New beginnings

James Parker visits a self-builder who overcame a bereavement to complete a beautiful timber-framed home in Cambridgeshire

Self-build projects are normally demanding and stressful, especially if it’s your first time. Nikki Scrivens had to cope with a bereavement in addition to all of the other challenges inherent to pursuing a dream home. The project, which has resulted in a beautiful home in the Cambridgeshire village of Comberton would likely not have happened at all if it had not been for her late husband Ray falling ill.

When Ray was diagnosed with terminal cancer they were living in a large house in a rural location outside the nearby village of Barton that had been the family home for 36 years. As Nikki, who’s in her early 60s admits, they were “unlikely to be there until they were 70 anyway,” but Ray’s condition made moving to a less remote spot a matter of urgency. Going down the self-build route was not initially part of the plan, but circumstances made it a possibility.

As luck would have it, some close friends of the pair – Rachel and Michael Thompson – had bought a 60 x 19 metre parcel of land adjoining their house and back garden, but as they had got older they were finding it a burden to maintain. Nikki asked Rachel whether she would consider selling it, and when the answer was yes, jumped at the chance to build a home. The two women then successfully persuaded their other halves it was a good idea.

In a very kind gesture, their new neighbours refused to take payment for the land until Nikki and Ray had gained planning permission for their house, which was a huge comfort as they embarked on the project. This was also helpful as planning proved to be tricky, with the local planning office being notoriously fussy as the site is in a Conservation Area. The timber-framed Potton home that Nikki decided on, although not extravagant, took several months to gain planning, having been first submitted in November 2013.

The best laid plans…

The following February, Nikki and Ray were visiting their daughter at home in Australia: “We were hoping we would hear we had got planning permission as it’s a 12 week window, but we didn’t hear so we had to reapply in March.” They finally got planning in May, but Nikki had to take matters into her own hands.

“We almost ran out of time on the second application, because they couldn’t find a solicitor to do the paperwork. I ended up going to the council and thumping the desk – saying it was their red tape that was stopping us. I begged them to find a solicitor just to sign it off.”

Revisions to the original design were demanded because the building was deemed too close to the cottages next door by around a metre. This area off the kitchen was to have contained a downstairs shower and bedroom for Ray, however he sadly died when the building’s foundations were being dug, and these facilities would not be as essential for Nikki in the future.

In order to appease the planners, Nikki together with Potton project manager Brent Ackerman instead opted for a utility in the narrower space, but with the slightly unusual addition of a WC in the middle of the room. As Nikki says, “It’s the Australian way, and seems to work fine. It’s perfectly legal within Building Regulations, as long as you have the necessary extraction.”

Deciding on Potton as the solution to build the home partly came about due to the company being well-known in Cambridgeshire, with its base a few miles from Comberton in Sandy, Beds. Nikki visited friends of friends who had a Potton-built timber house and was impressed, and a subsequent visit to the St Neots centre cemented her and Ray’s impression that they could get an appropriate building for the site.

Says Nikki: “The system is developed to suit British house styles and people do say it has settled in very well. It feels very good in the setting.”

She could have gone the whole hog and project managed the scheme, but due to her needing to care for Ray and manage a part time job as a receptionist, Nikki decided on the project managed option. This turned out to be a great idea, as Brent was invaluable in helping Nikki through the design process, and in making sure the tweaks she wanted on the plan were done.

The relatively narrow plot meant a slight compromise in that the originally intended Caxton design from Potton could not be used (architect Adrian Bussetil advised it would not get through planning.) A slightly older model, Haslingfield was used instead, but like other Potton designs it has an attractive exposed timber frame, which is constructed in just days.

The plusses of a project manager

Potton handled a great deal of the project, in fact all project management up to the watertight stage, while Adrian, of Partners in Planning and Architecture, had the equally crucial role of liaising with planning to ensure the building fit in its context. However Nikki discovered that “there’s a lot to building a house before the building goes up that I hadn’t realised.” This included appointing the contractors to install services such as drainage and electricity, however project manager Brent “pointed me in the right direction,” she says.

Going with a project managed option means that as well as timings of all the crucial stages being coordinated, a handy list of expenditure is provided. Nikki says, “We did have the Potton manual, but I relied on Brent for telling me to do certain things at certain times.” She says it’s important to remember that although the company takes responsibility for a lot of aspects, “they might not be actually responsible for quite a few of them.”

As with any project, appointing services sub-contractors didn’t always run smoothly, such as when phoning UK power networks but being “referred to someone else because they were being privatised,” or having to alert the council to close the road when the drains are being connected.

However on the financial side, things went according to plan, although it was another daunting challenge for Nikki. She and Ray bought the land for £150,000 and spent just short of £300,000 on the build, which was within their initial estimate. She says: “Ray used to do all our finances, and it was very new to me to write all these enormous cheques.”

Project manager Brent was also invaluable in helping Nikki make the design changes to the standard Potton layout which she wanted, although as she says, “once or twice he looked at me as if I was bonkers.” These changes included borrowing space from one of the two guest bedrooms to give the other one a bit more room, and moving a wall on the landing to provide the perfect airing cupboard – backing onto the chimney and the wood burner in the living room below.

In addition, instead on having an alcove on the landing, Nikki changed the design to fit a shower behind the door in the bathroom. Lastly on the first floor, she stopped them building a wall “which would give the wardrobe a strange shape” and lost that to provide space for a desk on the landing. The en suite bathroom to the master bedroom has the only Velux rooflight in the property, because it is under the eaves.

The open plan ground floor was made more generous by adding around 2 metres to the back of the living/dining room, providing a lovely light place to sit overlooking the huge garden via sliding doors. Nikki says: “Now we’ve got it I can’t imagine it without it; it wouldn’t have been the same house.”

Construction and moving in

Another thing that Nikki had to adjust to was unexpected delays in the actual construction. Although the timber frame itself was bolted together by Potton “in a couple of days by two guys,” other aspects weren’t so smooth. Once construction of the footings was completed in July there was a slight lag before the drains were laid and the rest of the job proceeded, although as Nikki says she’d “paid the deposit early.”

Then despite the roof being on before the December winter weather kicked in, because the rendering hadn’t been completed at the back, there was still scaffolding present, which in turn meant the sliding doors couldn’t go in.

This all meant a miserable few cold and damp weeks with a hole at the back of the house until they were installed in January. Nikki, who had been living with Rachel and Michael next door, decided to not only move her furniture in in February, but herself in March, “much to my project manager’s horror, but I was paying a lot for storage!” The chimney and centrepiece inglenook fireplace in the front living room had been built early on, before the frame went up, so Nikki was able to huddle by the fire despite having no central heating and needing to go next door for a shower.

She praises the tradesmen, who knew each other and were able to work well together. For example, the carpenter who finished and installed the doors throughout the property, including several cupboards complete with rustic metal latches “was brilliant, came at an unearthly hour of the morning and lit the fire to warm all the wood in front of it.”

Nikki is also delighted with the Inglenook fireplace “which I always wanted,” although she admits the bricklayers hadn’t come across the pale Cambridgeshire bricks that she and the architect specified. The exterior of the house is also clad with a mix of pinkish and brown bricks matching the local vernacular on the ground floor, and a carefully chosen render on the first floor.

Interiors & landscaping

Internally the house’s key feature is the exposed timber frame, its solidity enhancing the traditional, ‘olde-worlde’ feel of the open plan living area and the upstairs. The knotty, mid-brown Douglas Fir, ‘shaped’ in the factory to look hand-hewn, is literally at the heart of this house’s charm.

The kitchen and living areas are tied together by very attractive honey-coloured limestone-effect ceramic floor tiles, which together with the underfloor heating provide a very warm and welcoming overall impression. Upstairs Karndean flooring has been used in the bathroom as well as on the landing, because of its waterproof as well as hardwearing credentials.

Externally, the landscaping design included the need for a digger to dig holes for small trees to the front. Native wild dogwood and hazel create a new hedge, although a rowan tree “got clobbered by a digger” unfortunately.

A source of savings

A NIBE air source heat pump is installed next to the back door – it was intended to be at the side of the utility but part of complying with planning permission on the clearance meant it had to be moved. Although as a result it blows hot air in Nikki’s face when she opens the door, it operates quietly and efficiently, providing all the hot water for the underfloor heating throughout the property, as well as the showers.

Nikki is delighted that not only does she get “lashings of hot water” from the quietly whirring heat pump, she also gets £120 back from the Government every quarter. She has no other heating costs to worry about apart from a roughly £100 a month electricity bill, and the manifolds for the underfloor heating are all neatly tucked away in cupboards. It’s been so successful that Ofgem asked her to do an energy use audit, although it was something of a hassle as she was away in Australia when they were asking her for information!

The house itself is designed and constructed to provide an energy efficient fabric. The combination of timber frame, insulation (which no surprise is Kingspan as the company owns Potton) and solid wood double-glazed windows, was completed with an impressive U-value of 0.17W/m2K.

Having been through the loss of her husband but also the challenges of a build which included the worst of UK winter weather, Nikki is looking to the future in a house which she is rightly proud of. She can now look out of her bedroom window over a field where she once kept a horse, which is helping her feel at home.

She says: “It’s as nice as I could have imagined. I never thought I’d get to build a house, you dream it as a kid but I never thought I’d do it. It was so nice to have a company involved, I don’t know how people do the whole thing. There’s enough emotional stress without having to work out when the plumber’s going to come.”

Experiencing some warmth in the house provided by the multi fuel burner – lit most mornings at dawn

Seeing several pallets of bricks sitting in a quagmire and covered in ice and snow for several weeks in December and January – and willing them to be on the house!

Project summary
Location: Comberton, Cambridgeshire
Land cost: £150,000
Build cost: £300,000
Current value: £650,000

Foundation Groundwork: Hereditas Ltd.
01462 475196 / 07802 373031
hereditas(Replace this parenthesis with the @ sign)

Roofing: Manor Roofing
01462 743150 / 07831 870532
ian.wilkie(Replace this parenthesis with the @ sign)

Brickwork, Landscaping: Pryor construction
07712 051928 / 07885 516561
heatherlewispryor(Replace this parenthesis with the @ sign)

Electrics: EBS Ltd
01767 683836 / 07868 004284
john(Replace this parenthesis with the @ sign)

Dry Lining, Screeding and Insulation: Colin Dry Lining
01767 681213 / 07860 701212
alistair_collin(Replace this parenthesis with the @ sign)

Plumbing and Heating: Pro Heat
01234 764088 / 07831 466778
proheat(Replace this parenthesis with the @ sign)

Carpentry Timber: Constructions Ltd
01462 476199
elaine(Replace this parenthesis with the @ sign)