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Border Oak - oak framed houses, oak framed garages and structures.

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Roof and chimney

With the encapsulation complete we were able to tackle the roof carpentry and tiling plus complete the external chimney stack.

The images are probably quite self explanatory so I won’t waffle on – but hopefully you can also get a really good sense of the workmanship that goes into even the smallest, most difficult to inspect areas of a Border Oak house, and also just how beautiful the materials we work with are.

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The bricks are our special Border Oak blend, laid with a lime render mix in a traditional bond, with tumbled chimney shoulders. The roof tiles are a handmade clay tile, with a double camber specifically made and mixed for Border Oak.

The chimney is part of the inglenook fireplace which will be a large feature in the sitting room. You might like to know that we have chosen a full face of block work (for thermal mass, and to give a clean, simple façade with rounded edges) a simple oak lintel with shelf and reclaimed flagstone hearth and exposed brick returns.

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Next time……first fix all round and interior progress

 

 


 

 

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Encapsulation

With the frame erected it ‘s possible to get a really good sense of the spaces, passage of sunlight and the overall flow of the cottage. This is especially exciting on a house with a new  ‘experimental’ layout because it can be so difficult to imagine some aspects just off paper.

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To wrap around the frame we have used two very different panel systems on this particular house  (SIPs for the main part, with our Border Oak infill panel on the rear section) both systems have similar and crucial  jobs to undertake:

·      To make the house weather proof

·      To provide high levels of insulation

·      To complete the structural integrity of the frame

Our unique encapsulation systems are complex, with multi layers of high performance products and intricate perimeter/junction details designed by Border Oak to work in combination to give exceptional levels of insulation, thermal retention, airtightness and minimal thermal bridging. Of course all of this innovation and technical wizardry gets hidden away once the house is rendered, boarded and plastered so we thought a few photos might help show the working parts.

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We also have to consider the external and internal appearance of the house and ensure that the panel systems we use won’t compromise the design detail or cause difficulties for the labour following on which is why our in house design and innovations team work really closely with our builders to develop details that are not only exceptional in performance but can be built and make best use of new products that are available.

The encapsulation stage also coincides with eth floor and roof timber work so by the end of the second month of the project we have building that is beginning to look like a house and also nearing the point of weather tightness. Exciting times!


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With the frame now made and sitting in the yard we were keen to  get the foundations laid and the frame erected. 


Fortunately the plot we have has excellent ground conditions and was virgin soil (save for a few bed springs and bits of Victorian china). The NHBC inspector asked for a test pit first which showed perfect Herefordian soil and our ground work crew started digging.

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The working area was cleared and the drive way was formed with a base of hardcore so that deliveries could be made and scaffold could be erected. The soil conditions meant we were able to use conventional ‘trench fill’ footings for the house, creating a solid slab on which the frame could sit. We also laid the garage base at the same time for efficiency.

However within a few weeks of starting the foundations we received the tragic news that one of our much loved builders working on the base had died suddenly at home. It was such an enormous shock as Hylton had worked with us for three decades. It was terribly upsetting for us all, especially Billy who had worked alongside Hylton for 30 years. Worked stopped for a while – with the base incomplete – until Billy felt able to carry on with the brick work and chimneystack. It was a dark time.

We had decided to use the ‘Border Oak’ brick which is a fantastic handcrafted brick, specially mixed for us in a range of reds, buffs and browns. It has a rustic appearance that really suits our designs – with enough imperfections to give texture and interest without looking too contrived or rustic. We laid ours with a light lime mortar, typical of rural Herefordshire.

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With the slab complete and dry the frame was final dispatched to site (almost 12 months after being made – not ideal!) and erection of the frame commenced. Words can’t really describe how thrilling and exciting it is to see an oak frame go up. It is probably the most exciting part of any oak frame build – and the first opportunity to see the three dimensional shape of your home. Rather than blether on about it I thought the photos would be more interesting……within a few days our frame was up and pegged, mostly in glorious late autumn sunshine.


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Next time – the SIPs panels wrap around the frame and the roof structure takes shape

 

 

 


 

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With the planning application submitted we just had to sit tight and wait for the wheels of civil service to slowly turn…….

A few of the neighbours raised objections, which wasn’t much of a surprise given that we were building in a residential area and house building is generally contentious in rural villages, but after a few further tweaks and a handful of meetings the application was finally approved. 

The relief of finally having the planning approval paperwork (we didn’t celebrate until the document was actually in our hands!) was soon surpassed with a long list of ‘work’ that needed to be done. We began compiling the information required by our Design Office to prepare the Building Regulations and construction notes.

Border Oak are very fortunate to have our own ‘in house’ design studio, where we can prepare both planning drawings and the technical working drawings. It’s a huge and highly valuable resource, with decades of experience at our fingertips and endless solutions already practised. Having the same ‘team’ produce the frame drawings, Building Regs. submission and construction drawings ensures a streamlined, efficient approach.  With all projects we always work on the basis that we might be responsible for the actual building work  - so that the detail is front loaded and the nuances can be thought out at an early stage.

Within a few months we had the CAD drawings for the oak frame to look through and check. The frame drawings are always produced first and all other drawings (i.e. foundation plans, SIPs design, section detailing etc.) are layered from these. We need to order the oak in advance, and also need time to prepare and send off the engineering calculations as these are assessed independently. The frame design dictates so much of the other work such as foundation layouts and roof structures. The oak frame is a bit like a skeleton which needs ‘muscle and flesh’, but unless you know where the bones are and what they are doing you can’t really add the right muscle or cover it with skin ……oh dear - I love an analogy or two, but that is my first and last attempt at anatomical references. Apologies!

Anyway, with the frame drawings signed off, a detailed cutting list of all the timber needed was produced from the CAD files  - allowing BODC to place the oak order. Border Oak are one of the world's largest procurers of green oak and one of very few timber frame companies that are also FSC and PEFC certified. This means all of our timber purchasing is audited and approved by FSC and PEFC  and has to meet stringent ethical and ecological standards to demonstrate that the provenance is traceable and environmentally sound.

The oak cutting list was sent to our selected merchants, who then secure the oak from various oak farms based upon our very rigorous internal specification. We are very particular about not only provenance, but also quality – only buying Restoration Grade oak and refusing delivery of beams that have too many knots, handling damage (from the sawmills machinery) or too much sap wood. We know this is a bit annoying for the merchants (who often declare that  ‘the other companies will take these beams – why won’t Border Oak?’) but as our frames are made by hand and we strive for excellence, it wouldn’t make sense to spend time or effort on timber that we know is substandard in any way. In order to rate (and possibly reject) the incoming timber with any professional clout we ensure that our carpenters are independently qualified timber ‘graders’ (certified by TRADA) as they might be if they worked in commercial sawmill or forest.

The oak can take up to 10 weeks to arrive, and in this time the remaining construction drawings were issued. Work was almost ready to start on site, but before breaking ground we had to contact the various service providers (for quotes and timescales to connect the gas, drainage, water and electrics), which is a thankless, joyless and frustrating task even on the simplest of sites.

The project was allocated a Border Oak project manager – who will be in overall charge of organising the right labour at the right time, ensuring materials arrive at the right time for the right people, producing and maintaining the schedule and any changes to this – but also generally being the ‘all seeing, all knowing presence’ on the job. I cannot imagine how any project can get off the ground without a PM – they are a proverbial fountain of experience and knowledge, anticipating issues before they arise and having a solution at their fingertips when needed. They are probably the best connected men in the company – their little black books for people and products are mind boggling, and collectively they have built thousands of Border Oak homes all over the UK.

The PM’s work weeks and months in advance, knowing which trades need to come in and also what those trades need to be able to do their job – this all translates into a quicker job for the least amount of money. They are also there to maintain standards, keep the site safe and productive, and are well aware of the Border Oak ‘look’ (which is so important to our product and sets us apart in a fairly competitive market). We have 5 (and a half) PM’s and they are the backbone of what we do (seems like I am sticking with the ‘skeleton’ references this week!).

One of the first things we had to do was hold a specification meeting - with the PM, the BODC Specification Manager and me (the pseudo client) - to determine all the materials, detailing and specifics, so that orders for items on the critical path can be placed. I will write a separate blog about this part of the process later as it is very detailed.

So, whilst the oak frame was being made in the Workshop, the base crew were booked and finally the diggers were put on standby to clear the site. Then, out of the blue, a chance discussion with a neighbour completely changed the entire proposal and a new opportunity was unexpectedly put on the table. It was an opportunity that was simply too good to miss.

We were offered the chance to buy the paddock behind our plot; enabling us to move the house further back into a more spacious site and therefore create a lovely garden and add a garage with additional parking. In the longer term it would give us access to additional plots, which had previously been landlocked. After much deliberation and consideration and despite being ready to start on site (we were literally a week from starting with the oak frame made and waiting and labour lined up) – we decided to pull the plug and bravely went back into the planning quagmire to relocate the house.

Fast forward 16 weeks, 3 parish council meetings, 1 upset neighbour and 22 new drawings….. we had secured approval to move the cottage.

And just to keep you interested (sorry, this is all a bit long) we have included a photo of work actually starting on the ‘new site’ – several years after we first embarked upon the project.

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Next time

foundations are laid, but our world is rocked...


 

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So, now we knew categorically that a contemporary design was off the proverbial drawing board, the process of design began all over again.

We had already suggested to the planning officer and parish council that a smaller house (lower ridge line and reduced floor area) would better suit the physical constraints of the site and the village location. Everyone agreed, but we still had to conceive a house design that met everyone’s (planners, neighbours, parish councilors etc.,) satisfaction.

However, how on earth do you actually choose a final design - the materials, layouts, and construction systems - when almost every self-build option is theoretically available to you? It is a bit like being a fickle and hungry child in a free sweet shop! To further complicate matters we had no ‘client’ to take instruction from, and no set budget to work within, which left us feeling a little rudderless (or ‘without foundation’ if you prefer a contextual pun).

Over several months (okay, a year) the Border Oak design team collectively worked on the new plans in our spare time; with everyone contributing ideas, adding little changes here and there and making endless amendments and suggestions. Sadly, we ended up with a house design that had a personality disorder. To our horror we realised that we had become our own worst client; driving our lovely (and very patient) draughtsman quite delirious with teeny tiny alterations and endless changes. Even our QS vetoed some of the more extravagant suggestions (such as a ridge-less glass apex and the indoor adult slide into a plunge pool!).

By designing the house through committee and trying to please everyone, we were in danger of actually building nothing and wasting a perfectly lovely plot. On reflection, it felt like we were trying too hard and reinventing a wheel that wasn’t punctured. So, we went back to basics, reduced the design ‘team’ to two, printed off a fresh set of site plans and took a walk around the village with our eyes wide open.

By looking at the plot and studying its surroundings and assets, we began to really imagine who might live there and what their needs may be. We also looked objectively at diminishing any negatives and celebrating the positives. We really thought about what Border Oak do best and how we could demonstrate this.

Here is a short list of some of the factors that helped us design the house:

  • Sustainable ‘fabric first’ approach = natural materials, superlative insulation, minimal thermal bridging etc.
  • No over looking windows on the south elevation (which might further upset neighbours).
  • Minimal north facing glazing to improve the thermal envelope (and protect privacy of neighbours).
  • Establishing the value of the end result if we were to sell the house (by speaking to local estate agents), which gave us a maximum budget - very useful.
  • Looking at what most Border Oak customers were interested in and which of our past projects had worked most successfully.
  • Complementing & improving the ‘street scene’ and location (the plot was a brownfield/industrial site and therefore we had the opportunity to really enhance the circumstances).
  • Blending with the eclectic styles of the surrounding houses (a mixture of 4 storey homes and colonial style bungalows with some modern development – brick, stone, render, weatherboard and oak framing).
  • Producing a family home (there is an excellent school in the village) that could also be suitable for retired people or those who have mobility issues

 

We passed all our findings on to our draughtsman, with a mood board of inspiration images (take a look at our website, Facebook page and Pinterest boards for ideas), and our Pearmain Cottage look/system seemed to tick a lot of boxes (highly sustainable, suited location, flexible layout, popular etc). We drew up some alternative layouts that we thought might work and 6 weeks later we had our final plans! (drawings)
Some of the features of the new design included:

 

  • Border Oak entrance porch with full length side glazing
  • Our unique SIPs and oak construction  - combing strength, character and craftsmanship with super insulated encapsulation and speed of build.
  • Wide hallway with stairs running across the width.
  • An organic blend of lime render, weatherboard, handmade bricks and tiles with glass – maximizing natural light and giving an evolved country appearance.
  • Vaulted master bedroom with a fully exposed oak frame, dressing area and en suite.
  • Large family kitchen/diner leading on to a ‘hidden’ study area (that could easily become a formal dining area or snug).
  • Inglenook fireplace with traditional chimney stack .
 
The planning approval was was still an unknown hurdle that was playing on our minds (we very rarely get planning refusals so were in unchartered territory), but we had deliberately drawn the house with the specific planning officer in mind (and had asked for his opinion throughout via a pre application process). We had also kept the Parish Council informed of progress and had tackled all of the previous neighbourly objections that led to the refusal. We really felt this was our best chance.

Next time:

Planning granted, oak frame made, construction work about to commence…… but then we get an offer we can’t refuse!