Victor and Helen Day are self build veterans, having created six of their previous houses during the last 35 years.
However, this is the couple’s first venture into the oak frame method, which earned them an accolade for Best Oak Frame House at the 2018 Build It Awards. Victor, who jointly owns a construction business with his brother, has been a bricklayer since he was in his teens and wanted to explore a new challenge.
“Helen and I have always lived in new houses that I’ve developed in brick and block,” he says. “This time around, we wanted a property with the character that comes with oak, plus space to accommodate Helen’s parents and my office.”
Back in summer 2015, when Victor first spotted this plot, the couple were quite happy in their current home and had no intention of starting self build number seven. However the site, once part of a horticultural nursery, had a lot going for it.
Situated behind a house on a quiet residential street, it benefitted from expansive views onto open farmland. “It’s hard to come by an individual patch of land of this size, for this price, near the village. Plus, it was only a five-minute drive from where we were living,” Victor explains.
“Helen and I really liked the views and the space, and the pond with an old willow tree in the middle. We knew it wouldn’t be available for long – it had planning for two houses and had come back onto the market after a previous sale fell through – so we decided to go for it.”
Once the couple’s offer was accepted that August, Helen began seeking inspiration for their new home, looking for something a little bit different. She found herself drawn towards pictures of oak frame cottages, liking the complete contrast in look and feel to the modern houses they’d always lived in before.
Meanwhile, Victor attended a pre-planning meeting with the council to see if he could change the existing consent from two houses to one. “There was always a chance they’d say no,” says Victor.
“My thinking was that if the local authority refused, I would have treated the land purchase as a commercial project through our building company, developed both houses and sold them. Fortunately, however, they did say yes.”
The couple stood on the plot to see where the sun fell and liked the idea of incorporating a glazed garden room to look out across the outdoor area, fields and pond.
They sketched out a few ideas and decided an oak frame house was definitely the route they wanted to pursue – and worth the additional build costs compared to standard brick and block.
An online search led them to Border Oak’s website and they instantly liked the style of the Pearmain Cottage. “We were drawn to the pitched roof and cream render with the oak detail in the porch and windows,” says Victor. “The appearance was exactly how we wanted our house to look as we came up the drive.”
Although Border Oak was located a four hour drive away, Victor and Helen were keen to meet with the company to discuss their ideas about adapting the design. By now Helen wanted this to be their last project, so future-proofing was a top priority. The property would require an annexe for Helen’s parents to live in and an office for Victor.
“Our trip was well worth the journey,” recalls Helen. “Later on, one of the team came and did a site visit before they presented their design – it was spot on first time.”
The alterations to the original Pearmain Cottage layout increased room sizes in the Days’ house, creating a larger boot room, the oak glazed garden room and bigger master bedroom directly above.
The annexe is completely self-contained, separated from the house by the garages and office, which are built in brick and block. The barn-style exterior looks like an old building that’s been converted. Border Oak also added a number of design details that the couple are really taken with.
“Instead of one window in the master suite, we have two Juliet balconies,” says Helen. “One overlooks the whole garden and the other faces out towards the pond – they’re both lovely.”
Helen and Victor asked Border Oak to handle their planning application and drawings were submitted in November 2015. In January the couple received approval without any queries. As the housing market was slow, they put their previous home on the market expecting the sale to take a while, but it went quickly, pushing the couple into a caravan on site in April, just as the project started.
“We bought a second-hand tourer that was uncomfortably hot in summer and freezing in winter, and we lived there until the build was finished the following February,” Helen recalls. “My mum and dad had sold their bungalow quickly, too, and my daughter kindly had them to stay.”
The whole project became a family affair. Victor and his brother, Vince, who is also a business partner, brought in their own subcontractors to undertake the electrics, plumbing and carpentry works.
The pair have been builders for nearly 40 years. They learnt the bricklaying trade from their father, whose construction firm, Day & Hammond Buildings, they inherited.
The brothers spent six weeks preparing the groundworks, with the odd day back with the business if they were needed. Since the site was sloped, 660 tons of clean soil were brought in to level the garden area before the services pipework was laid.
As the Days came to finish this stage, however, they realised the new level didn’t have the fall needed to connect to the mains sewer. “We installed a small pumping station for an extra £1,500, so all the waste can be fed to the mains,” says Victor. “The extra cost was annoying but one of those things that happens on projects.”
The most stressful part of the build for Victor and Vince was building the foundation slab to the exact calculations for the oak structure to sit on. “With a brick and block build you have a lot
more flexibility,” says Victor.
“I was out of my comfort zone and there were a few times when I needed to check a detail with Border Oak, who were always at the end of the phone, happy to speak to me. We all breathed a sigh of relief when they came in late May to check the slab, which, thanks to Vince, was spot on.”
WHAT WE LEARNED
BEING THE BUILDER and the client was difficult. I often thought there was more time in the day than there actually was to get jobs finished.
SIT DOWN WITH THE TRADES and talk through how you want the house to look. However, it’s important to listen as well, because sometimes they come up with really good ideas that you might not have considered before!
KEEP COMMUNICATING – even with one another! We tried to colour match a paint shade that Helen wanted. We’d decorated nearly all the rooms in the house before she returned home and said the colour wasn’t right – and we had to start again…
Soon Border Oak were back again. They spent six weeks erecting the frame and wrapping it in structural insulated panels (SIPs). Vince went back to full-time work in the business, while Victor stayed on to construct the office and two garages. When it came to tiling the roof, the brothers had estimated a six-week turnaround.
“We discovered that handmade clay units take longer to fit because they’re not a uniform shape, and we needed more roof battens to hang them to,” says Victor. “This phase took 12 weeks in the end and added to our labour costs. But it was definitely worth the trouble and expense, as the roof is an important feature in the finished appearance of our new property.”
With the house watertight by autumn 2016, it was largely business as usual for Victor as his trades got on with first and second fix.
“The carpenters were really good,” says Helen. “They came up with some great ideas, like installing the useful cupboard under the main stairs, complete with a secret door that you can’t see, and adding the shelves that are in the library area.”
Helen took on the project management of the interior finishes, sourcing the Shaker-style kitchen from a local firm, which has since closed, and Burlington bathroom sanitaryware from MKM Building Supplies. She kept a close eye on progress and at one point asked Victor to regrout the floor tiles.
“I’d been ill for a few days and missed the grouting,” she explains. “The colour was all wrong and looked awful. I got a very black look from Victor when I said he had to scrape it all out and start again, but I really couldn’t live with it.”
Victor and his team worked tirelessly throughout the process to keep the project moving. Their hard work paid off, as Victor estimates a saving of around £200,000 with all the free labour
he and Vince put in, and their loyal network of local trades.
“The project was stressful at times, especially when I was needed back in the business, but I’ve got some great subcontractors I can rely on and they more than pulled out the stops,” says Victor.
“We began with a build budget of around £375,000 and we weren’t far off that by the end. We spent more than we expected to level the ground and extra on the roof tiles, and the total took us to £406,000.”
The couple moved into their new home in February 2017, which has recently won more recognition having been highly commended in the Best Individual New Home category at the East Midlands LABC (Local Authority Building Control) Excellence Awards.
“This is our ultimate house – it’s our forever home – and there’s nothing we would change,” Helen concludes. “We’d recommend Border Oak, they were brilliant, and it’s been a very satisfying project for us both.”