A low-impact house in the Peak District
This self-build overcame planning issues to become a memorable Grand Designs project
This sustainable build, which first aired on Grand Designs in October 2017, presented a unique set of challenges for self-builders Saffron and Fred Baker.
Ecologist Fred Baker has been familiar with the site where his house stands since he was a boy. There was once a dairy here, but all that remained when Fred and wife Saffron considered buying the land was a concrete barn. The plot sloped steeply so it was unsuitable for grazing, and the cows had wandered off to pastures new.
His family have lived in the area for generations and Fred always wanted to build his own sustainable, low-impact house. The result encapsulates his philosophy: it’s a three-bedroom earth shelter house, built into the side of the valley, surrounded on three sides by ancient Derbyshire soil.
This form of design was pioneered by retired British architect Arthur Quarmby, who once built a house in the Peak District himself. He was kind enough to offer informal advice to the couple during the early part of the design process. Another architect then undertook the conceptual part of the work but was unable to take the project through to completion.
Fred and Saffron were at a loss, and worried about where they would find an architect to finish their home. However, they found the answer at the Grand Designs Live exhibition in Birmingham. ‘Saffron recognised an exhibitor’s telephone number that had a local dialling code – it was the design and build company Arkhi, which is based in Congleton, Cheshire. We liked the stand and got chatting,’ recalls Fred with a palpable sense of relief.
The architects had to have nerves of steel. Despite being supported by the Campaign to Protect Rural England, planning permission took seven years, four planning applications and one appeal. Eventually the planning committee realised that innovative architecture should be welcomed and far from doing harm, would enhance the Peak District National Park. The house is made of concrete, and clad in larch and local stone so that it blends in with the landscape.
Saffron worked as a communications specialist at the time, although her job for few years previous has been as the build liaison officer. She was in charge of controlling the budget, and obtaining the £600,000 necessary to start the project was fraught with delays.
‘The mortgage was granted on the basis that as long as the loan-to-value ratio was 80/20, 80 per cent of the value would be released – with an additional revaluation option.’ Saffron says it’s vital to choose an effective contractor to help with this aspect. ‘Our input was coupled with the support of Arkhi, who helped with cash f low planning and a “no surprises” attitude to the invoicing process.’
For a year during the build the family lived with Fred’s mother, Chrissie, a retired teacher who lives nearby. Saffron’s father, Alec, a retired manager for the NSPCC children’s charity, was also a huge support, helping Fred on site most weekends.
These include all the locals who helped. Nearby farmers quarried out tons of limestone to make a start on the site. But the couple were frustrated as the excavation work went at the pace of the slow-worms that had to be carefully removed from the soil. ‘Certain subcontractors lacked the alacrity of the excavation team and we found that annoying, especially when this started to cause serious delays,’ explains Fred. ‘The groundwork was estimated at three months, but took nine.’
The family are now happily putting down roots in their new house. As they look at their achievement, what advice would Fred and Saffron give to others thinking of embarking upon a similar project?
‘Don’t have a Plan B, and just keep at it,’ says Fred. ‘Knowledge is power – go to see other projects and talk to everyone you meet. Contact the technical departments of suppliers yourself to understand what’s involved.’ Saffron says: ‘And take control of the money, not just the build budget but everything. Make sandwiches and take a flask – and the finances will look after themselves.’
Project started: 2003, but building work didn’t begin until 2015
Project completed: September 2017
Build cost: £885,000
Size: 228 sq m