Me and my home: The natural way

Alex Mattis meets a couple who went totally country - right down to the reed-bed sewers
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The Independent Online

Norman and Ann Stanier live in Dragon House, an eco home they built in Herefordshire. Together they run Dragon Orchard, a traditional fruit farm

About 15 years ago, Annie and I were driving back from a big New Year's Eve party when we started having one of those discussions. Where would we like to be during the Nineties? We decided we wanted to be running a small, independent business in Herefordshire.

So we moved back here to take over my parents' orchard, which had been in my family for 70 years. As my parents were still in the farmhouse, we needed somewhere to live on site. We wanted a low-impact house that would sit comfortably in the countryside at large.

We were coming back to an unspoilt part of Britain and wanted to do everything we could to keep it that way. It sounds a bit grand but, if you're going to be a responsible citizen, you need to live and build as carefully as you can. So we decided to self-build using ecologically sound methods.

Our first obstacle was gaining planning permission. But we knew this was going to be the case, so we prepared our ground carefully. We needed an architect because, although we had great ideas about how we wanted the house to be, it needed to stand up. Finding the right one was tricky. Our first architect thought it very strange for a client to want to manage their own project. The second set himself up as being knowledgeable about self-build, but knew about as much as we did.

The experience made us think carefully about the kind of spaces we wanted. We didn't want four walls, a roof and a dining room here, a kitchen there and so on. We wanted something much more flexible, flowy and organic. As far as possible, we've used natural materials - wood, stone, glass and slate. We haven't used any plastics or laminates. We wanted to use materials that improve as they age. All our paints are natural and we avoided synthetic glues which, if you read the labels, aren't terribly pleasant to be around.

The architect we eventually went with had some ideas we'd never have thought of ourselves. He suggested we insulate the house using recycled newsprint. Most other insulation is oil-based. It's so effective we hardly ever need to turn the heating on.

We've also installed a reed-bed sewage disposal system, which is a natural way of breaking down effluent. It means we don't discharge dirty water into water courses. It works brilliantly, but it was a leap in the dark. At the time, we didn't know anyone, apart from Prince Charles, who had one - and we didn't know him.

Some people who self-build do all the manual work themselves. But that takes a long time. We had a growing family and wanted to live in the house. So self-build for us was project managing. We employed the electricians, the joiners - everybody.

This has several advantages - the main one being cost. A builder will employ subcontractors but mark their labour up at 40 per cent. It also means you have direct control over the quality. You develop a relationship with people, so know they're not going to cut corners.

One disadvantage is you need to be on site. You have to be an organiser, a gopher and a chaser-upper of orders. Where's this? Why hasn't that come? But that's all part of the fun. We can now look at this house and know who built what and how it all fits together. It gives us a close connection with our home, because we didn't just arrive and there it was.

We had to live in a mobile home for 20 months with our two boys, who were seven and 11 at the time. They loved it - they thought it was a real adventure. And you have to sacrifice holidays, because you need to be around. But there's a fabulous end in view - eventually you're going to live there. It's challenging and can be frustrating, but most of the time it's exciting, invigorating and creative.

There are some prerequisites to building your own house, but not many. You don't have to own land - you can buy a building plot. There are lists of them on the internet and in self-build magazines. We're not skilled craftspeople - we're just like the average householder. Building Your Own Home by Murray Armor was our bible. If you open that and do what the guy says, you can build your own house.

The whole project cost £130,000, around a third less than if we'd had it built for us. It's much better value than buying a traditional house, because you're saving costs all the way. You get what you want, and at much better quality. These days we can't imagine living anywhere else.

It's an exciting time for the orchard, too. Originally we wanted to run it as my parents had done. But selling to the wholesaler became impossible and we were forced to make changes. So Annie invented a scheme called Cropsharers. For an annual subscription of £300, people can visit the orchard four times a year. We lay on all sorts of talks and activities, then in autumn they can take home a car boot full of apples, cider, jams, chutneys and other produce. It's been so successful, Annie won Country Living's Enterprising Rural Woman award.

We've learned that you can do anything you think you can. It's not rocket science. I'm convinced that anyone who wants to can project-manage their own house. It's the art of the possible.

For details of Cropsharers, visit www.dragonorchard.co.uk

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