Brick By Brick: Self-Build Case Study

John and Joan Barnes built themselves an ideal home at the bottom of their garden. Debbie Jeffery reports
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In 1965 I had my own building company, and designed and built a stone-clad house for my family," says John Barnes, 75. "We had a village plot overlooking fields, and acquired even more land when a new bypass was built close by and I asked if I could buy some of the wasteland they had used for spoil behind our property. I bought myself a JCB and became quite expert at terracing our 1.5 acres, which Joan landscaped."

In 1965 I had my own building company, and designed and built a stone-clad house for my family," says John Barnes, 75. "We had a village plot overlooking fields, and acquired even more land when a new bypass was built close by and I asked if I could buy some of the wasteland they had used for spoil behind our property. I bought myself a JCB and became quite expert at terracing our 1.5 acres, which Joan landscaped."

Over time, the couple began to find it increasingly difficult to take care of so much land and decided to try and build a more manageable house - something they had discussed over a number of years. Their son David is an architect, and company director of architectural practice the Genesis Design Studio. John and Joan asked if he would design them a new home in the garden, suitable for their retirement.

The new house has been designed to exploit the slight slope of the ground and the southern aspect. A partial basement was built to maximise and overcome the sloping site, and the mass of the brick and block building helps to control daily and seasonal temperature swings.

Built over three levels, the house appears to be a single storey bungalow from the entrance, with only a few square windows punched into the masonry to avoid directly overlooking their previous home. The rear faces south and has extensive glazing to make the most of the views and passive solar gain from the sun. Patio doors open onto a balcony at ground level, with all habitable rooms arranged on the south and fully glazed.

A two-storey-high conservatory is also incorporated on the southern side of the house, and door openings into this space allow warmth from the sun to work its way up into each level of the main building, with automatic temperature- and rain-sensitive opening vents in the conservatory to prevent overheating. A Velux window above the back staircase also draws warm air up and out of the building to cool it when necessary.

Ground-floor living rooms benefit from the wall of glass and a full-length balcony, part of which is external, with a central section contained inside the conservatory. John and Joan use the basement conservatory as a sun lounge, which is overlooked by an internal balcony where they can sit and eat breakfast.

"On the whole we managed to agree about most things, although David would have liked us to keep the ground floor living space totally open-plan," says John. "But we decided to separate the sitting room from the kitchen and dining areas to allow us to use the rooms independently."

The three bedrooms and two bathrooms utilise the full shape of the roof, and have high sloping ceilings and exposed glulam beams, with a strip of Velux windows which reach down to the floor - affording views south across the Wiltshire Downs.

When John and Joan built their previous house, they had lived on-site in a caravan, and John had undertaken all of the building work - even making the doors and windows in his workshop. This time, however, he and Joan were able to stay in their own home while the build progressed.

"We intended to employ builders and subcontractors to build the house for us, but it didn't quite turn out as planned," says John. "Our son-in-law did most of the brickwork, but by the time we got up to roof level, the builders were scratching their heads over how to bolt glulam (glued laminated timber) beams together. We were getting frustrated by the lack of progress and, as I'm a qualified joiner, I decided to help them out. I ended up doing quite a lot of the internal carpentry myself as well."

The house is highly insulated and has a solar panel to assist with heating the hot water, which is expected to reduce costs by around 50 per cent. Zoned underfloor heating is used throughout, which allows lower water temperatures in some of the heating circuits and suits the highly energy-efficient condensing boiler. Rainwater is collected from the roof in an underground garden chamber to be filtered and recycled for toilets, the washing machine and garden-watering, saving a significant amount on bills.

A continuous ventilation system with heat recovery prevents heat loss, but also substantially reduces draughts and moisture content. This improves air quality which, coupled with the use of tiled and laminate flooring, reduces the occurrence of house dust mites which could trigger Joan's asthma.

"We started out wanting a smaller, more manageable property for our retirement, but have actually ended up with a larger house than before," says John. "The layout allows us flexibility, and although we currently use the basement level as an office and workshop with a conservatory sunroom, this could easily become bedrooms or a self-contained unit, depending on our needs. I'm no spring chicken - although I still feel like one - but our self-build project was certainly an interesting challenge at my time of life."

A full version of this article appears in the latest issue of Homebuilding & Renovating magazine, priced £3.50. A special trial subscription of four issues for readers of The Independent costs £10. Call 01527 834 435 Monday to Friday, 9am-5.30pm or visit www.homebuilding.co.uk/offers/indep for details

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