HMRC paid up.
What aspects of the process did you find stressful – and do you have any tips on how to avoid the pitfalls you encountered?
The build was fairly straightforward. The hardest bit was obtaining planning permission and that was the most stressful part of the process. An issue with the planning was height – we had a planning condition that stipulated our ridge height could be no taller than the house next door. As the walls were going up, somebody complained to the council that the house might be too tall so we had to calculate exactly how high we’d end up at. This showed that, at worst, we might have been 100mm too high, so we took the decision to change the roof pitch from 40 to 39 degrees. This lowered it just enough to avoid problems.
What did you find most enjoyable about working on your project?
The feeling of achievement seeing our home appear day by day. The banter with the trades was good as well. Having a happy site meant everyone wanted to be there and do a good job. It also allowed for a few “while you’re at it, could you just….” moments where little extras got done as a favour.
What is one of your favourite features about your project?
The use of a beam and block floor system at intermediate floor level. It means there are no stud walls upstairs, they are all wet plastered blockwork and we get superb sound insulation between rooms and floors. Also, the wood burner in the family room – instant snugness and the pictures are better than what’s on the TV. Michael Gove will have to prise that out of my cold, dead hands if he thinks any more about banning them!
*Kitchen renovated circa 2015.
*Main bathroom (left) & en-suite (right) renovated circa 2017.
How did you tailor your home to suit your lifestyle?
The main feature is an ‘L’ shaped family room, kitchen and dining area. It’s a huge space and has witnessed some impressive parties of 80 people or more and where we spend much of our time as a family. A separate lounge with a feature open fireplace with oak beams and side log stores is a fantastic room for high days and holidays, especially Christmas. I also have a wonderful double garage for tinkering with classic cars, while Alison has the perfect outdoor space for her to hone her gardening skills.
Is there a possibility you would ever undertake another project in the future?
Never say never… I always envisaged building a green oak home tailored for retirement but that all depends on whether we could be prised out of this home. We love the house, the people and the village it’s in, so it would be quite a wrench to leave.
If so, is there anything you would do differently?
I’d concentrate on building ‘fabric first’ to ensure high levels of insulation and airtightness so that bills would be minimal. This house isn’t bad in terms of energy performance, but the new regulations are far more rigorous and sustainable environmentally.
What would your top tip be for other NSBRC Visitors about to embark on their first self build or home improvement journey?
Keep an open mind and ask advice. You may have an idea about what you are trying to achieve, but the reality of what actually happens will be dictated by the size, shape and location of your plot and the reality of your budget. Most self builders are trying to make a modest budget work very hard, so be realistic about the nice-to-haves. Start with working out how much money you can put towards the total project and work backwards from there – the budget dictates everything and if you can afford it, have what you want, but beware the impulse buy if the money is tight; something else will have to give!
*Information compiled December 2020.
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