As Editorial Director of Future Plc, the publishing house behind Homebuilding and Renovating magazine
, I write, talk and give advice about building and renovating homes all day, every day – and have been doing so for 20 years or so. I’ve also done my fair share of building and renovating, both new builds from scratch and extensions to older properties. So, when it came to that most important of homes – the family home that our kids will grow up in – I was keen to make this really count.
If you’re doing a project like this, inevitably – unless you’re a lottery winner – compromise will rear its ugly head. You’ll be forced to choose between two things that are both good, or limit your ambition in some respect. That’s fine, in many ways, constraints draw out really clever solutions, but I’ve learned that some things are worth compromising on more than others.
You end up coming up with a priority list. In the case of our family home (it’s not a ‘forever’ home, I don’t think you can ever really say that) I wanted to make sure we got two things absolutely right above all else: the overall design and the basic fabric of the building itself.
We were not helped in this, in that we were working with a very quirky 1960s detached house. However, it had everything we wanted from a home at this stage of our lives (great rural village location with a good pub, short walk to the brilliant local school, a large footprint on a generous site with fields front and back) apart from two things: the exterior design was ‘wow’ but in all the wrong ways, and the internal layout was confused and parts of the house were poorly built.
Externally, the property was a mess, but an interesting mess. We had always been fans of 1960s modernism, with its big chunky chimneys and angular shapes – think A Single Man
– and we wanted to bring out this spirit while at the same time creating a contemporary home, all within a Conservation Area. So, the choice of materials was key. We ended up with a very smart solution for the exterior which, thanks to the addition of a tall stairwell tower and a mix of cedar cladding and handmade brick, feels very earthy.
Internally, the materials were just as important, and we approached the project with a firm ‘fabric first’ mentality, as we knew that investing in the structure of the building itself would pay dividends in the long run.
Getting the basics right
If I were to make a pitch for the Guinness Book of Records, I reckon I’ve been inside more self-built and renovated houses than anyone else. I visit around 20-25 homes a year and I’ve done so for 20 years – so I’ve clocked up a good 400-500 houses in my career so far.
I’ve learned a lot looking at those homes and talking to the homeowners about their projects, both the good and the bad. All the homes, of course, are special in their own right – people have stepped outside the housing mainstream and made life difficult for themselves in order to create a special space or home. That should always be applauded, whether you can imagine yourself living in the house or, politely, not.
Yet the thing I keep coming back to is the feel, the performance and the liveability of these homes. Some of that is influenced by design but, increasingly, it is influenced by the materials used within the building.
Because, if you think about it, one of the reasons we choose not to buy homes from many of the mainstream developers is because of touch and feel, as well as the (lack of) design. That’s why I’m a firm believer in the concept of fabric first – the importance of investing in the structure of the building itself. It is, after all, the one thing that we don’t want to change, particularly with homes that we might stay in for a couple of decades. I would much rather invest in good bricks, solid internal walls and extra insulation for the long term, than spend another few thousand pounds on a kitchen that is likely to get ripped out on a whim in less than 10 years.
Choosing the right materials
One of the great things about my job is that I get to be made aware of innovations in building materials, and so I would consider myself an educated consumer. Homeowners tend to rely on their builder to make their choices in this regard for them, but my view has always been: it’s your home, and so the choices should be yours.
One of the smartest things we did was to go for a premium plasterboard product: British Gypsum’s Habito board
. It is different to the usual in that – and this is particularly important when you’ve got kids in the house – it can withstand the little dents and scrapes that tend to ‘add character’ to regular homes.
Also, and of more practical importance for this constant mover of shelves and art, its composition allows you to screw straight into the wall. Yes, no plugs required. Take the screw out and you can hardly notice the hole – easily repaired, rather than a re-plastering job.
Habito is just one example – a very good example – of why it pays to think about, and invest in, your home’s fabric first, above all.
If you want to know more about taking a fabric first approach in your project, whether that’s for better acoustics or more durable walls, request a copy of our self build guide