In a world where time is money, builder Paul Rimmer and his family have shown how to construct a sustainable home
The exterior is a nod to Paul’s work with bricks, but also helps the house blend with nearby farm buildings
Open-plan living is a new concept for the Rimmers, who have moved to the new-build from a restored farmhouse
You may recall a recent episode of Grand Designs in which Kevin McCloud strolls down a country lane pondering: ‘What happens when you take a traditional builder, someone who’s used bricks all their life, and ask them to build a new house out of wood to the highest possible ecological standards? Is it possible to teach an old dog new tricks?’
The answer, of course, is a resounding yes. In this case, McCloud asks the question about Paul Rimmer, who, along with his wife Carol and a team of skilled craftsmen, recently constructed a new-build, ecological home that has a very interesting story behind it. Near retirement, Paul had spent some time mulling over the idea of one final job – a forever home. The family lived in a restored farmhouse just outside Bolton and also owned 2.8 acres of land opposite – a potential spot to build a new home using the skills he’d acquired over decades of building.
However, the land was on a green belt and, therefore, the odds of acquiring planning permission for a modern home were slim to none. ‘We were forever being told that we’d never get it,’ says Paul. But one morning he woke up and thought, ‘why not?’ He paid the few hundred pounds to open the case file and see what would happen, thus beginning a journey that would span several years. ‘In two years we went from being told we had no chance to getting planning approval,’ Paul says. In the end, success was down to a design that would emit zero carbon by using stringent building methods and sustainable materials.
Folding doors in the living room allow lots of light in and offer far-reaching views of the countryside
The structure uses 150mm of insulation on every wall with no gaps; every external wall is covered with a vapour barrier on the inside and a breathable membrane on the outside. The house uses photovoltaic panels integrated into the roof, a biomass boiler and is oriented to benefit from the sun all day long. As a result, the finished two-storey structure is as close to Passivhaus standards as is possible in a building of this scale, but it was a team effort long before the property began. ‘The architect was wonderful,’ reflects Paul. ‘We worked closely with him and the council planning officer on the case.
The local councillors were also very supportive and we got there in the end. So the process of getting permission was quite an experience in itself.’ Then the long and sometimes arduous process of building began. Very early in the project it became clear that Paul’s main focus was build quality; where possible he wanted things to be made by hand and on-site rather than using prefabricated elements, including the building’s wooden frame. Work often had to halt on rainy days and there were moments when his decision to build in this time-consuming way seemed foolhardy. But the project was as much about Paul’s integrity as a builder as saving time and money; he felt very strongly about using qualified craftsmen.
What’s more, Paul saved lots of money doing things his way, which contradicts the general conviction that prefabricated buildings are cheaper and faster. Several local pre-fab firms quoted that a frame would cost around £170,000, whereas he actually paid about £100,000 to build everything on-site in the way he knows best. ‘The quality is far superior,’ he adds. At 430sqm, the house is very spacious. It is spread over two floors in an upside-down design, with four bedrooms and storage on the ground floor and all the living spaces, including an impressive open-plan kitchen and dining area, situated upstairs to capitalise on the sweeping views of the surrounding countryside.
The design of the upside-down house means you can see right across the house in the upstairs open-plan areas
It’s fair to say that construction got off to a rocky start when Paul’s team had to stop and start several times during a complicated and fraught excavation process at the beginning of the build – with costs spiralling. ‘We didn’t have a set budget. We didn’t know how much things would cost because of the excavation – it was an unknown,’ he explains, and finances became dicey toward the end when work halted while the family waited for a loan to finish the project.
Initially, Paul projected that the build would cost £350,000. By the end of it, which took 17 months from the start in June 2015, the entire project cost £550,000 all in, with the landscaping, garage and terrace railings yet to be completed. Needless to say, there were good days and bad days. ‘There were a lot of bad days, mainly because of the weather,’ says Paul. ‘During the winter it felt as though the rain and flooding would never stop. It got to me. But then we’d have a day when something really positive would happen and improve morale,’ he says. Often, those were the days when the film cameras arrived.
When McCloud came to the site, work virtually stopped. ‘Kevin likened the house to an Italian castle or a fortress,’ says Paul, pleased. ‘He was very helpful. I talked to him a lot about the design, especially the staircase,’ he adds. The layout was actually altered to include some of McCloud’s suggestions. There were days when filming was a bit of a nuisance. ‘The production team needed to do a lot of preparation, when I would’ve preferred to get on with things,’ Paul recalls.
But on balance, he thinks filming the journey gave his team the momentum it needed to push on. Paul and Carol didn’t use a project manager or quantity surveyor – they did it all themselves – something that isn’t wise unless, like Paul, you’ve got years of experience under your belt and unlimited time. ‘Things do run away with you,’ says Paul. ‘Carol and I would spend hours on the internet finding the best deals, and we negotiated prices ourselves. We had nobody to fall back on, which was stressful at times, because there is so much to think about with a big job like this.’
Which begs the question: if Paul had it to do again, would he do anything differently? ‘No. The people I had on site were super. But I would pray for better weather!’
Photography: Andrew Wall
Article correct at time of print: April 2017