4 Oct 2016

Stroud Eco Open Homes

As usual I need to preface my blog with apologies for the lack of updates!  I always mean to do some posts and then life just seems to get in the way... Hopefully I'll get around to posting some recent shots of the house and interiors. I'm definitely planning to share my forays into building a sustainable garden.  Bet you can't wait?!  

For those who live nearby you might be interested in coming along next Saturday to see the house for yourselves, as we are participating in Stroud Eco Open Homes.  This is event is part of the Stroud Valleys Showcase - A wonderful week of interesting events showcasing sustainable projects and practices in our area. We'll be opening the house to the public from 11am-3pm, it is free of charge however donations to Transition Stroud, the organising body, will be very much appreciated.

31 Jan 2016

Cash Flow Nightmare

It's been a while since I last posted. Hope everyone is well!  It's strange to realise that although I've not had this blog at the forefront of my mind it still has it's own life and I impressed by how many views we continue to get.  Many thanks to all of you out there - I hope you have found it interesting and helpful.

We recently chatted to the very lovely Ben of HousePlanningHelp.com and recorded a podcast with him all about budgets and finance.  I've got lots of updates to do and this seemed like a good time to put on an archived draft post all about our finances during the build.  I neglected to mention a lot of this in the podcast, I think my mind has tried to block a lot of this out (apologies to Ben)!  As I say in the podcast the build was do-able but without a doubt the financial side of the project was the hardest part of our build.  If you would like to listen to the podcast you can find it here - Budgeting for our Eco Home.

I wrote the post below as a form of catharsis but Dimitri asked me not to post it during the build in case of any repercussions as nothing was in our hands and we didn't want to upset the lenders.

© Mark Bolton Photography


The whole mortgage & cash flow issue raised it head once again. I think this is the hardest and most stressful part of the whole project.  This keeps me awake at night.

If you remember, see here, early in the project the groundworks overspend blew through our contingency money and much more.  We knew that we wouldn't have enough money to finish the build.  But we spoke to the bank and they agreed in principle that they would be prepared to lend us more money. However, due to their procedures they could not authorise further funds until we had drawn down in full on the previously agreed amount.  Well we reached that point in early June.

To be fair, the previous two draw-downs were relatively straight-forward.  When we reached a completion of a stage (ours were foundations,  building the walls to the roof level, and then when we became watertight with windows and a roof), we would inform the building society, they then would instruct a surveyor to inspect the build, he would submit a new valuation and they would release some more money.  It took about 10 days to 2 weeks each time.  

So, at the last valuation in early June, our property had increased in value by 100K.  The building society only released 30K.  This was because we had reached the limit of the agreed loan amount and they do not release the final £20K until the building completion certificate is signed.  We immediately asked to start proceedings to increase our loan amount.  It took about a week but Dimitri was asked to do a phone interview with a Loan Administrator.  She informed us that this loan would be a separate and additional product but have similar conditions regarding the release of funds i.e. they can only lend 75% of the property valuation.  After crunching the numbers they gave us fantastic news that we could potentially borrow more than we were asking for, this would enable us to finish the house properly and potentially build the carport also.  They sent out paperwork and a request for the usual supporting documents.  We increased the loan amount request, completed the paperwork and returned it.  We were confident to proceed with the work on-site knowing that the loan would be forthcoming.

We didn't hear anything from them for a few days so gave them a call and it turned out the person who was dealing with us was absent. They passed it to a junior colleague but as they were expecting her to return soon it wasn't 'progressed' much.  However, as is our recurring bad luck with all bank related matters in this project, this continued for a week or more and eventually someone else did look at it but due to the absence of the original Loan Clark another telephone interview had to arranged, and again it was another couple of days.  Fast forward a couple of weeks.

This proceeded much like the previous interview and we were told that the paperwork would now be passed to the underwriters.  But in a classic Kafka-esque manner, the underwriter has refused to accept what his own loan managers have suggested and has come back with a figure lower than what we originally asked for!  He has reasoned that we can't afford the larger amount but they won't back up that decision with any figures (because they can't?).  The only info they will give us is that lending conditions have changed between them offering the extended loan amount and the underwriters approving it. The monthly mortgage payment even with the additional higher loan amount, if it ever comes (i'm starting to believe that we are on our own now) will still be less that the monthly rental payments that we made for 3 years in Richmond, when we had a lower household income!  There is no objective evidence for this conclusion but they refuse to have any dialogue and will not share their figures with us.

The result for us was that we have invoices coming in for work completed and at this stage of the build we are paying for things in advance, such as kitchen, flooring, bathroom items.  So this is a terrible time for cash flow issues to present themselves.  A few weeks ago I had £35K worth of invoices outstanding and only £13K left in the bank.  Who gets paid and who doesn't?  This is people's livelihoods and everyone needs and is entitled to be paid promptly! I barely slept for nights on end.  Luckily we were helped out with a loan from a family member.  And then a few weeks later we had to borrow from another family member.  Again, we are so grateful. We have now borrowed £55K (!) from family in order to keep cash flowing and work continuing.  It's pretty distressing stuff. 

The building society then informed us that the reason they are lowering the amount of money they are willing to lend to us is that they won't repay family loans.  They agree we are on budget and not letting the project get out of control we have been aware of this future need for cash for a long time and they gave it outline consent.  The only reason we have borrowed from family is not due to overspend but because they have been terrible at supporting cashflow! It's outrageous. 

I'm so frustrated and angry with the Building Society.  We are following their procedures and it is them who are letting us down. We tried to get them to do this back in November last year, they wouldn't.  They will only process loan increases once you have reached the limit of your current loan.  So we needed them to process this as quickly as possible and there was just no sense of urgency.  They seem to be oblivious of just how slow they are and the impact their delay of nearly 3 months, has had on us and our contractors.  They are behind desks in an office but I don't think I'm being unreasonable to think that they should have a better understanding of the self-build process and the financial demands and timetables (or any building process to be frank)?  There is no one who I can even appeal or complain to.  

Maybe it's not bad luck.  Maybe this is the same experience that everyone has relating to self-build mortgages?  I have to say, that this really is the one area that government could have an impact on to facilitate self-build.  Someone needs to sort out a straightforward pathway to lending and sensible and helpful specialists and managers to facilitate cash-flow. The whole process has been opaque, no one has helped us understand the criteria, the stages and the issues.  We've had to figure it all out ourselves whilst constantly having to deal with the ridiculous nature of the banking system which seems to be completely divorced from reality. I've always heard people complain about the bureaucracy of the civil service, but they are nothing compared to our experience of a building society!  They have the gall to tell us in almost every conversation that they are doing their best to help us whilst continuing to not do anything.  It seems to  be the worst type of box ticking and paper-chasing exercise, the computer says no.

Our fixed term mortgage term comes to an end in January and we will be re-mortgaging as soon as we possibly can. Not least because we need to repay our debts to family. They have mentioned that once the build is complete then they are happy to reconsider the loan amounts, but I'm afraid it will all be too late by then! 


5 Jun 2015

Kitchen Island love

WOW!  Our kitchen continues to draw attention, featuring on thekitchn.com (for more of my posts see A sustainable kitchen, kitchen progression, kitchen installation, kitchen reveal).  It's the moveable island that is the star of the show today.  

Once Sam, from Sustainable Kitchens, and I had the initial design and layout sorted out, I was able to start thinking about the details of 'what and where'.  I imagined using the kitchen and where I would ideally like to store things and how I would use the space.  

The island quickly got identified as the 'prep' area.  So all mixing bowls, sieves, weighing scales, measuring jugs, lemon juicer, etc. would be stored here.  Sam pointed out that we would be able to have storage on both sides of the island. I had been very keen on the idea of a breakfast cupboard, where all breakfast foodstuffs, cereals & jams/marmite/honey could be stored conveniently close to the dining table (mornings are busy enough!).  This meant that I could use the other cupboard for vegetable storage.  I wanted it to be dark but also ventilated so Sam suggested cutting vents into the doors- the design of these was left until as late as possible so that we could relate it to other design choices in the rest of the house. 

The island still in the workshop waiting for the stainless steel wrapping.

We looked at baskets and got a little sidetracked by metal/wire industrial style trays, but in the end I really liked Sam's idea of just making the slatted drawers from ply like the rest of the carcass of the kitchen.  This was the first time Sustainable Kitchens had been asked to make this feature and they made two drawers with dividers to give me 4 different areas.  This has been really was useful esp in the autumn/winter when we have squash, celeriac, beetroot, jerusalem artichokes and so on.

5 May 2015

Our cotswold dry stone wall

Our poor neglected entrance...We had inherited a very dilapidated cotswold dry-stone wall.  It was falling down, and had a huge hole in the upper part where the services had been trenched onto site.

We had very mixed feelings about the wall.  Cotswold stone is very pretty but is not an ideal building materia, with frosts it cracks and every winter loads of walls simply fall down.   Also building a new wall was going to cost a small fortune, and the money was all gone...  

Luckily Jason came to the rescue.  The stone from our old wall was weathered already and the creamier colour was much nicer than the newer bright yellow stone.  We decided on a much lower height as I would also be planting a yew hedge behind which will eventually screen us from the road (oh, I daydream about my cloud-pruned yew hedge!).

Jason first cleared the earth bank which was behind the wall, it revealed that the original wall was pretty deep.   Then the stone was sorted and up we went again.

I love the weathered colour and shapes.  God bless Jason, he worked miracles with stone that others had declared useless.  It was not an easy job but he persevered.

We designed a name sign which had rods attached to the rear that we could fix into the wall.  We contacted Emsea, a local laser cutting firm in Tewkesbury which had been highly recommended by a friend.  They made a very nice sign, they were a little unsure about the undressed metal but I assured them that it matched the house - we don't do shiny & polished!

The wall is probably half the height of the original.  We went for a really flat cement top which looks very smart. It looks fab - we've had loads of compliments on it.  It's also less likely to fall down. 

The yew is in!  What a labour of love- Dad and I spent a week digging out the bed with the use of a crowbar and kango to break out the solid rock.  You can see some of the larger stone piled at the back - there was a lot!  We've got enough to build another wall now...

4 May 2015

Blog overload!

I'm soooo sorry for the blog cascade.  Why the sudden flood of information?  A deadline of course.  For those that don't yet know- we are going to be on TV tomorrow, or today if this gets sent out in the morning.

Building the dream, More4, 9pm.

Nobody told me my feet were going to be in the shot...elegant crocs!

We will see it for the first time at the same time as everyone else...

See you on the other side!

the entrance

For a long time we looked liked this...

Then Andrew and Paul built this...(cedar again)

Then we levelled the driveway, yours truly driving the roller...

Next came the gravel...(the horrid paving slabs were begged and borrowed to satisfy Building Control rules and get signed off.)

Dimitri constructed the raised beds on either side of the entrance...

And the entrance pathway was laid...slate tiles

The gabions

Two of our garden boundaries were in a terrible state. Our site had been left untouched for a number of years and the plants had taken over to create a Cotswold jungle along the edges! Not only that, our hilltop position meant that the ground fell away steeply in both directions.  With the landslips of the previous winter (read more here), and potential water run-offs, it was vital that we stablised the ground and protected our lower-sited neighbours.  Gabions were the obvious solution and Ali, our friendly local groundworker was back on site to get them sorted. 

Clearing the jungle

Clear and level 

I love gabions!  I love how they look and they are super sustainable too -

  • they are constructed of locally sourced materials minimising transport emissions and costs
  • they have a lower environmental cost than concrete and other construction materials
  • they are permeable to water and don't allow a build up of hydrostatic pressure behind them
  • the baskets are flexible and the structure can adapt flexibly to forces occurring as a result of soil movements occurring after the construction of the gabion wall
  • winter freeze and thaw conditions have minimal impact to the structure
  • they can be easily colonised by plants leading to a 'green wall' and very naturalistic aesthetic
  • the stone can be reused if a repair is needed unlike a normal concrete solution

The central gully is to allow extra planting space above.

Topsoil spread and levelled with the rest of the 'garden'.

That was the relatively easy gabion wall done.  Now for the more extensive and expensive one...

The gabions were the reason our finances became so tight at the end of the project.  We had verbal agreement from our lender of further funds, so we went ahead with the work.  Our lender later changed their mind, and so money allocated to other work had to be re-distributed.  It was very challenging at the time, but when we look back we had no choice, this work had to be done.  They were a huge unforeseen cost of about £30K in total.  The shortfall of funds has meant that the house hasn't yet been completely finished. Things will come gradually now over the next few years - it's teaching me patience!

Everyone is delighted with the gabions.  There have been a lot of gabions appearing in this area recently and I have to say ours are definitely the best looking - Ali knows how to make a nice, neat gabion.  Retrospective planning permission was granted with no issues at all (we had had someone call planning enforcement...!). Just a shame I don't get to see them.