So Far...

An Eccentric Anomaly: Ed Davies's Blog

For anybody who hasn't corresponded with me recently it must be a bit of a puzzle what's going on with my house build project. Or, to put it a bit more succinctly, WTF have I been up to? I'll start from the beginning...

Having had a couple of expeditions to the west coast of Scotland (Ullapool area and Skye mostly) in 2009 and early 2010 I decided that the only way to find a plot was to be resident in the area. Consequently I finished off the various tidying up jobs I had in progress on my house in High Wycombe and put it on the market in April 2010 with the sale completing one day at the end of July. I slept that night in my car in a layby by the side of Loch Lomond.

I first looked around further on Skye and the west coast but quickly became depressed by the uniformity of the architecture. There were a few interesting houses but they were mostly hidden away and I got the impression that the planners liked it that way. Not ideal if you want to build an unusual house which has a lot of exposure to the southern sky.

Making a trip to the Scottish Building Expo in Inverness in early August I decided to take the scenic route round the north coast. I'd previously not really considered that area but found that actually I really quite liked most of it and started to concentrate my attention there with a few days spent looking around on Orkney as well.

I fairly quickly found a plot that ticked all the boxes on the east coast of Caithness just south of Wick (between the A99 and the sea). I didn't rush into things, though, as the market seemed to be moving very slowly and I thought it was worth some contemplation first.

In the middle of October I rented a traditional croft house near Tongue on the north coast of Sutherland and dug in there for the winter with the idea of making sure I hadn't made a terrible mistake moving up that way. It was the house on the left:

That first winter (2010/11) was notable for the length of time the snow lay. This made getting my van out pretty difficult and I was glad of my neighbours, going out in their 4×4, getting bread for me on a number of occasions.

Still, I was mostly pretty comfortable there though my first solar warm air panel post has a few comments on the subject.

It took me a while to emerge from hibernation in the spring. By this time I had decided that I liked the Tongue area so I started looking for plots around there.

Over the winter and into the spring I'd had a series of hospital visits for problems with my eyes. At first I thought a few eye drops would sort the matter almost completely but gradually came to realise that things could be a little bit more serious. There's nothing that shouldn't be manageable but still it feels like there's slightly more than just the normal background risk of not being able to drive at some point. That pointed in the direction of Caithness where there's at least some chance of public transport.

Also, the irony of building an “eco-house” (hate the term) somewhere which pretty much requires the use of a car was not lost on me.

On the other hand, there are a lot of plots for sale around Caithness but many are surrounded by houses which really aren't very interesting and look rather “plonked” into the landscape with no feeling of attachment to it.

The plot south of Wick I had found only had one little bit up against the A99 decrofted. Daft - why would you want to build next to a relatively busy road when you could built facing south and east towards the sea? Estate agents and planners were not very forthcoming on what the situation really was so I left it for a while. It's now been sold though it was “under offer” for ages so I imagine somebody else had fun sorting this out.

Meanwhile, the second set of eye drops the consultant put me on seems to have the situation under control so I became less worried about that aspect and found a plot near Tongue which seemed pretty suitable (in this area).

I went to talk to the builders I had in mind to make me a water-tight and insulated shell. I like their construction methods (timber and OSB boxes filled with sheep's wool) and got on fine with the people but was put off by the price and their attitude to NHBC-type certificates so I was a bit back to square one.

I did a bit of sketching of alternative designs (going back to a build-up I had in mind before I first came across them) in November then rather hibernated for December and the first part of January.

In mid January I woke up and started making moves with respect to the plot in Tongue and also talking to another builder in the Ullapool area who could be a good source of a timber frame. Then I found the plot in Tongue was being taken off the market for the time being hence this Green Building Forum discussion about another hillside plot nearby.

Later it became clear that the first Tongue area plot would not be coming back on the market.

Actually, the hillside plots also went. I suspect that was just because they hadn't sold in the time it took until the existing planning permission lapsed in January and that they expect to get PP and put them back on next time the market picks up.

So back to Caithness. I found a plot I really liked the look of about 5 km NW of Wick in the north corner of a field sloping gently down to the south off a small country road right next to a little rural telephone exchange (broadband!). I wasted three weeks getting the completely useless estate agents to answer e-mail and finally get the vendor to admit that the supposed planning permission for this plot had never actually been submitted.

I spent March and early April looking at quite a few plots in Caithness but didn't find one that particularly appealed so widened the area of search.

In mid-April I had a trip to Orkney to look at a little plot. It was quite nice with an abandoned/ruinous house on it in the middle of fields with a clear sky to the south and little chance of anything being built near it.

I took a while thinking about that one and looking into the issues with building on Orkney: browsing planning guidance and existing planning applications and looking into other “odd” (e.g., strawbale) houses on the islands. The more I thought about it the more I came to like the idea, though not without a few concerns: mostly the extra cost of getting building stuff to Orkney and a planning restriction preventing building in spring and early summer (due to bird breeding on an adjacent area).

In mid-June I went over to Orkney again to talk to the estate agents. It was not a wonderful day. Firstly, there was nobody at the estate agents who knew about property (they're mostly solicitors, as is common in Scotland, and it was the property chap's week off) then when I got home I received a phone call from my landlady informing me that the sale of the house I was renting was now progressing (it had been stalled for many months) and therefore she was giving me a month's notice to move out.

Panic ensued, needing to find a new home but not really being sure where. The first half of the notice period was spent on further investigation of the Orkney plot - particularly, a meeting on the plot with the vendor which seemed to go well. The main point of discussion was whether he'd be open to my purchase of an option to buy to allow for detailed planning permission to be sought without too much risk. He was, assuming it was all done through solicitors.

The second half mostly involved renting a storage container, moving most of my stuff to it and disposing of other odds and ends which weren't really worth moving (e.g., my solar thermal box was dismantled with most of the debris going to my neighbours where it'll probably finish up contributing to the housing of chickens).

I moved out of the Tongue house in mid-July. After a long-weekend family visit to England I went to Orkney and did some measurements of the plot in order to produce more detailed drawings to show the planners my proposed house design in context.

In the process of doing that I became somewhat overwhelmed by the though of just how long the build could take. In particular, the restriction on the building season for that plot could easily have seen the whole project push out into 2014. Renting accommodation is financially painful enough anyway but doing so while twiddling thumbs waiting for birds to breed felt like too much.

In early August I made an offer on the Orkney plot whilst continuing to look for convertible houses and for plots. After a few days the vendor came back to say he wanted considerably more for the plot - so that knocked that idea on the head. With any plausible increase there'd be plenty of plots in Caithness at similar prices without the extra costs of building on an island.

Since then I've been back looking around Caithness for plots. I now have one (actually, a pair) in mind which I rather like but have some concerns about the ground (it's close to being a peat bog in places and it's difficult to work out what the underlining sandstone is really like) and interpretation of the outline planning (PPIP) conditions.

Last week I borrowed the services of an experienced digger driver to have a look at the ground conditions but it was a bit inconclusive without tools to see what's below the surface. He mostly works on the north coast of Sutherland where the geology is a bit different so things weren't as obvious to him as they might have been on his normal patch.

Earlier this week I had a wander round the parts of the site where the PPIP indicates the access track and second plot would be, pushing a wrecking bar into the ground. Mixed news: some bits had really solid feeling stone very close to the surface though others were pretty deep. What surprised me is that the drier part where the house would go actually had less well defined rock. Perhaps that should have been expected if it makes the ground a bit more permeable.

I went to talk to the planners yesterday but they'd prefer to deal with the matter via a pre-planning application. Oh, well.

I also talked to the estate agents, just to check there was nobody else looking at the plot at the moment and to note my continued interest. They arranged a meeting with the vendor at the plot in the later afternoon which went well. In particular, his description of the background to the plot made sense and he's happy for me to do some further investigation of the ground conditions.

We'll see...