home of the Sliding House

   The website of Ross Russell and Sally Morris:
   documenting progress on our project to design and build our house in Suffolk in the far east of England.

update photopanorama compressed

Diary Archive: 2005 and prior

It is in reverse chronological order - latest news first and earlier stuff later.

December 2005: A long time since the last update! But at last some tangible progress on the bureaucratic front - we got our planning permission on 7 December.

I wasn’t aware until the week before the planning committee meeting, but applicants get the chance to attend to present their case.  I traveled up to Woodbridge to do just that. It was an interesting experience.    There were about 25 individual applications up for decision.  These were taken in numeric order, except that all those where the applicant or some other person had attended in person were shifted to the front of the queue. I sat through six others before mine came up, including one very nice and very modern building in a conservation area in Aldeburgh - which got through with no problems at all. Each case took about 20 minutes, with the planning officers first giving their view, using selected plans and photographs to illustrate the development (the first that any of the committee had actually seen of what they would be voting on) and then the opportunity for the applicant and any supporters or objectors to to speak. Finally the committee get to ask any questions and they reach a decision.  Like most of the applications, I had no-one attending to support or object to the plans. So after a three minute spiel from me about the quality of the design and how it was sensitive to its environment etc, they had a couple of questions and then all duly voted in favour. So that is one hurdle crossed!

I have since had the written consent which runs to several pages and has a bunch of conditions attaching.  I did some initial work after the meeting itself to confirm that there are no bats in the barn and that I am not after all in a flood zone (which was blindingly obvious although there were threats that an environmental flood risk assessment would be needed which would have resulted in another few hundred pounds of wasted cost).  I am left with conditions relating to the colour of the external finishes (all need to be approved by the planning team) and the methods I use to protect the trees and hedges during building and a whole raft of other stuff.   But at least they will permit us to build!

We are now working towards making a “full plans” submission for building control early in January. Sally and I will be away in Australia for most of the month and I’d like to be ready to start work soon after we return. Alex has made some progress on the structural drawings element and I am working on things like the Carbon Index rating for the building to prove that it meets insulation standards and the environment agency approval for the sewage outlet.

I’ve also applied for building control consent to demolish the building on site (yes you need permission to do that too!). I have a demolition man lined up to do the work in January.  In fact he has already made a start on this (before I realised that consent was needed) to make way for a drilling rig to get on site to check soil conditions so that the layout of foundations can be determined. So that meannt forking out another few hundred quid to have the electric supply moved to a temporary site supply at the edge of the site and switching the water supply to a standpipe.  And having lost the possibility of staying on the existing house when I am on site, I have found and bought an old two berth caravan to keep on site as a site office and temporary home for the next few months). 

051027 pond


Late October 2005: Well we have finally submitted the planning application. Lots of redrawing was required to get the building back to the size which we were told would be permitted (it’s funny how the dimensions seemed to creep up over time as a little more room is needed in various places and is added - all of which made the building far wider the planners would accept and too big in terms of floor area).   We had a bit of running around as the planners chased for plans with the right colour of red line showing the plot and stuff like that, but we resolved it. I am told that the application should be considered at a planning committee meeting on 7 December. It will go with the recommendation of the planning team themselves, but it will be flagged as a departure from policy because the existing bungalow is being replaced with a two story building.  I am considering whether and how to communicate with (lobby is such a vulgar word!) the committee members.

I also had the first meeting with the architect and the structural engineer (Rutger Snoek of MHA). A productive meeting at which we have planned what more detailed drawings are required - for building control and for me to get tenders for the main elements of the build. We have the apparently novel plan of all working from the same drawings (rather than have each professional redraw them to suit their own purposes).

Work on site burying pipes for the drainage and for the heat pump is complete. I took the opportunity to have the small and overgrown pond extended so that the surface of the pond extends away from the trees which shaded it and is now visible from where the house will be. But the enlarged pond is yet to fill with water and it makes the whole plot look like a bomb-site!  Roll on winter rains!

October 2005: Latest news from Friday. the planning officer and his boss have confirmed that they like the scheme.  Alex and I will submit formal plans for the detailed planning permission at the end of this week.  If they can resolve some minor issues they have (like the fact that the floor area is by their measurements bigger than guidelines) then this may not even need a formal referral to committee. So this is good news (although the time taken to get to this point is frustrating to say the least).

It is not easy to upload pictures of the scheme to the site given their format so click here for a link to the latest set of drawings, in pdf format and click here for what we took to the planners for our previous meeting.

050827 all that fruit!


September 2005: Well, leaving aside aside the build project here is a sample of one days’ fruit picking on site. I could get used to this degree of home grown comestible delight!

I am just back from a meeting with the local planning officer to discuss our “sliding house” plans.  Alex and I went up there on our BMWs and had a good boys’ day out in the process. I approached this meeting with some trepidation, having heard about our designated planning officer’s views on “modern” design.  He had previously spoken to me about a new house in Sudbourne which I have since seen - it is a very impressive and sensitive house, also a “demolish and rebuild” job, and done to a very high standard.  The planning officer used it as an example of the type of modern building which he did not like and would not have approved. He was allocated to the case and was all set to recommend refusal of permission, but he was held up on the way to the planning committee meeting and his boss attended instead - and supported it! So I was expecting some bias against anything other than a traditional Suffolk house.  

In fact he was very positive about the plans.  In part this was down to me and Alex the architect buttering him up and presenting what he wanted to hear in a non-threatening way, but nevertheless he heard the story about the sliding roof structure and, after a few seconds of tense waiting, professed himself to be very impressed!  So we are now making ready to submit a formal application.  We will actually be leaving the existing Outline Planning Permission (“OPP”) on the shelf and submitting an entirely new application for the new building - the alternative of treating the new plans as being merely a detail change from the existing ones (and hence to be decided upon as “reserved matters” left open from the existing OPP) does not really work.  We’ll be working on this over the next few weeks - and hopefully I can provide an updated set of drawings or photographs of a new model for this site soon thereafter.

August 2005: I met with the quantity surveyor for an initial cost estimate. This turned out to be a shocking experience! Without going into the detail of the numbers, my budget was initially X thousand pounds and the cost estimate came out at 4X thousand pounds.  In fact the QS reckons that I’ll pour half of my budget into the ground as foundations and services, before I even start to build the above ground structure. This is a problem. A meeting with the architect reveals that he does not believe that the estimate needs to be this high.   I am sceptical about the feasibility of bringing the budget for this design back on track - as I explained to him, we need to halve the projected cost and it will still be well above budget.  However we agree to have had a go at identifying the expensive elements and bringing the cost back under control.  

As a result, I have ended up preparing my own cost estimates and now have an elaborate spreadsheet covering all the expected cost elements from demolition to final decoration.  The estimates are based partly on standard industry rules of thumb (for example a concrete floor slab apparently costs £21 per square metre) and partly on real prices for real supplies.  The key elements of the design have gone for indicative quotations from potential suppliers. I expect to “package up” the elements of the house so that the major components are sourced from one supplier each (glasshouse, timber frame shell, etc) and hence can be guaranteed by that supplier and provided at a genuinely fixed cost. Some suppliers have turned out to be quite helpful in providing ball park figures in the hope that being helpful now will win them business later.  And some elements of cost come straight from catalogues. So I find myself in the bizarre position of choosing what sort of floor tiles we might like (and hence what they will cost) before we even have a final architects drawing to base this upon! 

The other element of change has been to the design itself. One element which has proved almost impossible to source at a sensible price has been the glasshouse element, which is hugely expensive simply because it is (a) so big and (b) unsupported at one end hence requiring massive steel portals to keep it in shape. What we have done is amended the design so that one half of the main house is made of conventional timber frame (and hence reasonably cheap) and the other half is under glass - probably more or less permanently so.  This means that the glass element is half the size and half as expensive as in the original plan and it also cuts down on the volume of expensive foundations which would originally have been required.  As a result the sliding outer element of the house now fits outside the glass element.  This means that its function is reduced to providing shade in summer and insulation in winter, but it is not an essential part of the weatherproof structure. For example it now has no doors or windows, only openings so that the doors and windows in the main structure can open.  And it means that the awkward free-standing glass gable wall at the SW end of the house is no longer freestanding - another engineering problem eliminated. I almost called this redesign a compromise from the original (which it is in the sense that the house can be made open to the outside to a much lesser degree).  In fact I think it makes the house much more practical in use. Essentially the house can convert from being a conventional looking “closed” structure to a quite radical looking mainly glass structure quickly and without there being an intermediate step which has the whole house open to wind and rain. 

We think that this and some other less radical changes to the design have brought the cost down to acceptable levels.  We have therefore decided to “go for it” and have arranged to meet the planning officer to test his reaction - this is scheduled for early September. My ambition to get the foundations in before winter therefore looks a little optimistic. The planning office reckon that a decision takes eight weeks (which takes us to November)  and even if we get over that hurdle without a hitch, we will need to allow a few weeks to draw up plans for, and get approval from, building control. So maybe I get the winter to myself and can do some travelling instead?

Meantime the garden and paddock are being restored back to some sense of order.  The trouble with the local clay soil is that it is so fertile that everything wants to grow there whether welcome or not, so the whole area has been buried under thistles, stinging nettles and worse.  I have had the local farmer (thanks Jim) mow the paddock back to a sensible height and I have been “finding” the boundaries around the paddock with the help of a chainsaw and brush-cutter.  And I have got a local drainage contractor to lay field drains across the entire site to stop sections of it getting waterlogged in winter. At the same time he is laying the ground loop for the geothermal heat pump system I’ll use for heating the house and is clearing out and extending the pond.  The garden is looking a lot more tidy now following several days of hard work in clearing the undergrowth and generally making it easier to control.  I now have raised beds (made from recycled railway sleepers) and have laid bark mulch over some of the areas that require weed control and which I cannot mow regularly.   And to make it all worthwhile I find that the garden produces excellent crops of gooseberries (in June - alas all now eaten or frozen); raspberries (ditto); blackcurrents (ditto); plums (several varieties - some ready to eat now and some not quite there yet); and pears and apples (more than we can possibly eat!).  I also have more blackberries than I can eat and even peaches - although they will not survive the demolition and rebuild process so this years crop will be the last.           

position 102


July 2005: Well we have a reasonably well developed idea of the likely design.  Two steps follow from this:

  • We need to get a better handle on the likely costs - which so far has got as far as saying “wow that looks expensive” but does not include a cost estimate.  I have fixed for an early stage report from a quantity surveyor to be prepared and I will see him later this week to assess the damage.
  • We need then to decide whether we go for this design or opt for one of the others. If this one does not work then we rally will be starting again from scratch - this design has many features that are pretty much dictated by the sliding mechanism and which could be altered if we did not need them to be set up as they are.

If we get through that stage then we need to take this to the planners.  I anticipate that this might be a challenging meeting, although we have tried hard to stay within the planning guidelines and to anticipate possible objections.  but that is tomorrow’s problem.

June 2005: As expected, I didn’t myself progress things much while I was on holiday.  Alex has however come up with some radical design proposals (which he calls the sliding house).   In my absence the detail of the workings of the sliding house have become somewhat firmer and dRMM have now produced a model of it so that we can see how it would look in practice. See the designs page for details.

May 2005: I arranged a site survey to get all the levels required for the architectural drawings and a drainage survey.  There is a carefully planned drainage system for rainwater (which is important when the soil is impermeable clay) but nevertheless the orchard area and some of the garden does not drain as it should and hence has stayed waterlogged for far too long after heavy rain.  I await the response to this.

I’ve also had a very useful visit from the local tree nursery to make me an inventory of everything that is on site. One of their chaps has been around the entire site putting numbered tags on all of the trees and shrubs and he has since given me a list of all of the species.  I’ve also got some useful advice on trees to plant in the paddock / meadow area.  This will include some Back Poplars - an increasingly rare local species which the local landscape team are trying to re-intoduce into the environment.

I have got myself equipped with the garden machinery I need, including strimmer, chainsaw and ride on mower so that I can keep the garden from being overrun.  There is a possibility of a dispute with the local planning authority as to the division between the garden (which forms part of the residential curtilage of the house and hence which I can build on) and the paddock (which is zoned for agricultural use). I want to keep the place looking like a proper garden so that they see what they expect when the planning site visits happen!

And finally, Joana and I had a meeting with the planners on 31 May. Generally this was good news.  They seem to accept my version of the layout of the plot as per the most recent OS1250 map which shows the area of garden as being garden and hence within the residential curtilage.  They are comfortable with a one and half story house.  They are comfortable with the proposed new footprint of the house.   The replacement on the single story annex with a new one and a half story building does not fit within their policy guidelines. Nevertheless they accepted that they would find it difficult to object to the annex being demolished and rebuild rather than being refurbished.  So all in all it looks as if in broad terms it looks as if the planning restrictions will be related to the design of the building not the fundamentals of location on the plot or size.

April 2005: Well I retired from my the partnership I worked with on 7th April and, alongside some work setting myself up to do some freelance work, I have had the time to do some planning for the build process. I am still expecting that the design and planning process will take up most of the summer, but I am hoping that I can at least get the foundations in before winter. In the meantime, such time as I have spent on site has been devoted to making the existing house habitable (for occasional overnight stays) and giving some attention to the garden.  The garden definitely needs work and of course I can pretty much do what I like with it without having to get planning approval!   Expect to see a bit more detail on this site as that process progresses. 

I have also, after much deliberating, appointed Alex de Rijke to work with me on the designs for the house.  It is a real dilemma as to whether this is sensible.  On the one hand he is winning awards left right and centre for his work and I know that by working with him I will get an exceptional quality of building. On the other hand, the great dream of mine was to design my own house, which I know will be severely compromised by working with someone who is so single minded.   Nevertheless we did our first site visit in April and I was inspired by some of the observations made by Alex and his assistant Joana and by some of the initial designs we worked on. We spent a day on site (in spring sunshine) making drawings and models.  the “Origami Roof” house shown in the designs page is the outcome of that day’s work.

050311 tree machine


March 2005: I booked a tree moving machine to move a bunch of fruit trees from away from where the new house will be (can’t have them growing through the floor of the living room can we)?  A chap with a HUGE machine showed up as ordered - see picture left.  The trouble is that with all the rain and snow snow we’ve had over the last few weeks, the ground was just too wet to enable his machine to get about properly - just one pass across the lawn turned the clay soil to a quagmire.  So I had to send the chap away to come back later in the year. 

This is likely to be a real problem. I should really move the trees before they are in bud (so they have the best chance of surviving the ordeal) but after the ground has dried out (so that it does not churn up as several tons of tree spade drive across it).  That leaves no time in the year when I can do this!  I am likely to compromise on June hoping that catching the trees early on the growing season is better than late.

Shame about the deposit on the digging machine and the delivery charge though.... 

February 2005: I’ve made contact with an old architect friend Alex de Rijke (now senior partner at his own firm de Rijke Marsh Morgan).  I’m not sure where this will lead, but it’ll at least be good to meet up with him (after over a decade!).

January 2005: Completion takes place on 4 January 2005: I cannot believe that it has taken seven months just to buy the place, but we are at least there.  The next problem I have is that I need to make the place secure (given that it will stand empty for a while, but still has electricity and telephone connections and would make a great place for a group of kids to have a rave).

One early job is to move some of the trees that stand in the footprint of the new house. I transplanted two of them during the last weekend of January (a semi-mature morello cherry tree and an anonymous apple tree) but there are between three and six more to go which will require heavier lifting kit.  My local tree moving specialist (well Hertfordshire actually but prepared to travel) tells me that it is best to do this work before about the end of March - so it is an early priority.

I also enquired about site surveys, having heard some scare stories about the danger of building on heavy clay when there are mature trees nearby. But the very honest local engineer I spoke to recommended that he does not take my money and just take my chances when it gets to the stage of digging foundations. If I have to go a few feet deeper than expected then I’ll just do so!  It is unlikely that I’ll need piled foundations he reckons.

December 2004: The covenant is now removed and we have signatures from all the necessary parties to release the log-jam.  I find it difficult to explain to friends and colleagues how a missing signature (from the mortgage lender to the neighbour to the vendor) has caused so much of a problem - but the site is clearly worth much less than the asking price if the covenant remains and is enforceable.  Contracts were exchanged on 23 December 2004.

June 2004: My lawyer has found a legal covenant restricting most of the site to agricultural use only - not just the area currently laid out as paddock but most of the area of the garden as well including the place where the current buildings are and the planned house would be. This is not what I thought I was buying. Months of negotiations between the vendor and the neighbours (who hold the benefit of the covenant) ensue.

May 2004: I make a tentative offer to buy (from a mobile phone next to the swimming pool in our holiday cottage in Portugal).  As usual the the offer is subject to contract and also in this case to Sally’s approval. On our return we both visit the plot and like it despite the fact that Sally is a bit taken aback by distance from the nearest shops.  I make a formal offer to buy and (after one or two false starts) this is accepted.

April 2004: I find a plot.  The plot has outline planning consent for a single dwelling (plus annex, garage and stables) all standing in about three quarters of an acre of gardens and nearly four acres of grounds in total. It has taken some time to get here, albeit that my search did not start in earnest until I gave notice to leave my job and hence gave the project a sense of reality. Finding a place for a new-build house in rural Suffolk has turned out to be far harder than I thought - finding barn conversion projects would have been easier but new-build opportunities are rare.  But I am glad to have waited for this one.  The only trouble is that Sally was not with me so has not seen the plot -and we are away on holiday for a couple of weeks which, in the then over-heated market, is a potentially risky delay.

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