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Our Self Build Eco Home: buying a plot and obtaining planning

Updated: May 23, 2023

Our proposed new dwelling

Bring on 2022! We have just received planning permission for our own self-build home in Bristol and are super excited to start building. Before that though, I want to share a summary of the project so far. I will be writing a blog throughout the build, but the site acquisition, design development, and planning application are interesting too - particularly for this challenging site.

The back garden site amongst neighbouring houses

Discovering the site

It has been a two-year process to get to this point, and we (me and my partner Amy) had our doubts. The process of purchasing land that does not already have planning permission has been complex and a little nerve-racking. The site in St George, Bristol is the back garden of an existing property; surrounded an all sides by neighbouring houses. The owner had attempted to gain planning permission for a dwelling on the land but this was refused. I won't hold back here; it was refused because the design was insensitive, unimaginative, and clearly inappropriate. He really should have employed an architect...

The refused planning application design (not by GreenTrace Architect!)

Noticing the failed planning application, and the potential that a more appropriate design could unlock, we dropped a letter into the property and began discussions about purchasing the land.

Site acquisition

With a fair amount agreed, we spent the next year-and-a-half fiddling around with the legal paperwork, before sealing the deal in August 2021. The conveyancing was difficult for a variety of reasons:

  • The vendors solicitors had incorrectly drawn the site boundary - a recipe for future disputes

  • The vendor had to re-mortgage his property during lockdown

  • We wanted a few restrictions placed on the existing property to avoid the potential of overlooking into the land that would destroy any potential of getting planning permission (a dormer window to be specific which comes under permitted development).

Nevertheless, we all got through it amicably and learnt a lot in the process. I think choosing a solicitor who was more familiar with conveyancing of odd parcels of investment land would have been beneficial.

The site - looking towards the adjacent flats to the north

Concept design & pre-application

The long time it took for the conveyancing gave us the chance to dream and worry about the idea in equal measure. A real benefit of this though, was that we had time to communicate with the planning department and building control on a variety of issues. We even submitted a pre-application enquiry to the planning department in the knowledge that pre-apps are not published to the public. In the pre-app we submitted a revised design that aimed to navigate the previous reasons for refusal. The planning officer agreed that:

  • Overlooking issues were overcome by the placement of windows at first floor and the atrium.

  • Daylight issues were overcome by the form and scale of the proposal- ensuring that the 25-degree rule was maintained, and the vertical sky component calculations (in line with the BRE good practice guide on site layout planning for daylight and sunlight) were acceptable.

  • Overshadowing issues were overcome by demonstrating that the stepped form of the proposal helped to reduce overshadowing to an acceptable extent (a change in sunlight levels of less than 1%!!).

  • Appearance issues were overcome - it's a modest and attractive house.

  • Amenity issues were overcome by locating the dwelling on one side (right up against the flats to the north) thereby allowing more space for a garden and separation distances between houses.

  • Green infrastructure issues were overcome by the addition of green roofs and a decent sized garden.

  • Parking issues were overcome by demonstrating that the site is in sustainable location close to public transport links.

Street elevation of the proposal complimenting the context

3D image showing the stepped form to reduce overshadowing

It is certainly not a straightforward plot, but we were delighted to hear that the planning officer would likely accept our proposal if a full planning application were to be made. Hearing this, we wanted to get on with it!

Planning application

As soon as the land was ours, we submitted a robust and comprehensive full planning application to Bristol City Council. The application included various reports including a Sustainability Statement, Design and Access Statement, Daylight and Sunlight Assessment, and Drainage Report; all carried out by GreenTrace Architect.

Whilst the application was pending a decision, we used the waiting time to clean up the site (it had been used as a dumping ground for years) and introduce ourselves to the neighbours. We received 9 letters of support and 1 objection. Many of the neighbours were keen to see the site developed and were pleased that we had cleaned it up.

The site after we cleared all the rubbish away

After an almost 2-month delay, we received planning consent for our new home in early January. We went straight to the pub.

Next steps

But this is just the beginning! We now need to obtain approval from Building Control and actually built it.... and fund it.

The Building Control application should be relatively straightforward. The key conundrum at this stage is the foundations which must consider the following:

  • The volume change potential of the soil due to the location of the proposed soakaway in close proximity to the house which would create 'heave' on the foundations that would cause the building to move.

  • The possible existence of past coal mining.

  • The structural integrity of the flats to the north and the party wall issues that relate to excavating adjacent to neighbouring buildings.

  • Reducing muck-away on site due to the high cost and relatively tight access

Digging the trial pit for percolation tests to determine the soakaway size

At this stage, it is envisaged that a reinforced raft foundation would be the most appropriate (subject mainly to the volume change potential of the soil). This type of foundation system reduces the amount of excavation required; being shallower than the existing foundations of the flats to the north, and thereby ensuring they are not affected. The fantastic structural engineer George Holland from Element Structures will be making sure that both new and existing buildings will be structurally sound.

The Build

We are lucky enough to have a good friend who is a very capable builder, and are super grateful that Rupert is keen to run the site up until a water-tight shell. I will be there too no doubt; helping, learning, and loving the time away from the computer. We can't really afford the full build, so we are relying upon ourselves to do much of the later work; its all part of the fun too. It will be a timber build with natural materials...of course. A very similar system to that specified by us for Fawley Eco house.

Current (work in progress) technical drawings showing the ground floor plan. The walls are timber with wood fibre and blown cellulose.

I'll discuss budget, self-build mortgages, warranties, site insurance, and professional consultants certificates in another post - once we have figured all that annoying/essential stuff out! Big respect to Amy for taking charge of that and much of the legal well as taking this leap of faith with me!

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